24 July 2013

The Secret Gardens of Ireland: Welcome to Fruitlawn

Ireland is supposed to be wet, overcast, and mildly cold in the summer. When making plans for this trip, I had heard that June and July were Ireland's high time for tourists and assumed—yes, assumed!—that obviously, the weather would be grand.

I was not happy to learn, upon arrival here, that it is actually the opposite that generally holds true for the Irish summer.
bad weather whaaaat?
But I was happy to learn, now that summer is in full swing, that this time, things are different. A sun streak has hit Ireland the likes of which haven't been seen in 20 years. And after a meager two weeks of this, some counties are even officially in a drought.
Watchu talkin' bout a drought?
Save the bees!
So with the heat and humidity aaaalmost reminiscent of the Georgia summers of my youth, I found myself in what must be one of Ireland's most beautiful residential gardens last weekend picking a bounty of raspberries, loganberries, and gooseberries to my heart's content.
A whole wall full of loganberries—a tarter cousin of the raspberry
I had been itching furiously for some local produce because Ireland hasn't seemed to have caught on to the fact that local produce tastes better (exception: they do know this about potatoes). So when I saw the beautiful crop of berries simply aching to be picked, I somehow conned the owners of said crop into letting John and I pick the berries for "them" in exchange for a handsome berry payment.
Garden inclusions: humongous cabbage, a few ripe heads of artichoke, a whole row of bountiful asparagus, and more!
The loganberry wall (the raspberries were kept nearby under netting to ward off sweet-beaked birds)
They graciously accepted my offer, and after a dreamy walk among the garden grounds (which are tended to by the husband and wife team/berry masters), we commenced.
The resident artist (Carol Booth) also happens to be the owner of the place along with her husband, Arthur Schackleton, who founded and designed the gardens
Somehow, this generous duo let us off with the lion's share of the berry bounty, and even ended the evening with us over a shared glass of wine (four glasses, not just one).
Final bursts as the end lurks near
I never would have thought that a tiny town in "rainy, dreary Ireland," could have hidden a garden of such beautiful imagination and proportion, but it's here: Fruitlawn Gardens in the quaint town of Abbeyleix.

Take a look...
Gotta love a topiary
Talk about inviting...
Croquet, anyone? Cartwheels, at least? Just kidding. I don't know how to do either. Damnit!
great job, Ireland!

Bart Simpson flowers
Bug's eye view (And if a certain Sukie Amory wants to tell us what type of flowers these are, go right ahead...)
With my glut of berries now in tow, I can tell you one thing for certain...

THERE WILL BE CHEESECAKE.

...Stay tuned!

18 July 2013

Gingers Beware: It's Summer in Ireland

About a year ago, I assumed that coastal Western France in the summer meant endless sunshine and beach time, and so I arranged to volunteer there for two months.

It was Brittany. The Brittany that typically receives the most rainfall of the year in June and July. Yes, that Brittany. It did not take many wet mornings for me to realize how very wrong I'd been.
Flashback to our volunteer days in Brittany and dear Marie-Therese heading off to be a boss
And so it was without very much surprise that I found I hadn't learned any lesson from that experience, because after arriving to Ireland, I was told that during our June and July sojourn here we could expect exactly the same type of weather.

(lesson=learned. Check temperatures and rainfall).

Now that we're well into summer, there is a small part of me (the selfish part) that for the first time in my life is secretly thankful for global warming. Ireland just may be receiving its best summer since 2006, and in fact has received its longest stretch of sunshine in 71 years beginning in June. Oh joy! I have been basking in the potato-scented glory of it all for weeks now.
thomastown ireland
What better place to bask than this blue-wheeled bench at the Watergarden Gardens in nearby Thomastown?
I've moved on from enjoying this weather coast-side and now am volunteering Durrow, a tiny town centerish Ireland, with a lovely Dublin-born couple and their two children. She's a pastry chef who has been in the business nearly all her life, starting with a shop for 15 years in Dublin, then downsizing to a tiny cafe in the nearby town of Abbeyleix. Her husband generally keeps his distance form the manic schedule of eight-to-ten-hour baking days, and contents himself playing chauffeur to us volunteers getting to-and-from the cafe and to his nine and eleven-year-old son and daughter.
The new digs—a renovated farmhome with a newly-styled wood attachment in the back of the house that links the original right and left buildings and leaves a little inner patio between the two. Our room is top left.
What this all means for me is that the work exchange I find myself in involves helping in the kitchen while learning how to make pastries, pies, tarts, etc. and/or working in their cafe.
The display at a farmer's market in Dublin: sausage rolls, duck confit pies with potatoes and cheddar, and potato rostis with red pepper, arugula, and goat cheese
Chocolate scenes from the Dublin farmer's market. These gluten free brownies have become my specialty and my day's record so far is four batches—made, not eaten.
This is good.

