Tuesday 30 April 2013

Front Porch Republic

My piece about the horsemeat scandal has been published at Front Porch Republic, so feel free to check it out if you haven't already.

If you're not familiar with FPR, you should be, no matter your political or religious affiliation. Thoughtful, ecological and spiritual, it feels like what Atticus Finch might create if he blogged. It represents what what the word "conservative" is supposed to mean, and often what it used to mean, in a more learned and civil age.

Monday 29 April 2013

Sunday morning, Ireland

The photo doesn't really capture the loveliness of the setting near the shores of Lough Derg, or the periodic gusts of wind that were making parents hold rather tightly onto their children.

Wednesday 24 April 2013


At the end of the island, at the pier where people left their boats to go to the mainland, there was a post upon which hung a hat.  At the time, the men of Achill would have worn a cap, but when going into town, for that little bit of formality, any man who was going to town would put on that hat and then leave it at the post when he returned. 

A visitor in the 19th century recorded he saw two men in a running contest around the island to decide which one had the right to marry a certain woman, "which was by no means uncommon."

-- "Leave Your Hat At The Sound," RTE radio documentary about the men of Achill Island, 1974. 
Photo: Islanders, courtesy of Irishphotolinks.com

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Wine and beer

Originally published in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. 

Before every home acquired the sterilised waterfalls of our taps, many people often had only lake or river water to drink, which carried serious diseases at a time when there were no doctors and the average lifespan was about 30. Letting yeast ferment vegetable matter drove out most other microscopic life, making water relatively pure without the cords of firewood needed to boil everything -- and beer and wine were born.

Thus, alcohol was a major part of life in earlier eras, offering water, calories and vitamins. Medieval Britons, for example, were estimated to drink four litres of beer a day; I am told that the teetotal movement of the 19th century, which encouraged people to drink tea instead, actually caused malnutrition in rural Britain.
These days, for many Westerners, “wine” refers only to grape wine and “beer” only to brew from barley and hops - yellow in the USA, often black in Ireland – but you can make wine and beer from almost any edible plant and some inedible ones.  I have seen recipes for wines from oak leaves, squash, parsley, and all manner of common plants. In the past year I have made wine from nettles, cowslips, elderflowers and meadowsweet – the last being the tufty weed that grows along the canal banks in August.

In the autumn hawthorn leaves fall to expose the bright red berries – haws -- covering the bare branches. Haws taste mealy and bland raw, but they make an excellent wine, and as they were the most abundant fruit in the hedgerow, that’s how I used them.

The details differ by the kind of wine you’re making, but the basic recipe is this: First pour six litres of water into a large pot, and bring it to a boil. Then dump in two litres of whatever vegetable matter you’re using and two halved lemons, boil it again, and turn the heat off. Stir in a kilogram of sugar slowly until it dissolves, and waited for the liquid to cool to blood temperature. Then pour it into a cleaned and sterilised bucket and add wine yeast – although bread yeast will do in a pinch -- and cover the bucket and set it in the closet.  

Over the next week check the bucket periodically; it should be bubbling away slowly as the yeast turns sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. After a week or so, sterilise a carboy – a large jug with an S-shaped valve on the top – and strain the wine into it. Carboys let you store wine during the weeks or months that it still might build up some air pressure, before you pour it into conventional wine bottles.

After pouring the wine into the carboy, you will have some leftover vegetable matter, and you could compost them, feed them to chickens or – as I did – combine them with apple peelings and make them into jam.
When I did this with haws from our hawthorn trees I calculated the total cost at three euros for two kilos of sugar, plus the minimal cost of heating the stove for a short time, and not counting the initial investment of the carboy or yeast. The experiment resulted in about six bottles of good wine and two jars of jelly.  

Not all your experiments will turn out well. All my wines based on flowers or weeds -- like cowslip, elderflower, meadowsweet and nettle -- turned out fine, whereas my vegetable wines of parsnip, ginger and beetroot tasted awful for some reason. Likewise, the haw wine tasted fine while new -- as a fizzy, lightly alcoholic drink -- and some of it aged into a fine haw wine. The rest aged, unexpectedly, into a very nice vinegar.

Either way they won’t taste exactly like grape wines from the store. Try mixing them with juice and water at first, or store-bought white wine, to make a punch, to acclimatise yourself to the taste of home-made. 

