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For weeks I’ve been playing a game of “Watch and Wait” with mother nature. Whether on a walk in the countryside or a drive into town, I have been watching and waiting patiently for the blackberries ripening in the hedgerows near our home to be ready for picking.

Blackberries

While the berries have morphed in colour from green to red to a deep black-purple, I’ve been daydreaming about the many things I might make: scones, jam, cobbler, sorbet, ice cream, flavoured vinegar, even a blackberry whiskey concoction. It seems the list of things to do with blackberries is endless!

Finally, last weekend, I could wait no more. Truth be told…I nearly crashed my car last Thursday for looking at the berries ripening in the summer sun. I invited my friend Susan and her daughter Ellen to join my younger daughter and me for a morning of picking wild blackberries. It may not be true, but I have in my mind that it’s best to pick fruit and vegetables in the morning, when the energy of the earth is surging through a plant. So, with our bowls in hand, we four girls headed down the road to a hedgerow that was bursting with berries. When we’d picked it clean, we spotted more in a nearby field and, with the farmer’s permission, we hopped the gate and picked until our hearts’ were content. (My daughter did keep saying, “Mom we have to leave some for the birds!”)

Blackberries 2

Wild blackberries have been eaten in Ireland since Neolithic times. They come in many forms, possibly even several hundreds of micro species. Some are small and mean-looking, others fat and plump. None resemble the large, mostly tasteless, perfect triangle-shaped berries found in the supermarket. Packed with fibre and antioxidants, blackberries are a rich source of vitamin C and, best of all, when picked at their peak of ripeness, wild Irish blackberries are gorgeously delicious.

In no time at all, we girls were scraped and prickled by the thorny bushes and our fingers were stained red-pink from the sweet berry juice. We didn’t mind, however, as we were happy to have our bowls filled to the brim with nature’s bounty and countless ideas for what to do with them running through our heads.

Picking blackberries is a rite of passage in Ireland and I’m so glad to be able to share in this tradition with my daughters and our friends. I hope you and yours find time to enjoy a blackberry picking expedition of your own this year too!

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Classic Irish Blackberry Jam

Makes 4 x 250ml jars

Ingredients

1kg/2 lbs Sugar
1kg/2 lbs Blackberries
Juice and zest of one lemon

Directions

1. Place a salad plate in your freezer. This will be used to test whether or not your jam is ready later.

2. Place sugar, blackberries and juice and zest of one lemon in a large pot.

3. Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring until all the sugar dissolves.

4. If you like whole berries in your jam, stir occasionally and cook for approximately 15 minutes. If you like your jam with the berries crushed, use a potato masher to crush the berries and continue cooking as previously directed.

5. While the berries are cooking, put clean glass jars and lids into a large pot and cover with water. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down and simmer the jars and lids to sterilize.

5. When the 15 minutes are up, take the plate out of your freezer and drop a dollop of hot jam onto it. Let the jam cool for a few minutes on the plate and then, with your finger, push a bit of the jam up towards the middle to see if it “crinkles”. If it does, the jam has set and you are ready to bottle it. If not, continue to boil for another 5 minutes, then test again.

6. Remove from the heat and carefully transfer to hot, dry, sterilized jars. Fill them as near to the top as possible. Cover each with a disc of wax paper and seal tightly with a lid. Keep in a cool dark place for up to 12 months.

Notes:

* If the jam doesn’t set after cooling and potting, tip it all back into the pan and boil again, adding the juice of a small lemon.

* If mould develops on the surface of the jam in a jar, remove it with a spoon, along with about half an inch (1 cm) of the jam underneath…rest assured, the rest of the jam will not be affected…and place a waxed disc dipped in brandy on top.

Additional Reading:

Irish Blackberry Ripple Ice Cream over at Irish Food Guide blog.

If you’re musically inclined, visit 8Notes.com to hear The Blackberry Blossom song, an Irish folk song.

The golden rules for picking blackberries can be found here at Good Food Ireland’s website.

For a wee bit of folklore regarding Irish blackberries visit the Irish Cultures & Customs website.

Seamus Heaney, Irish poet, playwright, lecturer, and recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote a poignant poem about blackberries…you can read it here.

It may be called “English’s Fruit Nursery Ltd“, but you can buy blackberry plants from this company in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford!

