The 1st of February is just around the corner…..
Time to celebrate a very special day in the Irish calendar, the feast day of our beloved patron Saint Brigid….
La Feile Bride also marks the beginning of Spring, the season of seed sowing when nature begins to spring back into life and hope is renewed, all the more reason to celebrate this year…..
Saint Brigid’s Day also coincides with the start of the festival of Imbolg, one of the four major ‘Fire’ festivals. The other three festivals in Irish folklore are Beltaine, Lughnasadh, and Samhain.
Imbolc/ Imbolg is celebrated by Neopagans with a variety of Celtic rituals.
Surely its high time to elevate St Brigid to her rightful place, to give her equal billing with Saint Patrick as our female patron saint and to declare St. Brigid’s Day a national holiday.
Depending on who or what you read, St. Brigid is the patron saint of cattle farmers, dairy maids, bee keepers, midwives, babies, blacksmiths, sailors, boatmen, fugitives, poets, poultry farmers, scholars, travellers. For me, Bridget was the original feminist, a trail blazer, a strong woman’s voice in a male dominated world, a feminine role model, a force to be reckoned with…. She was one busy saint!
She is still widely venerated and many lovely traditions still endure around the country. Possibly best known is the tradition of weaving St.Brigid’s Crosses from reeds. Bridget, we are told was the founder of the first Irish monastery in Kildare in the fifth century. According to the legend, she was called to the bedside of a dying pagan chieftain. While she watched over him, she bent down, picked up some rushes from the floor and wove a cross to explain the Christian story, whereupon the chieftain was promptly converted to Christianity.
Just as the shamrock is associated with St. Patrick, the little woven cross is associated with St Brigid.
Typically, it has four arms with a woven square in the centre but three armed crosses are traditional in some counties as explained to me by Saint Brigid’s Day cross maker extraordinaire Patricia O’Flaherty, whom I met at La Feile Bride celebrations at the Irish Embassy in London a number of years ago.
As I write this, I particularly remember Eileen Cowhig, a wonderful local lady who came to the Ballymaloe Cookery School for years to pass on the tradition of how to weave the St. Brigid’s Cross to students from all over the world. We would then hang a newly woven cross in both the dairy and the hen house to bless the hens and to protect our little herd of Jersey cows who produce the most delicious rich milk. She died last year and is fondly remembered by all of us.
The St.Brigid’s Cross was proudly chosen by newly launched Telifis Eireann in 1961 as its logo and continued until 1995 when it was dropped in favour of ‘a clean striking piece of modern design’.
Another endearing tradition is to leave a piece of cloth, a scarf or a ribbon on a bush outside on St. Brigid’s Eve to be blessed by the saint as she passes. This is known in Irish Folklore as Bratog Brid and will cure headaches and sore throats.
In Kerry particularly, a Bridog doll, sometimes woven from corn was taken from house to house as this refrain was recited
‘This is Brigid dressed in white,
Give her something for the night,
She is deaf, she is dumb,
Give her money if you have some,’ ( Ref: duchas.ie)
Over the past decade, St.Brigid’s Day celebrations have been gathering momentum around the globe.
Since 2018, the achievements of Irish women from all walks of life have been celebrated on La Feile Bride at the Irish Embassy in London. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the celebrations have gone online.
From a virtual afternoon tea in Luton to a women’s festival of female literary creativity in Berlin, and a weeklong virtual event in Vancouver.
So, how about special foods to mark St. Brigid’s Day……..
Apparently, Brigid was a wonderful butter maker, so here’s how to make a batch of homemade butter in minutes to slather over floury winter potatoes. Also a recipe for St.Brigid’s Day oatcakes.
Colcannon is another traditional favourite….. At this time of the year, I often make it with parsnips and potatoes mixed with kale – a tip from the late Gay Byrne who insisted that it was the Dublin way of making it and the way his mother always made it. I am indebted to Gay for sharing this and remember him fondly every time we enjoy it.
Look out for the early wild garlic, tri cornered leek or snowbells
(allium triquetrem) which romps along the roadsides at this time of the year. It resembles white bluebells but has a distinct garlic smell when the thin leaves are rubbed between the fingers. It’s also delicious added to colcannon, but here I am sharing my brother Rory O’Connell’s recipe for Wild Garlic broth, I could imagine St Brigid might have made a similar version at this time of the year. After all, it’s likely that she would have been a knowledgeable forager and was no doubt well acquainted with both the flavour and medicinal benefits of many wild plants.
La Feile Bride Cake has become a new tradition in our extended family, all of whom love to celebrate and perpetuate Irish traditions and festivals. Happy St. Brigid’s Day to each and every one. Perhaps you too can have a virtual afternoon tea and celebrate and raise awareness of our female patron saint.
