I have to be honest here; before I moved to Ireland, Curry was completely alien to me. In every French cupboard, there was of course a sticky and out of date jar of “Curcuma” or, for you and me, ground Turmeric. We didn’t know what to do with it, and I can tell you that no matter how broke you are, fluorescent pasta is not attractive!
That was it. I finally got there, woken up from an uncomfortable sleep. The nasal call screech from the bus ‘speakerphones announced my arrival to the antechamber of the “Big North West”; after reading all the books, attended conferences and Dervish like audiovisual slide shows. My Bus Eireann ride was laboriously one point turning and reversing into its terminus allocated space; A skilled job well done. While the warning lights and the monotonic Morse code like reverse gear of my ride were still on, I took my green and yellow rucksack as well as a couple of unmatched travelling bags from the hold. It was late and pitch black; no amazing landscape I got drawn to a few months back, just the warning orange beacons of a 45 sitter on wheels, and the olfactory welcome of a turf and coal shandy, spewing from chimneys of the neighbouring terraces. I was only three hundred yards from my friends’ home, a safe house, a warm bed and a line in the proverbial sand that was going to be a brand new life. We all have to begin somewhere; Sligo Town was to be my Starting Blocks and I never looked back.
The mornings that followed were very much like a Groundhog Day but in a good way. Benbulben to my North East, Knocknarea and the Ox Mountain to my West and South were covered with fresh snow; handicapped by the fact that I didn’t drive and therefore, didn’t owe a car, I walked a lot. Like Travis in the iconic movie “Paris – Texas”, I walked. I walked to Queen Maeve’s passing grave, where a North Connacht Farmer (NCF) milk man would crack a few jokes with me, and I walked the 8 kilometres separating me from the Yeats County Capital to the battered shores of Rosses Point. Twenty years old, and already I felt the need to heal or to feed the cravings for a similar Atlantic I had left behind. The ride – for sure – promised to be fun!
I n February 1995, I had to face the fact that all my training as a wildlife campaigner and ornithologist may not be able to put butter and brown bread on the table; I was feeling sorry for myself, tired of scrounging free pints of stouts from the local Francophile elite.
A friend of mine worked as “Front of House” for the – then – cool place to eat Hotel / Restaurant, hanging precariously above the Garavogue River. Basque born, the Head Chef involuntarily built up a team into an avant-garde multicultural crew; they gave me my first taste, quenching a thirst and premiere to my first cooking theatre experience. My “compatriots” stood side by side, very proud of the fact that they managed to negotiate my first wage at £2.00/ hour. You know, when you are so proud, like parents at Christmas, unconsciously holding their waist with their hands… Nice one. I guess I had to take my medicine and start!
I was to become, well at least for a while, the Head Chef’s kitchen porter; that meant, replacing the poor lad that sliced his fingers on the “Ham Machine”. The pots were black with carbon, victims of years of bad treatment from the stove burners. I had no professional points of reference in the field, so I cleaned the pans to their original – or just about – glory. The owner of the hotel gave out to him: “ Chef!!! If you go and buy new pots, I would like to be informed… At least!”. The Chef laughed in a respectful way and pointed out in a French southern accent gobbledegook, that the pots had just been cleaned by the new, yet innocent, temporary kitchen Porter.
The funnier side of my job was to prepare the vegetables, for lunch and dinner. I had to peel, slice and chop carrots and parsnips. My mission was to make them absolutely tasteless to the diners. I did salt them though, which angered the chef. Little did I know then, Irish people used to salt their food before tasting it; he told me that my carrots were perfect, but I had to be ready for some serious complaints. Wah?
The day after I was given the task of making “mashed potatoes”. I was standing there, sink all clean, spud peeler in my right hand, apron wrapped up around me like an apprenticed Shogun. Bring it on! “No need, no need!” said the Captain, “we have a machine for that!”. The heavy metal robot like was able to wash and peel potatoes… This was stuff of Science Fiction to me! All I had to do was to chop and boil them (no salt? Come on guys!!!), drain them, put them in the bread mixer, add heaps of margarine and a “little bit” of white pepper. White pepper… Yes… A “little bit” of White pepper… Ach sure, a little bit extra for luck won’t hurt right? The only pepper I knew at that stage was whole green and in brine, quite inoffensive, or cracked black, in a stew, on a rare piece of steak or on Emmental cubes for the aperitif. You get the hit, then the taste; the white pepper, gives you the taste, then the long, long, long hit. I guess I found out the hard way… So did the poor people in the dining room below…