“A dying person was well watched.”
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.
And yet what nonsense this notion of abjection clearly is.
Found in a well-used copy of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, the copy looked in – flicked through, more so – absently after a phone call with my mother after watching Chef’s Table: France, written on a folded sheet of paper that I later realise I had deliberately forgotten, I read:
“there is a pleasurable submission is decrepitude, failing, weakness, encompassing death, is that a particularly irish thing? Perhaps I don’t fear it. Death. How to deal with death sections of the book. Then funerals, in Ireland. A strange sense of joy, of almost relief for the person dead. The material world is both a boon and a curse to the irish person, no better or worse than any other in this regard, but it is the extremes of feeling that are perhaps particular.”
And what absolute, utter rubbish all this really, truly is.
And then idly walking through a Tesco’s supermarket in Battersea one Tuesday afternoon, looking for something to eat after an extra-ordinary English lesson that I’d just taught nearby, I notice a section amongst all the other produce dedicated to what are categorized as: Irish Foods.
I stop walking, then stand and look at all the items on display.
There are: rolls and rolls of Silvermints, and 1.5 litre bottles of Nash’s brand Red Lemonade. Cadbury Mint Crisp chocolate bars. Packets of Erin Gravy Rich and bottles of Chef Brown Sauce. Fruitfield “Old Time Irish” Marmalade. Jacob’s Kimberly, Mikado and Coconut Cream biscuits. Barmbrack Bread. Barry’s Tea – of course – and Flanahvan’s steel cut Irish oats.
All familiar items, somehow, their sensibility now emerging from my memory as I see them but also all somehow – on sale in Tesco’s, in Battersea, in south London – now still utterly unreal.
Potatoes and butter was the meal. On this occasion the milk wasn’t churned so we had to either churn or do without butter. The dash churn stood near the door because the weather was hot. Michael’s wife poured three pan-crocks full of cream into it. She tightened down the lid with a crack of her fist’s heel.
“Now in the name of God”, she said
“I’ll take the first brash”, Michael said
Churning with a dash churn is heavy work. I was tired when we had finished. Michaels wife took the lid off and looked into the churn.
“God bless it, but it’s lovely” she said.
She scooped up a plateful with her hand and mixed some salt through it. Twice or three times she put her buttery finger in her mouth to test the butter’s saltiness.
“It’s a little pale” the old woman said
“More like goats butter”, Michael remarked.
The pot of potatoes was turned out on a creel. The old woman picked a few and put them among the red coals. She liked roasted potatoes.
I had a good appetite then. Potatoes and butter is a better dinner than you’d imagine.
It never dawned on the cooks that this was anything but first class fare.
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.
If I think, then, of Irish food, not food stereotypically Irish but food instead that simply evokes some Irish memories for me, I’ll think, almost always, of three things, none at all unique to Ireland, one of them not even grown there: tea, salmon and oysters.
No, no, that’s not quite right, there are some other things that I’ll then recall: frying bacon, wheaten bread and white bread covered in butter and in jam.
Fresh strawberries served with cream.
All this connected simply to geography, history, society – my presence in a place by accident and their – those products, produce, things – their presence there as well, together, we, these foods, products and myself, together we had found ourselves in need of something: I just do not know what.
Ask anybody else from Ireland – anybody else from anywhere – and they’ll say different things.
Nothing, again, perhaps particularly unique to Ireland – or even elsewhere – within their choices, although they might – no, no, they will probably, they will inevitably – think it absolutely so.
So one hot summer day in Hyde Park, London I ask a number of extended family members – some Irish born; some not, but having visited there – explaining to them that it is the subject of a new work:
And what foods or produce remind you, then, of Ireland?
The first reaction is some widened eyes, the thought of things desired – that real bad hunger.
Apple or rhubarb pies, fresh baked scones.
A 99 flake ice-cream.
All things that could be quite evocative of elsewhere.
Wheaten bread. Irish bacon. Boiled Bacon and cabbage. Tayto crisps.
And some particular things remembered very negatively. The smell of cabbage, for example.
Potatoes, also, yes – no doubt.
The memory of such things, though, I think – well, they’ll either disgust us or sustain us, you and I.
My mother and I drive from Newry down to County Wexford over the course of a fine day in July, 2016.
My grandmother has recently had a bad fall and – though somewhat recovered after a spell in hospital in Wexford town and a period of extended rest in my Aunt’s house in nearby Ballymurn – is back living at her own home in Brocurrow. Stubbornly independent her whole life, she is now unarguably in need of a much more regular form of attention.
She lives in a farmhouse that sits at the end of a long, untarmaced lane – in the summer the hedgerows that line the lane bloom with life, and become a teasing hosanna to the slow progress of the modern, elephantine car as it belabours itself over the stones and bumps, the driver necessarily careful not to expose the undercarriage to the serious, pagan damage of the rough and jagged stones.
