When I was small we grew rhubarb in the back garden. Whatever variety it was – we had sourced the crown from some friend or relative so there were no labels – it grew gigantic stems, as thick as a baby’s wrist, topped by enormous leaves that we thought looked like child-sized umbrellas. I was never a fan: it was so stringy that it had to be peeled before cooking and I was always extremely dubious about any fruit or vegetable that did such a good job of shining the inside of the saucepan in which it was cooked.
As a child, autumn was one of my favourite times of year. Going back to school was much eased by the fact that there were blackberries available for eating on nearby hedges, crab apples down the fields to be gathered and plenty of field mushrooms to be picked. This year, Little Missy in her sling for our daily walks, trying to grab any bramble that comes near her, we’ve been keeping an eye out for plump sloes and watching as the elderberries ripen, while eating lots of blackberries.
Last year, on a trip to London, I picked up a spork – a light plastic utensil which features a spoon at one end, fork at the other and serrated knife edge on the fork side – in a kitchenware shop and I’ve rarely been without it since. The last quarter of 2008 was taken up with train trips to Dublin as I worked on the Foodtalk documentary series and, food on the train being what it is – or isn’t – my spork was invaluable.
When we were in college, the Brother’s Housemate came from a catering household. His mother used to make hundreds of superb Christmas cakes and puddings each year, cook for parties and events and, most importantly to us, make the best Caramel Squares known to students.Living on an unbroken biscuit diet of Cadbury’s Chocolate Fingers – our habitual study food (oh, the excitement when a white chocolate variety came on the market) – these were manna from heaven. Every time the Brother’s Housemate was able to sneak or was given (we never knew, never asked) a box of them, we would descend on his house like a plague of biscuit-seeking locusts.
When we had the Mallow Farmers’ Market taking place outside Urru last summer, I never missed the chance to pick up a pack of Old Millbank Smokehouse hot smoked trout from Geraldine Bass. Saturday mornings in work were always busy so I had to watch for a gap between customers to make a dive out of the shop before all the good stuff was gone. Geraldine would also have her smoked salmon and, for a real treat, some very fine smoked salmon pâté but I always made a beeline for the trout, a much underrated ingredient and one that I’d pick any day over smoked salmon.
I’ve always liked to bake. As soon as I was old enough to co-ordinate reading recipes and using a wooden spoon, I was anxious for any cake-making excuse – and most of them involved copious amounts of chocolate. Over the years there have been many good chocolate cakes, from my early attempts using chocolate-flavoured cake covering and marg to (when I started paying for my own shopping!) butter and 70% dark chocolate. This cake, however, although it may not look like much, stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Here’s a desert that’s perfect eaten outside in the late evening sunshine – or to cheer up a rainy day. There’s no real need for quantities as the amounts depend on how many people you are trying to make the strawberries stretch between, how big the glasses are and how greedy your audience!Chop up the fruit before dinner and toss with the sugar so that the juices start to run then assemble the sundaes just before eating so that the biscuits don’t get soggy. With each mouthful of sweet fruit, fragrant juice, cool yoghurt and almond crunch you could be almost forgiven for thinking that it’s summertime.
Driving to Galley Head Lighthouse is a bit like a magical mystery tour. Although easy to see from a variety of locations along the West Cork coast, the lighthouse – like an ever-receeding mirage – seems to disappear from sight the closer you get. Eventually, however, after driving constantly south of Clonakilty, past numerous private property signs and along a low-lying road, protected on either side by stone walls, you get to where you can drive no further. The lighthouse stands at the tip of a peninsula, surrounded by the sea, and the lighthouse keeper’s house that we were staying in is part of a two-sided structure that shelters the parking area at the front from the northern and western winds.