Writers Chat 9: Margaret Hickey on “Ireland’s Green Larder” (Unbound: London, 2018)

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Margaret, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on the publication of the beautifully produced Ireland’s Green Larder. Darina Allen has rightly called it “an authoritative resource as well as an entertaining and enlightening read.”

Tell me about how Ireland’s Larder was conceived. It’s such an original book both in terms of content and structure – a real coffee table book but also practical and one which I found myself returning to again and again.

Margaret: I have always been interested in history – my first book, Irish Days, was a collection of oral histories, in which I reproduced conversations I’d had with a cross section of Irish people over the age of eighty. And then I left my very hectic life in London to come and live in an abandoned house in Co Galway, beside the Shannon,  plunging myself into a different world.

One of the things that had attracted me to the house was its fireplace – big enough for a giant to cook in – with the crane still inset into the wall. It was a piece of living history inside my own house. I was also struck by how different the whole food scene was from what I knew. I’d come from a cosmopolitan city and my job had involved eating out a good deal, so differences were only to be expected there. However, I’d been raised among poor people near Manchester and I knew all about that Lancashire food culture. Here I was in Ireland and there were no pies! In the north of England people were reared on pork pies and potato pies. As a child I went to Stockport market every week and wandered round the stalls that sold Cheshire cheeses of different strengths and colours, the butchers selling haslett and brawn. Like poor people everywhere, we ate offal. In fact there were, when I was a child, a chain of restaurants devoted to serving tripe. (Yes, it sounds surreal now, but it’s true. The UCP.)

I’d lived in France for a number of years and I saw what alchemy can be wrought with simple ingredients. But here in this rural part of Ireland,  fewer things were available. I looked at how foodstuffs were preserved and there was precious little smoking or drying – it was almost all salting. No savoury pies. First class beef and lamb. In my local greengrocers (a dying breed in England) there were discussions about which variety of potato was good that week. And a slice of home made brown bread with some country butter was heaven.

It struck me that a food culture actually reveals the whole history of a nation and that’s what set me on the path of tracing that history right from the very earliest times. Going to visit the Ceide Fields and learning that the field system there is the oldest known in the world – a thousand years older than the Pyramids – was so impressive! And I travelled from there right up to the present day, although I structured the chapters of the book in order of the importance of the foodstuff. So the potato comes in very late in the day.

SG: How fascinating to learn that the geneses of the book came from an old fireplace and the crane insert in the wall…and the connection of fields to food. I’m also very interested in social history, and particularly, how past trauma often carries on through subsequent generations. I was fascinated by the section in Panorama where you state that “The story of food is always political, and in Ireland’s case intensely so” and that in Ireland “it may take generations to erase the old race memory of hunger”. Can you tell us a little about the research that you undertook to write this book?

Margaret: As I  mentioned above, I was struck by the courage and tenacity of those early people who marked out fields in that cold, windy spot beside the sea up in Mayo, and as I researched widely, reading law tracts, diaries, ballads, lives of the saints, letters, memoirs, poems and accounts from folklore, I saw a pattern repeated down the centuries. Poor people struggled to survive under many different dispensations. The Normans actually made life a little better, as they introduced the rabbit, the idea of a columbarium or dovecote, plus they created fishponds and brought in legumes such as peas which could be dried and provide food in the lean winter months. But there were famines down the centuries and accounts of animals dying, too. Swift’s famous satire A Modest Proposal was written in 1729 and he was reacting to the suffering of the time by suggesting that a superfluous child could be a helpful addition to the larder, as a plump infant would serve well, boiled, stewed or fried! There was no redress against the harsh rule of the landlords and it was really egregiously cruel and unforgivable that the subjects of Queen Victoria, who ruled over a mighty empire, should be allowed to starve to death as late as the mid-nineteenth century.

I remember talking to an old man whose grandparents had lived through the Famine and people were trying to eat green slime skimmed off stagnant ponds and hoping to catch frogs and rats, although most of them had already been caught and eaten. I believe that the terrible indignities of that time and the desperation of eating half-rotten food left a deep horror of any strange foodstuffs and an ingrained suspicion of odd textures and tastes. Younger people and city people are much more adventurous now, but among an older generation of country people that suspicion and fastidiousness remains.