At the top of the land are situated family, who ordinarily take time to sleep over a night or two during the week and ensure that all is well. One of the family, my mother’s brother, works the farm as well and is down in the house and about the yard, fields and outhouses much more regularly.
My mother is on holiday from work the week we go down and has decided – living too far away to prevent more regular visits – to stay down for at least a week and relieve the others from what is now a constant line of duty.
“The bread I ate was made from white flour but had been baked so long that it was brown. I never tasted sweeter bread and I said so. Grandfather laughed. ‘That’s none of yer raw bread’ he said, ‘with a stripe down the middle.’”
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.
“Wheat meal”, my grandmother explains in response to a question I’ve just asked, as we sit by the freshly lit fire.
“Wheat meal, soda and buttermilk”, she then – I think reluctantly – elaborates.
I had asked her about the bread she always used to make, fresh, for every morn.
My grandmother has had her bed moved from her upstairs room down to a one lying opposite the living room, to make it easier on her legs as she recovers. Each day that my mother and I are down she gets out of bed for a time and comes up the short distance to sit by the fire, to listen and to talk.
Unusual that, though, to call it meal, I think, on hearing her – not unlike the German word of mehl, for flour.
Wheat flour is no doubt what she means, I think.
This somehow then reminds me of a different thing entirely, an alternative German word for chestnut, something I’ve been thinking of for a while after talking about all the varieties of nut with a close male friend.
We had discussed our preferences.
Pea. Pecan. Pistaschio. Brazil. Almond. Hazel. The Wal.
The macademia was singled out for its agreed distinguished excellence.
Then we hit upon the chestnut – though it is, in fact, like all the others mentioned, botanically a seed.
Kastanie, in German, I’d said out loud.
My friend had lived in Germany and he nodded his consent.
But, I’d thought, there is another word for chestnut, another German word.
“There is another word, another word, no?” I’d said.
After some discussion, it was a word we found that we could not recall.
Marone is the other word, and I remember it down in Wexford.
Heiss Marone, as sold – as shouted out and eaten – on the Berlin winter streets.
I later look through a Collins German dictionary I have taken with me from London, to clarify the meaning of these different German words.
Kastanie is clear enough, from the Latin castanea, the Greek kastaneia. Thought to mean either “the nut from Castena” or “from Castana”, both places named for the presence of the bearing tree, Castanea Sativa. The root word ‘cast’ perhaps once borrowed from an Asia Minor language – in Armenian, for example, chestnut is entitled kask.
The background of the word marone is not so clear.
I search online a bit using my phone’s allowance and find myself noticing amongst results the French word for chestnut, marron.
I text a Swiss-French friend about the origin of the word.
“It’s borrowed from the Italian word, marrone,” he replies, quite probably having a search online himself – which is “no doubt”, I interrupt with intermittent messages, “where the German word comes from. And the Italian?”
He does not know. I hastily search some more online, using the extra information. I’m roaming down in Wexford, my contract is – unfortunately – UK.
I read, eventually:
“Middle French < Upper Italian (Tuscan marrone) perhaps ultimately derivative of pre-Latin *marr- stone”
The chestnut as a stone, I think – or, rather, one that can be reproduced and then eaten.
All of which etymology prompts me to then read many other different words in the dictionary and recollect my endeavours with the unknown German language when I first settled in Berlin. All my first attempts there were connected with my desperate need for food – once again, that real bad hunger.
I think: How much I learnt from needing food. And all those different products and local accents.
I think: the not forgotten beauty – though now strongly recollected – of all those different foods and languages to be learnt.
Somehow not ever to be forgotten – not capable of ever being forgotten, I should say – in light of all kinds of harsh events.
The first day down in Wexford I feast on boiled British Queens, floury. Served skins on, and so eaten. A rasher of bacon. Strawberries for dessert, bought roadside just outside Clonroche on our trip down, served with what my mother thinks is cream but is just yoghurt.
Good, though – and eaten all the same.
On hearing that I am having a rasher with my spuds she – grandmother – exclaims that she would like to have one too.
We are trying to fatten up my mother’s mother, to keep her still within this world.
And is there any other way to do that, without recourse to some food?
And some months later all I can think of is a cool, steel room filled with just picked fruit, ready for sale on roadsides around Ireland; strawberries, raspberry, blackberries – just imagine, now, the almost overwhelming scent of all of that.
“As I entered, the kettle on the hob broke into a sweet song.
She set a chair for me near the fire and rinsed the teapot. I love the music the lid of a teapot makes.
‘A sup of tay will do ye no harm,’ she said.
‘You’re too dacent’, I said.
I told her a tale of glamorous grief. I said I hadn’t tasted a morsel of food for the past twenty-hour hours and that I had walked from Newry.”
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.
