18th Birthday Fireworks.

first daffodils

Adulthood did not kick off to a great start for Grown-up Son. He tumbled in the back door after school, hot and bothered, with the news that he had crashed his bike. Again.

first daffodils

‘Is your bike alright?’ As the words came out of my mouth and travelled through the air to his appalled ears, I knew I should have inquired after my first born’s welfare before that of his bicycle. The thing is…I could SEE that he was in one piece and this flipping bike of his has cost a fortune because we’ve had to replace the gears twice already after previous calamities. But yes, it was his birthday and I should have been nicer.

‘Do you want a cup of coffee?’ I suggested, by way of amends.

He changed his clothes and came back to the kitchen, leaning comfortably against the cooker and giving me a run-down on his day.

daffodils

Now, I love nothing better than when he spills his day out over a cup of, but…did you notice what I said in the previous sentence? The bit that went ‘against the cooker’?

‘Ow,’ he murmered, quite calmly. And then less calmly.
‘Ow, Ow, Owwwwww!’

Yes. He was on fire. Flames shot up from the bottom of his t-shirt to the back of his head.

I didn’t think. Not a single thought. I balled up the back of his t-shirt in my hands, he wriggled out of it and I tossed it in the sink. Ten seconds and it was all over. His back and my hands were a little bit sore but nothing serious. Mind you, I was shaking like a leaf for half an hour and I don’t think we ever got the coffee.daffodils

Life. You can’t rely on it, can you? He got a neat hair cut a few days ago because he was asked to form a guard of honour at a funeral. If he’d still had his curly mop, it probably would have caught fire.

Daffodils, mind you, daffodils you can rely on.

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Made it to 18.

Sultanabun and son, 1999.

I am the mother of a grown-up child. I am relieved to have made it this far, apprehensive about letting go, nostalgic for the saturated joy of his babyhood and, above all else, bowled over with pride. My son, in my totally biased opinion, is smart, opinionated,witty, kind, interested and interesting. In short, leaving aside a most irritating habit of taking off his shirts without first opening the buttons, a fine young man.

His future belongs to him, his for the taking and his for the making.

But this memory, of a shuttered bedroom on a snowy morning in Padova, is mine.

Sultanabun and son, 1999.
SultanaBun and Son, 1999.

Happy Birthday, Grown-Up Son.

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Introducing Agnes.

notebook. diary. keeping a diary. Agnes.

I was a miserable thirteen-year-old. Is there any other kind? Thirteen is a bewildering age. Too old for minding, too young for freedom and all that news of impending womanhood is hardly a barrel of laughs.

To my rescue came an English teacher whose name, to my shame, has escaped me. She was still a trainee teacher. She had dark, wavy hair and wore clogs and fringed skirts. There were beads and feathers about her person. She was a bona fide hippie. Fabulous.

She scratched new words on the blackboard which we recited like magic spells: metaphor, alliteration and, oh, my absolute favourite, onomatopoeia. She had us write rhyming couplets in the style of Ezra Pound and praised our efforts regardless of their dedication to George Michael or Spandau Ballet.

She instructed us to keep a diary. Write what you feel, she said, and I did. I bought a blue, fake-leather-bound (I thought it was real leather) diary and I wrote. For a girl who spoke little, who found it near impossible to say what she felt, that writing was like putting a tap on my soul. All the angst, sadness, despair, and yes, God damn it, unrequited lust just poured out of me.notebook. diary. keeping a diary. Agnes.

I wrote for years and years and years, long past my teens. Then, I wrote long letters to friends and discovered the thrill of a response. Then, I wrote this blog. Without Miss Hippie-Clogs, I wouldn’t be here writing to you. I wouldn’t have known how to do this. In fact, I believe that without that outlet I wouldn’t be here, full stop. I would have drowned in that rising tide of feelings.

I was delighted, honoured in fact, when the magnificent Sam of Agnesforgirls encouraged me to pass Miss Hippie-Clogs’ message on to a new generation of girls. I expounded the benefits of keeping a diary HERE. I also contributed to THIS list of suggested reading for girls.

