A Tin of Biscuits: Petit Beurres in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929)

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England has been swept by a real heat wave in the last couple of weeks; today, it seems like autumn is finally settling in – the sky has taken grey tinges, the trees are putting up their best colours, and one feels the need of putting an extra layer of clothes on, and using the oven. Today’s recipe comes from France, but is somehow linked to an Irish novel and an Irish author who has recently re-gained her popularity after a period of neglection: Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973).

Over the summer, I (Nico) have been re-thinking my Irish culinary experiences as one of my students asked for my advice on how to best render ‘Kimberley biscuits’ mentioned in an Irish short story for an Italian audience. We soon started discussing the context where the reference to the biscuits was to be found. Were those biscuits essential to the story? In other words, would a non-Irish audience need to realize what kind of biscuits they are, or they could be effectively any kind of biscuits and the story would work anyway? When it comes to food and translating literature, I am always somehow reticent to let the reference go in the target text; especially as, after a quick Google search, it turns out that Kimberley biscuits are a typically Irish biscuit, produced by Jacob’s, comprising two variants, one with two gingery layers enclosing a marshmallow centre and a chocolate-covered one. I was surprised to hear that, as having lived in Ireland (and being a huge biscuit lover – I may say no to chocolate cake but I would never say no to a good biscuit) I had never come across those before, and so I have never tried them. Inevitably, we decided that the reference to those biscuits had to stay, as it appeared to pertain specifically to Irish culture and cooking.

Going back nearly a hundred years, I was intrigued to find a reference to French biscuits in Bowen’s The Last September (1929). As if using a magnifying lens, the novel looks in detail at the decline of a “big house” in early 1920s South of Ireland, something which Bowen would have known herself as she belonged to an upper-class Anglo-Irish family from co. Cork: the idiosyncrasies of the English visiting Ireland for the Irish themselves; the uncertain times before Irish independence; the social pretences and snobberies of the Irish upper class; finally, the story of Lois, a young Irish woman coming of age and making (or, in fact, letting other make) important decisions regarding her future and her love life. Lois, half-engaged with Gerald, a union which is strongly opposed by her family, ultimately turns him down under her aunt’s pressure, with surprisingly (at least, for me) little resentment. The expectation of her family is that she should educate herself, rather than marry so early (and someone of an inferior social class), go to an art school, and learn foreign languages. She is all affectation and confusion: Gerald, throughout the novel, is unable to really understand her feelings for him, something which often stirs Lois’ irritation.

Towards the end of the novel, just before we learn of Gerald’s death, two lady friends of his pay a visit to Lois and her family after their “break-up”. Lois seems not to want to engage with these ladies, and so finds excuses not to let them into the house. Ultimately, though, so as not to result too inhospitable, she goes in and fetches a tin of biscuits:

 

‘It’s locked and I’ve lost the key. I feel quite an outcast. That’s what has been the matter the whole morning. Do have something to eat – have some biscuits?’

‘Unless we just come into the drawing-room for one moment?’

‘I always think drawing-rooms in the morning are so depressing.’

Denise said she did not see how the same room could be much different, but it was no good; Lois seemed determined to keep them out. From the way she shifted her feet and stared round, you would have said she was expecting bad news momentarily: she talked so much that they hadn’t a chance to express themselves. She went in for a tin of petit beurres and offered it with an odd air, rather propitiatory. Lady Naylor called from an upstairs window that this was too bad, that she was so much distressed, she would be down immediately. ‘She spends whole mornings with the cook,’ said Lois. ‘I cannot think what they do. I believe they fence verbally. More biscuits?’

‘No, we shall spoil our din-dins. Denise, we must come. […] Any messages in Clonmore, Lois? Any message to Gerald?’  (p. 197)

 

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For some reason, I find this scene rather odd: the two ladies visiting unexpectedly (a very bad manner typical of the English in Ireland, apparently), Lois refusing to even let them into the drawing room as it is too “depressing”, the general sense of the end of summer (they are not sure when they’ll play tennis anymore, and English tourists and visitors are returning to England), and the tin of biscuits – which have to be petit beurres – and not butter biscuits or shortbread. Petit beurres are French butter biscuits still produced today and with a long baking history, as they were first produced by Jean-Romain Lefèvre and his wife Pauline-Isabelle Utile in their patisserie called “biscuit factory” (“La fabrique de biscuits”) in Nantes in 1846, which would later become the famous French industry LU (from the two initials of their surnames). The biscuits were supposed to represent, with their rectangular yet curvy shape, the 4 seasons (with their 4 sides), the 52 weeks of the year (with their 52 dents), and the 24 hours in a day (with their 24 holes). The petit beurres then gained steady popularity by the end of the nineteenth century and are still very popular today. In 1897, famous actress of the time Sarah Bernhardt is said to have declared: “What is better than one Petit Beurre LU? Two Petit Beurres LU”. These words sounded already almost as a modern advertisement for the biscuits, and somehow testify their incredible popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, up to today. Their appearance in the Irish big house of the Naylors should perhaps be no wonder, as French biscuits would have been considered as the heights of sophistication (unlike current Kimberley biscuits today perhaps). The big house may be in decline in its failed hospitality and reception of guests, but the standard of the biscuits provided is far from crumbling.