My mother cooks fried minced beef, carrots and onions for supper for herself and my grandmother on our second day down in Wexford, a concoction I remember very clearly from my childhood. I forsake that meal, however, and satisfy myself with three potatoes once again.
Floury British Queens once more, with butter, white pepper, rashers. Strong tea. A hard-boiled egg.
“That tasted like more”, my Uncle says, as he finishes his own supper.
He’d had the same as me.
“And yet I can’t get any more out of it”, he continues speaking – then looks at me and smiles.
Buttermilk, I later think, while lying half asleep in bed – still thinking of words for food in German and recipes of my grandmother.
Not many know of its existence – or its proper use – these days.
What’s buttermilk, my friends will always ask on hearing that I drink it and I will always say: it’s the liquid left behind, the liquid left after all the churning of the butter.
I only knew of its existence from having lived some time abroad.
Some people visit Germany for the bread and the beer, you see, but I go back now – having lived there and having feasted on the produce – for the variety of milk derived products.
Buttermilch, of course, as stated.
Kefir, although not particularly German, but very popular there.
Ayran, much the same.
And most of all these days I go back for Molke – which is the German word for whey.
Molke, sold these days in supermarkets mixed with fruit – or also sold, much cheaper, just natural.
What happens to the whey produced in Ireland?, I think, as I walk quiet country lanes our third day down in Wexford. What happens to all the whey?
I am walking to a place called Adamstown. It is a decent sized village, the closest – though still 4 miles away – to my grandmothers.
Whey drinks are not something you ever see in the supermarkets here.
And then I remember that I may have asked that question once before – to an Uncle-in-law of mine, a dairy farmer.
I don’t know, I think, was the first thing that he said.
Probably just used as cattle feed, he then replied, after some very careful, extra thought.
On arrival at the village I walk down to a field hosting a fair. There is a marquee beside the churchyard hosting examples of Wexford baking.
5 Euro, a steward at the entrance says, on my arrival.
I had no money. I knew the fair was on – a relative had reminded me of that before I left – but had forgotten it would cost.
Oh, there’s a charge?, I say, to cover slight embarrassment.
Is there a cash machine in town? I’ve no money on me.
No cash machine.
Ah, it’s grand. Just leave it then, and I start to walk away.
You’ve no money on you?
I turn; apologise.
Go on in, sure, the steward – softly – says.
It is the buttermilk that reacts with the soda in the bread mixture, that creates – producing carbon dioxide – the rising, leavening process.
It’s the buttermilk and soda that brings the flour – the mehl – to life.
On my return from Adamstown I take a stroll around the farm.
I notice an abandoned outhouse around the back of the main house, an old building with a collapsed roof that I don’t remember from before. My mother and grandmother are sitting in the living room when I enter and I ask them about what I just saw.
What was in there?
Ah, they used to keep pigs in there, my mother answers.
What’s that?, my grandmother says – her hearing is now failing.
I said you used to keep pigs out there in the back, my mother repeats, more loudly.
Pigs?, I say.
Yes, pigs – we’d slaughter them.
We didn’t want for anything, they both started to explain. Orchards. Hens. Pheasants. Onions. Apples, kept in straw to keep from going bad.
Paying for things once – the seed – and not again.
Bottled water?, my mother exclaims, picking up a bottle I’ve brought back – we would have thought you mad on seeing this.
But then, I think, you need good land – and strong, somewhat exhaustible desire – to live like that.
I take the recipe of buttermilk, soda and wheat meal back to London the week after, determined to perfect it. It has been many years since I started badgering my grandmother – and occasionally an aunt – for their recipes – no, my badgering was always more than that, there are many recipes available that I could have simply used.
It was the exact proportion of the things used, that’s what I wanted them to share with me.
It takes me less time than I’d thought to prepare the dough and get it into the oven, but then again, this type of bread is often referred to as ‘quick bread’.
It bakes perfectly first time around. I share it with my flatmates. And afterwards, there’s nothing left to ponder. I’ve made the bread I’ve often wanted to. It’s possible – but after all my eating, there remains a sense of lost respect.
Yet I still become addicted to my involvement in the process, going on to make numerous variations. With white flour. With raisins, to make it somewhat sweet.
I enjoy the slow patient routine required by the making of the bread, the peasant ritual performed in the heart – and often powerful heat – of summer London. I start to make a loaf on rising every day, and soon find after a few days of such work that I find it hard to stop.
On occasion, though, I’ll avoid the morning and make one very late at night – the making of it then seems to exhaust me, into an almost pleasant sleep.
“Oul’ Quinn was the only one I ever knew who thought he should never die. He was over eighty years at the time. He said that only wastrels die and people who couldn’t eat fat–bacon.”
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.
Alan Cunningham is a writer from the north of Ireland. His first book, Count from Zero to One Hundred, was published in 2013 by Penned in the Margins. @alanmcunningham.