Saturday 31 December 2011

Find your Patron

It is time to take the challenge of choosing a Patron Saint for 2012. Last Year I drew St. John of Damascus, Doctor of Christian Art, and spent my year developing a series of schemes of work about Christian Theology and the Creative Arts for Sixth Formers studying General RE. There you are.

Choosing a Patron Saint for the year used to be a custom amongst religious communities for New Year's Day, and perhaps, in places it still is.  Modernity has caught up with this ancient practise by means of a Patron Saint Generator by Jennifer Fulweiler. 

St Faustina, of Divine Mercy fame, shows that this custom was alive and well in the 1930's with an excerpt from her diary:

“There is a custom among us of drawing by lot, on New Year’s Day, special Patrons for ourselves for the whole year. In the morning, during meditation, there arose within me a secret desire that the Eucharistic Jesus be my special Patron for this year also, as in the past. But, hiding this desire from my Beloved, I spoke to Him about everything else but that. When we came to refectory for breakfast, we blessed ourselves and began drawing our patrons. When I approached the holy cards on which the names of the patrons were written, without hesitation I took one, but I didn’t read the name immediately as I wanted to mortify myself for a few minutes. Suddenly, I heard a voice in my soul: ‘I am your patron. Read.’ I looked at once at the inscription and read, ‘Patron for the Year 1935 – the Most Blessed Eucharist.’ My heart leapt with joy, and I slipped quietly away from the sisters and went for a short visit before the Blessed Sacrament,where I poured out my heart. But Jesus sweetly admonished me that I should be at that moment together with the sisters. I went immediately in obedience to the rule.”

Excerpt from “Divine Mercy in My Soul, the Diary of St. Faustina”

Do you dare or care to find a Patron for 2011?  Just click here: Patron Saint Generator. :-) 

The ways of the future are unknown, but this year it seems St. Ulric of Augsburg is to be my Patron. His Patronage is rather confusing for a single girl!!

: July 4
Patronage: Against Birth Complications; Against Dizziness; Against Faintness; Against Fever; Against Frenzy; Against Mice; Against Moles; Happy Death; Pregnant Women; Weavers

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Hanging out, Being, Remaining, Staying

Every now and then a word or phrase haunts me. It appears in my dreams, pops into my head when I am idle, repeats likes stuck record. 'Stay with me, Lord, and teach me to stay with you', is one such phrase. It comes from a homily. I do not remember the Gospel, or the day, but the phrase will not go away. I connect it, in my mind, with another homily, given on a another day in a different place at a different time. This time the Gospel was John 15: 1 - 17: remain in my love. That word remain, could also be stay, or perhaps have some other meanings...

There are, apparently, 9 ways of translating the Greek word 'meno', and John uses 7: abide, remain, stay, live, dwell, be together, be. I liked that when I heard it. It was summer, June, if I remember rightly.  It made me think of what it is like when you first start 'hanging out' with someone and you cannot get enough of them. You relax completely in their company, laugh and the whole world lights up. There is something of Christmas in that delight: something of an exquisite summer day in the depths of winter. Of course, the time to 'hang out' will eventually become a time to 'stay' or 'remain' as we move through the liturgy into Lent and Easter, we know that already - the gifts of the Magi point us to it. But, for now I just want to 'be' and maybe 'hang out' a bit. I might read the Gospels again, especially my favourite, John; sneak into candlelit cathedrals and churches on my travels around the countryside, seek out the crib scenes in villages as I pass through on foot, by car or by bike; listen to those Christmas Carols and try to work out what it was that so inspired the lyricist or composer; light up the fire at home, and the Christmas candles and the crib.

One of the great culinary events of holidays is the leisured breakfast. Most of the working year round, there is never time. Proper breakfast, in my life at least, is reserved for holidays and Sundays, and it is always a privilege. It is the time just to 'be' with friends and family because you only ever do it when you really have time to 'hang out'.


Gypsy Style Baked Eggs
(It's a Jamie!)