 

Reference

Elizabeth Bowen. The Last September. London: Vintage Books, 2008.

‘LU: la grande histoire du petit beurre’, Le Parisien http://www.leparisien.fr/economie/business/en-images-lu-la-grande-histoire-du-petit-beurre-22-02-2016-5566485.php .

 

Recipe

 

Ingredients

80gr unsalted butter

200gr plain, white flour (or a mixture of plain and strong white flour)

80gr white sugar

2gr baking powder

50ml whole milk

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Directions

  1. Place the butter, milk, and sugar in a saucepan and melt slowly on a low heat stirring with a wooden spoon until all melted and smooth.
  2. Let the melted butter, milk, and sugar cool.
  3. Sieve flour and baking powder in a bowl, and add the melted batter to the dry ingredients. Stir until you get a smooth and homogeneous dough.
  4. Take the dough out of your bowl and place on a surface dusted with flour. Knead quickly and shape into a ball.
  5. Cover your dough with cling film and place it in the fridge to set for at least four hours. Because the dough is (as you’ll see) is rather soft, it needs some time to set in the fridge.
  6. Take the dough out of the fridge, knead and lay out on a dusted surface and roll it out so that it is roughly 3-4 millimetres high. Ideally, you would have a typical petit beurre rectangular cutter to cut your biscuits with, but any other shape is also fine. (I didn’t have that either, so I went for an oval-shaped cutter)
  7. Move your cut-out dough onto a baking tray previously lined with paper and put them again back in the fridge – this time for one hour only.
  8. The biscuits are now ready to go in the oven, at 160°C for 12 minutes (or fan 140°C for 6-8 minutes). Be careful they don’t get too brown on the outside – only the borders should become golden.
  9. Once baked, let the biscuits cool down and they are ready to eat! You can keep them in a tin for up to 5 days.

Michael Longley: Lost For Words

As our Northern Irish readers will know, stoically eating ice cream in the drizzle is something of a local tradition. If drizzle is not available, then usually a heavy downpour means that ice cream can be consumed in the car. I am privileged that my parents now live within 10 minutes’ drive of a fabled ice cream shop – The Cabin in Donaghadee. It’s a wonderful place to go for a poke (Norn Irish for an ice cream cone) and you should visit it if you’re in the area.

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Whilst being true to my roots by eating ice cream in a car at North Tyneside, England, the convergence of thoughts led me to think of Michael Longley’s great elegy, ‘The Ice Cream Man’, published in 1992 and set in Belfast. I recommend that you look this poem up online to experience the beauty and simplicity which is the hallmark of Longley’s poetry.

Perhaps it would be better not to call this poem a great elegy, but rather a great apology for an elegy. Longley begins by offering the reader a list of ice cream flavours which, as Naomi Marklew has pointed out, are inspired by traditional Christmas ingredients. This compounds the feeling that – as Marklew tells us – we are reading of an ‘idealised past’. We are reminded of childhood flavours and idyllic Christmas mornings unwrapping presents by an open fire.  

The poem has other connotations too. Surely the title alludes to Wallace Stevens’ better known elegy: ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’. The repetition of the title phrase in Stevens’s masterpiece conveys an overriding sense that nothing is stable or certain: everything melts like ice cream on a hot day. The echo of Stevens at the beginning of Longley’s ‘Ice Cream Man’ should prepare the reader (although in my case, it does not) for the contrast between the gentle lilt of Longley’s list of flavours and the stark statement that the ice cream seller has been murdered during the Northern Irish Troubles. In response to this, the speaker cannot find the words either to communicate the information about the event, nor to assuage the grief of those who lost a friend and family member. In place of an elegy, then, the speaker gives his readers a list of healing herbs and plants which echo in the silence of the uncompromising white space surrounding the poem.

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The debate surrounding this poem is whether or not the list of plants is sufficient to signal the regeneration and hope which is a traditional ingredient of the conclusion of an elegy. Is Longley admitting the failure of words to provide comfort? Or does he remake the elegiac genre to fit the demands of a new conflict and communicate hope in new beginnings? I would like to think the latter. 

There is no recipe today because I haven’t been successful in remaking an ice cream cone at home! I don’t think anything would taste the same as an ice cream bought from  a van.