Check-out these gorgeous looking Blackberry and Custard Doughnuts over at Donal Skeehan’s website…I may just have to try these and report back!!

Visit here for a video on how to test jam from BBC Good Food.

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I can hardly believe Valentine’s Day is behind us and we are barreling full-speed towards Lent, St. Patrick’s Day, and Easter.

DSC01314Lent, as you probably know, is just four days away and in our house there is a lot of talk about what each of us is giving up for the next forty days. My husband is going with the Irish “usual”: he is giving up drink. The kids and I have agreed on sugar. By that I mean to say we are giving up minerals (soft drinks), chocolate, ice cream, and all sweets. Furthermore, from Ash Wednesday (5th March) to Good Friday (18th April), I promise to not make any puddings (deserts), biscuits (cookies), cupcakes, cakes or other tasty treats that have sugar…white or brown…as an added ingredient. The exception for all of us, of course, is Saint Patrick’s Day, which is when we Irish get a chance to break the fast of Lent for one day.

There is another form of abstinence that our little family will participate in during Lent and that is giving up meat on Fridays.  According to Catholic Canon Law, a person between the ages of 14 and 59 should abstain from eating meat on Fridays {every Friday throughout the year} in honour of the Passion of Jesus on Good Friday. While most Catholics ignore this rule, many take it up during the season of Lent. In keeping with strict Catholic tradition, we will also not eat meat on Ash Wednesday. To keep us on track, I am putting together a collection of meat-free recipes and will post them as Lenten Challenges: Meat-Free Friday posts for you to enjoy.

Speaking of Ash Wednesday…it’s the 5th of March, which is this Wednesday. It’s the day you see Catholics everywhere walking around with the sign of the cross, made from ashes, on their foreheads. The ashes have had different meanings at different times throughout history. Today is symbolises our baptismal promise to reject sin and profess our faith.

Ash Wednesday is preceded by Shrove Tuesday, which is on the 4th of March this year. “Shrove” comes from the word “shrive”, which means to confess and receive absolution. Shrove Tuesday is, therefore, a day that many Catholics will go to confession at their local church to ask forgiveness for and be absolved of their sins. According to the Dublin Diocese’s education website, “This tradition is very old. Over 1,000 years ago a monk wrote in the Anglo-Saxon Ecclesiastical Institutes: In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him. ~ Anglo-Saxon Ecclesiastical Institutes”. 

Shrove Tuesday is also known in Ireland as Pancake Tuesday. The significance of the “pancake” is tied up in the religious custom of abstaining from meat, butter, eggs, and dairy during Lent. So that no food would be wasted, Irish families would feast on Shrove Tuesday and use up all the foods that would not keep for forty days. Pancakes use up many of the items Catholics were not allowed to eat during Lent in past times, hence its association with Shrove Tuesday and the start of Lent. Last year, I posted a traditional Irish pancake recipe on this blog: you will find it here.

Trocaire 2014 Lenten Box

Trocaire 2014 Lenten Box

There are so many traditions surrounding Lent, as you can see from above, one of the more modern ones you may not know about if you live outside of Ireland is the Trócaire box. If you don’t know it, the Trócaire box is a small cardboard box used for collecting change. It is given to school age children across the country, who then take it home and fill it over Lent. The money raised goes directly to Trócaire, the official overseas development agency set up by the Catholic Church in Ireland that aids some of the world’s poorest people. The competition amongst school children to have the heaviest box is fierce. Up until recently, we always had to have two boxes in our house to keep the peace. This year’s campaign focuses on the global water crisis and explores water as a social justice issue.

Another modern custom, this one involving technology, is the Irish Jesuit’s online spiritual Retreat for Lent. It is part of the Irish Jesuit’s hugely popular website called Sacred Space. Sacred Space serves five million people annually, from all around the world, by guiding them through ten-minute segments of daily prayer via the computer. While it might seem odd to pray in front of a computer or mobile device, it makes prayer on “the go” or prayer for busy people {isn’t that all of us?} possible.  The theme of this year’s “Retreat for Lent” program is Called to be Saints. It draws inspiration from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans. There is a pocket-size book, Sacred Space for Lent 2014, to compliment the website. If you are interested, it is available from Amazon and all good bookstores around the world.