SG: Oh yes, I recall reading and analyzing A Modest Proposal in university.  Chilling! And of course, as you say, so very much set in its time.

Margaret, I thoroughly enjoyed the accessible way in which you tell the history of food – through hearsay, conversations overheard, interviews, poetry, song and, of course, recipes. In Chapter Four ‘On The Hoof’, you reveal how very important beef is in the Irish diet (particularly when it comes to quality) and we learn how Bacon and Cabbage comes in as the runner for a national dish with a wonderfully simple recipe for it as well as one for Dublin Coddle. How difficult was it to decide on something akin to a national dish taking into account the rural/urban divide? 

Margaret: I don’t believe there are many people in Ireland who have absolutely no roots in the countryside. There were, of course, always some purely urban families in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Belfast. But precious few that didn’t have country cousins. I believe that chicken korma is Britain’s favourite meal today (several exclamation marks) but whereas more sophisticated city dwellers nowadays  might turn up their noses at the crude dish of bacon and cabbage, those two items have a long and noble history and  helped to build growing families. Many an exile would give a great deal for a plate of the very same right now. And if the bacon comes from a pig reared outdoors and allowed to rootle around, and if the cabbage is one of the native varieties grown in soil that knows no chemicals, and if that cabbage is well drained and dressed with a lump of country butter and the bacon and cabbage served with some fine spuds cooked in their jackets, I don’t think you’d turn your nose up at it, whatever class of a gourmet you might be!

SG: Yes, you’re right. Good quality ingredients are pretty hard to beat when it comes to potatoes, bacon and cabbage. Now as a nation island we have a complicated relationship with fish. However, I was interested to learn that it may be down to pure economics – not wanting to squander fat to fry it and so boiling the fish and rendering it tasteless – rather  than the famine as part of the reason why fish isn’t our ‘go to’ food. Having said that, I have plans to try out your recipe “Trout with Sorrel and Hazelnuts”. Could you comment a little on this?

Margaret: It is a mystery to me exactly why fish and shellfish have never been taken to the nation’s heart. When you think of the intense love of fish they have in Spain and Portugal and in Japan, you must wonder why the Irish, long before the Famine, prized other foods more. I’ve often heard the lack of enthusiasm for  fish ascribed to the Fish on Fridays argument. But no one was ever forced to eat fish on Fridays – it was a day of fasting and abstinence, that’s all. The problem was that the fish served was so seldom palatable. Take a piece of white fish, boil it or steam it and then serve it with no accompanying sauce or relish and you’ll be less keen on fish yourself! Peter Somerville-Large, from one of the Big Houses, remembers ‘huge bland pollock, which always tasted of tissue paper and pins.’

Added to the dull method of cooking, you might be dealing with fish that was less than fresh. Before the days of the engine, fish and shellfish had to be carted inland, so if you lived in Athlone you were likely to be offered fish that was fairly high!

I’m not denying that fish and shellfish – and, indeed, seaweed – weren’t eaten in earlier times. We have evidence from shells found in middens and from the importance of both the salmon and the trout in Irish mythology and legend. I love the wonderful coins that were issued when Ireland became an independent state and the leaping salmon on the old florin is such a gorgeous image.

Things are improving. Stephane Griesbach of Gannet’s fishmongers is a Frenchman who is bringing marvellously fresh fish to towns in Galway, Irish oysters are rightly prized. But we are still exporting huge numbers of fish and I have a small rant in the book about crabmeat. You’ll have to read it to find out what riles me!

SG: I’ll leave that to your new readers, Margaret! Now following on from this, I found the chapter on Vegetables, Herbs, Fruit and Nuts fascinating – particularly in relation to class divide. It put in mind the expensive delis and organic shops that have appeared in certain urban areas and how, if you look around carefully, you can find herbs and delights such as wild garlic growing wild….