References

Naomi Marklew, Northern Irish Elegy, PhD Thesis (University of Durham, 2011), p. 71.

Michael Longley, Gorse Fires (Cape, 1992).

 

Endlessly Surprising: Spanish Omelette in Louis MacNeice’s “Autumn Journal” (1939)

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To read the poetry of Louis MacNeice is an endlessly rewarding activity. It can be intricately beautiful and philosophically insightful, but politically and culturally astute at the same time. Every time I come to write about MacNeice (which I have done often over the previous eight years), I am surprised again at the deft placement of a word, the freshness of an image, or his mastery over poetic form. (I make no apologies for being traditional in my poetic taste! I am yet to be entirely persuaded that free verse is a good idea!)

Born in Belfast in 1907, educated at Oxford, and later employed by the BBC, MacNeice has often been dismissed as one of the lesser poets of the nineteen thirties. W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot always seemed to stand in his way. In the nineteen seventies (Northern) Irish poets and literary critics began to salvage his reputation, drawn by MacNeice’s conflicted attitude towards his own Protestant Irish/English-educated identity. Since then, MacNeice’s fame has increased, so that Jonathan Allison can justly write that he is ‘increasingly recognised as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century’.

In the autumn of last year, I mentioned MacNeice in Nico and my Literary History of Chocolate. I wrote about the poet’s dislike for the industrialisation of chocolate production – factory produced chocolate becoming a symbol for the reduction of the variety of human existence to a series of identical experiences. In ‘Ode’ MacNeice preferred the continual movement and unpredictability of the open sea to the neat rows of factory chimneys. The most famous poem in MacNeice’s oeuvre is a celebration of the exact opposite: in ‘Snow’ he writes that the world is ‘crazier and more of it than we think, / Incorrigibly plural’. The speaker delights in the surprising, energising richness of the sign of oranges and roses juxtaposed against a snowy day.

This complementary clash of opposites got me thinking about how variousness of experience – culinary and otherwise – is found most clearly in MacNeice’s travel writing. As many people have pointed out, MacNeice struggled to stay at home. Paris, Iceland, England, the USA, Scotland, Spain, Ireland north and south… In the late nineteen thirties MacNeice was one of the many left-wing Brits who travelled to Spain to fight, report on, or write about the Spanish Civil War. It was certainly the fashionable thing to do: as historian Paul Laity comments, left-wing books and ideas then had a ‘radical chic’. Socialist fever gripped many in the UK, who were terrified of the rising strength of Fascist powers in Spain, Japan, and Germany.

In the midst of all this, MacNeice famously remained rather politically uncommitted. He was vaguely ‘of the left’, but travelled to Spain to observe rather than actively help in the fight against Franco (as did Orwell and many others).

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All this seems to be getting rather far from the general theme of this blog. I promise I am coming to the point, albeit by a circuitous route! MacNeice recorded his experiences in Spain in his masterpiece – a long journalistic poem entitled Autumn Journal – and in his unfinished autobiography – The Strings are False. In the former, MacNeice indulges in many lists of compatible, contrasting, startling, heterogeneous things. At times it seems as if listing is the only way to capture the endless variety and surprise of life in words. One of these lists comes at the beginning of section VI of the poem and describes the food MacNeice ate in Spain on the eve of the civil war. There are plentiful supplies of coffee, sherry, shellfish, and omelette. However, this list contrasts starkly with the lack of food during the war itself.

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I find MacNeice’s descriptions of the conditions in which civilians found themselves more emotive than the propaganda images and texts of the time. This is partly because MacNeice was not writing to persuade others to weigh in to help; he was writing an honest, perceptive, and personal record. So if you choose to make the recipe for Spanish omelette below, remember the other side of the story that MacNeice tells too.

Spanish Omelette
Ingredients
400g potatoes
1 onion
6 eggs
A handful of parsley
Salt and pepper
Directions
1.      Peel the potatoes and slice thinly. Dice the onion.
2.      Fry the potatoes and onion for about 10 minutes, or until soft.
3.      Beat the eggs in a bowl and season with salt, pepper and parsley.
4.      Add to the pan and cook over a medium heat until the top of the omelette is no longer really runny.
5.      If you are brave, flip the omelette. Or, you could prepare another frying pan and turn the omelette over into it. Cook for a few minutes. Personally, I take the easy route and grill it for a few minutes until golden brown.

 

Jonathan Allison, abstract for The Letters of Louis MacNeice, http://www.academia.edu/232531/Letters_of_Louis_MacNeice

Paul Laity, ‘Introduction’, in Left Book Club Anthology, ed. by Paul Laity (London: Gollancz, 2001) pp. ix-xxxi, (p. ix).

