Sunday 28 May 2023

Discovering Snails

Food that is shunned in one era might be highly prized in another, and vice versa. 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. If you have ever eaten in a fancy restaurant, you may have seen escargot (ess-car-GO) on the menu. It tastes great -- usually served in melted butter and parsley -- it commands a high price in expensive restaurants, where it is shipped in from France at great cost. Yet it is nothing more than snails – the same brown snails that Irish people find in their backyards and try to eliminate.

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 these islands; the Romans ate and raised snails, and exported them everywhere -- and since snails don’t make milk, pollinate flowers or make much useful manure, they were presumably raised to be eaten. To this day, a few people here in Ireland 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 until their poo turns orange. 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.

The traditional way to cook snails is in butter, and garlic is a common way to spice up the recipe. One popular approach is to prepare 60g of butter, two crushed cloves of garlic, seven ml of lemon juice, 100g of snails, 10 ml of chopped parsley and 10 ml of finely grated cheese.

Melt the butter in a small pan, add the garlic and lemon and simmer for about three minutes. Add the de-shelled and washed snails, and heat slowly for five minutes. Dump the contents in a bowl, sprinkle the parsley and cheese on top, and place the bowl in the oven until the cheese starts to turn brown.

Alternately, 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, stirring. 

Finally, I glaze the pan with lemon juice. I then serve them over finely diced salad with avocados. You, of course, can experiment with whatever way you like best.


Tuesday 16 May 2023

Published in Front Porch Republic

 Front Porch Republic is one of the most under-appreciated magazines out there, and I've been proud to write for them since 2009. Today they published my piece about the changing face of farming here. Do check it out. 

Sunday 7 May 2023

A Craftsman's Day

Thatcher in County Kildare.


When I talk to my elderly neighbours here in Ireland about the jobs they did, or read their memoirs, one of the most striking differences is the enthusiasm for their jobs. They spoke of shaping wood and iron and leather in ways everyone could see and respect. Saddlers and scutchers, farriers and felters, cobblers and cordwainers – even grave-diggers and churchbell-ringers spoke of their jobs with an enthusiasm I rarely see today.

“I jump out of bed on a Sunday morning for my ringing day,” said bell-ringer Leslie Taylor. “I am the elected ringing master, chosen by my fellow ringers who are members of the society. This is a happy coincidence of loyalty and pleasure. I’m one of the people who have in one way or another serviced the cathedral in some way since its foundation in 1038. ... I’d like to die in the belfry … when I’m ringing.”

It’s worth examining why most people in traditional societies spoke so proudly of their jobs and modern people do not, since work would seem to be one area where life has unarguably improved in modern times. My elderly neighbours grew up in what we would consider extreme poverty; Patty Bolger said the local factory paid ten shillings (about 30 euros or $36 in 2023) per week, a fraction of the US minimum wage. Decades further back were the long hours, unsafe and toxic surroundings, and other horrors we remember from Charles Dickens and Upton Sinclair, which caused workers to form unions and force through labour laws. Again, many things have improved, and for that we should be grateful.

Victorian factories and coal mines, though, were a historical anomaly, appearing only with the discovery of fossil fuels. Before the mid-1800s in Britain, and the mid-1900s in Ireland, most people were farmers or craftsmen like the elders I interviewed. Also, when people today compare them to modern jobs, we are weighing them against our own office jobs in the First World, not those of the near-slaves that made our clothes and laptops.

If we compare our eight-hour day in a cubicle to the 15-hour day of a Victorian factory worker, both working corporate jobs for hourly wages, of course we come out far ahead. As Jaques Ellul pointed out, though, we can’t compare our office job to the day of a village craftsman, who chooses his own tempo and rhythm, who mentors and is aided by apprentices or children, and who stops to chat with passers-by. We can praise the progress from 1850 to 1950, he said, but “we cannot say with assurance that there has been progress from 1250 to 1950. In so doing, we would be comparing things which are not comparable.”

