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.”
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.”
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?”