 

Welcome, 2016! With the Blancmange from James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ (1914)

Welcome back from the holiday, and a very happy new year from the Literary Kitchen!

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I do hope you are not too full still from the recent festivities to bear to look at the superb pudding I will be introducing you to today: blancmange. Actually, no. Feeling a little sick may be the best way to approach this dish, as for a good part of its history it was considered perfect for the sick. In the Victorian cookbook for the working classes written by Queen Victoria’s chef, Charles Elmé Francatelli (1805-1876), blancmange is included in the section on dishes for the sick, and is apparently particularly recommended for cases of fevers, or extreme delicacy. Blancmange, though, is said to have completely different origins: a dish almost as old as Europe, said to be brought over here by the Arabs, and now commonly referred to in English with the French name (blancmange – white eating, white food), and considered a local speciality of Spain (manjar blanco), and Italy (biancomangiare). The name derives from its original main ingredients, all white in colour: milk, almonds, and sometimes chicken or capon. With the inclusion of chicken one can see, I think, how it would have been perceived to be reinvigorating, and thus fit for feeding the sick. Its white texture was originally, unsurprisingly, linked with purity: another reason to consider it fit to restore health and well-being. Today, this dish is mainly a pudding, while in England and France it is usually made with almonds, in Italy (especially Sicily) almonds are used mainly to decorate the top, and lemon zest and cornflour or rice starch are used in the preparation of the blancmange ‘jelly’.

This most international, and cross-cultural pudding, blancmange, features in James Joyce’s famous New Year’s Eve dinner in his short story ‘The Dead’, placed on the table next to ‘a fat brown goose’, ‘a great ham’, and a variety of Yuletide goodies —

 

A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes. (p. 197)

 

The description is baroque, no doubt: such an abundance of food is for sure a statement regarding the host family’s wealth and status, where blancmange is not even the protagonist, but makes a brief appearance ‘in blocks’, served with an unspecified ‘red jam’ (which for our recipe I interpreted as raspberry jam, but you’re welcome to use whichever you prefer – cherry, strawberry, etc.). Blancmange is chosen here, as in a painting, to create a sharp contrast with the many other colours, standing out in its pure hue in the midst of the festive table. Throughout the dinner in Joyce’s short story, questions of (Irish) national identity are raised, and the food served during the evening appears to confirm this. While roast goose and roast ham are considered typical of Christmas or post-Christmas festivities’ meals in the UK and Ireland, and are deeply rooted in Irish traditions, the whole array of sweets and desserts presented here by Joyce, albeit equally typical for Christmas, can be barely regarded as native of Ireland: with such specific collocations of places, i.e. ‘Smyrna’ and ‘American’, and foreign names such as precisely ‘blancmange’, Joyce is underlining the origins of these dishes as non-Irish. Blancmange is, again, the symbol for a unified European identity, a longing for a Europe which was perhaps desired by a character like Gabriel, in contrast with the new rising fights for Irish independence occurring at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Literary Kitchen offers you the original Victorian recipe by Queen Victoria’s chef, and then Nico’s more modern, and slightly Sicilian take on the blancmange (or biancomangiare as we call it down South!).

Francatelli’s 1852 recipe (Recipe no. 193. How to make blancmange.):

Scald, skin, wash, and thoroughly bruise one ounce of sweet almonds with a rolling-pin on a table; put this into a basin with one ounce of lump sugar, and three gills of cold water, and allow the whole to stand and steep for three hours. Next, boil one ounce of shred isinglass, or gelatine, in a gill of water, by stirring it on the fire, while boiling for ten minutes; pour this to the milk of almonds; strain all through a muslin into a basin, and when the blancmange has become stiff and cold, let it be given to the patient in cases of fevers, or extreme delicacy.

 

Nico’s recipe:

Ingredients

400gr whole milk

200gr peeled whole almonds

150gr granulated sugar

6gr leaf gelatine

200gr cream

 

Directions

  1. Blend peeled almonds together with sugar.
  2. Move mixture of blended almonds and sugar into a bowl, add milk and stir well.
  3. Cover the bowl with film and leave to rest overnight.
  4. Once the mixture has rested, sieve the almonds from the milk and place almonds aside. (I then roasted the chopped almonds in the oven at 180°C for 30 minutes, or until golden and crispy, and used them as decorations for the blancmange after they cooled down)
  5. Now pour the almond milk into a saucepan, and warm it up on a low heat for 3-4 minutes (it should not boil).
  6. In the meantime, you will have softened the leaf gelatine in cold water for at least 10 minutes. Squeeze the leaf and add it to the mixture in the saucepan, stirring well until completely melted. Set this aside until cooled.
  7. Whisk the cream and gradually add it to the cooled mixture.
  8. Pour the mixture into a medium-size mould, or into five small moulds. Leave to rest in fridge for at least 6 hours.
  9. To take the blancmange out of the mould and serve it, place the mould (with the blancmange still in it) in some hot water for a few seconds.
  10. Decorate with jam, and roasted almonds.