1 mild Chorizo, cut into 1cm slices
A couple of small handfuls of frozen Peas
4 Eggs
Slices of grilled Sourdough Bread, to serve

Roasted Tomato Sauce

500g Tomatoes, quartered
1/2 Carrot
1/4 Leek, cut into 4
1/2 Red onion chopped
3 Garlic cloves, roughly chopped
4 Parsley stalks
2 sprigs of Rosemary
1 Bayleaf
1 tsp Chilli Powder
1 tsbp Smoked Paprika
100ml White Wine
30ml Sherry Vinegar

For the roasted tomato sauce, place all the ingredients, apart from the wine and vinegar, onto a tray and roast at 200C for 25 minutes, or until the vegetables and tomatoes have coloured. Once everything is cooked, place a pan on high heat and add wine and vinegar. When reduced by half, add the vegetables and cook for a further minute or so, till well combined and thick. Blend with a handheld blender and season well.

Using a griddle pan, cook the chorizo slices for 1 minute on each side. Pour a good layer of sauce into an ovenproof dish. Add the chorizo and peas and crack in the eggs. Bake in the oven at 200C for 12 minutes, or until the whites are cooked but the yokes are runny. Serve with grilled sourdough toasts. Eat leisurely.

Sunday 25 December 2011

Love in Bethlehem, 11 000 Years Ago

This is my all time favourite object. I have posted this before. I bought my Da the CD of History of the World in 100 Objects for Christmas. I just found the story of this beautiful, beautiful treasure and played it. 

It is the Ain Sakhri lovers, and has formed part of the History of the World in 100 Objects series, narrated beautifully by Neil MacGregor.

The history of this object can be completely, and more thoroughly researched by clinking the link above. Here, I would like to tell you why I love it. But, if you really love this, listen to Neil talk about it. He is so precise with his words, you will never forget the story.

Where to start? It is made from 'chattered' stone. A pebble which has journeyed down stream, 'chattering' against other stones as it passes through the water. This has made the pebble smooth, its contact with others has rubbed off its hard edges, made it soft to the touch. At some point in the journey, someone, perhaps the person whose domestic and homely cave in which this figurine was found, picked this smooth stone from the cold waters and carved it into an image of human love. A couple locked in a sexual embrace. Smooth, calm, intimate.

It was found in the Ain Sakrhi cave, near Bethlehem. How amazing that the oldest representation of human love was found there! These lovers date from 8000bc, picked up by a traveling bedouin, sold to the French Fathers and acquired by Rene Neuville in 1958. The person who carved this beautiful image of lovers was a member of the Natufian people. Natufians are noted as being the first human beings to farm their food. They bred sheep and goats, and so had some understanding about the principles of reproduction. They hunted gazelle with their dogs, and gathered figs, acorns, pistachios, wild lentils, chick peas and wheat. As a lifestyle they had developed a way of staying in one place and producing an abundance of food. Naturally, this led to periods of reflection, thought and time to carve so beautiful and object.

It is amazing to me that in such moments of reflection so long ago, someone would have chosen to carve two people loving each other. Many anthropologists have argued that early human people did not have long term monogamous relationships. That sex was just a way of continuing the species, and that women grouped together to look after their offspring, whilst men headed out to hunt. This statue does not speak of that phenomenon. It is not possible to tell which of these figures is male, and which is female, they are so tightly embraced. They are looking into each others' eyes. One wraps their arms around the shoulder of the other, their legs are entwined. This, to me at least, is an image of love.

So, in conclusion, why to I really love this object? A chattering stone made a journey to Bethlehem, was picked out of the cold and moulded by a human hand into the form of love. And all of this happened because of the moment of reflection good food brought. Now, that is a perfect narration of how the world should be.

Friday 23 December 2011

Have a Happy and Holy Christmas

Wishing you all a peaceful time with your friends and family over the Christmas Holidays.

No recipes. Everyone has their own traditions for this great feast.

Here's hoping that we all can bring a little peace to those we spend our time with, take a little time to listen to those we love, and give a little help to those who need it. Enjoy the quiet moments.

