Lá Fhéile Bríde is one
of my favourite days of the year, a quintessentially Irish celebration.
It marks the beginning of Spring, the season of hope when nature wakes up and begins to leap back into life and seed sowing begins.
This year, there’s even more reason to celebrate, because Ireland has declared a national holiday to honour our beloved female patron saint. At last St. Brigid has been elevated to her rightful place and has equal billing alongside Saint Patrick.
Saint Brigid‘s Day on February 1st also coincides with the start of the Celtic festival of Imbolc, one of the four major fire festivals of the year. The others in Irish folklore are Bealtaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain.
Imbolc which in old Neolithic language translates literally to ‘in the belly’, comes halfway between the Winter solstice and the Spring equinox when the days begin to lengthen.
Depending on who or what you read, Saint Brigid is the patron saint of cattle farmers, dairymaids, beekeepers, midwives, babies, blacksmiths, sailors, boatmen, fugitives, poets, poultry farmers, scholars, travellers. For me, Brigid was the original feminist, a trailblazer, 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 and rituals still endure around the country. Possibly best known is the tradition of weaving Saint Brigid’s crosses from rushes and reeds.
Brigid, we are told, was the founder of the first Irish Monastery in Kildare in the fifth century. According to legend, she was called to the bedside of a dying pagan chieftain and while she watched over him, she bent down, picked up some rushes from the floor and began to weave a cross to explain the Christian story whereupon the chieftain was promptly converted to Christianity….
Her ability to intercede with God for special favours for the sick is legendary. There are still some fifteen holy wells around the country connected to Saint Brigid where the water is believed to have miraculous power to heal.
Just as the shamrock is associated with Saint Patrick, the little woven cross is forever associated with Saint Bridget.
Typically it has four arms with a woven square in the centre but three armed crosses are traditional in some counties according to Saint Brigid‘s cross maker ‘extraordinaire’, Patricia O’Flaherty whom I met a number of years ago at the first annual Lá Fhéile Bríde celebration at the Irish Embassy in London. This inspired event initiated originally by the then, Irish ambassador, Adrian O’Neill, celebrated not just Saint Brigid but the achievements of Irish women around the globe.
On the invitation of the Ambassador O’ Neill, Patricia had travelled over from County Roscommon, clutching a bag of freshly cut rushes to demonstrate how to make the traditional Saint Brigid’s cross. I was intrigued to learn from her that originally all counties in Ireland had different patterns which sometimes even varied from parish to parish.
In 1961, the Saint Brigid‘s cross was chosen by the newly launched Teilifís Éireann as its logo and continued until 1995 when it was dropped in favour of ‘a clean striking piece of modern design’….. How lovely it would be to still incorporate Saint Brigid‘s cross proudly into the RTÉ logo….
Every year we like to show the Ballymaloe Cookery School students who come from all over the world how to make a Saint Brigid‘s cross. In the time honoured tradition, we hang a cross over the door of our little dairy to protect and bless our small herd of Jersey cows which produce the most delicious rich milk to make butter, cheese, yoghurt and buttermilk.
So in this column, to honour the memory of Saint Brigid, I thought it would be appropriate to feature recipes using ingredients from some of the many Irish women food producers, in particular the artisan farmhouse cheesemakers who too were pioneers on the Irish food scene…
Invite some friends around to celebrate Lá Fhéile Bridé.
Happy Saint Brigid‘s Day
to one and all.
Ballymaloe Cheese Fondue
Cheese fondue is so retro but terrific fun. Choose your seat carefully because if you drop the bread into the fondue you must kiss the person on our right – this could be your big chance!
Myrtle Allen devised this Cheese Fondue recipe made from Irish Cheddar cheese. A huge favourite at Ballymaloe. Even though it’s a meal in itself it can be made in minutes and is loved by adults and children alike. A fondue set is obviously an advantage but not totally essential.
Serves 2 – perfect for a romantic supper (Valentine’s Day is coming up too!
2 tablespoons dry white wine
2 small cloves of garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons Ballymaloe Tomato Relish or any tomato chutney
2 teaspoons freshly chopped parsley
175g (6oz) grated mature Cheddar cheese, there are lots to choose from – Hegarty’s, Knockanore, Mossfield Organic…but why not choose Coolattin or Mount Leinster made by Tom Burgess near Tullow in Co. Carlow
crusty white bread
Put the white wine and the rest of the ingredients into a fondue pot or small saucepan and stir. Just before serving, put over a low heat until the cheese melts and begins to bubble – a couple of minutes. Put the pot over the fondue stove and serve immediately. Provide each guest with fresh bread or a rustic baguette crisped up in a hot oven. They will also need a fondue fork and an ordinary fork.
Melted Gubbeen Cheese with Winter Herbs
Legendary Farmhouse cheesemaker, Giana Ferguson from Schull in West Cork gave me this little gem of a recipe, one of her irresistible recipes for easy entertaining. Breda Maher’s Cooleeny from Co. Tipperary would be delicious here too.
1 baby Gubbeen, 450g (1lb) in weight, 11.5cm (4 ½ inch) in diameter
2 teaspoons approx. freshly chopped thyme
1 large or 2 small garlic cloves finely chopped
freshly ground pepper
Preheat the oven to 180˚C/350˚F/Gas Mark 4.
Cut a square of parchment paper, approximately 30cm (12 inch). Split the cheese in half around the equator. Put the base onto the centre of the parchment paper, sprinkle the cut surface generously with freshly chopped herbs, chopped garlic and lots of freshly ground black pepper.