Irish translation: this is GRAND.
Due to our food excitement and a rather strong command of English, John and I also get to run farmer's markets every now and again. Here I'm being helped by Sarah & Patrick's son Artie at Fruitlawn Gardens in Abbeyleix. 
John, meanwhile, is happily working away on building yet another stone wall. He is also eating as many pastry-based foods as humanly possible. I mean it.
John's wall, still a couple layers short. "Brute" on the bin—coincidence?
Hard not to drool over all the pies and quiches, but luckily I'm gluten free and typically stop at drool.
We also have the unexpected treat of volunteering with several other travelers, so there's  the well-needed opportunity to socialize ourselves for a while (you try traveling for a year with just one other person).
A day trip to the nearby quaint town of Kilkenny with our newest French friend Anne. Uncle Sam's (which we didn't patronize) with it's wonderful America theme, also sold curry, fish & chips, and pizza. What culture!
John, Artie, and Flo enjoying some icy things
Teaching the other volunteers about roasting marshmallows
Despite sharing a space with a family of four, five to seven volunteers, and a dog, the atmosphere somehow always seems quiet and relaxing, so alone time is easy to find for a walk along the hills or a book in bed with the windows thrown open.
Did somebody say relaxation? (he didn't even wake up for the picture)
This is the new addition that links the old (as in centuries) house with what used to be one of it's barns. A+ for high ceilings and the inner patio
A view from the inner patio of the lovely stone work and one of the four apple trees growing there. And check out the vista, we're on an amazing hill.
What else is there time for, you wonder?

Recipes. Looooots of recipes.

Stay tuned!
A sunset from the window of our room. Can we stay?

10 July 2013

Stone Walls & Chicken Curry Dip. This is Ireland.

Our first stop in Ireland has taken us to a small homestay (which we found using helpx)on the Southeastern coast in a little town called Ballydehob.
Oh, just a castle. Just a castle that happens to be a mile down the road and owned by Jeremy Irons. It was built between 1450-1480, fell to ruin in 1603 for 395 years, and then was restored to an as historically accurate state as possible by Mr. Irons himself.
The opportunity to build dry stone walls is what brought us here, and indeed I spent a day's work working on this task. But after taking a nice hard look at the situation, we realized that the style specific to the Southern region of Ireland—that being one which utilizes extra large stones in their walls—perhaps wasn't best suited to my level of strength (and before you say anything smart, it's a very high level of strength) .
Part of the wounded stone wall that we helped to restore. 
A peaceful moment before the wild boys find their toy
Now don't misunderstand, I don't run away from heavy lifting all the time. In fact, I tend to like the jobs that I can consider the day's work-out. But regarding the small amount of time we're spending here anyway, I'm going to go ahead and label this "out of my league" and focus on other things.
John's first time on a digger to help move rocks. This is happiness. 
So what do I do instead of strength training? 

I help Sharon, our hostess (who tends a house of two young boys and her husband), with cleaning their adjacent rental property. I help her find her place in social media. I iron (I'm assuming the skill will come in handy one day). I garden. I enjoy this rare gift of a sunny Irish summer.
Foxglove love as the clouds threaten to move in
The glorious allium. Onions never looked so good.
And I eat.
An essential ingredient in an Irish breakfast: farm fresh eggs. What's not pictured?  Bacon,  white & black sausage, baked beans, brown bread, and a cholesterol test
It just so happens that the female component of our host duo happens to be a trained chef. And man, can she cook.
Sharon's all-star brown soda bread, which she makes using spelt flour instead of wheat.  It's healthier, and you wouldn't even know the difference.
Given that John and I tend to take the reins in the kitchen (either because other hosts don't enjoy cooking or simply aren't very good at it), we have nearly forgotten that typically the idea behind help exchange programs is that the host cooks for the helpers.