Agnesforgirls.com, just Agnes to her friends, is a brilliant new website, launching today, for girls aged from 11 to 18 (or thereabouts). Agnes aims to provide girls with all the information and encouragement they might need to become competent, brave and happy young women. I wish Agnes had been around in my day.

As a mother, I would put my trust in Agnes. I’ve read just about every page of the site and I am convinced that my teenage daughters are safe and well-cared for in Agnes’ hands.

I hope you will take a look at the site and spread the word to any parents or daughters who might appreciate it.

Agnes is on Facebook here and on Instagram here and, lest you have missed the links above, the website is here.

The future is a blank page, my friends.

notebook. diary. keeping a diary. Agnes.

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Relish, Reindeer and Melomakaronas.

Christmas Preparations.

Hah! Say that with your mouth full of cookies.

The sky is hanging about 12 feet above the ground. It’s not raining, exactly, but the finest mist is dangling there in the most exasperating fashion. It feels like a slight weight, a downwards pressure on the shoulders and the spirits.

I am feeling tired, perhaps under-caffeinated (more on that anon) and in dire need of cake.

If you fancy a delicious morsel pop over for a look at my melomakarona recipe and review of The Little Christmas Kitchen. I worked hard to make this a good recipe and it really is.

melomakaronasMelomakaronas are delicious Greek cookies, soaked in a spiced honey syrup and traditionally eaten at Christmas. We devoured (I say we because I don’t want to admit that I ate so very many) dozens of them as I was testing this recipe. The book, The Little Christmas Kitchen by Jenny Oliver was also a real treat. I didn’t expect it to have much bite but it caught me by surprise and really hit a nerve. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it for holiday reading.

I went all out, hell for leather, on the Christmas preparations last week. The only problem is that there is almost no light at all so I have very little photographic evidence of my efforts. Here is one candle-lit photo which pretty much encapsulates my week:

Christmas Preparations.

Rudolf was the high-light. Isn’t he adorable? He is my very first crocheted toy and I am more than a little enamoured.If you are tempted, you can find the pattern here. He may get stuck with the name Rudolf Gilmore as I made him while watching The Gilmore Girls with my daughters. Anyone else watch it? It was terrible. Less said the better.

I realised in panic, as I opened my last jar of rhubarb chutney, that I was in imminent danger of having NO CHUTNEY FOR CHRISTMAS! Action stations were assumed, my most humongous pot was excavated from the dreaded corner cupboard and filled to the brim with the stuff of toasted cheese sandwich fantasies. We call it fakeymaloe relish, it’s not so far off the real McCoy and you can find my not-so-secret recipe here.

Chutney crisis averted, I moved on to emergency mitten replacement for the Small Girl. If these look like exactly the same mittens I made last year it’s because they are, but one size bigger. I used the same ball of cheap yarn that refuses to come to an end regardless of how many Barbie dresses and babydoll blankets I make from it. The Small Girl is content because they match every other pink thing in her life and I won’t be heartbroken when she inevitably loses one of them (never both). Just looking back at last year’s mittens I was reminded of this post which I must try to bear in mind as I strive to resist strangling my Teenage Son in the run up to his Christmas exams.

So, we were going well (errant teenagers aside) with the reindeer and the mittens and the twelve jars of chutney and then…disaster struck…my beloved Burleigh mug took a nose dive off the arm of my chair, bounced a couple of times and skidded out the door to the hall where it spun around dramatically before striking a tragic handle-less pose.

It has been carrying a chip on its rear end for months now but that didn’t bother me. This mug is a champion, a hero amongst mugs. It can hold thirty percent more than the average mug which is just exactly how much more coffee you feel you need when you reach the bottom of an average mug. This ergonomically-shaped mug also keeps coffee hot for a good forty minutes which is exactly how long you need to drink a thirty percent longer cup of coffee. Also, it’s very pretty. And my favourite colour. Sob.

I was quite prepared to live with a handle-less-chipped-but-otherwise-perfect mug but when Husband attempted to fill it he discovered a fatal injury. Scroll back up to the photo and see if you can spot it.

