Wednesday 29 May 2013

The store

For a hundred years a bicycle shop in Dublin has let anyone come into the store, borrow bikes and ride them around for a while, to see if they want to buy them.

One girl, the owner said, said she needed to ask her mother if she could buy a bicycle. She rode away and was gone for five hours, and the owners began to think they would never see the bike again. Finally she showed up, having ridden many miles across the city to get permission and money, and rode all the way back again.

From "The Curious Ear: Delaney's Bikes," a documentary on RTE radio, 2011. 
Photo: A store in Dublin -- not the same one.

Friday 24 May 2013

What else to do with rhubarb

Before we casually shipped warehouses of vegetables across oceans and refrigerated them, spring was traditionally a lean time in Western temperate climates, a time when our ancestors had been living on things like salted meat or grains for months. The first edible greenery, then, gave food a much-needed injection of vitamins and flavour -- nettles, linden leaves, hawthorn leaves, sorrel, and most importantly rhubarb.

For this reason, early rhubarb – a vegetable that “thinks it’s a fruit” -- became an important crop for people who lived in far-northerly climates like ours, especially if you could “force” it to grow early and long. “Forcing” rhubarb involves moving the rhubarb into darkened sheds where they plants shoot upwards – reaching for the light, as it were – and the stalks grow long and tender. A tiny patch of Yorkshire, UK called the “rhubarb triangle” once produced 90 per cent of the world’s forced winter rhubarb.   

Country people here frequently gave rhubarb away as gifts for visitors, and newcomers described delivering party invitations door to door and walking away with armfuls of rhubarb at each house. Many people’s knowledge of cooking rhubarb, however, extends only to one recipe -- the rhubarb crumble dessert.

Many other dishes are possible, though – savoury or spicy, by itself or as a sauce for something else. To make rhubarb you simply have to deal with its two central facts – 1.) it is very tart, and must be mixed with other flavours, and 2.) it disintegrates into mush when cooked. That still leaves a lot of possibilities, though, beyond the one dish everyone makes. For example:

Savoury rhubarb spread – take one strip of rashers (bacon), one stalk of rhubarb (about 80g) and two red onions (about 100g). Dice the rasher into small pieces and fry it for about five minutes or so until they are brown but not yet crisp.  

Dice the red onions and put them in, or run them through a mandolin and break them up into slivers. Also slice the rhubarb with the mandolin, and mix the onion-and-rhubarb slivers together. After the bacon has been cooking five minutes or so, drain most of the oil out – save it for later – and toss the onions and rhubarb in the pan and mix them about. Add pinches of salt, black pepper, mustard powder and cayenne.

In about ten minutes the onions and rhubarb should cook down into a maroon paste; tart, savoury and spicy all at once. Once that is done you can spread the paste over crackers, as I did, or on toast.

Rhubarb-and-cucumber salad – The key to this is salting the rhubarb and cucumber to take the edge off the taste. Take one stalk of rhubarb (say, 80g) and one cucumber (about 150g) and peel the cucumber. Slice both thinly with a mandolin, put them in a bowl and add about 20g of salt. Let the mix sit for an hour or two, and then wash and drain the vegetables.

For the dressing, mix 200ml or so of some home-made yogurt or plain yogurt – “Greek style” works best. Chop about 100g or so of herbs – I used a mix of mint, dill, chives, parsley and Bernard – and mix them in thoroughly. Mix them with the cucumber and rhubarb, and you have an excellent salad.

Rhubarb salsa – Take half a stalk of rhubarb – say, about 50g – and slice it through the mandolin. Dice half an onion, also about 50g -- and a yellow pepper, of about 50g. Slice one jalapeno pepper in the mandolin. Keep them all separate.

Lightly oil the bottom of a cooking pot, turn the stove on low and throw in the diced onions. Cook for one minute. Throw in the sliced rhubarb and jalapeno and cook for two more minutes. Finally, mix in the yellow pepper and cook for one more minute.

While that is cooking, dice three tomatoes and toss them in, and turn off the heat. Chop up about 50g of coriander finely and toss that in as well, and mix everything together well. Add a teaspoon of Siracha sauce, or some comparable hot sauce, and a dash of garlic salt and black pepper.

Scoop up with nachos, crisps or toast, or eat by itself. 

