News Con Houlihan

Saturday 20 September 2014

What makes a real Irish breakfast?

Published 25/09/2008 | 07:00

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Con Houlihan

Let us take a break today from the academic world -- and talk about food and perhaps drink. A neighbour of mine who is a famous chef gave a series of talks a few years ago on Radio Eireann. Time and again he emphasised that the best way to start the day is with a good plate of porridge. I couldn't agree less.

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Samuel Johnson was spot on when in his Dictionary he defined "oats" as food for horses in England and for people in Scotland. To anyone who has been in a prison or in a boarding school -- there is little difference -- the very word makes the soul turn cold. I have never seen porridge mentioned in those traditional Irish breakfasts we read about in the coloured supplements.

Perhaps those breakfasts exist in real life: as I am rarely in upmarket hotels, I don't know. And I cannot guarantee our visitors that they will enjoy sloe-eyed colleens playing the harp and singing She Moves Through The Mart. All I know is that the traditional breakfast in rural Ireland began with black pudding.

There was a time when this wasn't quite true: the coming of television made sausages popular, small boys decided the breakfast menu. Our neighbours in Scotland keep the faith. A breakfast in Glasgow would be unthinkable without black pudding. The same is true of Belfast -- The Hotel Conway on the city's outskirts is a great favourite of mine and they always serve black pudding.

The women in our community at home, long ago, all considered themselves experts on the black pudding. As I worked for most of them in the bog or wherever, I had to be very careful. A verdict had to be as carefully worded as a clause in the constitution of a young state.

I worked part-time in a factory where black puddings and white puddings and sausages were produced in great quantities. There was -- and possibly still is -- a belief that sausages are made from inferior ingredients, even the "sweepings of the floor". It used to be said, for instance, that you could eat Donnelly's sausages on a Friday -- even on a Good Friday. That common belief was always part myth; it most certainly isn't true now. Competition is so keen that sausages are as pure a form of food as you can get. As a very small boy I loved the humble sausage -- I still do.

The Roman Emperors kept the common people content with bread and circuses. The British people were kept alive in wartime with bread and sausages. The experts tell us that the people of Britain were never healthier than during the years of rationing. The moral is that generally people eat too much. This was unlikely to happen if you were in digs. You didn't live in digs -- you survived. And of course, I have many memories of good food to wash away the memories of the bad.

Small boys and small girls couldn't be kept out of the kitchen when their mothers were cooking. The small boys were armed with spoons to sample the scum -- that was the name given to what rose to the top during jam making -- convinced that it was much better than the jam itself.

The small girls were more interested in the baking. They loved to take fistfuls of dough from the kneading table and make it into little balls. When the cake was in the oven, they baked their handiwork on the cover -- these were cistini baise -- little cakes of the fist.

When we small boys were a little older, we used to have barbecues, even though we had never heard that word. We went down to the river and put a circle of flat stones on a patch of sand. We made a fire of turf and wood in the middle and fried our sausages on the stones. This was primitive man. And thus our ancestors discovered glass -- and the sand was transformed into something beautiful.

Our ancestors made good wine from many kinds of fruit. The Famine damaged the tradition. Many old recipes were lost, just as old songs were lost or survived in fragments.

Only one person in our community made wine seriously. She was a strong middle-sized woman with a head of flowing white hair. She looked like a friendly witch. Her sloe wine was especially strong. It was as well that traffic was light at the time. We used to say "If you drink Katey's wine, don't cycle."

My deepest memories of food and cooking go back to a time when I hadn't learned to read. I used to "read" a book published by Royal Baking Powder. It had lovely pictures. About the same time I had my first experience of magic. My mother put a small piece of dough into a bucket near the fire and covered it with a white cloth. About two hours later the cloth began to move. A yeast cake emerged.

When I was a few years older, I experienced another kind of magic. It became known as our plum tree. It was magical because it kept on producing fruit no matter how much we picked from it. The reason was simple: it grew in a small field where cows spent a few hours every day when they were left out in winter. Thus it was enriched by the manure of generations and so went on growing plums until well into October. In its friendly branches we learned to climb -- and to hold our summit conferences. It was our plum tree.

Whenever I was about to leave home, I paid it a farewell visit. And whenever I came back, I called to see it. Then one morning, after I had come home for Christmas, I went to see it -- "our plum tree" was no more. It had withstood many a winter storm but a gale had come in October when it was in full foliage and laden with fruit. I was well into my twenties but I felt that it marked the end of my youth. My friends felt the same. It was like a death in the community.

All this belongs to a lost age: my comrades and myself owned the countryside in our own innocent way. We were a lucky generation.

Fogra: One of my favourite artists and people, Geraldine Sadlier, is welcome back from France. An exhibition of her paintings opens on Thursday, September 25, 6-8 pm in The Kilternan Gallery, Enniskerry Road, Kilternan, Dublin 18 and runs for 10 days

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