Anne Hailes: Reading Susan Farrell's My Homeplace Inheritance was a delight
ONE of the most original Christmas presents I received came through the post, a simple card with a handwritten verse:
We cannot share a cuppa for we're busy here and there,
But often I think about you and remember you in prayer.
So I'm sending you a teabag to make a cup of tea and when you're sitting drinking it may you remember me!
Inside was a teabag. My other delight over the last week was having time to read Susan Farrell's book My Homeplace Inheritance. The subtitle Recipes for Life from my Irish Country Childhood sums it up and brought me back to my own growing up.
Her life has its roots in the countryside of Tyrone and Armagh and when she talks of the Bramley apples "grown for cooking but sweet enough eat raw" I remember being a young wife and a man coming to the door with a huge box of Bramleys. I bought a dozen and once plumped up in the saucepan they were more like pineapples so delicious they were.
For Susan it was "old style living" walking everywhere, eating well, having fun, debating everything, being outside and growing food. Sounds idyllic in this day and age of lockdowns and internet screens.
Fishing for salmon in the Blackwater River with her grandfather and sending them off to the Great Northern Hotel in Belfast for serving that evening reminded me of fishing for mackerel in Belfast Lough at midnight. I was about 12 and once we'd hauled our catch I was invited to row us back to shore. Of course my back was to the jetty so I didn't know where I was going but it's easy I was told by the old fisherman, just keep inside the silver path of the moonlight.
I also identify with her description of the big pot of spuds and 13 people round a table ready to devour them, skins still on, and butter. Nothing nicer.
We both had a big wooden barrel outside the back door to catch fresh and pure rainwater – so good for washing hair, made it soft and shiny.
:: Granny Rules OK
I particularly loved reading about her times with Nanny Wylie who measured out ingredients in handfuls. "I never saw her use scales for anything."
Like me, she learned at her grandmother's knee. My memory is watching my own beloved granny making wheaten bread, shaking the handful of flour over the black baking tray and then rocking it from side to side to spread it evenly and even as I write I can hear her wedding ring clicking on the sides as she rotated it.
Shopping in McQuillan's store in Portadown Susan describes the big block of Cheddar cheese being cut into portions with the cheese wire. My village store was in Whiteabbey where Mr Burnett mesmerised with the bacon slicer.
Susan writes: "The bacon slicer was designed to move the joint back and forth against the spinning blade and the shop assistant caught the individual slices, put them on some greaseproof paper, then weighed the pile. When these rashers went on the pan there was no seepage nor was there the milky froth we get nowadays for bacon was dry cured then, the rind sparkling like rhinestones from the little flecks of salt and it was always crisped up into a honey coloured band of flavour." The mouth waters at the thought.
In Burnett's, eggs came out of a big crock, tea leaves were weighed on brass scales and a poke was made from brown paper to contain them – and you sliced your own bread when you got home. There were big jars of currents and raisins and peel for Christmas cakes; we all had to stir the mixture and make a wish before it was poured into the cake tin and into the oven.
The knitting needle was close by to check if it was cooked in the middle – if it came out clean it was done.
When I was growing up the family all spent the day with my granny. We were 22 one year but once we were 13 and, unlike Susan, we were superstitious and had to arrange two tables in the dining room with a split between them as 13 was an unlucky number to sit down together. Apparently this related to the Last Supper.
:: Memories are made of this
No way could even 13 gather over the last few weeks and New Year's Eve will be a very different affair. Our best was some time ago when the house vibrated with music and singing, silly games like eating doughnuts without licking your lips and seeing which of the men could stretch out a chest expander best.
Then at midnight the bells chimed with the hooters and the ships' horns and we stood out on the roadway to sing Auld Lang Syne. Imagine our delight when neighbours came out too; they had Scottish relations staying and we linked arms crying and laughing with emotion! When a dark-haired, handsome Scot first footed us with a piece of coal, everyone came in for mulled wine and mince pies and life was perfect.
Thank you Susan for your book and all the recipes from beef tea to Auntie Bessie's griddle soda farls, even dal from Madhur Jaffrey's Eastern Vegetarian Cooking.
Susan became a chef, working in Belfast and in Cyprus, then a lecturer in adult education, has written about food and appeared on television – always food, the making and sharing, and she promises there's talk of a supper club in her adopted homeplace, Rostrevor.
What a talent. And now I will go and have an apple crumble from my own home-grown apples and crumble weighed out by hand and a good dollop of cream on top. Friday will be time enough to start another diet.
I wish you a New Year which is positive, healthy, and hopefully, happy and full of good things.
My Homeplace Inheritance published by Blackstaff Press £9.99