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Tuesday 12 December 2017

Con Houlihan: Fresh food was the order of the day

All dogs are house guardians, but some more than others. We had a dog one time, a fox terrier, who seemed to think that minding our front door was his chief mission in life.

No matter where he was, when he heard the gate open, he sped around and probably broke a terrier's record for whatever distance he covered. He was a strange dog. You could say that he was a socialist. He was a great friend to the working class and to the non-working class.

In simple language, he distinguished between those he welcomed and those he didn't favour. Those who were well dressed and smelled well were not his favourites. If Rex didn't like their appearance, he wouldn't attack them but he made it clear they were not welcome. Dogs depend far more on scent than on sight and this was Rex's criterion.

In most houses in the country in those days, the back door was the real front door. Neighbours and other people familiar to us always came in by the back door. Other people would knock or ring at the front door.

Our dog was very friendly with the travelling people. He could scent them far before they came to the gate by the smell of smoke on their clothes. And he knew beggars by the smell of poverty. Thus, people who might not be too welcome at the front door were escorted around to the back.



heiress

While working at the back of the house one day, Rex surprised me by escorting a very well-dressed lady and wagging his tail as if doing a great favour. It was fine weather and the back door was open. My mother invited this strange woman in and it transpired that she was looking for me. For a few fleeting moments, I thought maybe she was an American heiress and that I would be whisked away to Florida or maybe California. It wasn't to be: she was a scholarly woman from England who was a historian and archaeologist, and wished to find out about the antiquities in our locality.

I told her what I knew and where she could find further information. While all this was going on, my mother was preparing our dinner, because in that culture we had the main meal in the middle of the day. Lunch was something you had at school or in the bog. My mother asked the fine lady if she would remain for dinner -- it would be ready in five minutes. If you had put this question to an Irish person, he or she would say: "Oh, good God, not at all. I've just left the table -- I couldn't eat a bite. Thank you all the same." Of course, at the second invitation, the Irish person would begin to soften and at the third invitation he or she would sit at the table and eat more than anyone else.

When the invitation was put to the English woman, she said: "I will." And that was the end of that. Her name was Daphne Pochin Mould. She lived in a house near Macroom and flew her own plane, but only, of course, when going to places where there were airports. She came to our humble abode in a Triumph Herald sports car.

Our house was a council cottage with a kitchen added to the back and I suspect that our guest was mildly surprised at the cuisine. And maybe she wasn't. The aristocracy and the peasants are very close to one another. On that day long ago, we had brown trout that couldn't have been fresher -- I had been fishing late the night before. We had early potatoes, leeks and carrots, all of our own growing. We had mutton off a mountain sheep and, of course, we had soup. Needless to say, it was all rounded off with tea and apple cake.

The fine lady appreciated this repast. I wondered, did she think it was common to all the houses of the working class. They might not all have the same menu, but the poorer people in our world always dined well. While there were fish in the river and rabbits in the woods, they would often be included. The poorer people also knew that the cheaper cuts in the butcher's shop can often be the best. Pigs' heads and sheep's heads could be got for a few pence or for nothing. Cow's tail was a delicacy, even if it took three hours to boil over normal heat.



steak

If our guest had called to a farmer's house, she might have dined on potatoes, bacon and cabbage. The Irish farmers have always been conservative and that was their dinner about five days a week. They usually had fish on a Friday and probably beef at the weekend, either boiling beef or steak. Indeed, when Robert Mitchum stayed in West Kerry during the making of Ryan's Daughter, he discovered what he called a culinary delight and had it for most of the time while he was there. When pigs are properly fed and the bacon properly cured, most of it is almost as good as the ham. Mitchum was probably lucky in West Kerry: the soil there is mostly light and sandy, and produces potatoes that are probably the tastiest in the world. And when cabbage is young and served with butter, it can be delicious.

Forgive me now for telling a story I have often told before. It is set in our house on a Friday night when some of mother's neighbours were in for a visit. They were around the fire talking about many things, including, of course, some of their neighbours, knitting patterns and cooking. The conversation about cooking came around to how you would treat steak. Every woman had her own recipe and eventually one of them spoke to my father who was sitting in his own quiet corner reading The Kerryman. "Mike, how do you like your steak?" He put the paper down and said: "Any way but rare."

Steak, I need hardly add, was the sacred meat for most Irish men. They had a famous saying: "A rake of steak fried on the shovel is your only man."

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