Also appearing in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. Image courtesy of Wikicommons.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Back then

"On Cable Street we lived in a tenement house where there was ten families in the same house and one toilet in the yard. It was so difficult to get a job, and most people had six, eight or ten children in the same room. Eventually we got two rooms, which was heaven."

"On the other hand, everybody helped everybody else -- you could trust anybody then. When we were barefoot children in winter going to school … they were hard times, but there was a community spirit -- women helped each other to have babies, and if a women went to hospital to have babies, everyone looked after her children."

"This Wednesday Club , making their own entertainment, goes back to a tradition of singing houses and house parties that used to be the norm in Ireland. They used to have hoolies and house parties, with everyone gathering around and singing, but that’s disappearing now. Somebody would start playing the piano or some instrument, and everyone began singing together – they all knew the same songs."

-- Elderly pensioners in Dublin reminiscing about their childhoods, in the RTE documentary "The Wednesday Club," aired 10 August 2012.


"The noise of wheels on cobbles, the crunch as it turned to clay outside our lane, the sound of the tumble churn, the jingling of harness, hobnail boots, the smells of horse sweat, cow dung, new milk, wet grass, sour milk, buttermilk, bacon and porridge. Our house was like a railway, people coming and going at all times."

-- An elderly Dubliner remembers his early years in a dairy family, from RTE documentary "The Cowslips," first aired 1978.

Photo courtesy of

Wednesday 15 May 2013


"Even now, in the middle of Dublin, there are horses and carriages, and while they do make manure on the road many of the local gardeners go out at night and grab it. It is not uncommon to see one bicycling home with their treasures -- two giant bags of horse manure balanced, one on each handlebar."

-- From the RTE documentary "Man You're Green," broadcast July 5 2010.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

A Patch of Somewhere Else

When people list history’s most world-changing inventions, they usually include fire, or guns, or computers. Rarely do people mention something so ubiquitous to us that it has become, literally, invisible – glass and transparent plastic. Glass was known to the ancients but rare -- Job 28:17 lists it with gold among the most precious of materials. In the Renaissance, though, when glass began to be sheeted and shaped in quantity and with skill, it created a boom in civilisation; microscopes and telescopes opened up the breadth of the world to science, spectacles doubled men’s intellectual lifetime, and windows allowed for the creation of the first greenhouses.

We spend so much technology and energy -- electricity, oil and coal -- to heat homes against the weather, altering it to suit our needs. Properly-placed windows, however, allow the sun to do our work for us, allowing light in and slowing the passage of heat out. Even when the temperature outside dips below freezing they keep out frost, and allow the gardener to more easily control water, pests and wind-blown seeds.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this more important than in a land like this, a nearly subarctic island kept mild by the Atlantic current, where the climate usually hovers just below the ideal range for many vegetables. Here, greenhouses extend the growing season by months and create pockets of Italy or Illinois in, say, the cold bogs of County Kildare.

Here and in Britain, greenhouses, cloches and coldframes allowed Victorian master gardeners to grow a range of seemingly impossible crops: not just tomatoes and aubergines but melons, lemons, limes, grapes, olives and peaches. Pineapples, for example, became a status symbol among the manor-born, and banquets sported them as a centrepiece.

Greenhouses remain a worthwhile, albeit expensive, investment for most people in most climates. If you want to start small, though, you can create cloches, transparent coverings for one or a few plants each. Victorians, again, mass-produced glass bells to cover plants to create a microclimate inside. You can do the same thing, however, with soda bottles.

To make a cloche, cut the bottom off an old two-litre bottle and place it around a seedling in the garden. Once the bottom is off, the plastic becomes very flimsy, so you might want to bury the edges several centimetres deep to keep it stable. Alternately, you can place a ring or solid structure inside if you have one, something that will keep the bottle in place but allow the seedling to grow. Or you can place it around a flowerpot whose diameter is smaller than that of the bottle.

Cloches, like greenhouses, allow you to regulate the amount of water a plant receives – here that means not getting waterlogged in the rainy winter. You might want to keep the caps of your soda bottles in a drawer, so you can put them back on at night if it gets too cold.