How to make Homemade Butter
Everyone should be able to make butter. Let’s face it, most of us have over whipped cream from time to time, don’t dream of throwing it out, whisk for a minute or two more and you’ll have your very own butter. If there are butter bats in the house it makes it easier to shape the butter into blocks or balls but they are absolutely not essential. They’re more widely available than you might think, in kitchen shops, but also keep an eye in antique shops and if you find some, snap them up. A good pair will bring you butter luck!
Unsalted butter should be eaten within a few days, but the addition of salt will preserve it for two to three weeks. Also, you can make butter with any quantity of cream but the amount used in the recipe below will keep you going for a week or so and give you enough to share with friends (though not in my house!). Remember, sunlight taints butter (and milk) in a short time, so if you are serving butter outdoors, keep it covered.
Makes about 1kg (2 1/4lb) butter and 1 litre (1 3/4 pints) buttermilk
2.4 litres (4 pints) unpasteurised or pasteurised double cream at room temperature
2 teaspoons dairy salt (optional)
pair of butter bats or hands
Soak the wooden butter bats or hands in iced water for about 30 minutes so they do not stick to the butter.
Pour the double cream into a cold, sterilized mixing bowl. If it’s homogenised, it will still whip, but not as well. If you’re using raw cream and want a more traditional taste, leave it to ripen in a cool place, where the temperature is about 8°C (46°F), for up to48 hours.
Whisk the cream at a medium speed in a food mixer until it is thick. First it will be softly whipped, then stiffly whipped. Continue until the whipped cream collapses and separates into butterfat globules. The buttermilk will separate from the butter and slosh around the bowl. Turn the mixture into a cold, spotlessly clean sieve and drain well. The butter remains in the sieve while the buttermilk drains into the bowl. The buttermilk can be used to make soda bread or as a thirst quenching drink (it will not taste sour). Put the butter back into a clean bowl and beat with the whisk for a further 30 seconds to 1 minute to expel more buttermilk. Remove and sieve as before. Fill the bowl containing the butter with very cold water. Use the butter bats or your clean hands to knead the butter to force out as much buttermilk as possible. This is important, as any buttermilk left in the butter will sour and the butter will go off quickly. If you handle the butter too much with warm hands, it will liquefy.
Drain the water, cover and wash twice more, until the water is totally clear. Weigh the butter into 110g (4oz), 225g (8oz) or 450g (1lb) slabs. Pat into shape with the wet butter hands or bats. Make sure the butter hands or bats have been soaked in ice-cold water for at least 30 minutes before using to stop the butter sticking to the ridges. Wrap in greaseproof or waxed paper and keep chilled in a fridge. The butter also freezes well.
St Brigids’ Day Oatmeal Scones
I’m taking a bit of poetic licence here…These oatmeal scones are cooked in the oven but one can also cook them on a griddle, on the stovetop or over an open fire if you really want to be authentic.
450g (1lb) white flour, preferably unbleached
1 level teaspoon salt
1 level teaspoon bread soda (bicarbonate of soda/baking soda)
sour milk or buttermilk to mix – 350-375ml (12-13fl oz) approx. egg wash
First fully preheat the oven to 230°C/450°F/Gas Mark 8.
Sieve the dry ingredients. Make a well in the centre. Pour most of the milk in at once. Using one hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be softish, not too wet and sticky. When it all comes together, turn it out onto a floured board, knead lightly for a second, just enough to tidy it up. Pat the dough into a square about 1 inch (2.5 cm) deep, brush with egg wash, cut into 12 square scones. Dip the top of each scone into the oatmeal, place on a baking sheet. Bake in a hot oven for 230°C/450°F/Gas Mark 8 for 10 – 15 minutes. Serve slathered with your homemade butter.
Dublin Parsnip Colcannon
Several Dubliners have spoken to me about a parsnip colcannon that ‘the Mammy used to make’. Threepenny or sixpenny bits were sometimes hidden in the colcannon at Hallowe’en for the children to find. The proportion of parsnips to potato varied.
Serves 8 (approximately)
450g (1lb) old potatoes e.g. Golden Wonders or Kerr’s Pinks
450g (1lb) parsnips
450g (1lb) curly kale
250–300ml (9–10fl oz) creamy milk
2 tablespoons approx. chopped scallions
55g (2oz) approx. butter
salt and freshly ground pepper
Scrub and peel the potatoes and parsnips, put them into a saucepan, cover with cold water, add a good pinch of salt and bring to the boil. When the potatoes and parsnips are cooked, strain off the water, replace the lid on the saucepan, put on a gentle heat and allow to steam for a few minutes, then mash.
the potatoes and parsnips are cooking, bring a pot of well salted water to
the boil, remove the central rib from the kale and cook the leaves until tender. Drain and chop finely.
When the potatoes are almost cooked, put on the milk and bring to the boil with the scallions. While the potatoes and parsnips are still warm, stir in the chopped kale and beat in enough boiling milk to make a fluffy purée. (If you have a large quantity, use the bowl of a food mixer and beat with the spade.) Add the butter and taste for seasoning. Stir over the heat and serve immediately in a hot dish with the butter melting in the centre.
