Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Turf season

The strongest impression of Ireland in winter is the rich, earthy smell of burning turf -- peat from the bog, pungent as incense. The turf -- the long-compressed remains of many decades of prehistoric sphagnum moss -- is cut each spring, and we stack it to dry over the summer and bring it to our homes in winter. The fuel that heats our house comes from less than a kilometre away -- and the wood, of course, which comes from less than ten metres away.

Local people here still hold a turf-cutting contest every summer here, using a special angular shovel that could not be mistaken for anything else. In the old days, to find out if conditions were right to cut turf in spring, local people lit their pipes and waited to see what the smoke would do. If it headed for the ground it was a bad sign, and turf-cutting was postponed. 

Photo: The Girl climbing turf cliffs a walk away from our house. 

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Children at Castle Kilkenny

Irish children on the outer wall of the castle; The Girl is the one in the middle.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Best dinosaur ever

Note: As I said to The Girl, she’s old enough now that I won’t talk about our conversations without first clearing it with her. 

For our nightly lessons last night, The Girl and I lay in bed together reading about dinosaurs. I loved reading about them myself at that age, but we’ve learned so much since then; vast new regions of the world have opened up for fossil exploration, and new technology has allowed us to gain some idea of the animals' skin and muscles, not just their bones.

As a result, the grey-green and stupidly lumbering beasts of my childhood have been replaced by much more interesting animals; darting predators with tiger stripes, giants covered in feathers, and winged reptiles the height of giraffes. We found one that waited in water to lunge at prey like a crocodile, others that leapt and glided through trees to catch insects or mammals.

The Girl enjoyed play-acting the dinosaurs' roles with me -- waiting in water to lunge like a crocodile, leaping from tree to tree after small prey,and so on. She knows that each job -- apex predator, insectivore and so on -- was an important niche in a system and I explained that niches remain more or less constant over time. Every system of plants and animals will need someone to clean up carcasses, someone to be the large herbivore, and someone to a keystone species. In Ireland those roles were filled by placental mammals, in Australia by marsupials, in New Zealand by birds, and ages ago by dinosaurs, yet the roles remain much the same.

Then, reading through the newer discoveries, we found the best dinosaur name ever --- Irritator. It sounds like the least threatening comic-book villain ever, but it was a kind of spinosaur predator and that’s its real Latin name. A brief web search told me that illegal fossil-hunters had artificially plastered extra bits onto the skull of their discovery, and palaeontologists who acquired the fossil named it after the feeling they experienced trying to undo the damage and find the real dinosaur underneath.

“Oooh – can I act out this dinosaur, Daddy?”

Sure, I said.

She got behind me and began poking me in the shoulder. “Daddy? Daddy? Daddy, can I have a drink of water? Can I read over your shoulder? Do I have to go to bed? Can’t I stay up a little longer? Can I have a fizzy drink? Do I have to eat vegetables? Are we there yet? Daddy? Daddy?”

You can do that very well when you want to, I laughed.

“I've had a lot of practice over the years,” she said smartly.

Photo: Triceratops at the London Museum of Natural History, with The Girl last year.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Moving to an island

I heard an archival interview recently with a couple that moved from the city to one of the islands off the coast of Ireland decades ago, and were introduced to a very different world. All their neighbours, they discovered, lived in isolated self-sufficiency, taking care of their own gardens and animals, and few people used phones. Yet they had a powerful sense of community, helping each other out through the year and sharing whatever they had when a neighbour stopped by.

When they first moved there, they tried to send out invitations to a gathering, and found it took weeks; they had to walk to each house in turn, since no one used phones. At each house people would invite them in and insist they stay for dinner, and pile their arms full of whatever was ripe. At the time the rhubarb was ready, so they walked away with bushels of rhubarb from each house.

A tank of petrol lasted them months, since people had cars, but there was almost nothing to do with them.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014


“So when you write, sometimes you write about me?” The Girl said.

For my blog, I said, but not in the local paper – a bit when you were a toddler, but not since.

“Thank you,” she said. “Because everyone around here reads the paper.”

I know, I said. And they know me, and know you. It was one thing when I could tell a story about my baby and everyone just thought it cute. The older you get, though, the more I want to respect your privacy.

“You write about me in your blog, though,” she observed, “and that can be seen all over the world.”

