Saturday, January 31, 2009

Celebrating tea before January ends!

This is a link to a fellow blogger who posts as Gracious Hospitality and has a fun draw on for January as a Tea Month (first I knew of it!) She asks that we post links to her post on our blogs. So here goes - the post link is below. I hope you visit her her page and share the lovely photos she has posted of tea gardens in Sri Lanks and Indonesia. I already wrote about tea gardens in Sri Lanka in my post on a nice cup of tea, so it is good to see these lovely scenes.

You will see the nice photo above from her post, showing what she has to give away in the draw which takes place tomorrow - short notice I know, but I have only just sorted linking things to my posts. I'm sure she'll understand! She posts a lot of recipes and also about tea, so we have something in common!

Every day I am learning something new about blogging - yesterday I discovered links and how to incorporate them, it took some time and I was trying to find out myself before capitulating and asking my graphic designer son to show me! He already showed me how to add all the sidebar gadgets and Lynda has also been very helpful when she gave me my first blog award (!) and told me how to get it on my page. This is baby steps and I have a long way to go to catch up with many of the more skilled bloggers out there.

Keep visiting my blog and remember - I love to read all the comments - and welcome any new followers!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Reflections on Africa - tribalism and colonialism

Years ago (1994) we travelled to Zimbabwe by train from Makambako (between Iringa and Mbeya, our nearest TanZam station) for an overland holiday with our three boys. We only got to Victoria Falls and had a wonderful week there, staying in a hotel with a pool for 3 days and in a town council holiday cottage in the middle of town for the remaining days, as the hotel was a bit outside our then frugal budget.

What I remember vividly about the train journey was the book I read to while away some of the 36 hours trip, Thomas Pakenham's "Scramble for Africa" , which looks at the vast, then virtually unknown continent at the time of the colonial scramble between the 4 colonial powers of England, Germany, France and Belgium. From an Irish person's perspective what fascinated was the realisation that if Gladstone wasn't so preoccupied with "the Irish question" he would have backed Stanley's quest for the navigability of the Congo river, and not left it to King Leopold for Belgium.

Indeed the course of history would have been very different in the area as if Belgium hadn't already a foot in the door with Congo, they wouldn't have been "given" Ruanda-Urindi (present-day Rwanda and Burundi) as part of the carve-up of the former German colonies after the Treaty of Versailles in the wake of World War 1.

Just goes to show what the consequences of one action or inaction can be. In the case of Rwanda these have been devastating, and the complexity of the situation there that culminated in the genocide of 1994 is impossible to condense in a few lines of a blog post. Suffice to say that the colonial masters have a lot to answer for in this instance, which is not to exonerate the Interehamwe perpetrators of the genocide.

The Belgian policy of divide and rule perpetrated the existing gulf between the Bantu Hutu and the Nilotic Tutsi who were seen as more "European" looking by the Belgians, who favoured them in education and employment opportunities. This festering resentment boiled over as soon as independence arrived and the first of many genocidal massacres took place around 1959.

The account of the events of that awful year are told in many books, from many angles, and a film has been made - Hotel Rwanda - which gives an accurate portrayal of one aspect of the bravery of individuals. The refusal of the Western world in general and the US in particular to use the genocide term was one of the damning indictments of Clinton's administration, as that would have meant an international intervention, other than the ineffectual UN response, which was miniscule compared to that in former Yugoslavia around the same time. General Romeo Dallaire was one brave man heading up the UN forces who was thwarted every time he attempted to raise the issue of complicity of some Western governments, and the need to empower the UN to be peace enforcers not just peacekeepers.

Other books that recount the events for posterity are Philip Gourevitch's chillingly factual "We wish to inform you tomorrow we will be killed with our families"; Dervla Murphy's account of visiting her daughter and family in Goma in the wake of the genocide in "Visiting Rwanda", and Fergal Keane's (former BBC World Service African correspondent) "Seaon of Blood - a Rwandan Journey" . I have read these and can recommend them, they are compulsive reading for anyone interested in trying to understand African tribalism and the devastation of colonial fallout. I have not read Dallaire's book "Shake hands with the Devil" but it sounds compelling; he left Africa a broken man after what he had witnessed, and it might put into perspective the constraints the beleaguered UN peacekeepers work under, their mandate of non-intervention made them targets for internaional opprobrium, and probably led to changes in their approach to crises in Chad and other global conflict zones.