‘Yes, you can still use your mug,’ he assured me, ‘but only if you are willing to approach it sideways on and never have more than an inch of coffee at a time.’

The family have little pity. They are all greatly relieved that I, as opposed to anyone else, broke my own mug.

Since then, I have achieved nothing. Zilch. Nada.

I have sliced the top off my left index finger bringing a halt to all yarny activity.

I have thrice stepped in dog poo and some incontinent, foul fowl has taken a shine to the windscreen and bonnet of my car.

The laundry basket has complained to the laundry basket union about over-time and over-crowding.

I ordered pizza for Sunday dinner.

There is every chance that my Husband is writing to Santa as we speak requesting a proper, functional housewife as his old one appears to have broken down.

Here…the man said it:

 

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Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Crocheted nativity scene.

My Grandmother was not prone to profanities. She was, however, inclined to call upon her celestial guardians at those moments when life demands a verbal explosive. ‘Mary, mother of God,’ might have been an appropriate reply to some surprising and mildly unpleasant news; that the bus fare had increased by five pence or a magpie had shat on the clean sheets. ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus,’ was reserved for dire, genuinely heartbreaking calamities. ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph,’ came somewhere between these two. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were beseeched upon in moments of exasperation. In fact, the intercession of  Jesus, Mary and Joseph was so frequently implored that it sometimes seemed they had taken up residence in some netherworld spare room at the back of the house.

‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, who let the fire go out?’
‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the immersion was left on all night!’
‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, get down the stairs, your dinner is getting cold!’
‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we’ll be late for mass, the bell is ringing.’

It has been proven that cursing and swearing can alleviate pain (Scientific American article here). I imagine Jesus, Mary and Joseph brought a similarly analgesic effect to Granny’s days.

None of that has much to do with crochet but those were the thoughts that were running through my head as I stitched up this little holy family.

Crocheted nativity scene.

The pattern is from Whistle and Ivy and a pure joy to work from. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I couldn’t resist making a second little holy family.

Crocheted nativity scene.

So now, there is a little Jesus, Mary and Joseph convention taking place on my kitchen table.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph convention.

You know that I’m a 44 year old Irish Catholic, right? That means I was a child before the scandals broke and a parent after. I’m willing to bet that most 44 year old Irish catholics have a deal of inner conflict about the Catholic Church.

I don’t want to get too deep here, but just to say that this Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Jesus, Mary and Joseph that (almost) kept Granny sane, will always have a place in my home at Christmas.

img_2977-2

(Phew, I thought this was going to be a quick and cheery bit of Christmas crafty stuff. I don’t always know what’s lurking beneath my fingertips.)

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A Muggle Mother Writes To Molly Weasley.

a jumper 'like Ron Weasley's'

Dear Mrs Weasley,

I hope that you and your family are well. Poor Ron was given a hard time over all that Cursed Child business but, never mind, he is still my favourite. He sounds like a wonderful father and you must be enjoying having grandchildren to knit for.

On that, I am feeling a little resentful because you have given my children the impression that a good mother can provide an endless supply of Hogwarts-appropriate knitwear. No sooner have I tied the last tassel on a Slytherin scarf but the next child in line begs for a new jumper and she won’t be happy unless it is ‘the same as Ron Weasley’s’. If I plead exhaustion my children remind me that you provide a new, personalised, jumper for every one of your children every Christmas AND you throw in a box of homemade fudge!

I understand that you mean well but you are putting muggle mothers under tremendous pressure. I’ve tried to explain that the impenetrable mysteries of intarsia present no difficulties when YOU CAN USE MAGIC!

Please Molly (May I call you Molly? I feel I know you so well), could you give us a break?

Best love to you and all at The Burrow,

Lynda.

a jumper 'like Ron Weasley's'The muggle pattern for this Aran-weight jumper, with non-magical instructions for intarsia is from Blue Blog Patterns, here.

Slytherin hat.This Slytherin hat was knit using this rib hat as a guide but adjusting the stitch to match my mistake stitch Slytherin scarf.