 

References

Francatelli, Charles Elmé. A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852). Stroud: The History Press, 2010.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. London: Penguin Books, 2000.

‘God made food, the devil the cooks’: James Joyce’s Ulysses, or the Irish Stew

I was recently an examiner at a modernist literature exam for Modern Languages (which are done in person in Italy), and one of the poor souls I had to examine came as far as to claim, within the first two minutes into the oral examination, that all novels are realistic, and have a didactic purpose.  Now, nothing makes my hands twitch like broad statements and hyper-generic stereotyped truths, such as “All novels are long”, “All Germans like  drinking beer”, “All poets were unhappy “, and so on. As the student had dropped the bomb, I had to ask: “so what does Joyce exactly teach us?”. Of course, what followed was one of those eternally perceived silences of about 60 seconds, with the student deciding it was a better choice to just stare into the black hole which must have been born behind my shoulders that very moment… I then broke that silence by going back to the first part of the student’s complex philosophical statement, and asking: “Okay, how about realism? Can you please expand on that and see if it applies to Joyce’s Ulysses?”  “Well, it is one man’s life on a specific day… We follow what he does, and the characters he meets… They eat, for instance”.

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Well, after all, the student was right about that. The 16th of June, 1904, Leopold Bloom’s day is punctuated by snacks and meals, encapsulating his journey within the heart of Ireland. The first proper meal we witness Leopold Bloom have would be quite stomach-turning to most people’s tastes these days, as well as be considered as an unhealthy proteic bomb ready for explosion in our bodies:

‘Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards,  a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes.  Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.’ (U 65) 

(I should add, at this point, that both Nico and Amy’s thankfully unroasted, unstuffed hearts sank at the idea of recreating this quite incredible feast of organs for the blog!) Beefsteaks and kidneys feature quite prominently in Ulysses, and they indeed remind us of the core elements of everyday life as well as of Joyce’s poetics, or perhaps his life obsessions: sex,  food and digestion (and everything that comes with it – ‘food, chyle,  blood, dung, earth, food’, U 225). Joyce, not too unlike his protagonist Bloom, particularly enjoyed making lists of food, with certain interludes in them which give hints at the sexual intercourses with his wife Nora.

The Lestrygonians episode is perhaps the most interesting in this respect, as Leopold mentions and covers a variety of foods, as well as reminds us of his Jewish origins–

‘Sardines on the shelves. Almost taste them by looking. Sandwich? Ham and his descendants musterred and bred there. Potted meats. What ishome without Plumtree’s potted meat? Incomplete. What a stupid ad! Under the obituary notices they stuck it. All up a plumtree. Dignam’spotted meat. Cannibals would with lemon and rice. White missionary too salty. Like pickled pork. […] Puzzle find the meat. Kosher. No meat and milk together. Hygiene thatwas what they call now. Yom Kippur fast spring cleaning of inside. Peace and wardepend on some fellow’s digestion. Religions. Christmas turkeys and geese. Slaughter of innocents. Eat drink and be merry. Then casual wards fullafter.Heads bandaged. Cheese digests all but itself. Mity cheese.

       —Have you a cheese sandwich?

       —Yes, sir.

Like a few olives too if they had them. Italian I prefer. Good glass of burgundy take away that. Lubricate. A nice salad, cool as a cucumber, Tom Kernan can dress. Puts gusto into it. Pure olive oil. Milly served me that cutlet with a sprig of parsley. Take one Spanish onion. God made food, the devil the cooks. Devilled crab.’ (U 218-219)

The abundance of references to food in this particular chapter is not too surprising, if one considers that the Lestrygonians in the Odyssey were giant cannibals encountered by Odysseus during his journey back to Ithaca, and who devoured most of his men and destroyed nearly all of his ships. It is also within this specific pub episode that Joyce throws in the famous remark “God made food, the devil the cooks”: in a moment where Bloom also faces the difficulties, mistakes and vices of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Joyce reminds us of the simplicity of our human needs, which have been turned into more complex temptations, and pushing the metaphor even further, likening sinning to what could possibly an elaborate novelle cuisine dish. In the Lestrygonians episode, Bloom orders at the pub a most frightening  (to Nico, at least) gorgonzola and mustard sandwich (which apparently is still on the menu at the Davy Byrnes pub in Dublin), which he does not consume simply “with relish” like he had done with the organs,  but rather with a “relish of disgust”: ‘Mr Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese. Sips of his wine soothed his palate.’ (U 220-221).