January will bring many things, including the seasonal clear soups and fresh juices and recipes for feasts and fasts celebrated on a budget.

Have a happy and holy Christmas, and enjoy the beginning of the New Year.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Christmas Cookies (Revised Translation)

Christmas Cookies Recipe. (Revised Translation)

Christmas Cookies Recipe
(According to the Revised Translation)
Serves:  you and many.
Cream these ingredients, that by their comingling you may begin to make the dough:  1 chalice butter, 2/3 chalice sugar.
In a similar way, when the butter is consubstantial with the sugar, beat in:  1 egg.
Gather these dry ingredients to yourself and combine them, so that you may add them to the dough which you have already begun to make:  21/2 chalices sifted all-purpose flour, ½ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla.
Mix the precious dough with your venerable hands.
Into the refrigerator graciously place the dough so that it may be chilled, for the duration of 3 or 4 hours, before the rolling and cutting of the cookies.
When, in the fullness of time, you are ready to bake these spotless cookies, these delicious cookies, these Christmas cookies, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Roll out the dough and, taking up a cookie cutter or stencil of your choosing, fashion the cookies into pleasing forms.
Sprinkle colourful adornments over cookies like the dewfall.
Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the cookies have just begun to manifest the brownness that is vouchsafed to them by the oven’s heat.
May these cookies be found acceptable in your sight, and be borne to a place of refreshment at your table, there to be served with milk or hot chocolate, or with your spirit.

This is stolen from the Irish Association of Catholic Priests linked in the title, and came to me via a very good friend. I laughed. I hope you enjoy a giggle. 

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Father Christmas

Christmas Eve, 1993

It was 7.15 in the evening. Michel had just rung the Angelus the third time, following a late Vespers. Compline would be dropped to allow extra time for a midnight Mass, which was scheduled to begin at 10.45 and would be combined with Vigils. Paul was in the hotellerie, talking about the Croats with Gilles Nicolas and three African students, when three armed men entered the front door wearing army uniforms."Where is the Pope of this house?" the leader asked. He ordered Paul to go and find him.

One of the intruders turned to Nicolas. "Don't you know me? I was one of your students at university." While Paul went to find Christian, his former student tried to convince Nicolas that the monks should support their fight against the rotten regime. The montagnard added reassuringly, "You have nothing to fear. You are religious people."

Amedee was going to the kitchen to make himself an herb tea made from Linden leaves to help him sleep before Midnight Mass. On  his way there, he saw a man in khaki uniform and with a gun, leading Celestin and Paul across the inner courtyard. Amedee caught up with Celestin and asked in a whisper what the policeman wanted. "Can't you see, you fool, he's a terrorist!"

"You, everyone to the hotellerie," said the man, who turned toward Amedee and grabbed his sleeve. Amedee broke away, muttering that he had to close the main entrance gate, as he was circling back to go inside the main cloister he met Christian.

"They want to see you."
"I know. I am not in a hurry"

Amedee went in to the cloister and pulled the metal door behind him, leaving open a small crack that he could peer through.

They choose their time well, Christian reflected, as he walked to the hotellerie. It would be a publicity coup to kill nine monks on Christmas Eve. But he felt outrage, not fear, when he saw men with weapons inside the building.
"No one has ever come with a weapon into this house of peace," he admonished the man presented to him as le Chef. Christian turned the law on him. "Both you religion and mine forbid weapons in places of worship. If you want to talk here, you must leave your gun outside the building. Otherwise, we have to go outside."

The man followed Christian into the outer courtyard in front of the chapel, where the Virgin Mary stood with her arms extended in a gesture of welcome. He was thin and tall for an Algerian, made even taller by the Afghan turban covering his head, that complemented his bushy beard, dagger and bandoliers. he chopped the air frequently with his hands during the conversation. After fifteen minutes, the two walked back to the hotellerie, where another man joined them. Amedee was astonished to see both of them shake hands with Christian and then leave.

