Monday 29 September 2014


As we approach autumn it is the perfect time to start gathering and preserving root crops, or to think about which ones you want to order for over the winter or next year, beyond the usual potatoes or turnips.

When we moved here, for example, my mother-in-law introduced me to celeriac, a celery relative bred not for its stalks -- which are edible but foul-tasting, I can assure you – but for its bulbous root. Ours can grow as large as a human head, and can be left in the ground until needed or transferred to boxes of sand in the shed. My mother-in-law usually cooked them like potatoes, but I find them great raw, finely grated like parmesan and mixed in a spicy lemon dressing.

We grew scorzonera last year, a yellow-flowered dandelion relative that seemed to fall out of favour after the Victorian era. Its black roots taste great peeled and either boiled, steamed or stir-fried. Its cousin salsify has blue flowers and white roots, but can be treated similarly. We also grew chicory, not to harvest at the time, but to transplant to earth boxes in the shed in winter and force its blanched leaves upwards.

We have been enjoying kohlrabi, a cabbage relative bred for its root, which we peel and eat like an apple, or dice, boil and serve in a white roux. Yacon and occa originated in the Andes Mountains alongside the potato, but spuds became the staple food for millions while the first two continued to be eaten mainly by Incas. Of course beetroots are just coming in – more on those in subsequent weeks.

To preserve your roots, you might be able to keep them in damp sand – we do that with beetroots, and they stay good through the winter. You can also pickle them using the pickling recipe from a few weeks ago, or look up your own. You could also create a root cellar, a zero-carbon, zero-electricity, low-cost way to keep roots and other foods over the winter, simply by using the planet as your refrigerator.

Root cellars can take many forms, but they all work on the basic principle that vegetables in the right conditions stay alive, so they do not spoil, but also do not continue to grow, ferment, seed, bolt or any other plant activity. Since the temperature underground changes little throughout the year, this usually means keeping them partially underground and well-insulated. Perhaps the easiest things to root cellar are the roots the name implies – carrots, potatoes, parsnips, beetroot, celeriac, turnips and so on -- often come from late-season plantings.

Root cellars can take many forms; you can make a fort out of straw bales, as a child might do with pillows, and keep food cool inside. You can dig an elaborate hobbit-hole into the side of a hill, like a bomb shelter. Some people have buried broken refrigerators and used them to store food.

Many potatoes and other vegetables can be piled into mounds and covered with earth and straw. Mounds should not be dug where water puddles, and while some gardeners dig out a mound first, we who live in the Bog of Allen might fine it safer to simply start on the ground level. The triangular pile should probably not be more than a metre high, to avoid the weight of the higher vegetables squashing the lower ones. Some kind of ventilation – a column of straw, a pipe -- needs to be put through the middle of the stack. The pile of potatoes are covered first with a layer of straw – 15 to 30 centimetres -- and then a layer of earth about half as thick.

Whatever your technique, many of the garden’s blessings lie unseen, and if properly cared for, will keep until they are need come the lean times of spring.

Photo: Borscht with dill, fennel and sour cream.

Thursday 25 September 2014

Couldn't have wished for better

I was born in a one-room hut in 1935. What kind of upbringing did I have? Brilliant -- couldn't have wished for better. No electricity, no running water, no central heating, no indoor toilet.

Under any circumstances, it would be a great youth -- we got to spend a lot of time with my mother and father, and they were disciplinarians, so we always had to be on our best behaviour. Yet we had total freedom to run around.

We used to play hurling, as Irish children still do -- but what we used to call hurling was a kind of guerilla warfare; when two teams met there were terrible rows.

I didn't think I'd reach this age, I've reached my sell-by date. I wouldn't want it to be too long; modern medicine keeps you alive far longer than life has meaning.

-- memories of miner Tom Shaw, recorded in 2010.  Photo courtesy of

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Local pub

Not far from us, in Newtownmoneenalunagh. That's not a typo.

Sunday 21 September 2014

Published at First Things

Good news, everyone; First Things, a superb Christian magazine that I've been reading for years (note the blogroll on the side there), has just published a piece I wrote about folk music through the generations. It's behind a paywall, but not expensive to buy. Check it out.

Friday 19 September 2014

Limewater eggs

No matter what else most of us have in our kitchen, most of us probably have eggs. They are a staple source of protein the world over, and a vital ingredient in dishes from almost every culture. Yet chickens slow down their egg production in the winter, and in the summer you get a surfeit of eggs, so a way to preserve them would be immensely helpful.

