EAT quite right says
Not forgetting the incomparable
Irish Stew SHERIDAN
WE Irish are a fiercely critical race. We blame the Government for all the minor irritations of our domestic lives. We hold it personally responsible if a kettle springs a leak or a suit goes thin at the elbows after four years of hard wear.
In moments of depression (when barometric pressure is falling and the clouds hang low in the sky) we even turn against our country. The only thing to do is to pack our bags and get to hell out of it.
But come upon any one of us sitting in some cafe in a strange land, with a foreign fiddler sawing out The Londonderry Air, or The Mountains of Mourne, and our men will be swallowing their Adam's apples and our women fumbling for their handkerchiefs.
We rail against our climate, too. After politics the weather is our most popular topic of conversation. Contrary to popular belief, it does not rain every day in Ireland (a myth for which we ourselves are entirely to blame).
After spending a solid month
on a beach in the Iberian peninsula, with the sun heating down relentlessly every day (and the flies hopping off everything in sight) I have come to the conclusion that a surfeit of sun, like a surfeit of chocolate, can become a great big bore.
1 remember Barry Fitzgerald once saying that the thing he missed most in California was
the feel of a shower of soft Irish rain on his face. "There were times when I could have cried for it" he said.
There is nothing wrong with our climate that a wardrobe. judiciously chosen to embrace
good sense, and a certain sensibility, wouldn't cure. All of which brings me to the subject of Irish clothes.
It seems unbelievahle, but no more than 15 years ago Irish tweed was the Cinderella fabric of the fashion industry. Those hideous electric-blue and maroon velour coats, bearing imported labels. could be sure of a far speedier sale than a coat that had been fashioned out of our native fabric.
But all that has changed. Irish tweeds are now the highest of high fashion—in fact they are positively snob. Paris fashion designers feature them in their upper-crust collections and they are exported all over the world. Indeed, the great trouble is that there are not enough of them to go round.
Our hand-woven tweeds have certainly come a long way from the porridge patterns once worn by fishermen in the West of Ireland. They are now among the most sophisticated of materials, with a colour range that would do credit to the spectrum. Lace-light tweeds, as gossamer as silk, now swathe the torsos of the international set in the form of elegantly-draped evening dresses. The suitings display new and exciting weaves and the colour blends are both bold and becoming. And there are the Irish mohairs that are as cuddlesome as mink and a lot easier on the pocket.
It is odd. when you conic to
think of it, that the bainin knitted sweaters, the utility v,iir ments of the fishermen of the Gaeltacht, are now bought and worn by every international celebrity. visiting our shores— including Noel Coward and
Princess Grace. Even the Italians are copying them—surely a flattering (if annoying) tribute to the good taste and skill of our traditional knitterq.
The face of Ireland. has changed greatly over the past 15 years. There is a new confidence everywhere — a confidence in being Irish and a confidence in Irish things. The young, who have all that lovely money to spend on themselves, no longer need hunt for the imported label.
They know that Irish tweeds are delectable, that Irish clothes are well-cut and well-finished. that Irish shoes are smart, and that Irish handbags will take any amount of punishment.
Watch the young secretaries as they stroll along Grafton Street at the lunch hour, chattering like starlings, and they are as smart as anything you would see in London or Paris. And yet they are unmistakably Irish with their fresh complexions, their friendly smiles, and the fact that they are all terrified of their mothers if they are not out for early Mass on a Sunday.
"What are clothes?" I once heard my father, a solid farmer, say to my mother when she was importuning him for the price of a new dress. "They are no more than the froth on a pint of stout. You should keep your mind on the inner man." He was right, of course. Clothes make the man, but food keeps him alive.
Mother was a wonderful cook
and she made the most gorgeous hats with feathers purloined from the cocks' tails. I am a fair cook myself, thong mother's hat trick has eluded me.
Some months ago I was commissioned by an American pub fisher to write an Irish cooker\ hook. He specified that the boot should have a true Irish flavour incorporating the sort of dishes grandmother used to make and so on. (You know how Americans love the folksy stuff.) My maternal grandmother was, in fact, an indifferent cook, though all her daughters went on to become regular mistresses of the culinary art.