Top photo: Wines from left to right -- meadowsweet, parsnip and ginger, elderflower, haw, more meadowsweet and elderberry. 
Middle photo: Some of the ingredients I've used for wine and jam, clockwise - orange peel, crabapple, elderberry, blackberry, sloe and rosehips. All but the orange peel my daughter and I picked on our property. 
Bottom photo: Haw wine while fermenting. 

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Getting around

People hadn’t much money but times were good. You could dress up and carry your handbag up O’Connell Street and not feel frightened. … There were no shutters, drunks or drugs. Everyone was out walking on every corner, and no one ever felt afraid. 

When there was breaking news all the boys on street-corners rang bells shouting “Stop Press,” and everyone stopped to hear what the news was. 

          --- Frances O’Brien, recalling memories of Dublin in the 1930s

In the mid-thirties and forties having a bicycle of your own meant freedom to come and go just as much as a car means to the people of today… During the war years there was no petrol for cars or late-night buses so there was no other way to get about. 

The centre of the City used to be just one big mass of bicycles being taken care of by men and boys who made jobs for themselves doing that while the owners were off at a theatre, a dance or a film.
              --- Lillian Healy, recalling Dun Laoghaire, County Dublin

Twenty years ago you could leave your bike on the footpath and nobody would touch it. Everybody had the time to talk, and you didn’t have to jump out of the way of lunatic drivers behind the wheel of fast cars. (Today) no-one has the time to spare, no one has a moment to talk. 

Or there’s the time wasters – the ones who think that taking it easy or slowing down means sitting down and having a few cigarettes and drinking a cup of coffee, watching the day go by.
-                    --- Con Moloney, Mountrath, recalling County Laois in the 1920s.

-          All recorded in the compilation No Shoes in Summer (1995). Photo of Dublin in the 1950s from Irishhistorylinks.com.

Monday 15 April 2013

Lichens growing on moss growing on a tree growing in the woods.

... one of the great old woods still left in this deforested country, at Avondale House in County Wicklow.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Mirabile dictu

On this day off from work I’m running errands in Dublin, and most of the city stretches damp and gloomy across the seaside. I walked past endless streets and side-streets, alleys and shortcuts, all a maze of cement and stucco walls coated in graffiti and green moisture. Occasionally a twisted metal shard reveals a pile of discarded cans and plastic that will not disintegrate into flowers and mushrooms like the sodden bits of wood are doing.

Then I walk into this place, one of the old pubs of solid wood and stone, built before the discarded world in invaded this neighbourhood. I’m sipping Irish coffee and listening to opera faint in the distance. Near me two old men discuss law and money, police and civil servants, philosophy and belief -- the gears and levers of life.

Truly, though, they seem to use language as old storytellers did in pubs like this, shaping the consonants and vowels and the singsong pitch like they were playing a concerto together, throwing in Latin and Gaelic – “Mirabile Dictu!” one exclaims at one point – and growing more animated as they work out the big questions of the universe. Soon some Germans come in, apparently on holiday, and have their own gentle argument over Guinness.

 I realize I’m being romantic, thinking of this as the real, traditional Ireland, rather than the graffiti or the broken liquor bottles. I do know it represents something I treasure, something hard to find anymore. I like your place, I told the barkeep.

“It’s been around a while,” he said. “1823.”

Did everything in the neighbourhood used to look like this? I asked, nodding outside to the mix of Georgian buildings and graffiti-covered wrecks.

He said that most of the old neighbourhood still existed a few decades ago. “Then everyone started to get rich, and for a while everyone turned over the property. They took out most of the old buildings and put in things that no one respects …. Everything looks ugly and tacky now.”

With all our technology, I said, I don’t know why they can’t build now what we did then – a landscape people will respect.

 “We forgot why we wanted to,” he said.

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Eating snails

Originally published in December 2009. 

Attitudes toward food change constantly, and perfectly edible food that is shunned in one era might be highly prized in another. Early European colonists in America almost starved before eating the lobsters all around them, and even then they were considered disgusting, used only for feeding prisoners and servants and baiting fishhooks. Only about a hundred years ago did lobster become prized as a delicacy, until today it drives an industry worth $280 million in America alone.

People today have similarly strange attitudes towards snails. They command a high price in expensive restaurants, where they are shipped in from France at great cost – yet we might have hundreds of identical snails in our own garden, and try to get rid of them.

The common snails seen in Irish gardens are the same species as restaurant snails, and are perfectly edible – you are not likely to see the few bad-tasting or endangered species. In fact, that's how they came to be on the islands -- they are not native to Britain or Ireland, and were brought to England by Romans specifically for breeding and eating, only to get loose -- as rabbits would do under the Normans a thousand years later, and grey squirrels a thousand years after that.