DSC_0387And, finally, to round out today’s post on Lenten traditions, there’s one more custom we keep in our home during Lent and that is the baking and eating of Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday. Why they are associated with Good Friday, specifically, is really unknown but some say an Anglican monk placed the sign of the cross on the buns to honour Christ’s suffering on the cross on Good Friday. Nearly everyone is familiar with the old nursery rhyme, “One a penny, two a penny hot cross buns…if you have no daughter’s give them to your sons…One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns”…but there is also a sweet rhyme for friendship that goes, “Half for you and half for me, between us two good luck shall be”.

I will post my favourite hot cross bun another day for you to try. In the meantime, good luck to you as you begin your season of Lent. God bless.

Related Articles:

Pope Francis’ Message for Lent 2014 at http://www.catholicbishops.ie/2014/02/04/pope-francis-message-lent-2014/

Reflecting on the Lent Season from Loyola Press at: http://www.loyolapress.com/reflecting-on-the-lent-season.htm

Baileys Irish Cream Pancakes with Whiskey Maple Syrup at http://www.college-cooking.com/2013/03/10/baileys-irish-cream-crepes-and-baileys-irish-cream-pancakes-with-whisky-maple-syrup/

Chocolate Stout Crepes with Irish Cream Whip at http://www.countrycleaver.com/2012/03/chocolate-stout-crepes-and-irish-cream-whip.html

Hot Apple and Apricot Crepe recipe from The Wineport  Restaurant in Glasson, Co. Westmeath at http://www.irishheart.ie/iopen24/apple-apricot-crepe-t-7_22_91_186.html

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Feral pigeon (Columba livia).

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Have you heard the one about the Irishman hunting and grilling pigeons in order to survive the recession?

No…this isn’t a joke. It is a true story that was covered by reporter Liz Alderman for The New York Times in December.

The article entitled “Hardships Linger for a Mending Ireland” was presumably written as a piece of hard-hitting journalism but, from the very start, it read more like a fluff-piece for a less reputable rag.

The first bit of shoddy journalism reared its ugly head when Ms. Alderman referred to Ireland’s capital city as “downtown Dublin”. {For the record, the correct terminology is “City Centre” or “Town”. It’s never, ever, known as “downtown”}. But that wasn’t what irked people. Even her grossly misstated data attributed to the Irish Central Bank wasn’t enough to cause public outrage.

No, what really got up the Irish nose was Ms. Alderman’s story about how one Irishman was surviving the economic crisis by shooting pigeons for food and grilling them outdoors to reduce his gas and grocery bills.

To make matters worse, the man at the centre of the story, 55-year-old John Donovan, wasn’t just any Irishman. He was and is an educated man. A man with degrees in law and business. A man who went from owning a five-bedroom home, and boats, and cars {note the “plural”} to living with his mum after his hardware supply business buckled. He is a man who sent out 1,583 resumes and only got for 4 interviews. A man who lives a short 10 minutes away from Bono (a point Ms. Alderman makes in her story).

But I don’t know…I read this story…and with a wee bit of time and distance to reflect on it…I am more than a little skeptical about the whole thing.

It’s not that I doubt John Donovan has struggled in the last few years or that before our economic meltdown he used to live a life that included more big-boy-toys and a big fancy home. I don’t even doubt that he holds advanced degrees. No, what I find hard to believe is that he’s been walking around one of Dublin’s suburbs with a gun shooting pigeons for his supper.

If you know Shankill, Mr. Donovan’s village, you know this story seems all the more outrageous. I’ve driven through it many times over the years and can’t, for one second, ever imagine anyone firing a gun at anything without it causing a stir. And by that, I mean “quite a stir”. The kind of stir that involves irate neighbors and the Guardi {police} racing in with their sirens blaring. This is, after all, Ireland…not America…we’re talking about.

Getting a gun is not easily done. Even if you can get one, you wouldn’t walk around leafy neighbourhoods firing at birds…not even if you are starving! And if, by some very rare-one-in-a-million-chance, you lost the plot altogether and did so, you can surely bet the incident wouldn’t be reported first in The New York Times. It would first be told in Ireland, by Irish people, many times over. It would be discussed on the radio, on television, and in our newspapers.

