Sunday 18 August 2019

'Get up and go is my motto' - Martina (91) and Colette (75) publish a cookbook with a difference

Martina Maher and Colette Scully at home in Birmingham
Martina Maher and Colette Scully at home in Birmingham
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

'When you retire, the problems start because you get bored and fed up with life and you watch TV... I would say to anyone retiring: get interested in something, and get interested in giving something - get interested in voluntary work."

Martina Maher (91), from Roscrea in Tipperary, and her friend Colette Scully (76), from the North Circular Road in Dublin, have been living in Birmingham for around 50 years, and for 22 of those years, they've been serving up legendary three-course dinners every Sunday to a group of Jesuit priests. For them, it's been the perfect recipe for fulfilled retirements.

"You don't have to work, work, work just to make money. After retiring, you should have enough of that seen to... when you retire, you can go and do something that means something to you," says Martina.

The pair cooked dinners and buffets for groups of between 12 and 100 people at Manresa House, where Irish, British, Dutch and Belgian Jesuit priests live. Everything from Irish soda breads to vegetable terrines, soups, roast beef, Yorkshire puddings, lamb, mashed potatoes, roast potatoes, apple tart, trifle, and cheesecakes became a Sunday feature over the years.

"One day there was an elderly priest cooking the dinner on his own, and we said we're free and we'd like to be able to do it for you on a Sunday," says Colette. "At first, he said 'no, would you ask someone in the parish to do it', but we said 'no father, people should be at home with their families on a Sunday, we'd like to do it'.

"We'd shop on a Friday, then on a Saturday we might make the starter and dessert, then we'd get 8am mass on the Sunday and then go down to Manresa House at 9am to start the dinner."

Now their favourite recipes have been collated into a cookbook, Saintly Feasts: A Cookbook For Saints And Scholars, with the proceeds going to the Jesuit Refugee Service.

"Fr Simon Bishop, he used to say every Sunday, you mustn't let these recipes disappear - you must put them into a book. And the priest from the Netherlands, he knows every saint in heaven, and he paired each recipe with a saint," says Colette.

Having grown up on a farm, Martina credits her mother with showing her the pleasure and the power of home-cooked food. "I love, love, love doing soda bread. If anyone says they're coming to visit me, I rush up into the kitchen and get a soda cake in the oven. 'Get up and go' is my motto. It's the same recipe my mother used. She'd bake four or five cakes every day. We were farming people, so my brothers would be hungry. We didn't have the grand things that you have today - we had plain food, but it was all very good food, and it was grown on the farm. We had beautiful cooking with my mother who used a crane on the hearth, and pots and an iron kettle hanging from the crane.

"My mother would go out on the farm and work as well because we had my father's mother living with us, and she used to do the cooking. It was a hard-working time, but I never heard my mother saying life is tough or life is hard or that she was tired. And when we had the last meal in the evening, she would sit down and knit socks for my brothers."

Last year, Martina was hospitalised for 10 days due to a bad flu, and when she recovered, the pair were determined not to hang up their apron strings at Manresa House. Now, they continue to attend the dinners themselves and bring the desserts each time, and birthday cakes for each priest or celebration cakes for any visiting priests.

So for this Sunday's roast dinner, what would Colette's tip be for anyone doing roast potatoes? "Par boil them, and then get your fat really, really hot, and then roll the potatoes around in the beef fat, and get them into a hot oven."

Martina adds: "I don't go out to restaurants. If I do, I look at the menu, I enjoy the meal, and I look at the bill, and then I think what could I have done at home with that money, and that's what I'd say to anyone - try the cooking in the home, it brings a lovely feeling into the home and a lovely smell around the home."

See here for some recipes from Martina and Colette's book.

Irish Independent

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