The incident was over by 8.00. Paul called it the visit of Father Christmas. When the montagnards left, Christian returned to the room with Gilles Nicolas where he repeated the conversation he had just had with Sayah Attia, the executioner of the Croats, and the emir of all combatants in the central region.

"We are religious, like you. we need your help, and you owe us your help." He had three demands. First, Luc was to go with them to take care of their wounded men.

"No, not that way. Luc is eighty years old. he has a bad heart and asthma. He will die if he goes. Send your wounded to the dispensary. Luc will treat them like everyone else." Attia demanded medical supplies.

"No, you can't take them, but they are available at the dispensary if your men need treatment." He wanted money. "The Church is rich."

"Who told you that? We have no money, and we are poor."

"You have no choice."

"Yes, we do. Anyway, we can't give you what we don't have. Ask the villagers. they know we live simply, only from the produce of the garden. you know the Koran. It is written that monks live modestly. that is why we are close to our neighbours." Surprised by Christian's intransigence, Attia walked back to the hotellerie, where two of his men waited.
"I am going to send someone back here. What is your name?"
"Then his password will be 'Monsieur Christian". Whatever my representative asks of you, you must give."
"Only as we have discussed, no more."
"You know", Christian added, "this is Christmas Eve. This is when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the son of Mary, whom we call Prince of Peace."

"Excuse me. I didn't know." Attia was taken aback by the reproach. As Christian reluctantly took their proffered hands, one of the men repeated, "You have nothing to fear. you are religious people. We do not consider you foreigners."

Monday 19 December 2011

If wishes were horses...

If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.

So says a particularly coarse old English saying from the 16th Century. I have been doing a lot of wishing lately. I wish I had more time to cook and blog and chill out with those I love. I wish I could spend everyday of my holidays quietly pottering around my kitchen making delicious things, with those I love casually relaxing on the sofa reading the papers, watching movies and making the odd joke to make me laugh. Rumour has it that this coarse saying is normally used to suggest that wishing is not much good unless you get up and do something to achieve your dreams. And, let's face it, my little wishes are fairly modest. All I need to do is persuade my loved ones to stay still for a little while and let me feed them. There is something about Christmas that makes us all speed up, just when all we want to do is slow down, cozy up on the sofa and enjoy the company of those we love most.

You know, if I had my way, I would make lots of little treats, ideal for eating with your hands whilst watching a film. The wind would howl, the rain would batter the windows and I would turn up the oven and advise the folks on the sofa to get under the blanket. There would be cake and sweet milky coffee. The crib would be lit up in the corner of the front room, quietly promising peace. Everything would be still. Perhaps the words of that prayer would come into my mind:
God of every nation: 
From the beginning of creation you have made manifest your love.
When our need of a saviour was great, you sent your Son to be born of Mary. To our lives He brings joy, peace, justice, mercy and love. Bless all who look upon your manger, may it remind us of the humble birth of Jesus, Our Emmanuel, and strengthen us to work for the joy, peace, justice, mercy and love that will be the coming of His Kingdom. Amen.
I like that one. There is nothing wishy washy there. Wishing involves getting up and doing something. Quite often, prayers do too. A peaceful finale to Advent with cosy sofa food? Looks like I am going have to create the menu, not too Christmassy just yet, we still must wait, but something that reassures, comforts and hugs. I might serve steak sandwiches and a glass or two of wine.

2x 300g (10 1/2 Oz) best quality rump steak
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 ciabatta loaf
a small handful of jarred red peppers
A couple of sprigs of parsley
A large handful of rocket
Horseradish sauce

Place the steaks on a board. Sprinkle with freshly ground salt and pepper, scatter with thyme leaves and drizzle with olive oil. Rub the flavours into the meat, then flip over and repeat on the other side. Warm the ciabatta at the bottom of a gentle oven. Pound the steaks once or twice with your fists to flatten them a little, then put them into a screaming hot griddle pan to cook for 1- 2 minutes. Finely chop the peppers on a large clean board. Move the cooked steaks to the board and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Finely chop a few parsley leaves, mixing them in with the peppers. Finely slice the steaks at an angle. Get the ciabatta out of the oven and slice it open lengthways. Drizzle with olive oil. Spread over the horseradish, then arrange the rocket leaves on one half. Lay the steak slice on top. Mix and scrape the peppers and juices from the board and scatter over the meat. Fold together and serve.