Top with the other half of cheese. Gather up the edges but allow a little vent for the steam to escape. Bake in a moderate oven for 15-20 minutes or until soft and melting.
Cooleeney would be perfectly cooked in about 10 minutes.
Open the parcel. Lift off the rind and eat the soft herby melting cheese
with lots of crusty bread, boiled potatoes and a green salad. Exquisite!
Ardsallagh or St. Tola’s Goat Cheese and Thyme Leaf Soufflé
Bake this soufflé until golden and puffy in a shallow oval dish instead of the traditional soufflé bowl; it makes a perfect lunch or supper dish.
Made by two iconic Irish cheesemakers, Jane Murphy from East Cork and Siobhán Ní Gháirbhith near Inagh just south of the Burren in Co. Clare.
75g (3oz) butter
40g (1 1/2 oz) flour
300ml (10fl oz) cream
300ml (10fl oz) milk
a few slices of carrot
sprig of thyme, a few parsley stalks and a little scrap of bay leaf
1 small onion, quartered
5 eggs free range organic, separated
110g (4oz) crumbled goat cheese, Ardsallagh or St. Tola’s goat cheese
75g (3oz) Gruyére cheese
50g (2oz) mature Coolea farmhouse cheese, grated (Parmesan may also be used)
a good pinch of salt, cayenne, freshly ground pepper and nutmeg
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
thyme flowers if available
30cm (12 inch) shallow oval dish (not a soufflé dish) or 6 individual wide soup bowls with a rim
Preheat the oven to 230°C/450°F/Gas Mark 8.
Brush the bottom and sides of the dish with melted butter.
Put the cream and milk into a saucepan, add a few slices of carrot, a quartered onion, 4 or 5 peppercorns and the fresh herbs. Bring slowly to the boil and allow to infuse for 10 minutes. Strain and discard the flavourings, (we rinse them off and throw them into the stockpot if there is one on the go.)
Melt the butter, add the flour and cook for a minute or two. Whisk in the strained cream and milk, bring to the boil and whisk until it thickens. Cool slightly. Add the egg yolks, goat cheese, grated Gruyére and most of the grated Coolea (or Parmesan if using.) Season with salt, freshly ground pepper, cayenne and nutmeg. Taste and correct seasoning. Whisk the egg whites stiffly and fold them gently into the mixture to make a loose consistency. Put the mixture into the prepared dish, scatter the thyme leaves on top and sprinkle with the remaining Coolea or Parmesan cheese.
Cook for 12-15 minutes, or until the sides and top are nicely puffed up and golden, the centre should still be creamy. Garnish with thyme flowers.
on warm plates with a good green salad.
A Salad of Cashel Blue Cheese with Chargrilled Pears and Spiced Candied Nuts
Cashel Blue is the original Irish blue cheese made by Jane and Louis Grubb near Fethard in Co. Tipperary but other mild blue cheese like Crozier may also be used.
A selection of salad leaves. If possible, it should include curly endive and watercress.
Spice Candied Nuts
75g (3oz) sugar
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground coriander
a pinch of freshly ground star anise
100g (3 1/2oz) walnut halves
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, we use Mani or extra virgin organic olive oil from Greece
salt and freshly ground pepper
3-4 ripe pears depending on size (Bartlet or Anjou)
ripe Cashel Blue Cheese
Gently wash and carefully dry the lettuce. Put into a bowl, cover and refrigerate.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.
Spread the walnuts in a single layer on a baking tray and toast them for 4 or 5 minutes just until they smell rich and nutty. Meanwhile, mix the sugar with the spices. Spread over the base of a frying pan in an even layer. Scatter the walnut halves on top. Cook over a medium heat until the sugar melts and stars to colour. Carefully rotate the pan until the walnuts are completely coated with the amber coloured spicy caramel. Turn out onto a silpat mat or silicone paper or an oil baking tray. Allow to cool and harden. (Store in an airtight container until later if necessary).
Whisk all the ingredients together for the dressing, pour into a jam jar, cover and store until needed.
Heat a grill-pan on a high flame. Peel, quarter and core the pears. Toss in a little sunflower oil, grill on both sides and then on the rounded side.
Cut the cheese into cubes or small wedges. Sprinkle the salad leaves with the dressing and toss gently until the leaves glisten. Taste and add more seasoning if necessary.
Divide the salad
between the plates making a little mound in the centre. Slice each chargrilled pear in half lengthwise and tuck 3 pieces
in between the leaves. Scatter with a
few cubes of Cashel Blue and some spice candied walnuts. Sprinkle with a few sprigs of chervil and
Durrus with Kumquats and Rocket Leaves
Durrus is a beautiful, washed rind cheese made since 1979 by one of the original Irish farmhouse cheesemakers, Jeffa Gill on her hillside farm in Coomkeen in West Cork.
The combination of the Durrus, freshly dressed leaves and kumquat compote is irresistible. Serve it with homemade crackers or simple cheese biscuits – Sheridan’s or Carr’s water biscuits.
Serves 4-6 as a starter
1 ripe Durrus
4 handfuls of fresh rocket or watercress leaves
4-6 tablespoons kumquat compote
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
freshly ground black pepper
flaky sea salt
Cut the cheese into wedges.
Just before serving, whisk the ingredients for the dressing together. Toss the leaves with just enough dressing to make the leaves glisten.
Arrange a fistful of leaves on a large white plate, add 3 or 4 wedges of beautiful ripe Durrus, a tablespoon of kumquat compote and a few fresh crackers.
Simple but delicious.
A gem of a recipe, this compote 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/1 cup) water
110g (4oz/1/2 cup) 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.