It is quite unimaginable to me how the two opposite tastes and contrasting textures could merge in the mouth, brought together by the neutral presence of white bread: one tangy yet smooth, the other sweet and lumpy, both strong on the taste buds… As you will have imagined, to celebrate Bloomsday Amy and I decided to make a more conventional Irish recipe, the stew, which, though maybe not quite as striking to the reader of Ulysses as fried kidneys or a gorgonzola and mustard sandwich, or as heavenly as Molly’s Liptons cherry fairy cakes, is eaten during Bloomsday and mentioned on various occasions throughout Ulysses (one of the best culinary images in literature being possibly Joyce’s, with the Dublin “policemen sweating Irish stew into their shirts.”). Some scholars have likened Ulysses to a stew and it is easy to see why: Joyce’s masterpiece has its one, unique, solid and juicy joint of meat in Dublin and in Ireland, and yet the reality it represents is everything but uniform, with all the sorts of vegetables, herbs and seasonings in it,  which give Ulysses its strong, distinct, at times perhaps repulsive, unforgettable flavour.

We also thought its quintessential Irishness would be a great way of celebrating Ireland and Joyce today, with all our Irish and non-Irish friends from the blog – Happy Bloomsday!

Irish Stew (recipe for 4 people)

This is a recipe which Amy’s granny gave us for Irish stew. Apparently it is important to resist the temptation to add Guinness – so drink it instead!

Ingredients

500g lamb
6 medium potatoes
1 large onion
3 carrots
Fresh thyme and rosemary, plus seasoning

Directions

Amy did this in a slow cooker (it makes the house smell amazing!) but you can do it in a pan on the hob if you want.

1. Brown the meat in a pan with some oil for a few minutes.
2. Transfer to the slow cooker and add the potatoes,  carrots, onion, herbs and seasoning.
3. Add enough boiling water to cover the ingredients  (alternatively, you can use lamb stock).
4. Cook on a low heat for 7 hours, or simmer for 2 hours in a pan.
5. Enjoy!!

References

James Joyce. Ulysses. London: Penguin, 2000.

Holes and histories: baguettes in Ciaran Carson’s ‘For All We Know’ (2008)

Belfast-born poet Ciaran Carson is one of the most accomplished wordsmiths to be found amongst the current generation of writers. Born in 1948, he has published over 29 volumes of poetry, prose and translations from Irish. Carson’s indefatigable flair for witty, convoluted, memorable story-telling is cemented in his 2008 volume, For All We Know. This is an absolutely beautiful and emotive novelistic sequence of not-quite-sonnets which retell the lives – and losses – of two lovers who meet just after a bomb goes off in 1970s Belfast. The sequence is narrated by one of the lovers, a Northern Irish writer who is recalling significant points in his relationship with the French woman (Nina).

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The first poem is called ‘The Second Time Round’ and is a retelling of the lovers’ anniversary. Food is at the centre of their celebration. The poem’s opening lines describe the ‘stretch’ and ‘elasticity’ of baguettes and the crack as a baton is broken. The bread is described with a few, deftly-chosen and alliterative words which convey the sensory detail of the moment. When you eat or make a fresh baguette (the recipe is below), take a pause to crack it open so that you can indulge in the warm, freshly-baked scent of homemade bread. I absolutely love that moment.

With his usual attention to minute detail, Carson homes in on the air-holes within the baguette. Metaphorically, these are also the holes within the book’s disjointed storyline. These gaps and silences are as essential to the structure of the book as air-holes are to the structure of the perfect loaf of bread. At first, the reason for the elegiac undertone of ‘The Second Time Round’ is unclear. The identity of the lovers, the importance of the French words, and the significance of the patchwork quilt are equally inexplicable on a first reading of the sequence’s opening poem. These holes provide the narrative drive, as curiosity spurs the reader to piece together this splintered story and to find the most elusive of things – the truth which the narrator (and poet) is trying to communicate. For the protagonist, words are deceptive and truth resides only in what is known by the immediate experience of the senses. This is, perhaps, the reason for the intense description of the baguette at the very beginning of this story.

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Half a century of violence lies behind the narrator’s inability to believe in anything beyond his own senses. The Second World War and the ‘Troubles’ (the euphemistic name for a period of sectarian violence in late twentieth-century Northern Ireland) loom large over the book. The breaking of the baguette in the opening poem delicately foreshadows the broken histories which unfold as the patchwork narrative progresses.