There might be a range of snacks available, including Guacamole and Tortilla crisps, a personal favourite of mine. I have never used a recipe for that though, always making it by instinct. Roughly, it goes:

3 ripe and soft Avocados
1 Red Onion very finely sliced (you may only use some of it, it can be quite strong)
2 cloves of Garlic, crushed and finely sliced
1 Red Chilli Pepper, deseeded and finely sliced (optional)
2 ripe Tomatoes, skinned in boiling water and finely sliced
1/2 teaspoon Cumin
1/2 teaspoon Coriander
1/2 teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/4 teaspoon Chilli Powder (optional)
salt and pepper
A squeeze of a lemon
A tablespoon of mayonnaise to help blend (optional)

Put all the ingredients together in a bowl, roughly crush by hand, then blend a little with a handheld blender.

Maybe I would have the Frijoles Refritos from my previous post, if I had the time to make them.

Later, I would have to have a little Tarta de Santiago and Cafe con Leche, made with good strong coffee and hot milk, sweetened with a little sugar.

After all that, I guess I would snuggle up under the blankets on the sofa, listen to the wind howling and the rain hammering the windows, take comfort from the peace of the crib shining from the corner of the room, and wait, wait, wait, for that long awaited, unexpected, holy night.

Friday 2 December 2011

The Unexpected Expected

How did Advent begin already? I am not expecting Christmas! Advent comes as the unexpected expected period of waiting. I still think summer was yesterday and that I have all the time in the world to accomplish the tasks I have set myself to be completed before the holidays. Perhaps that is why this morning I was caught up by this:

Rise up! Flee your preoccupations for a little while. Hide yourself for a time from your turbulent thoughts. Cast aside, now, your heavy responsibilities and put off your burdensome business. Make a little space free for God; and rest for a little time in him.
This is St. Anselm reminding us that every now and then we all need to take a break. The fact is, that break is often going to come at the same time as Christmas - the holidays. Advent, the time of preparation, whisks past us and we long for those moments of preciousness we share with our loved ones - a few snatched hours perhaps, or the time to write a love-filled letter. These are the treasures with which I celebrate Christmas. Advent, preparing to celebrate the great feast of love and light, is for me a time of longing. I feel more keenly my absence from those I want to spend my time with most. I feel the toll that busy - ness takes upon my life, I feel its cost. Advent is my time to re-align, to begin to set aside time to be with friends and family, a time to be with those I love, a time to be with God. Often, such time does is not possible before school breaks for the holidays, almost always a week before the 25th December. By that stage I am truly grateful for the rest and for the pleasure that being with friends and family gives.

When time finally comes I want to cook something slowly, and in the run up to Christmas I hate diets. So I offer you: Frijoles Refritos

I offer this because because it is the tastiest food I have eaten with friends when I last had the time to give them the time they deserve.

600g cooked black beans, with the cooking liquid reserved
50g butter or olive oil
1 white onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1/2 red chilli, finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped coriander roots and leaves
1 few fresh bay leaves

Sour cream
50g Lancashire Cheese, crumbled
Fresh coriander leaves
a knob of butter

Whiz the beans with a stick blender, adding just enough of the reserved cooking liquid to get a smooth, fairly thick puree.

Heat the fat in a heavy bottomed pan, and when it is gently foaming, add the onion. Season well with salt and pepper and sweat the onion until it is soft. Add the garlic, chilli and herbs, cooking further for a few minutes.

Add the pureed beans to the onion and cook for another 10 minutes, turning down the heat after a few minutes to very low and stirring constantly. Add the cooking liquid as required to keep a smooth puree that falls from a wooden spoon easily. Taste a season again. 