Yes, I said. But I never show your face, or say your name, or say exactly where we live. And except for a few relatives or distant friends, none of those people know you. And as of last year, I never write down our conversations unless you give me permission.

She considered this for a moment. “I’ve always given permission when you ask,” she said. “I liked the idea that I can be a little bit famous.”

You might not be as famous as those magazine celebrities, I said, but you have a few fans. Unlike most magazine celebrities, you’ve earned yours.

“You won’t write anything unless I say it’s okay?” she asked. “I’m getting a bit nervous about being in front of all these people I don’t know, like being on stage where you can’t see the audience.”

You almost never see your audience in life, I said, and even less so in the computer age. But listen – you’re safe here with me, and the people reading about you would likely be very decent sorts. And of course I’ve only written about the conversations you’ve allowed me to – nothing very private, and nothing particularly embarrassing. And if you don’t want me to write about something, I won’t.

“Can we take a break from it for a while?” she asked. “Just until I feel a little less nervous.”

Of course, I said – just let me know when you’re ready to allow it again. Do you mind if I write about this conversation, as an explanation to readers? I asked.

 “Okaaaay,” she said grudgingly, but smiled.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Kim chee at home

Originally published in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper.

Few peoples on Earth are as devoted to their national dishes as Koreans are to kim chee. Few Irish have had this amazing dish, but few things have a richer or more powerful flavour, and it can be made easily at home with everyday ingredients. I don't feel compelled to stick reverently to their ingredients, and I've been able to adapt it to whatever is ready in the garden at the moment.

Kim chee can be best described as a kind of Asian sauerkraut, a spicy pickled cabbage with ginger, garlic and other spices. It’s made with the same process that creates dill pickles – the technical term is lacto-fermentation – using a salty brine to preserve the food and give it a tangy bite. It can keep for as long as a few months, but can be ready in as little as a week.

To make kim chee, you will need:

• A kilo of cabbage from your garden – Chinese cabbage or bok choi is the traditional choice for Koreans, but regular Irish cabbage will do just fine, or even leaves from other brassicas.
• 60 millilitres of salt.
• 15 millilitres of grated garlic – if you don’t have a garlic press or hand grater, just run it through the smallest holes of the cheese grater.
• Five millilitres of grated ginger
• 15 millilitres of chopped hot pepper
• 100 grams or so of chopped radishes
• 100 grams of scallions or chives

To start, chop the cabbage into quarters, remove the cores, and slice into strips about five centimetres wide. Mix the cabbage and the salt in a large bowl, and with your hands massage the salt into the cabbage for a few minutes. Some people like to use gloves for handling the salt again, especially if you have sensitive skin. Then find a plate smaller than the top of the bowl, and place it on the cabbage to keep it in the salt. You might want to put some jars on top – I used pickle jars evenly around the edges – to weigh it down. Leave it there for about two hours.

At the end of that time, the cabbage will be soft and sitting in a brine of its own juice and some salt. Take the cabbage out and drain in a colander, and clean the bowl to use again. Then you make the kim chee paste, mixing the grated garlic, grated ginger, and chopped pepper together in a bowl. Some recipes, I find, call for using flour to thicken the paste -- I've tried it with and without, and haven't found it to make much difference.

Some people put in a bit of sugar at this point, some a bit of soy sauce, some a bit of seafood flavour like fish sauce or oyster sauce. Chop up the radishes and scallions and add them to the mix.

Finally, mix the vegetables and paste with the cabbage, and massage them together as you did with the salt. There are hot peppers in there, so some people like to crack out the gloves again at this part. Pack the cabbage into a clean glass jar – I used a pickle jar – pressing down until the brine rises to just barely cover everything.

Leave a bit of space at the top, and seal the lid – not too tightly, though, in case gas needs to escape. Check every day or two to loosen the lid just a crack, to make sure it’s not going to explode, and then when the gas has escaped tighten it a little again. Let the mix stand for at least a week, and give it a try.

This recipe uses only minimal spice compared to the Korean original, but if it’s still too much, use less next time. The best thing about this recipe is that, when people here grow cabbages, they tend to use the head only and throw the outer leaves away – they are tough and would not be good to chew. Kim chee, though, can be made from some outer leaves of cabbages, and so less goes to waste.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Dublin cafe

I just find this slogan funny for some reason.