So, upon mature reflection, here’s what I think about the whole wretched story…”Good on you, John Donovan!”

Somehow the angels above smiled down on this man and a reporter at The New York Times appeared in his life at a time when he most needed help. He gave an interview that was read around the world and hopefully it has helped him get back on his feet, get a job, move out of his mammy’s home, or, at the very least, given him a good story to tell his friends at the pub on a Friday night. Whatever the case, I wish him the very best going forward.

To Ms. Alderman and The New York Times, I’d like to add…shame on you for writing and publishing such a badly researched, shoddy, article. You both should know better.

Now, with that off my chest, I’d like to end this post on an upbeat note. I phoned my local food emporium, Cavistons {of course}, and inquired about pigeon breast. Mark Caviston was only too happy to say that it is readily available at €3.99 each. Sure, at that price, why would you shoot your own?!

The recipe that follows is from Biddy White Lennon and Georgina Campbell’s new book, The Food & Cooking of Ireland: Classic Dishes from the Emerald Isle. I haven’t made the dish myself {personally, I’m not mad about gamey meats.} but I’m sure it’s wonderful. Enjoy!

Pigeons in Stout

Serves 6

Ingredients

175/6oz thick streaky (fatty) bacon

2 medium onions, finely chopped

2 or 3 garlic cloves, crushed

seasoned flour, for coating

50g/2oz/1/4 cup butter

15ml/1 tablespoon olive oil

6 pigeon breasts

30ml/2 tablespoons Irish whiskey (optional)

600ml/1 pint/2 1/2 cups chicken stock

300ml/1/2 pint/1 1/4 cups stout

175g/6oz button (white) mushrooms

beurre manié, if needed (see Cook’s Tip below)

15-30ml/1-2 tablespoons rowan jelly

sea salt and ground black pepper

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 150°C/300°F/Gas Mark 2. Trim the streaky bacon and cut it into strips. Cook gently in a large, flameproof casserole until the fat runs out, then add the two chopped onions and crushed garlic and continue cooking until they are soft. Remove from the casserole and set aside.

2. Coast the breast portions thickly with seasoned flour. Add the butter and oil to the pan, heat until the butter is foaming, then add the meat and brown well on all sides. Pour in the Irish Whiskey, if using. Carefully set it alight and shake the pan until the flames go out – this improves the flavor.

3. Stir in the stock, stout and the mushrooms, and bring slowly to the boil. Cover closely and cook in the preheated oven for 11/2 -2 hours, or until the pigeons are tender.

4. Remove from the oven and lift the pigeons on to a serving dish. Thicken the gravy, if necessary, by adding small pieces of beurre manié, stirring until the sauce thickens. Stir in the rowan jelly to taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve the pigeons with the gravy while hot.

Cooks Tip: To make the beurre manié mix together 15g/1/2oz/1 tablespoon of butter with 15ml/1 tablespoon flour. Add small pieces of the mixture to the boiling gravy or sauce and stick until thickened.

Related Articles

*Cavistons Food Emporium Facebook Page

* Speaking of Pigeons over at Irish Language Blog

*How the Irish Really Cook Pigeon over at Newsvine

* A Recipe for Pigeon with Pommes Mousseline and Pancetta Peas over at Georgina Campbell’s Ireland website

* A Recipe for Pigeon Breast with Elderberry Sauce by Biddy White Lennon over at Irish Food Writer’s Guild

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Photo from Jessyparr on Flickr

There’s a belief in Ireland and elsewhere that Americans are fat. It’s a stereotype to be sure but a quick look at the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that “more than one-third of adults and approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents in the U.S.” are obese. While it’s unfair to capture all Americans and lump them in one big fry-pit, if things don’t change it is conceivable that by 2o2o, 83 percent of men and 72 percent of women in this country will be extremely unhealthy.

What I can’t help but wonder is this, “Where are all the large people the C.D.C. is talking about?” They’re not living near me on the edge of the Rockies. The trend here seems to be quite the opposite. I wasn’t kidding when I wrote back in March about the 60-year-old with arms like Madonna and the well toned thighs of some ladies taking a Boxercise class. The people around me are fit. Really fit. I mean…über fit!