Season with sour cream, and scatter with crumbled cheese and fresh coriander leaves. Serve with tortilla chips, and all the other delicious things you can think of.

Wait patiently and seize the day. Take every moment that you can with your loved ones. Every second you have with them is a moment of preparation.

Cooking Black Beans

This takes 2 - 3 hours, but it is worth it.

250g Dried Black Beans
4 cloves of Garlic, bashed with a rolling pin
A few sprigs of Thyme
A few Bay leaves
fresh epazote or 1/4 teaspoon anise seeds (optional)
1 onion cut into quarters
1 tablespoon Sea Salt

Rinse the beans well in cold water and drain. If you have the time you can soak the beans overnight, which will reduce the overall cooking time. Place the beans in a large pan and cover with at keast 10cms of cold water.

Add the garlic, herbs and onion. Bring the water to the boil. Cook the beans until they are just soft, topping them up with boiling water if the water looks like it is boiling off, and skimming off any white foam that gathers on the surface. this can take anything from 2 - 3 hours, depending on whether you have soaked the beans overnight or not. At this stage, season the beans with salt and continue to cook for another 15 - 20 minutes so that beans absorb the flavour. If you add the salt at an earlier stage it prevents the beans from softening.

Drain the beans and remove the herbs, onion and garlic. Use as in recipe above. Enjoy.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Misty Morning at the end of the year

The Feast of Christ the King is my favourite. The end of the year. This morning I as woken early by Woodruff, a tiny new British Blue boy. We got up and looked across the church yard to the steeple at the end of the garden. It was wreathed in mist. The air still smelled faintly of the wood smoke that had filled it last night. Today is going to be a good day. Woodruff purred.

After a cup of tea, a bacon sandwich, a little listen to Andrew Marr on the telly, my thoughts turned to the day. I will not be going to Mass until this evening. During the day Ma, Da, Gemma and I would be joined by lots more family: brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews. Ma had been preparing a leg of lamb, boned by the butcher and stuffed with sausage meat and fresh herbs. There were going to be parsnip chips. Vegetarians were going to feast on mushroom pies with red currant jelly. There will be roast potatoes, broccoli, carrots and watercress. For pudding there is a big mince pie and cream and/ or a lemon butter cream and raspberry sponge. All in all, there will be a feast fit for a king. And, Ma had been very busy.

After all that food, I imagine we will all take a walk across the misty fields and look at the burning red sun as it sinks low into the sky. The Cotswold sheep will be huddling together round their round hay feeder, their soft oily wool damp in the evening air. Finally, having bid farewell to Woodruff and the family, I will drive through the early winter dark to Mass. To me, this is a perfect Sunday. I used to associate Christ the King with trying to organise various youth groups into a performance of 'the sheep and the goats', Matthew 25: 31-46. Now, I am happy to let the dramatic colours of the season guide my thoughts to the end of time, and the huddled wooly sheep show me the nature of community (sheep rarely go anywhere by themselves, even in the mist and the darkness), and the family feast remind me of the heavenly family feast.