Ellul was assuming that a traditional craftsman would be working 15 hours in a day off and on, and of course you might argue that most traditional peoples were farmers and not craftsmen. Yet historian James Thorold Rogers estimated that medieval peasants – whom we think of as the most menial peoples of the most backward age – worked no more than eight hours a day, a figure backed up by several other studies. Labourers rarely worked an entire day for a lord; half a solar day’s work was considered a full working day, so peasants who worked sunrise to sunset were credited for two days’ work. Medieval Christians,  moreover, had so many holidays – in the literal sense of “holy days” – that Nora Ritchie calculated they only worked half as many days per year as modern Americans. 

In Dublin into the 20th century, craftsmen continued to keep such flexible hours, as former master cooper Daniel O’Donnell recalled. “Coopers were well-paid craftsmen,” he said. “... you could go in to work whenever you liked provided that you could make your own week’s wages for yourself. You made so much for each cask. And you could go home whenever you wanted.” Walter Love, who drove a cart around his rural area, said that “the thing I liked best of all was the freedom. You were your own boss .. I was tired at the end of a hard day, but I was usually happy and when I think back the thoughts are usually happy ones.”

More information:

Walter Love, The Times of Our Lives, p. 24

 James E. Thorold Rogers, Six Centuries of Work and Wages (London: Allen and Unwin, 1949), 542-43. 

H.S. Bennett, Life on the English Manor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), 104-6; 

Douglas Knoop and G.P. Jones, The Medieval Mason (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967), 105; 

R. Allen Brown, H.M. Colvin, and A.J. Taylor, The History of the King's Works, vol. I, the Middle Ages (London: Her Majesty's Stationary Office, 1963); 

Edith Rodgers, Discussion of Holidays in the Later Middle Ages (New York: Columbia University Press, 1940), 10-11; 

C.R. Cheney, "Rules for the observance of feast-days in medieval England", Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 34, 90, 117-29 (1961); 

Nora Ritchie, "Labour conditions in Essex in the reign of Richard II", in E.M. Carus-Wilson, ed., Essays in Economic History, vol. II, (London: Edward Arnold, 1962).


Thursday 4 May 2023

The Secret Barbarian Nation of Children


Beneath the mundane world you and I inhabit lies the secret barbarian nation of children, who follow a separate tradition of solemn rituals, contests and codes of honour, like a Viking horde living underfoot and unnoticed. Our histories record the deeds of adults, but all those adults began as children, and it was in this nation that every future general first learned to lead, every potential scientist first turned over logs to delight in the tiny nightmares underneath, and every budding explorer first took a dare to enter the haunted woods.

What we dismissively call “play” is children stretching and pushing their bodies through the boot-camp training they need to survive, and just as tiger cubs practice pouncing and foals running, they act out being heroes and warriors, maidens and mothers. Foals, though, can stand within hours of being born; human children require a decade or more to grow up, the longest of any species, and those years spent playing are the secret to our success.

They were also the birthright of every child, whether in the Amazon or the Arctic, whether in the Stone Age or the 1950s. Twenty-six hundred years ago Zechariah said that “the streets will be full of boys and girls playing,” and writers recorded almost identical scenes in every culture and era ever recorded – until historically yesterday.

“The whole village was our playground when we were young,” said Bill Bergin, in a sentiment echoed by almost every elderly person I talked to. They made up their own games, ran barefoot through fields, climbed trees and peeked into birds’ nests, picked wildflowers and looked under logs, and tramped paths in pursuit of pirates or dragons. They jumped streams, swam to islands in a river, became kings and queens of their new domain. They built boxing rings, lit camp-fires, turned scrap wood into child-sized cars and raced them down hills. In winter they poured water over frosted hills to make ice-slides. They needed no television nor phones nor adult supervision, but spent every moment immersed in the feral joy of childhood. (Some Time to Kill, 16)