There’s a joke among us “blow-ins” about how many athletic enthusiasts live around us. There are walkers, joggers, mountain bikers, road bikers, hikers, rollerbladers, tennis players, golfers, lacrosse teams, rugby teams, swim teams…the list is endless. Those of us who are new to the area find it funny until we get hooked too.

Take me, this morning. I rode my bike 12 miles (19.3 kilometers) to buy ingredients to make my family’s favourite soup for this evening’s supper. TWELVE MILES! Getting to the shops was easy: it was mostly downhill. It was the six miles (9.6 kilometers) back up the hill that was the killer. Remarkably, I enjoyed it.

As I rode my bike I kept thinking, “What would my friends back in Ireland say?”

“Kim! Are you mad?” immediately came to mind.

Mad? No. A little crazy? Maybe. Thrilled I made it? Definitely!

Today marked the day I went from blow-in to settling in. Actually, I’m not ready for that leap, so let’s just say I’m a temporary “local” bucking the American trend towards obesity. You might even say I’m living Irish in America. In Ireland people don’t think much about exercise or their weight because they walk everywhere. Conversely, in many America cities, shops, restaurants, schools and churches aren’t within walking distance so people are forced to get into their car and drive. With such a sedentary lifestyle it’s easy to pile on calories and gain weight.

Twelve miles to make Pea & Mint Soup…was it worth it? Absolutely! What’s the craziest thing you ever did for exercise?

Pea and Mint Soup

Serves 4

Ingredients

450g/3 cups fresh or frozen peas

1 bunch spring onions/scallions (or onion) roughly chopped

1 head iceberg lettuce, roughly chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

900ml/3 ¾ cups vegetable or chicken stock

1 large sprig mint

Black pepper

For the Garnish (Optional)

Yogurt

Mint leaves

Directions

1. Wilt the peas, onions and lettuce in the olive oil.

2. Add the stock and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes.

3. Add the mint and liquidize. For a smoother texture, the soup can be put through a sieve.

4. Garnish with a dollop of yogurt and the mint leaves

Note: This recipe is taken from Terence Stamp’s cookbook called The Stamp Collection

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Last Tuesday evening was just another night for most people but in our home it was “Spaghetti, S’mores, Sleepover” night. For hours I listened to five girls sing pop songs, laugh, share secrets, play dolls, jump on the trampoline, dine al fresco on the back patio and roast marshmallows (more like burn them to an eternal crisp) outdoors before they passed out with exhaustion in their respective beds. It was lovely, really.

Watching my youngest daughter and her “B.F.E.” (best friend ever) was probably the most fun. While they sat at our little red café table on the side patio, I watched them . At first they were talking and then laughing. Next, one of them snorted and the two of them started laughing so hard they nearly fell off their chairs. I thought to myself “I gotta get me some of that”.

And by “that” I mean “joy”. Life has gotten too damned serious lately. The simple pleasures of fresh air, music, laughter, pasta, a roaring fire and a good night’s sleep are being overshadowed by all the “debt”, “bailouts”, “foreclosures” and “loss” swirling around us. We need to reclaim our joy…remember how to throw our heads back and snort and laugh with abandon. “Spaghetti, S’mores, Sleepover” night may have been organized for the benefit of my daughters but, in the end, I had fun too.  Where do you find your happiness?

Spaghetti Sauce

(Serves 6)

4 tablespoon good olive oil

1 onion, chopped finely (1/2 cup)

garlic, minced, to taste (1 tablespoon)

1 kg of tinned tomato pieces in their liquid

handful of fresh basil

salt and pepper to taste

sugar to taste

Directions

1.Put all the ingredients into a big pot.

2.Simmer uncovered for about half an hour to an hour until it is reduced and concentrated by about one-third.

S’Mores

(Serves 5)

15 Marshmallows

One Packet of Rich’s Tea biscuit or Graham Crackers

Chocolate bars cut broken into small squares

Directions

1.Roast a marshmallow on a long stick over hot coals or a fire.

2. Place a chocolate square on top of one Rich’s Tea biscuit.

3. Next put the roasted marshmallow on top of the chocolate square.

4. Cover with a second Rich’s Tea biscuit and gently press the two biscuits together.

5. Wait a minute for the marshmallow to melt the chocolate and then eat.

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