One way, of course, is to separate the eggs and yolks and keep them in small plastic containers in the freezer. Freezers need electricity, however, and we might not always have that in emergencies – my relatives in Missouri have experienced periodic power outages for up to two weeks at a time, and friends in Louisiana experienced a lot more than that in hurricanes. When the Irish economy tanked a few years ago and the country went bankrupt, we weren’t sure whether the power would stay on, and in other countries they haven’t. In short, everyone should be prepared to cope without electricity for a while, just in case. We need some other way to preserve eggs, and thankfully there is a nearly forgotten method that we could revive.

The answer is to preserve eggs in limewater, a simple mix of tap water and lime powder; I’ve done this with our eggs, and they lasted for months and came out perfectly fresh. “Lime” here means neither the citrus fruit nor the tree, but refers to a white powder derived from limestone. For at least 7,000 years humans burned limestone in kilns to create quicklime, and hydrated that to create lime powder. For hundreds of years until the mid-20th century, lime supported a vast and vital network of village industry -- quarries to mine the limestone, carts and barges to transport it, and specialists to monitor the burning. In the late 1700s, according to one survey, County Cork alone was said to contain an amazing 23,000 kilns, or one every 80 acres.

The Irish used lime to spread over fields, its alkalinity “sweetening” the acidic soil and increasing crop production – as much as fourfold, according to some accounts. Lime was used as a cement as far back as the ancient Sumerians, and Romans used it to create a waterproof better, in some ways, than what we use today. Lime also forms the basis of whitewash, used for centuries to protect and brighten structures, fences, vehicles and even trees, without the alarming and unpronounceable stew of toxic ingredients in many modern paints. Farmers rubbed it on their livestock’s feet as an antiseptic, or painted it onto fruit trees to prevent fungal diseases. Some mixed a bit of lime into well-water to disinfect it, or to preserve eggs for months without spoiling. Tanners used it to remove hair from hides, gardeners to repel slugs and snails, printers to bleach paper. It was, in short, pretty useful stuff, and still is.

To keep eggs in limewater, I simply mixed equal parts of lime and water in a mayonnaise jar, shook it, and delicately added eggs – they kept fresh for several months. A more traditional recipe, however, was to mix one pound of lime per one gallon of boiling water – that works out for us to be about 84 grams of lime for a 700-ml jar. Then let the mixture cool and pour it over the eggs. Still other recipes mixed the lime with saltpeter and even borax, but I would not try those until I had confirmed their safety.

Finally, one more approach to preserving eggs without electricity, which I have not tried myself, involved using sodium silicate or glass-water. One popular recipe from a century ago recommended dissolving sodium silicate in boiling water, to about the consistency of a syrup (or about 1 part of the silicate to 3 parts water). The eggs -- as fresh as possible, and thoroughly clean -- should be immersed in the solution in such manner that every part of each egg is covered with the liquid, then removed and let dry. If the solution is kept near the boiling temperature, the preservative effect was said to be much more certain and to last longer.

The eggs that were preserved in this way were said to have a slight odour to them, but nothing particularly foul, and I never noticed much of a difference. Both approaches keep the nutrition of the eggs, and keep out any of the germs that would cause illness, allowing people to have a store of protein ready for any emergency.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Thursday 11 September 2014

Days of the forges

My first memory is of the forge; I don’t know what age. It’s a memory filled with sounds and smells, the sounds of men’s voices and the clatter of hooves coming down the street, another horse on its way, people warning me to stay out of the way and to watch the hind legs, of course. It was like a painting all crowded with people.

I remember as a child I turned the light on for my father -- I had to use a stick to reach the switch, I was so small. I must have been holding this iron for my father in the yard, and he struck before I removed my hand from the place, and he hit my thumb with the sledgehammer, and all that was troubling me was that I might curse – I remember the trouble he went to stop me cursing at the time.

You can imagine there were a lot of carts at the time, and those wheels had metal bands, so blacksmiths were kept in business until a few decades ago.

Every anvil must have its own musical tone when struck, and you could tell at a distance whose it was. I remember this anvil, and it was different than any before or since.

--  Remembrances of a blacksmithing apprentice on Radio Telefis Eireann, June 2013.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Kale crisps

If there’s one ubiquitous food for children these days, it’s potato crisps – grownups give them to kids at parties, as a treat, as a snack or sometimes just because. If you don’t want your children to eat the fat and other unhealthy ingredients of processed food, you can make try something straight from the garden, something light, crispy, salty, but packed with vitamins. Take, for example, kale crisps.