A more recent book that I read and loved was "Blood River", by Tim Butcher. This is an account of his journey along the Congo River in the footsteps of Stanley, and we were lucky to meet Tim last year when he spoke at Lismore's Immrama Festival of Travel Writing. He recounts the destruction of that country under the despotic Mobutu regime and, sadly, history seems to be repeating itself in Mugabe's reign of terror in today's beleaguered Zimbabwe.

We lived in Tanzania during the Rwandan genocide and worked closely with the volunteers on the ground in the refugee camps in the border Kagera region, which were largely filled with the fleeing perpetrators - a moral and ethical dilemma that challenged the humanitarian ideals of everyone involved. Do we assist the perptrators or do we treat them as they treated their fellow-countrymen and women and children? I don't have the answers to this question, I don't know if there is one.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

My cool new kitchen machine!

A few weeks ago my old trusty Philips food mixer died, no doubt from burn-out after a particularly strenuous Christmas and New Year which saw a lot of baking, particularly for the New Year's Eve party we held here at home - see that post for more!

Here is a photo of my cool new Kenwood - and the inaugural muffins!!

The next week when I went to make some buns/fairy cakes, the mixer gave an asthmatic wheeze as if it was trying to muster up some power, and nothing more. So after 9 years of service above and beyond the call of duty for a mere 250watt machine, it had given up the ghost. I had bought it after an earlier (wedding present then 18 years old!) Philips machine mixer attachment suffered meltdown when I left it unattended during bread-making - something the manual warns against but whoever takes notice of the manual until it's too late! A bit of brand loyalty mixed with pragmatism as the dough hooks and whisks from the old machine fitted the new one, worked well with multitasking and keeping down the washing up frequency during a bakeathon!

This time I decided to shop around and get something that would hopefully give many years of faithful service, and when I saw this Kenwood Kenmix 650 in the shop marked down by 15% in these recessionary times, I was hooked. It was about double what I'd originally budgeted for a mixer, but the fact that it was a half dozen machines in one powerful 650 watt motor was enough to convince me anything else would have been a false economy. It has a lot of bells and whistles: namely a blender jug for smoothies and soups, a juicer for apples and other hard fruit and veg, and a citrus juicer; a food processor with some lethal blades and a number of grater and slicing discs that need careful handling or diced and grated finger could have a "bit" part in my next culinary creation!

Back to what I can now do with this wonder machine - I was so busy at work I didn't have the energy to bake during the week so last weekend I made some muffins. I had never made muffins until recently, as I always had the idea they were waayyy more fattening and unhealthy than my default surefire cake - fairy cakes. I am sure these are called other names like cupcakes, but in Ireland they tend to be called fairy cakes or queen cakes. In any case they are all basic Victoria Sponge mix - the same proportions of 4-4-4-2. That's 4ozs each of Flour (self-raising or plain with baking powder), sugar and butter, and 2 eggs. Vanilla or dessicated coconut or ground almonds or lemon or orange zest are all options to jazz them up in different ways!

I often make fairy cakes at 11 o'clock at night on a whim if I want some tasty buns hot out of the oven, there is little to beat them! Then they can be iced or filled with jam and cream or whatever you wish. I often ice them and sprinkle with hundreds and thousands "sprinklies" like here!
I will post the recipe for the muffins I made in my next post, as this is long enough. I made two different types, Blueberry, and Chocolate Chip. They keep for days in an airtight tin, though if you have visitors they won't last daylight! The recipe is from a book called Baking (now there's a surprise!) by Martha Day, which is full of lovely bread and cakes and cookies. I have varied the recipe and it is very adaptable. So I hope you all enjoy them. I got a muffin baking tin, which is deeper than a bun tin, and I get muffin paper cases for convenience, though they aren't essential if you use a non-stick tin.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Every January it is Marmalade season. At least that's when the Seville marmalade oranges are available in the greengrocers. These oranges, from the Seville region in the south of Spain, are the best for marmalade as they have a thick skin with enough pips and pith (membrane) to provide the pectin to set the marmalade. They look wonderfully natural compared to the uniform eating oranges we see, which are often seedless and without blemish. In Africa and Asia we got used to oranges with greenish skins and odd shapes and sizes, and realised that much of the citrus fruit in Europe has been waxed and treated with some colourant to make it look "attractive" when in fact the natural colours are far nicer.

