I found a tree full of hibernating snails when out and about on my adventures the other day. I love to come across little nests of snoozing snails. It causes me to imagine that there must be one day in the year, when all the local snails decide: 'That's it! The time has come! Let us go to The Dormi - Tree for winter!' Then, they all slither and slide to the same little sheltered corner they found the previous year, roll back into their shells, cosy up and snooze through 'till late spring. I am reassured by the power of Google that they do not budge until the temperature is consistently above 12C, wise creatures. They look so cosy.
Last June another snail caught my attention. I took his picture and he became my facebook profile picture for a while. He was beautiful. I have a fondness for snails. Their shells are so fragile, often intricate and detailed, offering them all the protection they have in the world; they are hard, yet vulnerable, carrying their homes with them.
St. Patrick's Day has just past. I always look forward to it, not because I am to be found sinking Guinness in a local 'Irish' bar, but because it is a day to remember, often quietly, as we did this year, that we came from Ireland. I was only 4 when we moved to England, but that event is an integral part of my identity and the person I have become. If you have never emigrated it is difficult to understand the emotional experiences involved. My parents had to acknowledge that there was no work to help them support their family of six children; they had to pull everyone together, get up and come to England. My best friend in all the world was my sister, Gemma. I was lucky, she came with me. For my parents and older siblings things would not be so easy. They would leave close friends and well loved relations; my dad left his brother and his parents. Some we managed to stay in touch with, others we would never see again. Human beings are like plants, we get 'uprooted' and it hurts.
On St. Patrick's Day the phone rings often. It is the day when friends and family call - just a few words, 'Happy Feast!', 'How are you?'; news and views are shared. It is special. Every now and then someone will ask, 'would you ever go back?' The answer that comes first is a 'yes', but then, after a while, 'no'. It is not possible to go back. If you were lucky you might find some of the buildings you once knew still there, but the heart of the matter, loved ones, friends and family - they have moved on or passed away. Many now live only in our hearts, so that is where our home is, that is where our roots have come to be. We move and travel incessantly, like pilgrims. We have become like beautiful, vulnerable snails, carrying our homes with us everywhere we go. For me though, it is still an Irish home because it is still an Irish heart.
Here's a yummy something just for the day that was in it.
Cork Beef Stew (for 8)
25g (1oz) dripping
150g (5oz) bacon lardons
300g (10oz) shallots, peeled and left whole
1kg (2lbs 4oz) stewing beef cubed
400g (14oz) mixed wild mushrooms
1 litre (1 3/4 pints) Guinness
1 bouquet garni
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Melt the dripping in a hot frying pan and add the bacon, then the shallots. Cook until golden brown and then transfer into a large casserole.
Add the beef to the frying pan, season with salt and pepper and cook until browned all over. Transfer for the casserole.
Lastly, add the mushrooms to the frying pan and cook for two minutes, then season and transfer to the casserole.
Place the frying pan back over the heat and deglaze the pan with some of the Guinness. Then pour the remaining Guinness and the pan juices into the casserole. Add the bouquet garni, cover the casserole and cook in a preheated oven at 140C for 2 hours. Check the seasoning, take out the bouquet garni and serve.
I served mine with pandy (mashed potato with butter and cream), but equally good with a cut loaf of chunky fresh bread. One other note: I used everyday mushrooms, chestnut mushrooms, shittake mushrooms and oyster mushrooms. If I did it again, I would use less of the shittake mushrooms, as I think they have a slight bitter edge.