Slytherin scarf with knitting pattern.Full instructions for my Slytherin scarf and a million photos for those new to knitting without magic can be found here.

Gourmet Rhapsody.

Muriel Barbery. Gourmet Rhapsody. toast.

Cardiac insufficiency. A man is dying because he has not heart enough to support his own passions (food, mainly, and possibly wine). This near-heartless man cares not a whisker about final adieus to his long-suffering wife or steadfast mistress. He has no wisdom to impart to his under-valued children. In the space that his heart should have filled there is only an insatiable longing for one particular food, a flavor par excellence, that he cannot quite identify. From his deathbed, Monsieur Arthens explores his culinary memories from appreciation of his grandmother’s gravy to becoming France’s most revered food critic.

In a lifetime of writing about food the gourmet has entirely missed the point. Food should be relished, not picked apart. In dissecting every meal he has let the heart of it escape. By excluding his family he has turned his back on the most essential of all seasonings. In bite-sized  chapters his wife, children, neighbours, employees and protégé each take turns to pour scorn, defend or grieve the dying gourmet. Meanwhile, Monsieur continues his search for a single, elusive taste of…something.

Muriel Barbery. Gourmet Rhapsody. toast.

Muriel Barbery‘s Gourmet Rhapsody is a book to make your mouth water. Every single page exudes an aroma of browning butter, or drips a deeply reduced jus, or is stained with a ring of Burgundian wine. It is a delicious book but, like a balanced cocktail, Gourmet Rhapsody has an Angostura bitter note. It brings to mind the very best of food you have ever eaten while at the same time reminding you that you will most likely never experience that food, in the same place and in the same way, ever again.

Sometimes, most times, when we recall a food it is the whole experience that is stamped upon our hearts. Rice pudding with jam by firelight. Mince pies by fairylight. Sausages on a barbecue in a midsummer garden. Red wine at a long table in the dim cellar of a house in the Pyrenees. Tayto sandwiches on the beach and dripping 99s in the car on the way home. Toast in bed at 2AM in a maternity ward. Toast in bed on a Sunday morning with a good book and a frothy coffee. Toast.

I have long sought to rediscover a certain whiskey-orange sorbet. Husband and I were in Co. Clare on our first holiday together. The climax of our week was a meal in a restaurant called Barr Trá. We ate in the conservatory which had a spectacular view of sunset on Liscannor Bay. I can’t remember a single other thing I ate, I suspect there were mussels and I’m certain there was brandy, but that sorbet has taunted me for two decades.

How could I possibly recreate that moment? I can’t get back the perfect ninety seconds, with my foot wrapped around his calf, that it took to let five or six sunlit spoonfuls dissolve on my tongue. I hope, when I am on my deathbed, that it comes to mind.

Once a year or so, maybe even less, I take a fancy for an egg-in-a-cup. That’s the official name, at least in my head. My Granny used to make this for my breakfast along with bread which was first buttered and then toasted under the grill, most importantly, on the buttered side only. Monsieur Arthens has something to say about buttering bread before you toast it:

‘Why is it that in France we obstinately refrain from buttering our bread until after it has been toasted? The reason the two entities should be subjected together to the flickering flame is that in this intimate moment of burning they attain an unequalled complicity. The butter loses some of its creamy consistency, but nevertheless is not as liquid as when it is melted on its own, in a bain-marie or a saucepan. Likewise, the toast is spared a somewhat dreary dryness, an becomes a moist, warm substance, neither sponge nor bread but something in between, ready to tantalize one’s taste buds with its contemplative delicacy.’

The egg, or two, should be placed in a small pot of cold water and brought to the boil. Simmer for three minutes for a runny yolk. A dear friend gave me a brilliant and fool-proof egg-timer gadget that goes in the pot and changes colour as the egg cooks. You can find one here.

When the time is up, chip the top off the egg with a spoon and scrape the innards into a cup. Add a generous corner off a block of butter and a pinch of salt. Now, use the spoon to whack the egg around the sides of the cup until it has absorbed the butter into itself. You don’t want to liquidise the whole thing, just break it up. The chipping and the scraping and the whacking and the eating are all marvellously satisfying.