For the past few years I have bought about 5 kilos of Seville oranges each January, and made a batch to last the year. This gives enough for our own family as there are not too many marmalade or jam lovers in the house. Peanut butter and honey are preferred by our boys, which leaves me redundant on both counts in Ireland at any rate, although in Africa we became dab hands at homemade peanut butter. A real case of neccessity being the mother of invention, we had tons of wonderful local peanuts or groundnuts from the market and growing in our own shamba (garden), and we made peanut butter from roasted and shelled nuts, with the skins left on or winnowed off, both were good. We made the butter either by the labour intensive pestle and mortar grinding method, or the slightly higher tech method of the home food processor mincing attachment. The latter depended on electricity and if there was low power it was often inadequate; the joys of generator electricity are many - put on the oven or switch on an appliance and all the lights in the house dimmed!

Anyway, this post is supposed to be about marmalade. I mentioned days back on my Facebook profile that I was contemplating making marmalade, and it is only now a fait accompli. This is because it is a slow process that cannot be rushed if a good result it to be achieved. The recipe I use is a variation on one from the home of Seville oranges in Spain and comes with the oranges from the greengrocer, and a Darina Allen recipe, in that I use slightly higher water to orange ratio than the Spanish recipe calls for. This seems to work fine, though I bottle the marmalade aiming for a set that is not too hard as I prefer slightly softer marmalade, not a consistency that requires elbow grease to spread on the bread or toast! This sometimes results in the peel rising to the top of the jar, though I am sure this is possible to prevent but I don't yet know how.

(Any answers to this post's comment box below please!)
Handy Tip

It is also possible to use a pressure cooker for those readers of a certain vintage who know what I'm talking about! This certainly cuts down on the cooking time for softening the peel, though you must boil the mix with the sugar added in an open saucepan, large enough to allow for the mix to reach a rolling boil without boiling over and creating a stovetop disaster zone!

*If using a pressure cooker the water is reduced to half the quantity as there is no reduction as when boiling in an ordinary saucepan.

Ingredients (Yield = about 12-13 pounds/6kgs approx of marmalade)

4lbs/1.8kgs Seville oranges

2 lemons or limes (or both for more tangy flavour blends!)

8 pints/4.6litres water

sugar - 1lb/450gms per pint/600ml of mix after boiling to soften the fruit.

Preparing the fruit

1. Wash the oranges and lemons/limes, cut in half.
2. Squeeze the juice.

3. Scoop out the pith with a spoon and keep along with the pips.

4. Cut peel into slices, thick or thin as preferred.

(This is a bit tedious and I haven't found a way of doing it with a food processor slicer/dicer, so if anyone knows how, please share!)

5. Put pips and pith in a muslin bag and add to juice and water and peel in large bowl or saucepan and cover, for 24-48 hours in a cool place.

Cooking the marmalade
1. In a large saucepan, bring the mix to the boil and simmer until the peel is soft - 1-2 hours or less in a pressure cooker (* with less water - about half - added at stage 5 above.)

2. Remove the muslin bag and squeeze out all the liquid.

3. Measure 1lb/450gm sugar to every pint/600ml liquid and return to stove in large saucepan.
4. Stir until sugar is dissolved, then bring rapidly to boil.
5. Bring to a full rolling boil and cook until setting point is reached, skimming off any skin that forms (whitish froth that settles onto surface as a thick skin you can skim off with wooden/slotted spoon)
6. Setting point is when a little marmalade put on a cold plate and cooled wrinkles when touched with a finger, and the surface looks "set". I find this can take a half hour or more of rapid boiling with this quantity, though some cookbooks say it is 10-15 mins.