A step up from a cloche is a row cover, something to put over an entire bed. We clamped flexible plastic piping over our raised beds to make hoops, draped clear plastic over them and secured the plastic to the wood below the hoops with staples. Alternately, instead of plastic, you could put horticultural fleece over another raised bed, to keep in the warmth – we did both this year, and gave our plants such protection that our corn salad survived the month of snow and ice.

If you want to go sturdier still, you can build a coldframe, especially if you have old windows you can use. A coldframe is just a box with glass or transparent plastic on top, ideally with a top slanted toward the south. Fill the box with earth and plant seeds inside, and over the slanted top secure a sheet of glass or whatever you have. You could install the window frame with hinges at the top for maximum convenience, but just taking off the glass gently will do.

If spring and autumn nights get very cold where you live, you could insulate the back and sides with anything from straw bales to foam. People around here used to combine coldframes with manure composters; since manure gives off considerable heat as it matures into soil, they filled a coldframe partway with horse manure, put soil on top for the seedlings, and gave the baby plants warmth from above and below.

Polytunnels are an excellent means of creating a walk-in garden for a fraction of the cost of an old-style greenhouse. You can get one as small as a closet or as large as a warehouse, and most are guaranteed for a decade or two. We had to tear down our old one to build our house, but it had lasted almost 20 years, and we installed the new one two weeks ago.

If you have old windows, or sheets of glass or clear plastic, you could try building a greenhouse out of cob. To do this you would stack rocks to make a low wall – say, half a metre to a metre high, depending on how high the snow or moisture get – and then build upward with a well-mixed and kneaded blend of sand, clay and straw. The walls could be built upward with large holes on the south side, and the cob could be plastered around the glass to keep them in place. Such a project would consume a lot more time and labour – we have day jobs, and didn’t take this route – and it would not in as much light as an all-clear home. It has the advantage, however, of being potentially free and using all-local materials.

Since you put such care into creating a greenhouse of some kind, make sure you have good fertilised earth in it – many warm-weather plants, like tomatoes, also need a great deal of nutrition, and gardeners used to sprinkle potash and other supplements around them.

In years to come we might not be traveling as much as we used to, but with the help of a little store-bought or scavenged material, you can create, in your own land, a patch of somewhere else.

Thursday 9 May 2013

Tales from an island

"Scattery was an island mile long by half a mile wide, and now largely abandoned, and in 1930s we 167 people who lived there were almost entirely self-sufficient. We brought in our own turf, we fished and in the winter we knitted and worked inside and listened to the radio.

Many people had left the island to travel the five continents and returned to teach the children .. our children were very intelligent, and the people were comfortable by country standards.

...on an island that small, there were four churches and a monastery. Most of the gravestones dating back hundreds of years have the same names as the people there now. When people walked to the graveyard they always took the long way around, so that you could take as long as possible. The wake the night before would take all night, starting with a single unmarked grave -- you started at that stone and walked to the low tide mark barefooted, and circled around to the stone again, and you did this ten times.

This island was the home of St. Senan, born in Kilaimer in 488, and his sister is also a saint- Saint Imy. His feast day is the 8 of March, the same as John of God. Once this church was the seat of the diocese, one that covered part of several counties.

After Senan there would have been a bishop on the island for about six centuries, until the 1000s, and for many hundreds of years no women were allowed on the island -- only once was one washed ashore, and she died soon after. When Elisabethan soldiers came there, though, they took the monks and murdered them all, drowned them at sea. The families that lived here in my childhood only lived here about four hundred years."

-- Memories of a woman who grew up on Inis Catheigh, or Scattery Island, in the RTE documentary "Scattery of Senan," from 1978. The island has been abandoned, the last of the families gone, for 44 years.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Market Day

"When my mother started off here she used to go to the bacon factory with two of us in a pram (buggy) and used to bring the meat in the pram -- there were no pristine conditions then .... We were all brought in here from an early age -- my daughter comes in, she's nine now, but we started bringing her when she was two weeks old ..."

"We'd be selling the pig from its head to its tail -- we sell the crubine which is the foot, we sell the tail, we sell the bodice which are the ribs, we sell the real traditional Cork dish -- skirts and kidneys, which is a white stew -- we sell trotters and hamhocks, and we sell pig's heads." 

-- Pauline Mulcahy, interviewed at the Cork market in 2011 by Radio Telefis Eireann.