Christmas Greetings

A friend came to visit last week. It was, as the Irish would say, a “flying visit”.  He came in on Wednesday and went out on Friday.

I showed him all that Dingle has to offer in the bleak misty mid-winter: a Dingle Distillery tour; a trip around the peninsula admiring the sites and clambering over and around ancient sundials, standing stones, and roofless churches a thousand years old; and, of course, a couple of whiskeys in Dick Mack’s and some Guinness stew in a pub afterward.  Then we returned to our home and sat in front of a warm fire drinking more whiskey and solving all of the world’s problems.

We hadn’t seen each other since we graduated from high school fifty-one years ago, but the conversation continued as if one of us had simply left the room for a few minutes, and then returned.

On Saturday night we went to a friend’s house for her annual Christmas party. Her large square table was groaning from the weight of cheeses, chicken bites, mini-pizzas, and cookies and cakes. The chairs were pushed back against the walls.  Christmas decorations covered every surface. And the kitchen and lounge were crammed with locals and blow-ins from the states and the U.K., all busily chatting away and wishing each other “Happy Christmas”. Some we knew already and were friends with and some, I suspect, will become friends.

On Sunday, we ran into town for the last-minute shopping.  There was a roast to pick up from Jerry, whose counters and coolers were piled high with turkeys and geese and ducks and dry-aged rib roasts.  Then, next door to the green grocers for potatoes and carrots and sprouts on the stalk.  We stopped at Mark’s cheese shop for a nice cheddar and a bottle of wine to accompany the roast, and at Grainne’s for a few more baubles to decorate the house. And, of course, there are always needed essentials from SuperValu, where we try to get in Joan’s checkout line so we can have a chat as she rings up our purchases.  Everywhere there are smiles, handshakes, and cries of “Happy Christmas”.

I thought about this as we sat in front of the fire last night.  We have been blessed with good friends wherever we have lived.  Some friends we see often, some only occasionally, and some after fifty years, but all have enriched our lives.

Thank you to all of our friends, wherever you may be.

Happy Christmas

Nollaig Shona


Jim and Sara

The Baker

 I’m sitting in my chair reading The Irish Times when I come across an article about the National Ploughing Championships held this year in Tullamore, County Offaly, just down the road from the Marian shrine in Screggan.  Sara is working in the office.

The National Ploughing Championship is the biggest yearly event in the Irish farming world.  Almost 300,000 visitors roam through 1,700 exhibits of seeds, feeds, and farming equipment.  The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and other ministers wander about in wellies greeting constituents, and the President, Michael D. Higgins, gives a welcoming speech.  There are sheep dog trials and sheep shearing contests.  A few fellows build a tractor from the ground up and a fun fair keeps the children amused.  Cattle and the milk they give are judged rigorously.  And, to top it all off, farmers compete for the ploughing championships in three categories: under 28 years, over 28 years, and seniors.

I’m about to relate all of this to Sara, but decide she is too busy.

Then a paragraph in the article catches my eye.

“Would you listen to this?” I shout to Sara in the other room.  “There’s a National Brown Bread Baking Championship judged by none other than Mary Berry from the Great British Bake Off show.”

“Hmm,” she said, totally engrossed in her work.

Now it must be said that Sara is renowned for her brown bread on three continents.  It has made regular appearances on our table in the states, in Singapore, and here in Ireland, always to great acclaim.

“A County Meath woman won, while carrying her three-week-old son in a sling as she baked.  Fair play to her.  And there’s a €10,000 prize.  You should enter next year.”

No response.

I continue reading about the brown bread.

“Wait,” I shout again.  “What do you put into your brown bread?”

“Cream flour, coarse wholemeal, soda, salt, and buttermilk.  And maybe a little sugar,” she sighs distractedly.

“This woman puts chia, flax, and poppy seeds in hers. And treacle.  Wait. And eggs!” I shout.  “What manner of brown bread is that?  Chia seeds, for god’s sake.  You should definitely enter.”

No answer.

I go back to my reading.

Sara has been famous for her baking wherever we have lived.  In Santa Fe, she was often asked to supply the desserts for dinner parties.  This was in part because of her science background. Baking at a high altitude – Santa Fe is at 7,000 feet – presents a challenge.  Sara would factor in the altitude, the barometric pressure, the wind direction, the ambient room temperature, and which couch the dog was sleeping on to actually get a cake to rise.

Here, though, altitude is not an issue; we are, after all, at sea level.  In Corca Dhuibhne her challenge is the pride and reputation of the local ladies.  She has to tread carefully.

She started with some rhubarb scones. The way Sara has always made her rhubarb scones is to pat the dough into a small circle and then cut it into triangles, the way you would slice a pizza.  The first time she made them she walked a few next door to our neighbors. Their four-year-old, Ellie, immediately wolfed one down.

After Sara left, Ellie said to her mom, “They tasted lovely, but does she not know how to make a proper scone?”

“What do you mean, Ellie?” her mother asked.

“Proper scones are round,” she answered. “I learned that at my school.”

Point taken. Sara now makes round scones.

Next it was a Guinness cake for a friend’s Sunday lunch of roast venison and veg.  This was met with raves, and leftovers went home with all the guests.

A dinner party of steak and kidney pie with a steak and ale pudding required some thought.

“I’ve got it.  I’ll make a key lime pie.  That will work well after the richness of the beef,” she mused.

A traditional pumpkin pie and apple tart were on the table for our own Thanksgiving dinner with friends.

There were lemon bars for an art gallery opening night for three artist friends.  Visitors gave high marks for the artwork and the lemon bars.

Grand Marnier and apple cakes, tarts and pies, and frosted Christmas cookies for a “drinks” party.  All went out our door.

This was done with just a few assorted mixing bowls and a demon of a handheld mixer that spewed flour all over the kitchen and Sara.

“I hate using this thing,” she said every time she baked.

One day we went into Fitzgerald’s Hardware to pick up some AAA batteries.

“Look at this, Sara,” I said, pointing to a display near the front.  “Kenwood KMX75 stand mixers are on offer for €200.  That’s like the Cadillac of mixers.  State of the art.”

“Put it in the cart.”

“The sky’s the limit now,” I think.

Thoughts about our well-equipped kitchen run through my mind as I finish the article in the Times.

Looking up from my paper, I decide to give it one more try.

“Chia seeds, Sara,” I say.  “I mean, you really should enter the contest to show them how to make a proper brown bread.”

“I’ll enter that contest when you learn to plough a straight line.”

“But it’s €10,000, so,” I mumble.

I get up from my chair and reach for my jacket.

“I’m going for a walk,” I tell her. “I’m wondering if Thomas, the farmer down the lane, could use an apprentice?”