Believe it or not, on some days in Ireland it rains. And this morning, looking out the window, it was clear it was one of those days. A perfect day, I thought, for trying out a new recipe from the latest addition to my shelf of cookery books.
I love these books. Although some are scattered in various locations around the house, mostly they reside in my kitchen, brightening the room with their multicoloured jackets. They do show signs of ‘lived life’, otherwise know as wear and tear. When I open them, I love perusing the little lists and descriptions of utensils and store cupboard ingredients at the start; scanning the succinct and sometimes intriguing recipes; and feasting my eyes on the photographs in full colour of the final artistry to aspire to.
These photographs are designed, of course, to appeal to our appetites. I once attended a talk about food photography, hosted by my local Barnes and Noble bookshop, when I lived in North Carolina. In those days, I used to love browsing the shelves at foodie emporium Southern Season in Chapel Hill which quite recently closed its doors, and I was a regular subscriber to Condé Nast’s Bon Appétit magazine. The food photography talk was a revelation. I was horrified to learn, for example, that even in the days before Instagram, washing up liquid was painted onto unsuspecting roast chickens to make them look more attractive!
Nevertheless, I still have a penchant for cookery books, and these days for foodie Instagram too. I am happy to report that, over the years, kind friends and family have remembered this when choosing gifts at Christmas and birthdays. If the truth be told, we are wee a bit ‘foodie’ as families go. My wonderful brother and sister-in-law are definitely foodies, and both fantastic cooks. We have eaten great food around their table over the years, and they have often given us cookery books as presents. I think I am right in saying that we we are indebted to them for introducing us, way back, to the family fun of the inimitable Jamie Oliver, most especially his traybake suppers. And they certainly introduced us to the engaging prose and scrumptiously rich recipes of Nigel Slater’s Real Food (his Peter Gordon’s Sweet Potato, Rosemary and Garlic Mash is a stunner and a staple in our house with roast lamb). More recently, they introduced us to Yotam Ottolenghi, and so I hold them at least partly responsible for my pilgrimages to his delectable London bakeries anytime I’m in town.
In terms of my own cooking, I tend to gravitate towards achievable recipes that prioritise fresh ingredients, in season if possible, and dishes that are not only great to eat but, importantly, easy to serve to a family of five plus a few! I particularly enjoy finding out about and trying local specialities when I can on my travels. For me, then, County Antrim educated Diana Henry’s food is an utter delight. I recommend her inspiring Instagram account, combining her love of travel and great restaurants, and her own expertise in creating delicious food. I love making meals from her book From the Oven to the Table.
I have digressed slightly from the scone-making -in-the-rain that inspired this post. It turns out there is quite a lot to say about food. And judging from the popularity of the story of my Mum’s Irish wheaten bread, readers find it interesting too. Perhaps there is scope for a bit more food writing in months to come!
For now, to the scones. Over the Easter break I had the opportunity to call in to Ballymaloe House in County Cork. I was first introduced to the joys of Ballymaloe by my good friend Pauline when we attended a cookery school course together a number of years ago. That experience was such a treat, especially the breakfast table laden with home made Irish breads, butter and jams. This time round I decided to purchase a copy of Myrtle Allen’s classic Ballymaloe Cookbook.
Hence the scones. Baking bread and scones is a true Irish tradition. Just this week, with my Literary Studies students I’ll be reading Seamus Heaney’s ‘Sunlight’ the first of ‘Mossbawn: Two Poems in Dedication’, written in memory of his Aunt, Mary Heaney. As I follow Myrtle Allen’s tried and tested scone recipe on this rainy Saturday morning, I remember Heaney’s evocative images: the sunlight in the empty kitchen; his Aunt’s floury apron; her hands scuffling over the bake board; ‘love / like a tinsmith’s scoop / sunk past its gleam / in the meal-bin.’
My rainy-day scones turned out pretty good, but like any art form, practice makes perfect, and I have some way to go before they resemble more closely the beautifully-risen morning scones at Ballymaloe: crisp and golden on the outside with their light, cake-like, buttery interiors.
In this part of Ireland, a scone goes hand in hand with real dairy butter and jam, and, for special occasions only, a little dollop of whipped cream. Importantly, they are often best served with a good cup of tea, which, as Jonathan Rea reminded Radio 4 Prayer for the Day listeners recently, is a true home comfort.