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!
I was sitting at my desk at home yesterday, trying to send a few emails, get some inspiration by playing music while staring through the sash window at the swaying Crocosmia. My attention got caught when I noticed a little blue box, containing some neatly sharpened coloured pencils my nieces and nephews enjoy drawing with. As I was bored, I stuck my nose in it, expecting a flash back memory that didn’t disappoint; back to school and my pencil case, the last week of bliss before being sent to the pillory. As a form of acceptance, the last few days of freedom were quite pleasant, mostly foraging blackberries, with our neighbours and friends. The pain of lacerated limbs was soon to be healed and forgotten by my mother’s legendary “slurpy special” , straight from the pot, soon to be devoured by a small army of stained faces; the last meal for the condemned scallywags we were. As I was trying to reconnect with these delicious berries, nature sometimes gives so generously, I imagined them as a savoury ingredient, definitely with fresh goat’s cheese, a great companion to a pork filet roast … But I had another plan this time!
A friend of mine, organic grower from another local Meath townland gave me some fresh raspberries and apples; mine are still a bit green. What I have though, is a field at the back of the house full of blackberries and my first crop of Aronia berries, I planted last year, a taste between a blackcurrant and a blueberry if you wish with a lovely zing. Not as tart as sloe berries, we used to eat as a dare and it felt like your whole mouth was shrinking from the inside!
When we were good, or rather when she felt like it, my mother used to make this lovely apple cake, moist and delicious; she used to let it cool on the window seal of the kitchen of the old school we used to live in… Well, above the school. Since she was a teacher that was handy! I realised that the recipe leaves the door open to a lot more things than apples. All the fruits of my local foraging were going to go in. The recipe includes 200g of flour, I did twist things a little and put 150g of organic white and 50g of organic buckwheat flour… For extra nuttiness…
This recipe is a great little number. Its simple frame will allow you to have a bit of fun. Berries, Apples and also quince paste, which makes it an amazing surprise with a good Irish Blue cheese! I have posted the recipe in the “recipe” area of the blog (dah…), my Mum would be pleased to share this one with everybody, the same way my “compadres” broke bread and shared her blackberry jam by the side of the road… Before heading back to the classroom benches!