7. Have a quantity of warmed jam jars in the oven to sterilise. Remove to worktop - carefully!

8. Pot the marmalade - after it stops bubbling - into the warmed jars, cover immediately with either the original "popping" jar tops if you have them, or waxed discs and cellophane jamjar covers, or if you're a real Martha Stewart, proper rubber-seal Kilner-type jars!

The end result!

A dish of marmalade for the breakfast table

Handy Tip

It is best stored in a cool dark cupboard, and has a wonderful shelf life, good for at least a year in sealed jars. I use all types of jars, ideally with metal screwtops, as they have a popper that shows the jar is sealed, and you will hear it click with a pop as it depresses when the marmalade is cooling, and when you open a jar it should release the vacuum seal with a pop.

The yield from about 6lbs/2.5kg oranges
I make enough to share with friends, and bring some to work for colleagues to enjoy. If possible you could always bring it to your local farmer's market and set up a stall and quickly recoup your costs and make a nice profit.
I hope you enjoy the end result and don't be put off by the long preparatory process - it's minimal effort and maximum return as far as the total work involved is concerned!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Frosty, Fluey January days

This week has been exceptionally cold in Ireland, and here in West Waterford we have had some really freezing days, when the white hoar frost stayed on the ground all day where the sun didn't thaw it, and the clear sunny few days compensated for the bone-chilling cold. While this is cold Irish-style, I realise it is probably a warm day for people in countries where you get proper winter weather, snow and ice and a real demarcation between the seasons. The trouble with Irish weather is that you can get the four seasons in one day in the same place, and the fluctuations this week have been from -6 degrees Centigrade on Monday and Tuesday, to double figures above zero towards the end of the week. No wonder we're all weather-obsessed and it forms the basis of much casual conversation - a sort of ice breaker, you could say (in a dreadful pun!) Photo: A frosty sunrise in the garden in Lismore

Ben looking sad in the cold!

I was back to work this week after being off for a week over New Year, and I didn't do a lot of going out as we had a New Year's Eve party (see the blog post New Year Reflections), and then the house became an offshoot of work with an outbreak of flu, mostly the new variant gender-specific Man-Flu, which made for some sleepless night duty! Luckily a lot of paracetamol, ibuprofen, hot tea, iced water and tons of TLC later, and the patients were on the mend. I had the flu vaccine at work and it seems to thus far be warding off the virus, which (all jokes about man-flu aside!) is pretty awful this winter. It's known as the Brisbane H3N2 strain, and is at epidemic level in much of Europe and probably further afield.

Some frosty leaves and grass
The week began with a foggy 3a.m. journey to Shannon Airport to bring Shayne and Jany to the Girona Ryanair flight. They had been here for a month, and we were sad to see them go, sick and flu-ridden after a miserable last few days. Thankfully they are both much better now, a few days later. Shannon airport at 6a.m. was a bit like the airport in that Stephen King film, The Langoliers, deserted and dreary, with not a cup of tea or coffee or a functioning dispenser to be found until the cafe opened, which it did eventually but not before they'd gone through security. We got home at 8.15a.m., not long before the Girona flight landed, and I just had to take some photos of the frost as the day dawned clear and sunny.

The view over Dungarvan Bay from Ring
I went back to work on Tuesday and took the camera with me as it was one of those days in a million when the countryside and especially the coastline in my work area looked spectacular - as long as you were viewing it from the warm car and well wrapped up! The photos show the southern coastline of Co. Waterford heading west from Dungarvan towards Ardmore, along Helvick Head and the Old Parish coastline towards Mine Head Lighthouse, which is the highest lighthouse in Ireland, perched on a 200ft high clifftop. It is no longer functioning, and is on private land so not easily accessible, but is visible from a distance.

Two views over Helvick Head: looking eastwards... ...and westwards, from lay-by above Ring

When you are seeing a place every day it becomes almost mundane and taken for granted, and though days like this are rare they are worth capturing for posterity. I hasten to add that I wasn't just taking photos all day, but actually did a day's work as well -it's just lucky that my work entails a lot of driving through such lovely countryside!

I hope you enjoy the photos of a beautiful part of the Irish coastline, and it is even more lovely in summer - when we get one! Maybe this year will be our turn for some fine weather, and then who needs the Med!