The appearance of a French baguette in a Northern Irish poem is indicative of a major theme in the work of Carson and many of his contemporary poets: the points of connection (or divergence) between cultures. Contemporary Irish poets have placed literary stepping stones across the world: one can travel to France with Derek Mahon, then to Russia with Tom Paulin, and on to China and Japan in the pages of Sinead Morrissey. These poets often seem to seek new and liberating perspectives by looking beyond the disputed borders of Ireland/Northern Ireland/Ulster/the UK and the tangled history of their own land. Such globe-trotting is indeed refreshing after decades of Irish and Northern Irish poems focussed mainly on home and the matter of Ireland.

To summarise: Carson is an amazing poet and this book comes with my (Amy’s) passionate recommendation. His narratives are compelling and his control of poetic form is consummate. And if you wish to recreate Carson’s emphasis on the senses in your own kitchen, have a go at making the recipe below. If you haven’t made bread before, it might take a few times to get it right. I certainly had a few disasters at the start! (And I still do.)

Baguettes_009cr

Recipe

Ingredients

  • 500g strong white bread flour
  • 350ml warm water
  • 1 tsp/7g instant dried yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • A couple of tablespoons oil OR about 25g butter

 

Directions

  1. Mix the flour, yeast and salt in a large bowl. Rub in the butter or stir in the oil.
  2. Add 300ml water and mix until the mixture starts to come together.
  3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes. Add the remaining water as you knead the bread. It is quite a wet dough, so you may want to do this for 5 minutes if you have a dough hook and an electric mixer.
  4. Return the dough to the bowl and leave to rise for about an hour (or until doubled in size) in a warm place. Cover it with a wet teatowel or clingfilm. I sometimes turn the oven on for a few minutes (and then turn it off!!) and put the dough in there.
  5. Turn the dough out on your kneading surface and knock the air out. Knead for a few minutes.
  6. Shape the dough into 2-4 baguettes (depending on your desired size) and put them on a greased baking tray. Cover again and leave for a further hour, or until doubled in size.
  7. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade and put a dish full of water in the oven (the resultant steam will help the bread form a good crust).
  8. Uncover the baguettes and, using a pair of scissors or a sharp knife, carefully slash the top of each three times.
  9. Put in the oven for 25-30 minutes (depending on the size). They are best eaten immediately, but can be kept until the next day or frozen.

 

From farm to factory: bread in Michael McLaverty’s “Call my Brother Back” (1939)

 

The next instalment in our culinary cruise through literature takes us to the north of Ireland and the work of the writer Michael McLaverty. Born in 1904, McLaverty is one of Belfast’s most accomplished proponents of the short story and novel form. His first and best known novel, Call my Brother Back (1939) is an understated, poignant elegy to rural life. Set during the inter-war period, the narrative relates historical details regarding high unemployment, low living standards, and sectarian violence by focussing on one close-knit family: the MacNeills. McLaverty traces the progression of the MacNeill family from the relative happiness of life on the remote Rathlin Island during the First World War to their experience of the Troubles in 1920s Belfast.

Food is central to the way in which McLaverty communicates the struggles of the average working-class family of the 1920s. When the MacNeills are able to afford meat (generally liver!), it is reserved for the father and the three sons who go out to work. The unexpected appearance of a lettuce on the kitchen table one day causes the boys to yell in delight – something few twenty-first century teenagers would do when faced with a salad. Oranges, lemonade and sweets are an extra special treat, as is the plum pudding eaten at Christmas.

Yet these are all exceptions. Day in and day out, the family eat bread. On Rathlin Island, visits to the mainland are rare and so the family presumably made their oatcakes, soda farls and potato bread in the traditional way by using a griddle suspended over the fire. The situation changes completely when the family moves to Belfast. This re-location takes place because Alec, the eldest son, has been offered a job in a flour mill and bakery. Bread quickly becomes the family’s financial, as well as culinary, staple.

In Our Daily Bread: A Look at Ulster Bakeries, the baker and local historian James Davidson records the history of bread-making in the province’s capital city. One of the biggest companies – the Ormeau Bakery – revolutionised the bread-making industry in several ways. Most importantly for this blog post, they were the first to use a travelling hot plate (a kind of slowly-moving metal tray) to make potato and soda farls in an industrial context. During the inter-war period, Davidson explains, bread and other baked goods were delivered to most households from these commercial bakeries. The griddle – which you can see in use at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum – was going out of fashion in the city and families such as the MacNeills began to buy bread.

This shift in consumption patterns reflects the central theme of McLaverty’s novel: the life of a normal family at a significant point of cultural transition. As the MacNeills move from a rural farm to an equally harsh urban world, they adapt to the new modes of existence which result, in part, fromnew technologies. The freedom of Rathlin Island – not a pastoral idyll, but definitely McLaverty’s favoured place – is replaced by the regimen and anxieties of the unfamiliar, industrial city.