I watched my mother make eggs-in-a-cup like this for all my little sisters when they were babies so I can only presume she made them like this for me too. I know that when she handed me the cup to spoon feed a hungry sibling I was as likely as not to eat most of it myself between turns of chugga-chugga-here-comes-the-train. I made eggs-in-a-cup for my own babies and it always made me feel that I was doing my job right.

img_2698

Unlike the whiskey-orange sorbet, egg-in-a-cup is a blend of many memories. It doesn’t rely upon an Atlantic sunset, a particular whiskey or the added frisson of young love. I needs only a warm kitchen, an egg, bread, butter and a spoon. The bare essentials.

Muriel Barbery has created a book which defies criticism. How could I tear asunder a meal, I mean book, which has so painstakingly been constructed. This is a book to be savoured, meditated upon and remembered. Like the very best of books, I mean meals, there is a lesson in it. Live. Live and love and eat every bit of it now. Now.

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Carrageen Moss Seaweed Pudding.

Carrageen Moss Pudding.

My mother believed in a good tonic.

By tonic I mean a concoction administered with the aim of reviving the spirits and protecting against all manner of ailment. My mother had some sort of internal clock that sounded an alarm when the tonic was due. It may have been signaled by the failing of the light or perhaps the first frost or the clock going back an hour or just a mother’s instinct.

If the timing was regular, the formulation was anything but.

Back in the 1970s, the tonic was a vibrant yellow and viscous fluid that went by the worrisome name of radiomulsion. The exact contents, or the reason for the ‘radio’ in the name, I fear to google. The stuff came in a brown glass bottle that needed to be stored in the fridge for fear it would spontaneously combust. I loved it and would regularly sneak a swig of it when no-one was looking.I suspect I may have lived through the 70s with a glowing yellow aura about my person.

Much later on, as the stress of exams was added to the risk of viruses new and old, a vitamin supplement known as Vivioptal was the tonic-du-jour. This waxy brown capsule was of a size designed to lend credence to its extraordinary claims. Never mind raising your flagging spirits; this stuff would resurrect the dead. The thing was, the timing was crucial. You were to take a course of it at exactly the right interval before the exam. Too early and you would waste your burst of energy and crash before English Paper One, too late and you would only be lifting off just as the state examiner packed up his papers and left. One imagines that the stress of getting it right could only have been counter-productive.

In between these dubious concoctions, my mother placed her faith in a gentler remedy called Carrageen Moss. Chondrus crispus, also called Irish Moss, is a seaweed that grows along North Atlantic coastlines. It is hugely rich in iron, magnesium and iodine and has been taken in Ireland for centuries as a cough remedy. You can read about the many, genuine benefits here and,  you can buy it here. It’s practically weightless so the postage shouldn’t cost much wherever you are. This little 40g bag contains enough for 4 batches of 8 servings each.

Carrageen Moss for pudding

My mother began by using Carrageen Moss to make a honey-sweetened and lemony tea which was palatable enough but slightly reminiscent of the radiomulsion in its gloopiness. Never a quitter, she experimented with Carrageen Moss Pudding and so we discovered the greatest of medicines; a restorative tonic that was good for both body and soul.

Here is what you do:

Selfie with seaweed.

Weigh, as best you can, just a scant 10g of Carrageen Moss. Err, if you must, on the side of less rather than more or your pudding will be too stiff.

Carrageen Moss.

I desperately want to find yarn of this colourway. Isn’t it gorgeous?

Add the dried seaweed to 500 mls of full-fat milk. You can replace up to half the milk with cream if you like but there really is no need. Add 150g of sugar and 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract.

Bring the milk slowly to the boil and then simmer for 10 minutes. You will feel it thickening as the natural gelling agent is released.

Carrageen Moss dissolved in milk.

Strain the thickened mixture through a nylon sieve into serving glasses. Let it set for 30 minutes in the fridge.

