It was July 1996, I had moved a couple of months earlier in Galway, over staying my welcome from my West Belfast friends I had met the previous summer. The company and the craíc were good which didn’t entice me to find my own place. I didn’t take up too much space, a sleeping bag behind the sofa and a few boxes in the corner, a safe little space, peaceful… But the peace got broken that night in July; a stand off over the annual orange order parade in Drumcree, outside Portadown in County Armagh, escalating in riots that spread across the North, resulting in two deaths and hundreds injured. The North was on lock down and the house turned into a refugee centre, friends literally fleeing violence, others, holidaying in the south, unable to go home. The TV was on all the time, the radio and the huge anxiety was palpable when the phone rang in the middle of the night, fearing for the safety of a loved one as most of them had experienced at some stage. I was going to throw a bit of humour on the whole thing, calling this post “Orange is the old Black”, but instead this story inspired me to do a little recipe, with butternut squash, a cheese from Newtownards in the North, called Young Buck Buckwheat from Brittany, and fresh fennel from the garden, to more peaceful times, may long it continues!
Yesterday was a strange kind of day. This time of year is Dawn Chorus month and for the last five or six years, my two compadre from “Birdwatch Ireland Meath” and myself lead a group of very brave people, on a nocturnal procession in various locations of our county to listen to a new Dominical Dawn, bird waking up, welcoming daylight by the banks of the Boyne river. This good natured affair is also an early one, as we start the walk at 4 am, meaning I have to be up at 2:30 am, and in my car by 3:15 am latest. I normally return to bed between 6 and 7 am, waking up again later, never feeling fully restored and having that uneasy feeling that I have already had a full Sunday… As you can see, I don’t do too well on sleep deprivation!
Every Wednesday, and like a lot of towns around France, we were treated to an alert horn. An old tradition from the Second World War, when powerful sirens were tested at noon; the urban legend said that one was just a test, two an accident, three casualties and of course 10 or 12 meant nuclear fallout, post cold war obliging. The sirens were hooked on top of high non residential buildings, or water towers that coloured the urban landscape, in all their glorious ugliness, reminding tax payers how much they were going to get screwed. If you think water charges is an Irish problem, you should ask a French family how much they are paying!
Bleedin’ wet and windy here today in Co. Meath, it hasn’t stopped for the last five days really! Even if Monday was erringly warm as I drove back from Dublin at 10:30 pm with 16c showing on the dashboard, temperatures are sliding back down to its seasonnal self. Time for a nice warming soup and a little something very few of you might know, “The Groux” ( to be pronounced like the loveable-despicable character “Gru”), a traditionnal buckwheat-like bread from north Brittany, oven cooked like polenta and then fried in butter, this time, I decided to bake them mixed with Gruyere cheese, looking like soft savoury biscotti … “Simples”!…Anyhoo, here it goes…
Ok, a bit of fun today for lunch, it is Friday after all! I am still in my Crêpes buzz, but this time savoury. This way is far from being the traditional way to serve “galettes” but who cares. It will keep for a few days in the fridge and you can use any toppings you want and in the oven it goes! Here we go.
My mother’s short enough life didn’t get off to a great start. Thinking about it, it didn’t end like a fairytale either, unless you count some of the Grimm Brothers’ work she loved so much, on technicality it qualifies as one.
Born a couple of years after the end of the Second World War, life was tough for most. Beautifully illustrated in Jacques Prevert’s poem “Barbara”, Brest had been levelled by the allies, as well as Lorient, the city where she was born. Raised by her grandmother, her own mum had gone for a brave fresh start in Paris. To make ends meet, my great Gran made pancakes while my mother would deliver them, on foot or with her bicycle. Sometimes, I believe, people would even come in the kitchen of the small dwelling to enjoy the notorious crêpes. The stories of this small enterprise gave my sister and I great entertainment at bedtime; the little girl, who through hardship by selling crêpes with her grandmother, grew up to become a teacher.
Funny enough, rare were the times when she made them in the house; “it’s too messy” or “I don’t have time”, “maybe on Wednesday”… Never mind. Once a month at least, we went to the Crêperie; Italians gave the world Pizzerias, us Bretons, the Crêperie. That’s it. That is just the way it is, “get over it!”
My routine consisted of three crêpes, or rather one galette and two crêpes. Savoury, galettes were simply made with the nutty and wholesome buckwheat flour, trademark of the Breton cuisine. The most popular was with ham, cheese and egg; when one ordered, the waitress would ask how would you like your egg? “Brouillé” (scrambled) or “Mirroir” (mirror, meaning not scrambled I guess), either way, an absolute nightmare to pronounce for the English speaking visitor! Another popular choice was with scallops and leek fondue or a rustic sausage and braised cabbage; the surf and turf of our peninsula.
For dessert, it had to be only one thing. Dark chocolate sauce, make it two actually, uncompromisingly delicious and so rich! My father enjoyed his forth with gently stewed apples and flambéed with our local poitín called “Lambig”. We were too young for cider, even the mild stuff; well at least not in public; the odd time we might get a “go on then, just a sip”. This over indulgence often resulted in my complexion to rapidly turn duck egg green like, close calls but never deterred! “Until next time folks!”… Until next time.
This week was “pan cake Tuesday”; we have a similar day in Brittany but it is a bit earlier. Called Chandeleur, it has religious origins too, but takes place forty days after Christmas. It is said that one would toss a coin in the pan; depending on the landing, the year would be believed to be good or bad… Very native! I was in and out of the house to take some pictures to illustrate my little story. I sat in front of the fire, determined to eat the models that posed for the shoot. Even though I enjoyed it very much, I couldn’t help thinking: “This is like sipping on a pint of Irish stout at the terrace of a harbour bar in Lorient… Just not quite the same”.
This is my take on Fish ‘n’ Chips, less messy, fast, easy, tasty, healthy. Monkfish, oven roasted wedges, crispy pancetta and cream of garden peas… Let’s go:
- 1 tail of Monkfish, skinned by your fishmonger, they won’t mind and their knives are sharp
- A good handful of Buckwheat flour, white flour will do too!
- Dried dill, or even mixed herbs.
- Salt and Black pepper
- Fully cured and sliced pancetta (100g – 150g)
- A good hanful of garden peas
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 lemon
- 1 large potato sliced in wedges per person (or more!)
First, cut the Monkfish into bite size nuggets, not too big, not to small, put them into a plastic food bag, with the flour, the dried herbs and the black pepper. Shake the lot until well coated. Pre-heat the oven at 200c and on a tray, lay the thin pancetta strips side by side. Bake for 5 minutes until crisp then lift with a spatula onto kithen towel.
For the pea purée, bring the peas to a boil in salted water, just for 5 minutes with a clove of garlic; sieve and cool straight away, blend them with olive oil and lemon juice (2/3 for 1/3). Put them through a sieve and keep pushing them through with a spatula.
For the potatoes, cut them into wedges, rub them with olive oil and sea salt and bake for 20 minutes (until golden).
For the fish, give the bag another shake, take an olive oiled pan and when hot, place the nuggets and cook for a few minutes on each side. Pinch of salt all over, crumble the pancetta over the fish, with a wee drizzle of lemon juice to your liking… Enjoy!