Even city children roamed far and freely, for crime and cars were rare, and horses and children are sensible enough to avoid each other. My neighbour Christy Conville remembers Dublin children swinging from ropes tied to lamp-posts, and when one came undone the lamp-lighter – whose job was to turn them on one by one – generously climbed his step-ladder and tied them back again. When it rained the roads became rivers, and they made boats and raced them toward the drains. In what is now Dublin’s most dangerous neighbourhood, Maureen Boyd remembered armies of children swimming in the canals, diving off the bridges into the then-clean water. (Dublin Voices, 153)

“When the farmers brought their crops to market, they parked their empty carts and the children were immediately all over them,” Paddie Crosbie said. “They made ideal see-saws, and the children played on them for hours until the farmers returned and they all ran.” (Your Dinner’s Poured Out, 43) On warm summer days horse-drawn carts sprayed water to cool the streets, he remembered, and mobs of children ran alongside under the spray all through the city. (Your Dinner’s Poured Out, 30)

“The street was where it all, or most of it, happened for me,” Patrick Boland said. “Traffic was never a problem – the occasional vehicle, usually horse-drawn, could be heard coming a long way off. My recollections are mostly of summertime, when I could play from early morning when I was rushed out to the street clean and shiny, until late at night when I was dragged into the house filthy dirty... Meal times meant nothing, only that they were an interruption to our games.”

Of course they sometimes into mischief; Paddy Crosbie remembered when a man asked him to mind his horse-and-cart while he went into the pub. Crosbie made the mistake of play-shaking the reins, and the horse dutifully took off down the road. 

On another occasion one of his childhood friends didn’t come home for dinner, and within hours the entire city was on high alert, with everyone panicking about a missing child. It turned out his friend had fallen asleep in a hay-cart, and the farmer had driven back to the country that evening before he noticed his stowaway. (Your Dinner’s Poured Out, 102, 153)

Children’s mischief, like adult mischief, needs a respectable outlet, and some children today get that in Halloween, albeit through an adult buying a costume and leading them by the hand. In those days, though, the children went from house to house themselves, sometimes making their own costumes or dancing around bonfires in the fields – and not just on Halloween. That date is just the last remnant of a whole calendar of holidays in which children went door to door begging for treats in costumes; John Curren remembers children doing this on Wren Day (the day after Christmas), on New Year’s Eve and St. Bridget’s Night (Feb. 2), so every few weeks through the winter children showed up at their neighbours’ doors. (Tides of Change, 34)

Boys played hurling – a national sport of Ireland, like hockey with a ball and no ice – with a rolled-up sock and curved sticks gathered from the trees. They played handball between the brick walls of alleys, Sean Cleary remembered, sometimes managing three or four balls at a time like a juggler. They played football – what Americans call soccer – in the street with a ball made from crumpled newspapers “and scattered like Houdini when the bobby [policeman] came around the corner,” Betty McDermot said. “The police had little to do then.”

Sports varied widely from one place to another; in Armagh, Gerry Rafferty remembered, it was “bullets” -- throwing a small metal ball for about three miles in the least number of throws -- and local kids became famous not only for being the best throwers, but the best finders of lost balls. They played marbles with chalkies and glassies and aggies and stonies, he said, and his playmates were locally renowned under names like Hurricane Higgins and Demon Bill. (And the Band Played On, 7)

In Belfast “there were so many children ... of the same age that a group very quickly formed when any were seen playing outside,” Marianne Elliott said. (Hearthlands, 82) They played battle in, battle out, jack jack show the light, spin the top, marbles, hoop the hoop, hop scotch, conkers, kick the can, scut the whip, box the fox, Hop and Cock-a-Rooshy, French, Dab, Folly, and Hole and Tar, jack-stones or scragga. “With games and occupations that spanned the four seasons, we never had a thought for such phrases as ‘I’m bored.’” McDermot said. “We hadn’t enough hours in the day for all we wanted to do.” (No Shoes in Summer, 162)