Dungarvan Bay with the Cunnigar sandspit... ...and looking eastwards past Clonea to Stradbally

Friday, January 9, 2009

Banoffee Pie

This is a classic with many variations - the original from the Hungry Monk restaurant in East Sussex in England (1972) is not the one I follow as it has a pastry base and my son has vetoed it in favour of my crunchy crumble one which is much nicer. Also I sometimes add or omit the coffee from the cream.

My recipe is an amalgam of different Banoffee recipes and I have adapted it to suit family taste, so I hope you like it - it is really easy to put together and needs minimal baking - only the base is baked and the rest is assembled.

It is great for preparing in advance for emergency visitors, you can wow them with this and they won't know you were only 5 minutes stacking it up like a jumbo breakfast roll!

(For those of you who don't get this reference I will try to get the YouTube clip of the song of that name onto my blog once I figure out which gadget I need for video clips!)
Handy Tip: Have a few cans of Condensed Milk prepared by boiling the cans in water for about 2-3 hours to caramelise. This can be done economically by immersing the unopened tins in a pan of boiling water - covered - at the bottom of the oven when you are roasting a joint or something that takes time. Also less chance of the water boiling off and a potential disaster that could happen on the hob!

Banoffee Pie

1 can caramelised condensed milk - see Handy TIP above.
3 ripe bananas - no blackened bits.
250 ml cream for whipping (a spoon of icing/caster sugar is optional - I omit it as the pie is sweet enough already)
a pinch of instant coffee powder/granules
a few squares of dark chocolate grated over cream topping

This photos shows the caramelised condensed milk topping, with the bananas, over crumble base

Crumble base
6oz/150gm flour
2oz/50gm butter
2oz/50gm sugar
(preheat Oven to 180 degrees centigrade)
1. Rub butter into flour to crumby texture and add sugar, mix well
2. Spread over base of cake tin(8 - 10 inch/24-28 cm size, depends on how thick you want it)
3. Press down to firm and bake for20 mins/until golden and set.
(This can be made in advance and frozen, or it will keep in airtight tin for a week or so)

Assembling Banoffee layers (no more baking needed)

1. Spread caramel/toffee from tin over baked base.
2. Slice 2 bananas over caramel (see photo)
3. Whip cream and add coffee powder (optional)
4. Spread over caramel/bananas
5. Slice remaining banana over cream
6. Top with grated chocolate - best grated directly onto cream.

This photo shows the pie before sprinklies of dark chocolate are added!

Enjoy - extremely more-ish and probably horrifically calorific!

I have no idea how many calories are in a portion, but if you really want to know this then you probably shouldn't be eating it as you'll be too guilt-tripped to enjoy it to the max!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Lemon Meringue Pie

This is one of my favourites and a real party treat. It is easy to make though you have to be diligent with stirring the custard, and it knocks the socks off the shop bought powder which is rubbish. (Unlike Bird's Custard which is great and as good as real egg custard for nostalgic comfort food!)

I have this recipe in an old autograph book I got for my 18th Birthday from my best friend Anne, and while I never used it for its intended purpose it has been all over the world with me.

It also contains recipes as diverse as cooked play-dough, Anzac Cookies and Papaya Jam added at various stages, reflecting our location and the kids life stages! The kids also added some of their own recipes, which make for interesting reading!

I have no idea where this recipe originated but I know I first made it in when we lived in Mishamo, a refugee settlement in Rukwa Region in Western Tanzania in the early 80s. We had lots of lemons for lemonade and pie, and when we lived in Iringa it became a much requested party dish, and looked impressively complicated to garner lots of compliments! It's now a signature dessert and party favourite of mine.