It's time to remember.
This is volunteer heaven: Local mussels in a garlicky broth with oven-baked french fries.
There are three foods that you can't go wrong with in Ireland: potatoes, beef, and butter. This is a healthy culture.
One of the most surprisingly amazing meals I've had on this trip: Baked free-range ham with a harissa cream sauce.
The recipe I'm going to share with you isn't rooted in Ireland. But are we really surprised that the best thing I've had here hails from India? I'm a spice person. I want pad thai over alfreddo, chai over coffee, and definitely [insert anything with strong flavors here] over Irish meat and potatoes.

No offense Ireland—meat and potatoes are delicious and hearty and let's be honest, it's one of the things you do best (the Irish are also great fighters, which is why I'm going to sleep with one eye open tonight). But Sharon's curried chicken dip is the food that I'm going to remember first about Ireland,  because you don't forget the time you meet a dip like this.

In fact, once you have the recipe, you will remind yourself that this curried chicken chutney dip exists over and over and over again.
Who could imagine that something that looks so simple will completely dominate all who dare taste it?
Welcome to your new addiction. (Courtesy of Sharon & her website!)

Chicken Curry Dip
Ingredients
2 large chicken breasts, poached or baked until just cooked through
6-8 fl oz mayonnaise
3 tbs mango chutney
2 tbs Madras curry powder
3 scallions
3 oz slivered almonds
Salt & Pepper to taste
Food processor, blender, or immersion blender

Directions (from the words of Sharon herself!)
Preheat oven to 180C/350F

"Place all the ingredients EXCEPT the almonds in your available whizzer. Blend until almost smooth. (If you are using a wand chop the chicken and scallions up first) If the mixture seems a little dry add the extra 2 oz of Mayonnaise. You can taste it at this stage to check the seasoning. Put into your oven proof dish [the mixture should be at least an inch or more deep in the dish]. Top with the almonds spread in a single layer and bake at 180 degrees for 10-15 minutes until it starts to bubble a little bit."
Prepare to watch a mesmerizing culinary disappearing act.

I know I've called this a dip and all, but don't you dare be afraid to spread it on your sandwich, too.

While you get your curry on, I'm going to go enjoy an Irish sunset.
Foxglove, I did not give you the love you deserved until you surrounded me in Ireland.

Stay tuned as we head off to the midlands to work in a bakery and cafe! 

04 July 2013

Welsh Bosom Buddies meets Raw & Healthy Chocolate Truffles

Enough about all that wall-building stuff, more importantly (drumroll please): I have a new friend—and I don't mean the cat.
(But let's be honest, he's a new friend too, and yes, the majority of my "new friends" do end up being cats).
Readers, meet Teabag.
Playing the guessing game
It's been a long time traveling, and spending nearly every waking moment with one's boyfriend is nice and all (if you're lucky), but you can't put a price tag on female companionship. Just because I've looked like a little boy for over a year now (short hair much?), it doesn't mean that I, too, don't need a bosom buddy sometimes.

And so here's my tribute to the amazing Lisa, whom I suspect I'll be seeing on and off for the rest of my life (sounds like John has some competition, ehhhh?). Enthusiastic and forever young-at-heart, Lisa just gets it. She knows when to look out at a piece of sunshine and ride it all the way to a spontaneous hike around the coast, whether or not there's work to be done. She takes an interest in the people around her and is one among the few people we've met on this trip who still has an open mind about learning from and about everybody she meets.
A spur-of-the-moment drive to the Gors Fawr stone circle, which sits at the base of the Preseli Mountains, known as the birthplace of the Stonehenge bluestones. The landscape immediately puts you on the lookout for marsh nymphs and green-tinged fairies. Look just past the dead tree and you can make out part of the large circle (66 feet in diameter) of shortish stones.
Another last-minute Lisa idea: driving to an old hilltop to spy on dolphins and a stellar sunset.
In rainy Wales, you never let sunshine go to waste, an idea Lisa holds onto no matter what's on the to-do list
As a further tribute, I propose a recipe that relies heavily on dried fruit. This may or may not have something to do with the thousands of bags of dried fruit that Lisa has strewn about her pantry shelves (raisins!! So many raisins!). Lisa is the type who's always on the lookout for creative recipes, and healthy things that she can trick her 13-year-old son into eating are an obvious bonus. This faux chocolate truffle recipe is the perfect thing to cook up (even though there's no actual cooking involved) when you want an amazing dessert without the guilt.
Looks decadent, but it's an iluuuusionnnn.
I like my sweets, but I'm not such a big fan of diabetes and/or tooth decay. So erring on the side of minimal self-damage, I go for "healthy" sweet things, which is often achieved by substituting raw sugar with the more-natural sugars of fruit. It's still sugar, but it's the lesser of two evils by a landslide. This is where all that dried fruit hiding out in your pantry comes in.

