Perhaps unsurprisingly, what with the recent passing of my Da, I am, these days, all about comfort food, seeking solace in sweetness, in soothing, creamy textures, in foods fondly remembered and – somewhat predictably for me – in spuds. Today, that meant a simple gratin, with potatoes poached in milk and baked with crispy skins on top – a dish made in my mother’s kitchen with basic, unfussy ingredients and enjoyed with that most comforting thing of all, family.
“Potatoes are up.”
So reads an entry made just three weeks ago today in the diary that sits on the table beside my Dad’s armchair.
Said spuds are the ones that were planted by Dad’s good friend and neighbour, John’O, in my parents’ greenhouse, after what was probably a good deal of friendly, if characteristically unsubtle, prompting from Dad. Though he himself was no longer fit for the kind of physical exertion involved, he remained, nevertheless – and as his career as an army officer and community fundraiser par excellence had always demonstrated – a supremely able director of operations. He was pleased as punch at the thought that he would have new potatoes in May – around the same time that he expected news of a much anticipated great-grandchild – and, while he needed no preparation for news of family arrivals, he had advised John’O to get the garden fork from the garage and leave it in the greenhouse, ready to lift the spuds when the time would come.
“Writing it has been a labour of salvage as well as one of love.”
So writes Darina Allen in her introduction to Irish Traditional Cooking. First published nearly 20 years ago, the blurb on the front cover tells you that this newly released edition includes over 100 new recipes, which is all well and good, except for the fact that, when they say new, I really rather think they mean old. For this book is all about old Irish recipes and ways with Irish food that, to a greater or lesser extent, had fallen into neglect in recent decades, as traditional cooking and true home economy had given way, first, to the lure of new-fangled shop-bought bread and later, to the convenience of a growing number of packaged and processed foods. We are learning to appreciate some of these traditional food ways again, however – “even as half the country is living on pre-cooked foods from garage foodcourts, there is a deep craving among growing numbers of people for forgotten flavours and fresh local foods,” says Darina – so a re-publication of this volume is timely.