Two New Irish Cookbooks and an Old One... Plus Delicious Ugliness
Recipes for a Nervous Breakdown
by Sophie White (Gill)
It’s certainly an arresting title, if a bit misleading. These are not recipes that are in danger of inducing a nervous breakdown but ones that, in various ways, have helped the author recover from the psychological chaos induced by recreational drugs.
If that sounds a bit gloomy, it’s also misleading. Sophie White is one of those unusual people who have many talents. She trained as a sculptor in Dublin, went off to New Zealand to cook, ended up rattling the pans at Bibi’s in Dublin and has managed to hone her skills as a writer. And, my goodness, she really can write.
She does so in a loose, free-flowing kind of way that yet retains the kind of discipline required to get to the point. This book is a memoir of difficult times and moments of joy and the centrality of food to everything.
It’s also about the need to indulge ourselves, if only a bit, and – I’m reading between the lines here – the negativity of guilt.
Baked sausages with pears and blue cheese, as it happens, is perhaps my favourite recipe in this comforting book, clearly produced by a real person for real people. It’s a joy.
A Taste of Home
by Catherine Fulvio (Gill)
Catherine Fulvio, whom I’ve adored since doing a live Christmas broadcast with her from the old kitchen at Farmleigh a few years ago, has produced a book that must have been well under way before this Scandinavian concept of hygge went mainstream.
(If you’re puzzling as to what it is, may I just ask the rhetorical question “What is Google for?”)
Well, it’s all about Irish hygge, the comfort of proper home-cooked food and many of the recipes here such as The Murrough Posh Fish Pie and Ballyknocken’s Famous Rhubarb and Ginger Jam bring back childhood memories. Others, like Polenta and Parsley Parsnip Chips and Kale, Canellini and Potato Soup are midly hipster while Peppered Sirloin Steak With Whiskey Cream Sauce and Lamb Wellington, but for its wild garlic sauce, could be things that came out of Hostess trolleys in the 1970s. Except much much better now, of course.
This is not a just a book of ideas, it also has practical advice on, literally, how to cook fish and how to cook meat and how to start a herb garden. Recipes are eminently clear, reflecting Catherine Fulvio’s talent at teaching and there’s a missionary zeal at work, quiet and convincing, that is so much more compelling than the breathless enthusiasm of too many sleb chefs.
The Cookin' Woman: Irish Country Recipes and Others
by Florence Irwin (Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1949)
The introduction to this book was written by St John Ervine, the now almost forgotten Irish dramatist, who describes the author’s crusade “to revive the custom, now nearly obsolete, of civilised eating.”
Florence Irwin trained in Edinburgh at the legendary Atholl Crescent cookery school (just like my mother-in-law after she was demobbed from the WAAF) and was sent straight after to County Down where she taught cookery for the Department of Agriculture. It was here that she became known as The Cookin’ Woman. (A very small boy once asked his mother “Who’s thon, Ma?” and got the reply “Whisht, she’s the cookin’ woman who teaches them to make buns”).
She was, as he later said, “an itinerant instructress” between 1905 and 1913 and later became the cookery columnist with The Northern Whig, her first book, Irish Country Recipes, appearing in 1936.
The Cookin’ Woman, first published in 1949, is a remarkable read: part memoir, part food history, part practical instructions. Indeed it’s the only book we have in our large collection that includes instructions for cooking limpets. (“Slowly bring to the boil. Drain. Eat as they are or dip in oatmeal and fry”. I wonder.)
Florence was obviously someone with an insatiable interest in food and the lore of food and, in common with Sophie White but in a very different way, she was a mistress of fine prose style.
The book was republished in 1992 by Blackstaff Press but even first editions are available for next to nothing on AbeBooks.co.uk.
by Richard Horsey and Tim Wharton (Hurst)
Ugliness is, to en extent, in the eye of the beholder and by no means all of the food featured in this new and pleasantly eccentric book could be considered hard on the eye. Rabbits, for example, can look quite cute (not to me, thanks to their predations on my vegetable crops, and perhaps not when skinned and beheaded) and even octopus can have a certain aesthetic charm.
So the title is something of a conceit while the subtitle is a more accurate guide to what to expect: Overlooked and Undercooked. Here you will will find recipes for such dishes as Lao Chicken Feet Salad (which is very good – I’ve had a version of this), horse mackerel escabeche, mangel-wurzel confit and squirrel rilletes, to name but a few.
Horsey and Wharton’s prose is the antithesis of the composed-by-numbers stuff you find in the books allegedly written by celebrity chefs. This is real, from the heart and definitely from the kitchen (as distinct from an anonymous recipe developer).
I love their enthusiasm for canned sardines (“mashed with an equal quantity of unsalted butter, a generous pinch of cayenne and some lemon juice…”); I love the fact that one chapter heading is simply “Cheeks and Feet” and I’m impressed by their obsession with rabbit (considered a form of fish by the Medieval church, apparently).
And the random pieces of useless but fascinating information:
“Squirrel brain bonjela: An old remedy for teething babies was to rub their gums with squirrel brains. Brains have no known analgesic properties, but if someone smashed open a squirrel’s head and and shoved the goo in your mouth, you’d probably shut up too.”
So, not just full of great recipes (including southern fried gizzards, spiced squirrel popcorn, sheep’s trotters with avgolemono, head salad) this book is a darn good read and you will be a better informed eater by the end of it. Highly recommended.