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

Permissions

“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.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Postman

After Mass I talked with our postman, who lamented the changes he was seeing in Ireland.

“People used to gather together every night around here, and in the village, and now they’re all watching the telly,” he said. “It’s getting way too commercialised.” “With the older people I can do what I always used to do, and just open the door to their home and walk in.

‘Hello Paddy,’ I would say, and they’d say ‘Tom! How’re you keeping?’ I ask if they need anything from the store, so when I would bicycle to the houses around here I would bring some food or newspapers too.

We’re all going to be old someday ourselves, God willing, so it’s just respect.”

Why don’t you deliver the post by bicycle any more, I asked?

“Ah, they’re making me take a car,” he said. “And people get big deliveries these days, to a house full of stuff. Not the same as the old days. But the older people still greet me the same as always.”

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Sloes and haws


This Sunday, The Girl helped me pick haws and sloes from the trees that line the canal by our home. Haws are easy – hawthorn trees are as plentiful as willows or birches here, all the more so this time of year, when a single tree can sag toward the earth laden with tens of thousands of berries. Sloes – the fruit of the blackthorn, which we value for making sloe gin – presents more of a challenge.

The trees themselves appear all over the hedges here – I counted several dozen within a few hundred metres of our house – but have no distinctive features, and the bluish-black sloes blend in well with the shadows. For such a plentiful fruit, they are difficult to find, and once found are difficult to gather from the thorny tangle.

The secret, I realised, was to mark the trees in spring, when most trees stand bare and the blackthorn bursts into an eruption of flowers. With this in mind, I could simply set out with The Girl from our house to the nearest landmark and then count the steps …

“What are you doing, Daddy?”

 … counting the steps, I said, to the sloe trees. You keep an eye out for mushrooms, I told her – you’re better at it than I am.

“Look at all those haws!” she said. “They are haws, aren’t they? Other berries are also red, and I wouldn’t want us to be poisoned.”

Check the leaves of the tree they’re on, I said. Yes, most berries are red because they’re meant to be eaten by birds. Birds’ eyes were developed over time to see the berries, and the berries to be seen by the birds.

“But sloes are dark blue.”

And blackberries are black, I said – and there are a few that are yellow or white, but even these stand out against the greenery. Unripe fruit will be green and taste terrible; it’s only when the seeds are ready to stand up to an animal’s gut that the fruit around them develops. Speaking of, I said, these blackberries are ready for our services – would you like one?

“No thank you,” she said. “I never thought I’d say this, but they’re too sweet for me now.”

You’re growing up, I said, and you will find your tastes changing – and not just your literal taste.

"I know, a lot of things about me are changing," she said, and then, "how much of me will change as I get older?"

If we do this rightly, I said -- and so far I think we are -- the child you won't go anywhere. She'll be something you'll be able to build a life on, not something you'll leave behind.