Last week, like I sometimes do, I ran away again… I know what’s coming you see, the Capitalistic-apocalyptic tsunami that is December, I have stopped counting the number of times I heard or saw myself mentioning the “C” word since the last week of August. This is the life I chose I guess, no point arguing about it! I heard some shops in Dublin already have their windows decorated, enough already! The swallows are still here for Christ sake ( sorry for the pun, I couldn’t resist), or at least that is when I last saw them, outside of Mullaghmeen forest, gathered on telephone lines, waiting for the conductor to signal a final “all aboard!”. I was heading for Co. Sligo first, eager to visit the People’s market in Strandhill, literally in the airport…
We left the City of Vannes for a more bucolic life by the shores of the Golfe of Morbihan, “The little sea”… Séné wasn’t quite a town, even if on Irish standards, it would definitely be one. It was not a village either, as it had a town hall, an elected Mayor with an office in his Mairie, a hotel, a few bars and a couple of restaurants. Séné was what we called a Borough, and its district was quite vast; known as a “commune”, it was made of a myriad of small villages and hamlets; Port Anna, Mousterian, Montsarrac, Cressignan, Falguérec, Brouhel… We built our house in the village of Kerarden, nearly in front of the chapel of the same name, celebrating mass every other week. A quiet life, with a beautiful view from my bedroom window!
Before the first supermarket arrived, there was one small grocery store, packed with stuff! A typical grocery shop in those days with the smell of fruits and vegetables hitting you as soon as you walked in. It had everything, you just needed to go next door for your bread, or across the road for the meat. The owner of this oasis was Mr Buckwheat ( or if translated, that is what it would be), and everyday, this man would also take is J7 Peugeot van, a miniaturised copy of his shop inside driving across the whole district, to help the forgetful or a lifeline for another. He would call into our village at the end of the afternoon, parking two doors away in an older couple’s front yard. Eggs, butter, milk, a box of matches? No problem! That is during these occasions that my mother befriended the young Nolwenn, herself mother of two young children and married to Noel, a local fisherman, poacher and “whatever comes my way” kind of guy.
They didn’t have much, nor did the people where Mr Buckwheat traded every Wednesday evening, but I guess, looking back at things now, they were probably the most honest and kind. Nolwenn would call in every so often to inform my Mum that “her Noel” got some periwinkles some day, pink shrimps another, crabs or mackerel, whatever came his way… Yes, she was fond of that girl and also knew that some people looked down on her, fearing the contagion of poverty, or in some cases, its return. Mum knew that she had had to knock on some doors once too, to sell her grandmother’s crêpes in order to make ends meet. My friend Pauric from the restaurant next door gave me some beautiful fresh mackerel last Friday, and all these memories came knocking back. We used to grill them, and it was served in a tomato or mustard sauce, I have opted for the latter with a few modern twists, I hope you’ll enjoy this fond memory!
First of all, start working on the mash potato: You’ll need:
- 6 nice organic potatoes
- 20 cl of milk
- 150 g of salted butter
- salt and pepper
- 3 scallions
Peel and boil the potatoes in salted water, after 15-20 minutes, they should be cooked through. Drain and put back in the pot over the heat for a few seconds to dry them properly. Add the milk and butter, the slices of scallions and start mashing. Set aside until you are ready to serve. It is important to do the preps properly as you want the fish to be served fresh from the pan. Now ready for the mustard sauce!
Mustard Sauce: You’ll Need
- 2 shallots, sliced
- 1 garlic clove, sliced
- 1 tbsp of Dijon mustard
- 20 cl of dry white wine
- 25 cl of fresh cream
- a pinch of salt and black pepper
In a pan with olive oil, fry gently the shallots and garlic with a bit of salt; pour the white wine over before they go brown, let it reduce by half and then pour the cream. Let the lot reduce by half again, sieve into another pan and reduce until it gets thicker. Set aside. We are now going to make a pea and apple purée to give the dish a bit of freshness…
For the pea purée: You’ll Need
- two handfuls of peas ( if you don’t have fresh ones, good quality frozen ones are great).
- 1 shallot
- 1 garlic
- 1 small cooking apple peeled
- a bit of olive oil
Put the peas, shallot and garlic in a pan with olive oil for a gentle fry and after 5 minutes cover with water and let the peas cook for about 5 minutes in boiling water. Drain and cool straight away and whiz with a hand blender. Scoop the mixture into a sieve with a pan underneath, and squash it until you get a lovely thick creamy pea purée. Set aside until serving time…
So, all your preps are done, ready to be re-heated. This is the moment of truth. The quality of the fish was so good and fresh that I used a griddle pan for this. I heat it up with olive oil until quite hot, and decided to cook the fish on the skin side only, with a gentle splatter free grill cover towards the end. It won’t take long, 5 minutes at most…
Now that all is ready, you can serve the dish. It was quite blustery yesterday, so in order to take a picture of the final dish I had to bring all my preps outside between two heavy showers for the final shots… Dedication or what?