Leave it plain which is more than good enough.

Carrageen Moss Pudding

Or, make it pretty with some freshly made bramble jam and the last of your summer roses.

Carrageen Moss Pudding with Bramble Jam.

There you have it. Carrageen Moss pudding: guilt free, in fact it is positively good for you and properly delicious. Now, that is a tonic.

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WARNING: Things Teenagers Do When Left Unsupervised.

FREE HOUSE: two words that should never be found in the same sentence. Even worse is to combine them with this word: TEENAGERS.

We decided to trust our teenagers  and leave them alone in the house for a whole day, from early morning to late evening. We calculated that they would sleep until mid-afternoon, wake hungry, raid the cupboards and, if our luck held, go back to bed.

Our only precaution was to leave BOTH of them in the hope that they would mind each other. I figured that between them they should have enough muscle and good sense to account for one whole adult.

More fool me. That’s not how adolescence works.

Husband and I, with the younger girls, had a brilliant day in West Cork with friends who we don’t see nearly often enough. We walked in a forest, collected blackberries, built a fire, grilled meat, drank wine, ate cake…all the good stuff.

It was a long and winding road home. We had one puke-stop but, you know, we coped.

As we turned into our gateway I scanned the house for any obvious signals of disaster. No extra cars crowded the driveway, no bodies hung out of windows and no smoke or flames gushed skyward. Only the dog appeared, with his head tucked under the lace curtain to resemble a bride, peering from his sentinel post and looking concerned. Our dog always looks concerned, he may have learned the expression from me, so no great cause for alarm there.

The teenagers, clean and smiling, met us in the hallway. We redoubled our suspicions.

‘What have you done?’ were my first words of greeting. I’m well known for my positive and trusting approach to parenting. Witness the dog’s face.

They laughed hysterically. Honest to God, they laughed so hard they were literally doubled over and clinging to each other for support.

They have always got on like a house on fire, these two, except when they are tearing strips off each other. They know each other’s buttons, for better and worse. I hope with all my heart that they will never forget how much they have laughed together even if it is usually at my expense.

It was impossible not to laugh along even while I scanned for damage. Nervous laughter is the most infectious kind.

On they sniggered, giggled and guffawed while I inspected the house and found it remarkable only in its unusual tidiness.

Amusement was almost souring to panic when the eagle-eyed eleven-year-old spotted something amiss with one of the framed photographs which line our staircase.

It has taken  almost two months to discover the full (I hope) extent of their prank. They tell me I’m only half way there but I am hopeful (or deluded) that they are winding me up.

What did they do?

They jumped out of bed the minute our car pulled out and spent their ENTIRE free day sourcing, re-sizing, printing and pasting photos of Will Smith into family portraits.

I know. Daft. Well, I raised them.

Will Smith, looking suitably dejected, is in the group photo from our wedding day. Will Smith is caught congratulating Husband on his graduation.Will Smith poses as a sculpture on a plinth in the Crawford Art Gallery. Will Smith appears delighted to be embraced by Husband in the conservatory of Ballymaloe House. Will Smith, in a baby’s bonnet, perches gleefully on my lap. I can’t show them all to you because, you know, it might be embarrassing for Will Smith.

I left them for one day and my kids turned the house into a huge game of Where’s Willy?!

We (they) restored most of the pictures to normal this week but I have decided to allow Will Smith remain where he is not blocking any actual family members and, obviously, where I haven’t discovered his hiding places.

Here is one where Will Smith went on a riverside walk with the kids:Will Smith on a riverside stroll.That one had to go as he was blocking Eldest Daughter.

I love this one. Will Smith casually jogging by as the kids enjoy an ice-cream:Will Smith jogging past our house.Looks like the same eagle-eyed child may have spotted him on that occasion also.

It seems Mr. Smith may even have stowed away on our honeymoon:Will Smith stowing away on our honey moon.

If you had pulled me aside that September morning, nineteen years ago, and somehow managed to let me read this post I would have said to you,

Thank you, that is all I could wish for and more.

PS. Perhaps minus the puke-stop.