Lemon Meringue Pie

Shortcrust pastry base:
8oz/200gm flour
4oz/100gm butter
1oz/25gm icing or caster or normal sugar
1 egg (for rich pastry) or water for plainer)

(Preheat Oven to 200 degrees centigrade)
1. Rub in butter to flour to crumbly texture
2. Add sugar and egg/water and mix well with knife blade to bind stiffly together
3. Knead lightly and roll out on floured surface
4. Put in base of 10 inch/28cm deep pie dish
5. Bake blind with dried kidney beans on greaseproof paper to weigh down for 15-20 mins
6. Remove beans and paper and bake for about 10 minutes till golden

Lemon Custard Filling:
2oz/50gm flour3 tablespoons cornflour
6oz/150gm sugar
1.5 pints/850mls water
3 egg yolks - beaten - (keep whites separate for topping)
8 tablespoons lemon juice (squeezed freshly)
Lemon peel grated
pinch salt
1oz/25gm butter

1. Blend Cornflour in some of the cold water (few spoonfuls) and add flour and sugar.
2. Add water and stir constantly until bubbling - remove from heat now
3. Add some of the mixture to the egg yolks, stir and return to pan and cook over low heat until bubbling again.
4. Remove from heat, add lemon juice and peel, salt and butter, stirring well to ensure not lumpy 5. Pour into baked pastry shell, cool

Meringue Topping: (I use same as Pavlova recipe - slightly crumbly and yummy!)
3 Egg whites
6oz/150gm sugar
half teaspoon Vanilla Essence (or Vanilla Sugar if you keep a pod in a jar topped up with sugar)
half teaspoon Cornflour
half teaspoon vinegar or lemon juice

1. Beat egg whites (electric whisk) till stiff, add remaining ingredients and beat well till peaking. 2. Top Pie with meringue, making sure to cover custard fully to edge of pie crust
3. Bake at 150 degrees Centigrade for 15 mins approx until peaks are golden.
Cool, and enjoy with a dollop of whipped cream to really indulge!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The blessings of a nice cup of tea

One of my favourite Christmas treats was a funky teapot, which has brought tea drinking to a whole new level for me. It's like a kettle, white ceramic with red flowers and black leaves.

I have gone back to drinking leaf tea after years of teabags in a mug. In defence of the much-maligned teabag, they are not too bad in Ireland, much better than in other countries I've lived in. It also set me thinking about tea in the various manifestations and its significance in my life over the years, hence this tribute.

Here is my lovely new teapot, and a mug
I grew up with tea as a constant in my life, coffee never intruding in my childhood unless you counted a vile concoction called Irel which was ersatz coffee made from chicory and must have been invented by some demented sadist in the days of wartime rationing. In any case it put me right off coffee until my student days when bedsit Maxwell House made for urban sophistication in those pre-skinny latte and cappucino days! Tea was always super-sweet until one Lent in nursing school in Dublin when I decided to give up sugar and smoking. Well, one out of two ain't bad, and I haven't gone back to sweet tea since. (The smoking cessation didn't happen for another four years and had nothing to do with Lent, but that's another story.)
In the late 1970s I worked in Bangladesh as a volunteer with the Irish-based NGO, Concern. There were the most magnificent tea gardens in Sylhet, which we visited for some of their key social events (see below!). Factory tours there showed us how the tea moved from the bush to the pot, and the process was fascinating. The tea gardens, shaded by a canopy of tall trees, possibly eucalyptus but I'm not sure, were an undulating landscape in an otherwise flat country, and this novelty value alone made them worth a visit, as did the arcane social life. The tea estates were run by remnants of the Empire, either British "Staying On" Raj types, or Anglo-Indians straight out of a Somerset Maugham novel, where full afternoon tea on the verandah was a venerable institution. The social calendar was marked by events like the Monsoon Ball and the Bachelor's Ball...which seemed totally anachronistic to me in a country that was not only post-colonial by (then) 30 years, but newly independent and in search of a strong identity.

Other tea encounters in that era were holidays in Sri Lanka to the Kandy and Adam's Peak area where there were totally different tea gardens, in misty mountainous central highlands. I can't recall the exact location of the tea estates but I remember another factory tour! And it seems the floor sweepings always ended up in teabags, which should have put me off for life, but didn't. (Maybe I have a slovenly approach to tea, and need to become a tea connoisseur/snob like so many coffee and wine "connoisseurs"!)