Towards the end of the novel Colm lists the various types of bread produced by the bakery:

Once inside the office he would get ready the long order-sheets, neatly write the bread-servers’ names on them, and calculate in pounds, shillings and pence the amount of bread issued:

TICKETS

2lb       Plain                             
2lb       Turnovers                             
2lb       Open Pan                             
2lb       Wheaten Pan                             
2lb       Crusty                             
2lb       Lodger Loaves                             
2lb       Torpedo

A long list of names of pastry, scones, and fancy loaves following and in his slack periods he often amused himself by combining the initial letters into Rathlin place-names.

A wealth of local history is packed into this list: the poverty which gave rise to the use of poor quality flour in soda bread; the hint of luxuriousness in the use of currants; and the preference for white over wholemeal flour during the interwar period. Class differences are subtly conveyed in the cataloguing of breads which are well beyond the MacNeills’ means. As the list of breads morphs into a list of place-names, Colm embeds his own personal history into modern, industrial Belfast. He tries to adapt, without forgetting his heritage. The beauty of McLaverty’s writing lies in the way in which he too seeks to record this past for posterity. With meticulous attention he recreates a world that, in 1939, was disappearing into the shadow of a technologically advanced world war.

At the end of the novel, two of the children leave Belfast for better employment prospects in England. As every emigrant from the Belfast area knows, it is difficult to find decent Northern Irish breads elsewhere. A trip to the local bakery for a wheaten loaf is often confounded by the fact that there are few independent, good quality shops these days (this is now probably true of my home town too!). And if you do find that coveted soda farl or potato bread, it is hygienically packed in a plastic wrapper and sold at extravagantly high prices – ironic, given that these breads were originally baked by the poor using cheap ingredients. It was partly because of such experiences that I began to bake my own bread. And I found that it is surprisingly easy to do. The recipes below are very basic and can be adapted depending on the ingredients you have to hand.

Barm Brack – a luxurious enriched dough. You can use whatever dried fruit you have in the cupboard and ice it or leave it plain. The spices can also be adapted – add more or less to taste. You can also add a teaspoon or two of treacle if you like. It is normally served sliced and buttered, with the ubiquitous cup of tea.

500g strong white bread flour

1 tsp yeast

1 tsp salt

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp ginger

1 tsp nutmeg

100g sugar (I used caster sugar, but muscavado or demerara is also good)

250g dried fruit and/or mixed peel, soaked in very strong tea and well drained

2 tbsp butter

About 100 ml warm milk

2 eggs

 

  1. Mix the flour, yeast, salt, sugar, and spices in a bowl.
  2. Rub in the butter.
  3. Beat and add the eggs. Add the milk.
  4. Bring together in the bowl until it forms a rough dough. Then turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes (or 5 minutes in a mixer with a dough hook).
  5. Return to the bowl and cover with a damp teatowel. Leave to rise for 1-2 hours, or until doubled in size. The temperature should be about 20 degrees or above for optimal rising. In the winter I heat the oven a little, turn it off, and then put the bread in there to rise.
  6. Knead the bread for a minute until the air is beaten out. Then knead in the dried fruit. As this contains moisture, you may need to add a little more flour at this stage.
  7. Shape into a flattened ball and put on a greased baking tray. Cover and leave to prove for another 1-2 hours, or until doubled in size. Don’t leave it too long or it will fall back on itself.
  8. Heat the oven to 180 degrees and bake for about 40 minutes. After 10 minutes I cover it in tinfoil to prevent it from becoming too brown (or black!) on the outside. When it is done, it should sound hollow if tapped on the bottom.
  9. Leave to cool, and then ice with icing sugar mixed with water.

 

Currant bread – this is essentially soda bread with currants in it. The pictures show two slightly different recipes. One loaf has been flattened into a farl shape and I added an egg to the mixture. The other has been left in a round loaf shape and is more crumbly because it doesn’t have an egg.

400g plain flour

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

About 300 ml buttermilk (as buttermilk is hard to come by in England, I normally use 300 ml milk and 1 tbsp lemon juice – leave this for ten minutes and the result is the same. Thanks Kelli!!)

1 tsp salt

2 tbsp sugar

200 currants, soaked in strong tea and drained

1 egg (optional)

 

  1. Put all the ingredients in a large bowl and mix together.
  2. Put the loaf onto a greased baking tray and shape it into farls or a loaf. Both shapes have a deep cross cut on the surface.
  3. Bake for about 30 minutes at 180 degrees. When it is done, it should sound hollow if tapped on the bottom.

 

 

References:

Michael McLaverty, Call my Brother Back (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2003)

James Davidson, Our Daily Bread: A Look at Ulster Bakeries (Newtownards: Colourpoint Books, 2004)

 

Acknowledgements:

Dr Lindsey Finch