To this day, a few people here raise them in their homes or gardens for profit or food, and they are about the lowest-maintenance livestock – if that’s the word – that you can keep.

Snails love to crawl up wet walls and can often be seen in large numbers after a rain – in the day, or when it’s drier, they wedge themselves in crevices and hide in their shells. Take some children with you, and gathering them will be as fun as finding Easter eggs.

Even snails raised in the safest environments would need to be starved for at least two or three days, and these days there is a particular danger they may have eaten poison or pesticides, so keep them at home and feed them for a while until anything bad has passed out of their system. I keep mine in a plastic tub with air holes for a few weeks, and each day I clean out the tub and give them slices of organic carrot. Some recommend only a week or two to clean out the toxins, but I like to be on the safe side. Don’t give them any food in the last few days before cooking them.

To cook snails, wash them and place them to one side and boil some water. Snails don’t have much of a brain stem, but if you are concerned about their feeling pain you can place them in the refrigerator while the water boils, and they will go to sleep.

I toss them in the boiling water for about ten minutes, pour them into a strainer, run them under cold water, and with a skewer fish them out of the shell. Cut away the gall, the last piece to come out of the shell.

I like to fry a few slivers of finely-sliced rashers (bacon) in a pan and fry for a few minutes until they are lightly done. Then I toss in a heap of de-shelled snails, stir and cook for about ten more minutes.

I add some spices and finely-chopped scallions about five minutes in, a big colander of washed parsley right before the end and sautee the lot for a minute or so. Finally, I glaze the pan with lemon juice. I then serve them over diced salad with avocados. You, of course, can experiment with whatever way you like best.

Friday 5 April 2013

Bluebell Wood


In the modern world, our custom is to think of working to make money to buy goods from a store, and then to throw the goods away when we are done. That has been our custom for only a matter of decades, and already the largest structure created humankind are rubbish dumps. Before the invention of things like plastics and throwaway goods, however, there were no rubbish dumps, for when we used natural materials, there was virtually no waste.

Waste does not exist in nature; everything is part of the same bio-mass, and while some micro-organisms help turn soil into food, others help us digest the food, others break down our waste and turn the manure, dead plant matter, wood or other natural materials back to soil again. You will have armies of billions working for you, and while they do not complain or need to be paid, they will need food, water and air.

Soil packed with germs that mine valuable materials from the soil and make them into useable form for plants – certain kinds of actinobacteria, for example, “fix” nitrogen, which is all around us in the air but not in useable form, and puts into the soil in a way plants can use. Other germs fight disease, store water, or aerate the soil – and they make more of themselves. When you compost, you are simply encouraging some germs to thrive and discouraging others.

All natural materials have a certain ratios of carbon and nitrogen – those with a ratio under 30, or 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen – are called greens, and they will compost more quickly, and will form the bulk of your compost. They can include all kinds of kitchen waste – but no cooked food, as it will attract vermin. Feed those to your chickens if you have them, or chop up your bread and feed it to the birds, but don’t put it in the compost. You can also include lawn clippings, although remember that you might get weed seeds in the mix that can germinate in your garden later.

Browns are waste that is largely carbon – straw, paper, cardboard, or in our case the sawdust and mulch from inside the chicken coop – and should be composted separately and given more time. Since it’s mostly carbon, some of the other ingredients would help balance out the mix – urine is a great thing to add in whatever way does not violate local ordinances. Kitchen waste should be left at least a year, brown waste often for two years, depending on factors like the size of the parts and how damp they get.

Germs have to breathe just like we do, and different germs inhale and exhale different things. Fungi and actinobacteria breathe oxygen as we do, and you want them working your compost, so you need to turn it every month or so to give them fresh air. If the oxygen in all the little soil pockets has been used up, the anaerobic (oxygen-hating) methanogen bacteria step in, and while they too will break down the materials, you probably won’t like the smell they generate.

You don’t need to buy a special bin to compost – some people just pile it up in a corner of the yard, but for the sake of tidiness we nailed together planks of wood into a cube about a metre and a half on each side. Rather than nailing the planks on one side, we left them in slots so the entire side could be removed a bit at a time and the compost added, removed or turned. We just emptied the compost bin that we had been using for the last two years, and almost everything in it had turned to black earth again, ready to go for another year and start the cycle again.

-- Written for the Kildare Nationalist last week. Most of you know this already.