It was quite some time before 1 could bring my mind to bear on the subject matter of the cookery book. I had read somewhere that there are 25 million people of Irish extraction in America. I reckoned that if only one in ten bought the book that would mean a sale of half a million copies and, even with a modest royalty, 1 was halfway to making a tidy fortune.
In due course the book was finished, after the devil's own trouble with the weights and measures end of it. I was more than halfway through it before I discovered that Americans don't use ounces and lb. and pints and gills, as we do here.
In fact, if they come upon a cook book that says 1 oz. butter, 1 oz. flour, I gill milk, they are quite likely to throw it out of the window. They are certainly not going to walk into a shop and land out 4 dollars and 50 cents for it.
Americans are quite dotty in the measure department. Their standard measure is a cup— about the size of our breakfast cup—give or take a few spoonfuls. And they measure every damned thing with the cup, or part of the cup. For example, +
cup butter, + cup flour, cup raisins.
For the smaller measures they use standard spoons, What they call a teaspoon is as big as a shovel in comparison with our teaspoon, yet what they call a tablespoon is no bigger than half the size of those giant weapons we would use for spooning out the stew.
I spent weeks in the kitchen, with the American cup measures on one side and my oldfashioned weight scales on the other, weighing every single ingredient to get the American cup equivalents. I came to the sad conclusion in the end that there is no such thing as easy money.
I like to think that I have given an authentic picture of our native cooking as it
has evolved over the past 150 years. I certainly put a lot of work into it, consulting the Folklore Commission, the National Library and old people who could remember back to dishes of their childhood. When the book was finished and freshly typed 1 read it right through for the first time.
Wild dreams of making a fortune receded further and further into the distance as I turned each page of the manuscript. What will Americans make of Cork Drisheens, Crubeens, Dublin Coddle, Porter Cake? I'll be lucky if I clear my expenses on the whole deal.
But one thing I did get out of it all was a great respect for a lot of our simple Irish fare. A well made Irish stew is, by any standards, a classic dish.
I have rediscovered the delights of Colcannon, which was such a favourite in my childhood. And were there ever cakes to equal the Irish harmbrack, or the Dublin Fruit Cake, smelling of porter and fruit and cinnamon, each slice thickly spread with butter?
It is not generally known that the original Irish stew was made not from mutton, but from kid. In those far-off days sheep were too valuable to put in the pot for the poor man's family dinner. But young male kids had little value, except for their skins. These were peeled off and dried and sold for a few pence. The flesh was used in a stew.
I can still remember a cousin of my father's, an old, old woman, bent in two with rheumatism, making. a traditional Irish stew in a bastable oven in her cottage kitchen. The bastable oven was a large black iron pot, of about 18 inches diameter.
It was covered with a flat iron lid that had a small handle, big enough to receive the prongs of the tongs, in the centre. At the side of the pot there were two lugs to receive the iron arms that came down from a crook in the chimney, There were three stumpy feet on the pot so that it could stand, when occasion demanded, at the side of the hearth.
This pot served many purposes. It was used for an Irish stew, for roasting a fowl or a piece of meat, and for baking the bread.
The pot was suspended by the
iron arms over the open hearth fire where a brisk turf fire was burning. Glowing red sods were put on top of the lid to give extra heat from above. No modern gadget has ever equalled this simple, primitive utensil for preserving the true flavour of bread or meat.
TRADITIONAL IRISH STEW
3 lb. best end neck of mutton
12 medium potatoes
4 large onions
A sprig of thyme pint water
Salt and pepper Remove surplus fat from the meat and cut into 8-10 sections through the hone. Do not remove the bone, as this adds flavour. Peel the potatoes and cut four of them into thin slices. Leave the rest of the potatoes whole.
Into a saucepan or casserole put the thinly sliced potatoes, then a layer of sliced onions, and then the sections of mutton. Season well. Add the thyme and another layer. of sliced onions.
Cover with the rest of the potatoes which have been left whole. Season again and add the water. Cover the pot with greaseproof paper and then with a tight-fitting lid. In olden days a paste made from flour and water was used to seal in the flavour.
Cook in the oven for 2f hours at 350 degrees, or simmer over the stove for the same time.
The thinly sliced potatoes at the hotton of the pot will dissolve and thicken the juice, while the potatoes at the top retain their shape and remain floury. This stew is very easy on the digestion and a great favourite with children and grown men.