17 March: St Patrick

‘….That last pagan king of Ireland, Cormac in the schoolpoem choked himself at Sletty southward of the Boyne. Wonder what he was eating. Something galoptious. Saint Patrick converted him to Christianity. Couldn’t swallow it all however.’
James Joyce (1882-1941) ‘Ulysses’

Here's the post I did last year for St Patrick's Day, there'll be a new post tomorrow but in the meantime enjoy this reprise.....

Before I ever went to Ireland in my late twenties I heard about it from my Uncle Aidan; my father's sister's husband. He came from Killough, a seaside village on the border between Ulster and the south. The son of the village schoolmaster and the grandson of a lighthouse keeper, he could mend anything and he’d read everything. He lit up my childhood in an extraordinary way, gave me free run of his book shelves and the two of us had a little private book club until his death. Not long after he died I swear I saw him on York railway station – a very weird experience.

I love Irish food. Some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in my life have been in Ireland. My Proustian moment was a supper of crubeen, boiled potatoes and two sorts of soda bread with Irish butter. We ate it on a trestle table in the back room of a pub, with a plastic washing up bowl in the corner to rinse your hands after holding the pig’s trotters. And then there was the turbot at a posh restaurant in Dublin, and the seafood restaurants in Kinsale and the best, the very best chowder at a tiny pub on the Dingle peninsula overlooking the Blaskets - a bowl of snowy white soup with the delicate coral of a scallop its only decoration.

Of course there wasn’t always delicious food in Ireland. Sir Robert Peel, in one of the most passionate and tragic speeches ever heard in the House of Commons, said this in 1845.

‘Good God! are you to sit in cabinet, and consider and calculate how much diarrhea, and bloody flux, and dysentery, a people can bear before it becomes necessary for you to provide them with food?’
The speech and its consequences cost him his job and its failure to be heard cost tens of thousands of Irish men, women and children their lives.

I have a wonderful cast iron skillet. It was left on a wall at the back of a car park near the Cliffs of Moher which rise up dramatically from the Atlantic in County Clare. The pan was there when we arrived, and several hours later when we came back from a long walk it was still there, with the remains of someone’s breakfast oatmeal still in it. At that point I decided to give it a good home. So I think I need to use it in the recipe to celebrate St Patrick. Irish potatoes are the best in the world; they make even the most delicious ones you grow in your own back yard taste of straw. This is a traditional Irish recipe.

Boil floury potatoes and keep warm. Chop a bunch of spring onions finely (including some of the green bits) and fry gently in butter until soft. Mash the potatoes (I put them through a ricer – infallible) and add hot milk and all the onions to make a soft consistency, season well, then beat for a minute with a wooden spoon. Melt some butter in a pan until liquid, skim off the scummy bits and pour into jug leaving the milk solids behind. Serve the potatoes steaming hot, as you do make a well in the centre of each portion and pour in the melted butter. Dip a forkful into the butter with every mouthful. This is great with really good sausages and black pudding.

Something galoptious indeed.

NB Traditionally stelk is made by simmering the onions in the milk. I have never managed to do this without the milk splitting and leaving curdy bits all over the onions - very unappetising. Similarly the butter looks better strained of its milk solids.

Good smells exude from crumbled earth
The rough bark of humus erupts
Knots of potatoes (a clean birth)
Whose solid feel, whose wet inside
Promises taste of ground and root.
To be piled in pits; live skulls, blind eyed.

Seamus Heaney b1939 ‘At a Potato Digging’.


kate said...

Wonderful! Love this post Liz. I too have Irish roots deep in potato fields. My father from the borders, a place called Ballybay, made the best potatoes ever - boiled in their skins in loads of salt, peeled and then left to keep warm soaked in butter (salty of course) in the warming over. I will make the Stelk - it sounds delicious. Beautifully written - thank you Kate x

jojacaranda said...

Loving this blog Liz - the photos are fantastic, so professional, and the historical and literary background research makes it all the more special. And I also don't have to make the recipes to enjoy them!!
Looking forward to the next installment,

Anonymous said...

I was looking for a recipe for Stelk and thus, have come across this posting. Love your medieval illustration and your cast iron skillet. I will be making this dish today to go with the other St. Patrick's Day fixings. Just last year I learned of this dish. My maiden name is Stelk, family emigrated from Germany, but perhaps they originated in Ireland!
Thanks for a lovely photo of Stelk, and Happy St. Paddy's Day!

Liz said...

Thanks so much for all the great comments..and a Happy St Patrick 2011 to all..