Standing on a wobbly kitchen chair to reach the mixing bowl, apron wrapped twice round my middle and my tongue taking a snatched opportunity to explore the rough texture of a well-used wooden spoon: food memories.
While cooking can sometimes be reduced to just feeding, small people around your ankles as you try to cobble something edible together, baking is always different. It’s a luxury, an indulgence, a search for lost times – that warm childhood kitchen – through the flavour of vanilla, the sensation of leafing through an old cookbook, the texture of a cake batter as you stir. It’s also an effort to claim those memories for the next generation, to give our own children a safe base from where to fly.
When Aoife Carrigy asked me to contribute to a For Food’s Sake event entitled Food Memories: a taste of personal palate-shaping experiences, the question was: what memory to choose? In the end, via the good (roasting field mushrooms on the Aga at my Nana’s house) and the bad (being made to sit for endless hours in front of plates of potatoes), I got to the formative: baking our family favourite Porter Cake with my mother from the McDonnells First Good Food Cookbook by Paula Daly.
On the top of the Big Blue Bus on a sunny afternoon at this year’s Dingle Food Festival, I brought the memory full circle. These days, it’s always the Husband’s Eight Degrees Knockmealdown Porter that I use in the cake so we had the sound of the bottle opening, the rich nutty scent of roasted barley, warm aromas from Green Saffron mixed spice and – unlike when I was a child! – we had the beer to taste. The precious cookbook was there to look at and we had hunks of Knockmealdown Porter Cake to eat. Making food memories, and passing them on.
With recipes like Parsnip Cake and Blackened Cajun Chicken, it’s not just food memories in the The Irish Countrywoman’s Association Cookbook, edited by Aoife Carigy and published by Gill & Macmillan – but it’s a good spot to start if you want to try making some for yourself and your own family.
There’s always an air of giddy anticipation about the Dingle Food Festival, especially in the run up to the announcement of the Blas na hEireann award winners. A special congratulations this year to Cork pie-maker Úna Martin, winner of the Bord Bia supreme champion title award. But you don’t have to be involved in the awards to enjoy the event, with plenty of workshops, demos and especially the brilliant taste trail to check out. This year, a €20 book of tickets allowed you access to 64 stops around town, with restaurants, jewellery shops and art galleries offering tastes of everything from fast fishy treats, Sloeijto cocktails, Lorge chocolates, scoop-your-own Murphy’s ice cream and – so good I was back there twice – raclette from Maja Binder’s perfectly formed Little Cheese Shop. At this year’s festival I was a guest of Blas na hEireann.
Knockmealdown Porter Cake
225g muscavado sugar
275mls porter or stout – try Knockmealdown Porter, Dark Arts Porter, Porterhouse Plain or O’Hara’s Irish Stout
700g dried fruit – I use a mixture that’s heavy on sultanas and raisins, with a handful of dried apricots, dried cranberries and even a few prunes included in the weight
100g mixed cut peel, or 50g mixed cut peel and 50g glace cherries
575g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon bread soda/bicarbonate of soda
1 1/2 teaspoons mixed spice
A good grating of nutmeg
3 eggs, beaten
Preheat your oven to 160°C (160°C fanbake) and line 2 x 900g loaf tins with greaseproof paper.
Put the porter, sugar and butter into a large saucepan, put over a medium heat and, stirring regularly, dissolve the sugar and melt the sugar. Allow to come to the boil, then add the dried fruit and mixed peel and simmer for 5 minutes.
Remove from the heat and tip into a large bowl so that it cools quickly. In a separate large bowl, sift the flour, bread soda and spices together. Make a space in the centre. Stir the eggs into the cooled fruit/porter mixture, then add the dry ingredients. Mix well.
Divide between the two tins and bake in the preheated oven for between 1¼ and 1½ hours until the cake feels springy and a skewer comes out clean from the centre.
Makes 2 x 900g loaves.