Margaret: As I write this, there’s wild garlic running rampant by the side of the lane to my house and the chives in my garden are almost like a weed, they grow so vigorously and with no encouragement. Sorrel grows easily, too, as does curly parsley. Even if you’re living in the city, a window box or two will provide you with some herbs. But the recipes we follow often demand more exotic herbs and vegetables, so we tend to overlook what is native. I remember Lucy Madden telling me that in her opinion the finest omelette of all is the sorrel omelette and I tend to agree. All praise to people for being adventurous in their cooking and their exploration of other cuisines. I don’t want to be thought insular. But let’s not forget the really wonderful plants we have at home. And let’s, above all, try to eat herbs, vegetables and fruit that have been grown without harmful pesticides or irradiation. We are what we eat, and it’s surely in our own interests to buy high quality food that, where possible, is grown locally, thus diminishing the food miles.

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SG: For me one of the strongest threads running through Ireland’s Larder was the relationship between the female and the importance of milk and milk-based products such as butter. Was this something that you were cognisant of prior to writing the book or did it come out in the research?

Margaret: The woman is right at the heart of the story of Ireland’s food, as you would well imagine. And her contribution to the domestic economy of the household was vital. She it was who fed the animals around the house – the pigs and the chickens, for example – and apart from the cooking, she was the one who made the butter. Butter was incalculably important, because it was traded for money and that money was needed to pay the rent. During the hardest times, women would be churning butter but unable to give even a knob of it to their families, because all must be secured in a wooden firkin and used to pay the landlord. Failure to pay led to eviction, regardless of the state of the family or the time of year. Evictions could happen before Christmas, even. But when times were less hard, everyone basked in the warm yellow glow of butter, which would be dolloped onto the potato or spread thickly on soda bread.

I made the curious discovery that long ago the Irish had a preference for milk that was soured. There were many degrees of milk and ‘sweet’ fresh milk was considered fit for children and invalids, whilst healthy adults had a taste for ripened milk.

SG: Yes, good old buttermilk! I found the final chapter in the book to be most curious. You cover so much from folklore to traditions to the merging of pagan and Christian practices. Can you tell us how our tradition of story telling and creating life narratives is so closely related to the production and preparation of food?

Margaret: I mentioned above that dairy products are at the heart of  Ireland’s food culture, and many customs and pishogues attend milking and churning. It was considered good luck for any visitor to a house to take a turn at the churn when butter was being made, whereas if butter refused to ‘break’, that was because a witch or envious neighbour had put the evil eye on the cow. Wednesday was thought to be the most fortunate day of the week for churning, and an elderly neighbour of mine told me that he remembered an old woman who would never go out to the dairy but that she’d take the tongs and and she’d bring a little coal out of the fire and she’d put it under the churn ‘for fear anyone would bring the butter. A small little bit- just put it one side of the churn there. To protect it.’

What struck me very forcefully was that even in the depths of misery, people in Ireland found themselves able to rise above it and sing a song, play a tune, dance around the kitchen. A deeply spiritual people, they were, and I admire them so much for their lack of self pity and their love of learning and imagination.

Lastly, 3 fun questions, Margaret:

Cats or Dogs? My dog Meg is gently snoring by the window as I write this. I can see why people love cats – I had a Manx cat when I was a child – they’re very rare, as they have no tails. But my heart belongs to dogs.  I don’t think any sight makes me happier than seeing Meg chasing along with her best friend, Rocky, a black Labrador who’s half her age.

What’s your favourite comfort meal? There’s enough Irish blood in me to think straight away of the spud! Some lovely mashed potato. And ideally it would be the topping of a creamy fish pie.

What’s the most exotic ingredient you’ve ever cooked with? I’ve travelled a lot, and when I lived in France I had an education in food and drink that still stands to me today. I would happily prepare and cook brains and I’m well able to prepare squid. I adore India and the various Indian cuisines – there’s a marvellous book called 50 Great Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi-  so I’ve had a go at making dishes using curry leaves and     fenugreek. These days, though, I am attracted to very simple cooking with the best ingredients I can get my hands on. I’m partial to oysters, but it’s so wonderful when someone else does all the hard work, so I mostly eat out for  anything difficult.

Thank you so much, Margaret for taking part in WRITERS CHAT with me – it’s been a real pleasure and such a great learning experience for me! I wish you much well-deserved success with Ireland’s Green Larder. 

best pic by clarissa
Margaret Hickey

Listen to Margaret chat to Sean O’Rourke on RTE about Ireland’s Green Larder

Find out more about Margaret and Ireland’s Green Larder here. 

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