Note: Colcannon may be prepared ahead and reheated later in a moderate oven (180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4) for about 20–25 minutes.
Rory O’Connell’s Wild Garlic Leaf and Flower Broth
The key to the success of this recipe is the addition of the wild garlic to the broth just a few minutes before you are going to eat it. This way the garlic will still be bright green in colour and vibrant in taste when it arrives at the table. Some times the little flowers, which I urge you to use, will float to the surface of the hot broth and sit there like little water lilies or lotus flowers. Now that’s a bonus.
- The wild garlic when in season is readily available for those who live in the countryside and for urban dwellers is increasingly available in vegetable shops and farmers markets. Every part of the two different varieties can be used, bulbs below the ground and leaves and flowers above.
- An optional addition of grated parmesan cheese is delicious here. Allow your guests to sprinkle a light dusting on each bowl of poured soup rather than you adding it to the cooking pot. It will taste sweeter and fresher this way. One teaspoon of parmesan is plenty on each serving.
175g potatoes, peeled and cut into neat 1cm dice
175g onions, peeled and finely chopped into ½ cm dice
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed to a paste
1.2l chicken stock
Salt and pepper
600ml of finely chopped garlic leaves, tightly packed into the measure
50ml garlic flowers.
Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan and allow to foam. Add the potatoes, onions and crushed garlic. Coat in the butter and season with salt and pepper. Cover with a butter wrapper or greaseproof paper and cover with a tight fitting lid. Cook on a very low heat to allow the vegetables to sweat gently until barely tender. This will take about 10 minutes. Don’t overcook and allow the diced potato to collapse. Add the stock, stir gently and bring to a simmer and cook gently for a further 10 minutes. The broth should be barely bubbling. If it cooks too fast at this stage, the delicacy of flavour of the chicken stock will be lost. Taste and correct seasoning. This is the base and can be put aside until later.
To finish, bring the base back to a simmer. Add the garlic leaves and allow to just wilt. This will only take a couple of minutes. Taste and correct seasoning. Finally sprinkle in the flowers, watch and marvel as they float on the surface. Serve immediately.
St Brigid’s Day Cake
We love this super delicious cake which we created especially for St Brigid’s day, green white and gold – how naff is that…..
175g (6oz) soft butter
150g (5oz) castor sugar
3 eggs, preferably free range
175g (6oz) self-raising flour
lemon glace icing see below
8 pieces of kumquat compote – drained
8 wood sorrel leaves
1 x 20.5cm (8 inch) sandwich tin, buttered and floured. Line the base of the tin with parchment paper.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.
First make the kumquat compote, see below for recipe.
Put the soft butter, castor sugar, eggs and self-raising flour into the bowl of a food processor. Whizz for a few seconds to amalgamate and turn into the prepared tin – make a dip in the centre so it rises evenly. Bake in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes approx. or until golden brown and well risen.
Cool in the tin for a few minutes, remove and cool on a wire rack.
Meanwhile make the icing, once the cake is cool, pour the icing over the cake and spread gently over the sides with a palette knife.
Decorate with the candied kumquats and wood sorrel leaves.
Serve on a pretty plate.
Serves 8 to 10
Lemon Glacé Icing
160g (6oz) icing sugar
finely grated rind of 1/2 lemon
2-3tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Sieve the icing sugar into a bowl. Add the lemon rind and enough lemon juice to make a softish icing.
Decorate with 8 pieces of drained kumquat compote.
A gem of a recipe, this compôte can be served as a dessert or as an accompaniment to roast duck, goose or glazed ham. Also delicious with goat’s cheese or yoghurt.
Serves 6-20 depending on how it is served
235g (8 1/2 oz) kumquats
200ml (7fl oz) water
110g (4oz) sugar
Slice the kumquats thinly into four or five round slices depending on size. Remove the seeds. Put the kumquats into a saucepan with the water and sugar and let them cook very gently, covered, for half an hour or until tender. If they accidently overcook or become too dry, add a little water and bring back to the boil for one minute – they should be crystallised but slightly juicy
Serve warm or cold.
Note: This compote keeps for weeks in the fridge.
Wild Food of the Week – Wild Garlic
So love that moment when I suddenly realise that – Wow, Winter is over. One can practically hear the excitement underneath the ground. Rhubarb and chives are pushing their way up through the soil, everything is stirring. We’ve already found some wild garlic to add to salad and flavoured butters – so head how about a bit of foraging in the open air this weekend. There are two varieties allium ursinum or ramps a broad leaved bulbous plant which grows in moist woodland and allium triquetrum also known as three cornered leeks which often grows along the roadside verges. The latter has a flower that resembles ‘white’ blue bells, and pointy narrow leaves. I find that the leaves of allium ursinum are best for wild garlic pesto so wait a couple of weeks for those.