Friday 4 November 2011

A notable figure


So, I was just doing some family research for my Dad and came across an old newspaper article in a cupboard, sadly not sourced, but dated - 24th June 1938. It is the obituary of my Great Uncle, James Hutton. The title of the article is, “A Notable Figure”. James Hutton was, at one time, a clerk of the Sinn Fein Courts. He is remembered at home because the British Army once came looking for him, and on not finding him, ordered the furniture to be put out and the house torched. Fortunately, the local parish priest had previously served in the first world war and knew the commanding officer. He saved the day.
Anyhow, his obituary….quite amazing for a grocer from Tramore.
James Hutton, whose death in the midst of his life, is chronicled in this issue, was a notable man. I met him when the great adventure of his life was over - he played his part as a member of the IRA, had suffered imprisonment, and, released, had after his marriage, set his mind to building up a livelihood in the New Ireland he had helped, with all his might, to create. But, although the Great Adventure was over, it remained the inspiration of his life always. His mind dwelled much in the past, in the green pastures of the farm whereon he spent his childhood, and among the memories of this forefathers about the great events which helped to shape his life, and that of all Irishmen of today. He spoke often of the land war, recounting tales repeated by the fireside by his own people, tales of landlord tyranny and of the bravery and dauntlessness of the oppressed.
He possessed to an unusual degree a hatred of injustice. Any suspicion of it, wherever he found it - and he was no respecter of persons - brought from him denunciation, sometimes passionate in its intensity. He despised the trappings of tryranny as much as he loathed the thing itself. For this reason he gave no rest to the snob, to the seoinin, to the overbearing: for the bigot he reserved the full tide of his wrath. For this trait he was not popular in some quarters. But he would have despised himself had he earned his popularity at the expense of his convictions.
The fervour of his beliefs, however, in no wise warped his judgment. In discussing with me every crisis which marked the period (eventful politically speaking) since the day he opened his business here he displayed ripe wisdom and perfect national outlook.
In winter months, when Tramore becomes just a spot in the country, and ceases to be a roaring seaside resort of the modern kind, an active mind and restless spirit such as James Hutton possessed attracted people. He was a ready and sincere talker, a debater of no mean power: and he never spoke about anything that failed to interest him or his listener. He read much and was an able and liberal minded critic of what he read. A point of interest is that he firmly held with that school of thought which does not reject imitations of a spirit world all about us. To walk with him in the Celtic twilight, among the Sand Hills near Tramore, where the eerie background is appropriate, was to be tempted to share his other-world ideas.
I can remember many a winter night spent in the entertainment of listening to him. One time, with a vividness absolutely fascinating, he described to me various episidodes in his native county. Some of the things he told me which were incidents in which he played a part: others were true stories of a distinct traditional value. His stories of eccentric landlords and Ascendancy folk supplied a valuable picture of the Ireland of yesterday out of which the Ireland of today was grown. Incidentally these stories would furnish plots for novelists and dramatists possessing the divine afflatus without any theme around which to weave it. He told me he had kept a diary or scrap book and I think that, if it were extant, it is sure to be worthwhile. I failed to get as much as a sight of it: for the keeper of this diary was so modest that he feared his lack of literary skill would render what he had recorded unworthy of reproduction.
Another topic was the national games. The GAA Year Book was as interesting to him as the latest cinema play to the average young man or woman today. He held sound views about farming, and was fond of exposing false views. He told amusing anecdotes - as well as anecdotes of a grim realism - about life on the land. He was one who regretted keenly the decay of countrylife…
I feel, as I write, like one who has talked far into the night with a warm-hearted friend. And, in the silence, as I look up, I become aware that the fire has gone out.
24th June 1938

Thursday 27 October 2011

My song

I haven't composed any songs lately, but it was raining when I woke up. And, I marked a few exams in which the holy words of my students 'tear and fail to rhyme'. My head is full of songs I can't believe. This is the tune that has been in my head this birthday. It appears though, all these years, I have been making up a word. I was truly surprised to read: 'To England where my heart lies'. I always understood those words as: 'to inlend where my heart lies'. I must have heard this song as a small child. I thought 'inlend' meant to 'discern'. I always thought that word existed. It took me to today to discover it doesn't.  

This song is is beautiful, and it echoes my present and my childhood - it is a favourite of my parents! Read the lyrics. Listen to the song. They are beautiful.

I hear the drizzle of the rain
Like a memory it falls
Soft and warm continuing
Tapping on my roof and walls.

And from the shelter of my mind
Through the window of my eyes
I gaze beyond the rain-drenched streets
To England where my heart lies.

My mind's distracted and diffused
My thoughts are many miles away
They lie with you when you're asleep
And kiss you when you start your day.

And a song I was writing is left undone
I don't know why I spend my time
Writing songs I can't believe
With words that tear and strain to rhyme.

And so you see I have come to doubt
All that I once held as true
I stand alone without beliefs
The only truth I know is you.