But I guess it was worth it!
Keep Well and Eat Happy
When I opened the big gate of adolescence, a frightening squeak from a giant cast iron secondary school entrance welcomed and absorbed me in a solemn vacuum. Of course, and like today, there were kids who just wanted to blend in, ride those teenage years under the radar with minimum collateral damage, wanting to be acknowledged and noticed, yet having the skills to keep your cards close to your chest; not showing too much, dodging rain drops and other potential scraps or punches because you looked at, or aggravated with smart words a tougher kid with social or rather deeper personal issues than yours. Some built themselves with a strong and bold shell: Punks, Goths, Skinheads and Red Skins (the left wing ones; their Doc Martens were burgundy rather than black), right down to a couple of old fashioned black leather jacket bullies with learning difficulties, easy enough to manipulate if you knew how to; keeping them sweet by sharing candies, giving a few test wagers that would up some grades, preventing them from repeating the class… Again. I was a “bullet dodger”, or at least that is what I have been called once by that big fucker – who was actually pretty smart- as he tried to pound my face into the granite wall of the refectory. I used words, and it seemed to work.
I am not very fond of summer in Ireland, not very fond of summer in general, that is just the way I am, don’t judge me or call me a miserable bastard. Since I have been leaving here, we’ve had two great summers; 1995 and 2006. The legend says that as the heat waves hugged and cuddled the land of Hibernia, someone, somewhere, on the Island said:” no, the summer is great, but it’s almost too hot”. A divine intervention then punished that poor soul by ruining it for everybody else… How dare he or she said that?!? For the record your honor, it wasn’t me; I know too well how not to aggravate the natives, refraining from expressing my dislike for July and August. Last week, I decided to be more positive, tackling my cabin fever with long walks, five, nine kilometers, enjoying the wonderful nature of the midlands, butterfly hunting with my camera and rediscovering long lost smells from childhood summers. No saline breeze, no redshanks piping, just a dead dry heat with clear blue skies, thousands of flies and a few remaining chiffchaffs and swallows already thinking of heading back to the African continent…
When I was a kid, my Dad wasn’t the cook in the house; my mother – and through silly cultural reasons- naturally adopted the role. That said, it didn’t mean that my father, like other men in Brittany couldn’t or wouldn’t cook; “au contraire mon frère” like we say in some parts of Dublin 4. I remember how, a long time ago, an Irish guy explained to me that a man who cooks is considered as, well, a bit of a sissy… To which I replied a bit surprised and annoyed at that silly cliché ( now long gone), that if cooking was making a man more effeminate, having a shower with 14 other lads after the Sunday Game must just be a bit of male bonding so… I know it was a cheap shot, but it just came out like that. I’ll stick to cooking thank you.
Last Thursday, I went to give a talk and a tasting with the staff of a famous restaurant in BlackLion, Co. Cavan… ( ok, if you must know, it was MacNean House), lovely people, beautiful place, amazing Cavan countryside on the way to Leitrim and Sligo, literately a stone throw with the Fermanagh border, Belcoo, or what the locals euphemistically call “The North”… You’ve got to love it! I enjoy doing these cheesy talks, but somehow I feel a certain anxiety and apprehension, I hide it well, I face it well but this leaves me in a paradoxical discomfort. To remedy this – at least for a while – I like to abandon myself, switch off and return to my first love, wildlife, nature, ornithology. The day before, superb sunshine out, I headed for Westmeath, Lough Derravaragh to be precise….
In 1982, we left the city for an idyllic life by the shores of the “Golfe”. Building a house was a big deal then, and I guess it always kind of is, especially the first home you are going to owe, move in as a family. The wonderful adventure lasted 8 years, all the ingredients for happiness were obvious, laid magically in front of us, vocations were born there, the start of a long life as a “Blown In”, a life of never really belonging anywhere and a talent for making new friends quite easily… Yes, a lot happened under that roof in 8 years; life changing moments? Absolutely! Life shattering? Definitely! By 1990, it was all over, my parents separated and my sister and I kindly refer to our childhood and teenage years’ abode as “The House of Hell”…