Thursday, October 28, 2010


As I drive through my neighborhood every day, there are constant reminders that I need to buy my candy for the droves of 'Trick-Or-Treaters' arriving this coming Sunday ! Peoples gardens are decorated with pumpkins, giant wall spiders,trees with cob webs,tombstones and cobwebs ! Far from the Halloween I grew up with in Ireland. Costumes are a huge business as are costume parties & pumpkin carvings. An array of action heroes, princesses,fairies & Disney characters will knock for hours and the likleyhood of me seeing someone dressed in nothing more than a black garbage bag is pretty slim ! That was what I wore ! Yes, we had to make our own, so we cut slits in the garbage bag for our arms and made masks in school from empty cereal boxes.....! 'Samhain' was the name given to the ancient Celtic festival on November 1st, the first day of winter. This was a pagan festival as it is believed it began in Ireland around 100AD. 'Samhain' means end of summer and the pagans believed the spirits would return on the eve of 'Samhain', so to stave off these evil spirits they lit bonfires. Back to the pumpkins. There is a myth in Ireland which tells the story of a mean blacksmith by the name of Jack. Jack had drinks with the devil and Jack did not want to pay for the drinks so tricked the devil into transforming himself into a coin ! Jack placed the coin in his pocket next to a cross to protect himself. He bargained with the devil to leave him alone for a year and when he died to not take his soul. When Jack died ,the devil tricked him and not only was Jack refused entry into heaven but the devil also refused him entry into hell ! So, Jack was banished into the dark to forever wander. The devil threw him some burning embers from hell to light his way and Jack carved a turnip and placed the burning embers inside. He was referred to as 'Jack of the Lantern'. The Irish carved potatoes and turnips and placed a light inside to ward off evil spirits. In later years when the Irish immigrated to America they brought with them , this myth and tradition. They soon adapted using the pumpkin instead of turnips !

Centuries ago the poor of Ireland would go door to door collecting money so that when they got home they could celebrate Halloween. Fast forward to today where the kids go door to door 'Trick-or-Treating' getting goodies or loot to have when they get home !
Among the many games and customs was and still is the traditional 'Barm Brack'. In Irish it is called 'Bairin Breac'. Bairin means loaf and Breac means speckled hence the speckled loaf. Among the many games this loaf was used as a fortune telling game ! How? Well, this sweet bread loaf which was made from flour,yeast and raisins was filled with little surprises. When you had a slice there were little trinkets baked inside such as a 'Ring' which meant you would marry and be happy, 'Pea' which meant poverty, 'Bean' which signified wealth, 'Stick' which meant your husband would beat you... Lovely ! Needless to say , we all wanted the ring !
So, this year I made this 'Barm Brack' for my kids. Traditionally this is a bread, requiring yeast but there are many quick and easy recipes which make a delicious treat . Try a slice with slatherings of 'Kerrygold'butter ! .
I soak my fruit in cold tea. Each and every day I still make my pot of 'Barry's Tea',a famous Irish Tea originating from my hometown of Cork. Easy to spot in a red box in most grocery stores over here ! Of course,there was another reason I grew up on 'Barry's Tea', my family...Peter Barry was once upon a time , Minister For Foreign Affairs and my family, The Whelans, were and still huge supporters. Indeed my own mother spent many an evening campaigning for him !
When I travel around the U.S teaching in the cooking schools, I like to scout out 'Barry's Tea' and make a pot for those attending my class. Simply refreshing.
Reserve a cup and a half to soak your dried fruit in overnight.. It serves two purposes. It moistens and plumps the fruit and adds a wonderful flavor. So, later tonight my kids will have a slice of this , but I wonder if the excitement will be the same as it was for me...............?

Monday, October 18, 2010


Wednesday, day 3 and my personal tour guides arrived to take me to Fota House & Gardens! Yes, Ted & Gary Murphy were taking me to Fota. It had been years since my last visit so I was completely surprised when they drove to Monkstown, boarded a ferry and were there in no time at all. Progress !
To be absolutely truthful, at first I simply thought we were in a traffic jam as opposed to a queue for the ferry !

Fota Island used to be a regular venue for school trips and family days out for me, but returning with the advantage of age sheds a completely different light on this magnificent place. As soon as we parked our car, I noticed throngs of kids in school buses had descended also. Had it really been that long ago since I too was a school kid. I remember wanting to get off the bus so that I could find somewhere to run wild not cherishing the idea of touring another historical home ! This time was different.

The history of Fota is intertwined with the story of the Smith Barry family whose members developed the house and estate. They first came to the area in the late 12th century as part of the Anglo-Norman invasion. We walked through the back halls and backstairs of this historical house. Meandering through this house we eventually arrived in the old kitchen, again one of my favorite places to be. There was a carousel in the middle for hanging the game brought in from the estate. In large country houses ,as much food as possible was produced at home. It had a home farm with hot houses,orchards and vegetable gardens. Huge lead-lined boxes were used for salting hams, beef and bacon. This was quite rare and is one of the signs of the outstanding quality of Fota House.

An arboretum was developed at Fota in the 1840's. It coincided with the great plant hunting expeditions that went on around the world bringing back specimens from the Orient, North West America and South America. Fota Island is very well sheltered, has a mean annual rainfall of 41 inches and has an ideal temperature range with frost being rare. A walk through these magnificent gardens is a must.

Three hours had flown by and it was time to move on. We were headed for the city. We had worked up quite an appetite and where better to eat than the 'English Market'.................