And as I watch the drops of rain
Weave their weary paths and die
I know that I am like the rain
There but for the grace of you go I.

Saturday 22 October 2011

The thin veil of Samhain - summer's end

This is one of my favourite times of year. I love the smell of fire in the night air, coal and wood on a crisp cool wind. Retreating to the complete darkness of the Oxfordshire Cotswolds is a particular treat - walking silently in a darkness so dark you cannot see your own hand of front of your eyes. The summer has ended, a new season has begun.

There are so many traditional foods associated with this time of year, I do not know where to begin. Last year I helped to make Pumpkin Korroke for a special Japanese birthday party, and there were Soul Cakes too. It is tempting to do something similar. However, I have been thinking along different lines of late.

For me, this haunting season, which is so brief and could so easily be missed - Halloween, All Souls and All Saints - is, more than anything else, a time of preparation. The thin veil of Samhain - the recollection of the connection between the living and the dead - reminds me that life is short - sometimes cruelly so, every moment we have here is one to be celebrated and enjoyed. Samhain reminds me that our life here is a preparation for our life there (wherever there is), and the veil between the two worlds is thin. There is a beautiful church in Widford, near here. St. Oswald's is isolated, it sits lonely in a field, surrounded by a low dry stone wall and curious cattle. As you approach it, you begin to notice that the shape of the land is strange. The odd shaped mounds of grass on which the cattle graze form a pattern. St. Oswald's was once in the centre of a busy village, but it was abandoned in the Middle Ages as a result of the Black Plague. Now, the Church is all there is, built in the 12th Century and still standing strong. On the walls inside are some badly damaged frescos from the 14th Century. The best preserved is the cautionary tale of the Spectres and Kings: 'As you are, so were we: and as we are, so you will be'. Part of me would like to walk to this church in torchlight on the night of Halloween, the longest and darkest night of the year, just to sit for a few moments in the stillness and feel the past.

As the evenings and mornings have become dark two songs have been whirling around my head. The first is, perhaps, not that strange for the time of year: Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom, lead thou me on. The night is dark and I am far from home, lead thou me on (Newman). The other, has arrived in my consciousness a few months early: A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks, a new and glorious morn! Fall on your knees, hear the angel voices. Oh night divine! Oh night when Christ was born! (Cappeau). It is the combination of these two tunes flying around my brain that has brought me to the decision to write a recipe for Halloween that will not be ready until Christmas. Summer is over and a time of preparation is upon us. Winter is coming, but hope springs eternal.

In the fields and in the kitchen preparation begins with harvesting, and is closely followed by storing and preserving. I find that by far the best way to do this is to make delicious drinks. Today, Sloe Gin. Ruby red and sweet fruit is a potent reminder of sun drenched country lanes when you open it in front of a winter fireplace! There is something beautifully appropriate about spending the night when the veil between the living and dead is thinnest preparing a drink to toast the coming of the new dawn at Christmas. It speaks to the gothic romantic in me.

1 pint Gin (doesn't need to be the expensive stuff)
2 - 3lbs Sloes
about 1lb Granulated Sugar

You should pick the sloes after the first frost has softened them, but in the temperate weather of this year - I wish you luck! In the valley leading down to St. Oswald's there is a wealth of sloe berries, so I am going to get mine from there. Wash your berries carefully and prick them all over with a sterilised needle. Almost half fill screw top bottles with the fruit. Add enough sugar to just cover them, and then fill the bottle with Gin. Leave in  a dry, dark place for six weeks (at least), shaking the bottle and turning upside down carefully once or twice a week to dissolve the sugar. At the end of this time the juices should have run freely and the Gin turned into a warm ruby-red colour. Strain into a jug, then pour into smaller bottles to seal ready for Christmas. Do not discard the fruit! It will be liquor soaked, can be frozen for use later or used straight away. Simmer it in a pot until it is very soft and use it as a base for ice cream, make a cake with it, turn it into a rich red sauce to accompany meats, cheeses or pies!