In this case I've used prunes and dates, but you can try this out with a mixture of anything: raisins, currants, apricots, you name it. I would suggest getting dates in there if you can, because they just blow other dried fruits out of the orchard when it comes to their chocolatey sweetness.
How can something that looks so wrong be so, so right?
Sunlight hitting a globe of chocolate, this is art at its finest.
Raw Chocolate Truffles
Ingredients
1 cup pitted dates
3/4 cup pitted prunes
1/4 cup + 2 tbs nut butter
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup desiccated natural coconut (can substitute ground nuts)
3-4 tbs maple syrup or honey
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp coffee extract or 2 tsp espresso powder

Topping
1-2 cups cocoa powder, ground nuts or dried coconut, icing sugar (I use a mixture of cocoa, a pinch of cinnamon, and icing sugar)

Directions
Blend dates and prunes in a food processor until smooth (if you have a weak machine, soak them in warm water for 30 minutes beforehand). Add the rest of the ingredients and blend until a paste is formed. Mixture will be sticky, so you can refrigerate for about 45 minutes for easier handling.

Put your "topping" (which will serve the role of sealing in moisture) into a bowl. Set up a pan that will fit in the fride with wax or parchment paper. Roll the truffle paste into ping pong ball-ish sizes, give 'em a roll in the topping, and set on your prepared pan. Once you've filled up the pan, throw it in the fridge to let the little guys firm up. 

After an hour or two, they're ready to be thrown in some tupperware and stored. They'll keep for one to two weeks and can be frozen, so keep them around and eat when you need a nutritional boost or a fast but impressive meal-finisher!
Homemaker wife idea: Put them in an old-fashioned jar (put circles of parchment between the layers), tie a string and a note around the top, and give them as a gift. Oh Pinterest, here I come!
All this sentimentality and fruit/chocolate stuff is saying nothing of Lisa's partner Mick, who has patiently and talkatively worked alongside John and me as we bungle our way through our baby steps toward construction know-how.

Chancing upon this duo and their bright son Jake has been the most absurdly perfect fluke of this trip. It took ditching an odd man in a mansion to bring us here, but a disruption in the plan is sometimes the best thing that can happen to a person. I realize bittersweetly how few of the hosts we've had understand help exchanges the way Mick and Lisa do. When matches like these are made, there's a level of symbiosis where volunteers help to accomplish the practical and onerous tasks, but when the work is over, we all find time to have an actual friendship among the returns of room and board.
John and Mick take the blowup canoe out for a ride, and soonafter were startled by a breaching seal who quickly said hello and swam away. There is talk of John and I using this vessel as an inexpensive way to get to Ireland...
Despite wishing that I could stay holed up in this one-room wooden cabin for longer, greeting Mick, Lisa, and Jake in the mornings after rousing ourselves to stroll across the garden to their home, and then pulling myself away from the urge, after every breakfast, to stay inside talking to Lisa all day, it's time for us to move on to Ireland.
Heading to the Fishguard ferry port. This is how you say goodbye, right?
This time around, I'll be leaving with a galvanized sense of the good in people and a bolstered hope for more little treasures to be found in this vagabond lifestyle. Will I find another family like this one, though? Doubtful.
Sunset at our dolphin-spying lookout
Follow us to Ireland where we'll start of learning about dry stone-walling in a southern coastal town called Ballydehob.

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