Kale remains one of our hardiest crops, perhaps closest to the original seaside crop that gave rise to the whole cabbage family, from which gardeners bred cruciferous vegetables for their bus (Brussels sprouts), their heads (cabbage and bok choi), their roots (kohlrabi) and their flowers (broccoli, cauliflower).

One of the most nutritious of vegetables overall, 100 grams carries 50 calories but has 308 per cent of the day’s needed Vitamin A, 200 per cent of the needed Vitamin C and 1021 per cent of one’s daily needs of Vitamin K. It has high levels of calcium, iron, manganese and potassium.

Kale is also useful for when it appears; it can be grown and eaten year-round in our climate, but is especially productive when greens are needed, in the fall and winter. It’s even good fodder for the animals;  the Irish Farmers’ Journal reported a couple of years ago that more growers turned to kale as a feed crop, one that could be grazed from October until March and yields eight to 12 tonnes of dry matter per acre.

Kale can be sown from April to June – we put ours in small seed trays and keep them inside, and put them in the ground four to six weeks after they germinate. They need well-fertilised soil with a great deal of manure or compost added, but also need it to drain well. They are less prone to disease than the more heavily inbred cabbage varieties, but still shouldn’t be put in a bed where you have had cruciferous vegetables in the previous few years.

To make kale into crisps, first snap some of the leaves off kale and bring it inside, remove the centre ribs and chop each leaf into several pieces. Wash them and let them dry – this will be the longest part, as they have to be completely dry to crisp up properly. I find it best to spin them and let them sit a few hours on a rack.

Pre-heat an oven to 150 degrees C. Put the kale in a dry bowl, drizzle a bit of olive oil over it and toss the kale until a thin layer of oil is coating everything. Line a baking tray with tinfoil and spread the kale over it in a layer one kale-piece deep.

The real trick is to let them bake for just the right amount of time – a minute too little and they come out limp and soggy, a minute too long and they blacken and burn. I put mine in for 15 minutes, but that will depend on your oven and the type of kale you use. Start checking at 10 minutes, and wing it from there.

When you take them out of the oven, sprinkle them with salt or – if you want to cut down on salt, as I did, with a spice mix of powdered vegetable stock, lemon zest, cayenne and pepper.

You can cook kale in many other ways. We often put it in bean soup – first we take dried beans and leave them in water for a day or two, and then boil them in water for an hour until the liquid is thick and reduced and the beans soft all the way through. While that’s boiling I dice and sautee a few onions in a pot, stir in other vegetables in season like celery, carrots, turnips, swedes, potatoes – all diced and then sautéed until slightly soft – and then add heaping quantities of washed and chopped kale. Finally, I add the beans and let them all cook together, until they are soft without being overcooked

My favourite is probably the sweet-and-sour kale we make in our house. First lightly oil a pan and peel and dice a large onion. Toss the onion bits in and sautee them until they are yellow. Wash and chop about as much kale as will fit in a small pot – it will cook down, and the amounts don’t have to be precise --- and toss it in as well. Add a pinch of salt and stir frequently to make sure nothing sticks to the metal.

After the kale has shrunk and gone soft, drizzle it with several tablespoons of cider vinegar, and a tablespoon of honey, and stir it in. I like to add a bit of concentrated stock and cayenne pepper, or you can use balsamic vinegar to make it sweeter. These are general recipe outlines, of course -- see what formula you like best.

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Farm work

"My father was one man and ten men. He was the local vet here. He was the butcher. He was a storyteller. He was a farmer. And everything that was to be done in the village, he was involved in it. And he was the slaughterman.

There were many here who killed pigs, but my father was the best – every time he stuck a pig, the heart rent in two halves when you opened it. Then he’d go to Scotland in June, do the little bit of the harvest we had to do. Come home at Christmas with a few pounds. He might buy a few cows or pigs and sell them again in March for the price of going over again to Scotland. I began going there myself, to help with the harvest, when I was eleven. 

You got the boat on the north wall of Dublin – a boat full of cattle. Eighteen hours at sea, in a hold I cannot describe. When you got to Scotland the cattle were let off, and when the boat went to Clyde and we were let off, not much different than the cattle.

You had to keep a steady pace picking the potatoes; you put a 13-year-old out at this day and age at a 30-yards, you think they'd be able to?

At the end of the day, when you were done with the harvest, you had to make your own bed. I mean you actually built one – you got a tick, filled it with straw, and packed it between vegetable boxes."

- Remembrances of Irish growing up in the mid-20th century, as recorded in an interview by Radio Telefis Eireann documentary "Leaving Belmullet," 2005. Photo used with permission of Irish History Links