In those days, I eschewed the ubiquitous Chai of the entire subcontinent as being way too sweet, spicy and stewed to death, the latter being totally unforgiveable for an Irish tea drinker. (The only exception was the wonderful thirst-quenching milky chai on the trains in India, poured from a froth-inducing height into unglazed clay cups, which were thrown out of the train window afterwards - the best recycling ever.) It amuses me now to see how Chai has gained such status among tea aficionados, up there with green, white and herbal tea, and costs a fortune. Earl Gray was the height of sophistication in my younger days, and I ruined the image by adding milk!

Tanzania was our next exotic port of call, for most of the 80s and half the 90s. Another tea country, with tea gardens in the Southern Highlands as well as up North, though I only recall coffee shambas in the Arusha/Kilimanjaro/Moshi area, and in Bukoba/Kagera region. Near Iringa where we lived was a large tea estate at Mufindi, part of the gardens were nationalised and others run by Brooke Bond, part of Unilever, which was another anachronism in such a socialist country. Mufindi Club was a weekend retreat for many wazungu (expats/foreigners) and we compromised our principles somewhat by learning to play golf there on a beautiful course at over 2000m altitude. The estate was run like a company town, with a company shop for the employees where visitors to the club could buy tea from the factory. I was homeschooling our three boys back in those days and a factory tour became a mandatory field trip, where we saw every stage of production right down to - you guessed it - the teabags! Apparently not quite floor sweepings but the finest filtering of the leaves.
This is William, age 7 in Mufindi, sitting near the clubhouse by the first tee, eating peanuts -1994
Then we spent a few years in Laos, where tea was grown on the Bolovens Plateau in the far south, a place I never visited but the tea from there was large leafs, and very smoky. Very much an acquired taste which I never quite did acquire, so there was a lot of Lyon's and Barry's tea smuggled back from home; it became as coveted as Tayto Cheese'n'Onion crisps whenever visitors from Dublin came on project visits. The only "normal" tea available in Vientiane was ghastly Lipton's teabags, which had high-tech strings attached that could actually squeeze the teabag and prevent it dripping all over the floor! Never improved the taste though - a memory perhaps best forgotten!
My myriad tea gaffes are legendary and almost led to domestic diplomatic incidents back in the early 80s with Jan when visiting my future in-laws in The Netherlands. The Dutch do not drink much tea, and those that do drink it black. My persistent request for milk led to much confusion and bewilderment, and I was often given tea with "koffiemelk", which bears no relation to real milk and ruins a cuppa. Such was my desperation at one stage that I resorted to raiding the milk bulk tank on Jan's family farm to sneak in a jug of milk. I dread to think what impression they must have had of mad Irishwomen after that incident. Other cultural divides were in the presentation - a cup of tepid water with a teabag in the saucer was often proferred by friends who had the temerity to consider this constituted a cup of tea!

Apple Tart with Cream

And now we've come full circle - back to where I started tea drinking, in Lismore. There is nothing more relaxing and soothing than a nice hot cuppa at the start and end of the day, and many times in between. A nice piece of cake, a bun or a slice of apple tart with cream is an ideal accompaniment, and for breakfast it goes great with toast. The full Irish breakfast is incomplete without a pot of tea.
This rack of Almond Buns is ready to be enjoyed with a cuppa.

Culturally, Irish people are probably among the greatest consumers of tea, always milky and with or without sugar. This knows no geographical boundaries, as we are always asked to bring tea to Spain for Shayne, to keep him endlessly supplied, and the Irish community of nuns in Kabanga Hospital, where two of our sons were born, made the best pot of strong tea in Tanzania - it would bend spoons and is a lasting memory of our many visits. Not for nothing are ads for tea invariably nostalgic, with a nod to the emigrant and smacking of more than a touch of paddywhackery.
In Ireland, tea is offered to visitors as a default setting, and woe betide those who demur, as the host will appear more offended than an Irish Mammy in full-on guilt-tripping martyrdom mode! The Mrs. Doyle syndrome (see Father Ted) will then kick in and the refusenik urged to "Go on, Go on, Go on!" until he or she capitulates. Resistance is generally futile and the wise guest will do well to remember this particularly Irish tea-dance is all part of an elaborate ritual. The Irish guest expects to be cajoled and the Irish host expects the initial refusal.
I learnt this to my cost in Tanzania, when visiting a Danish friend for a playdate with our sons. She offered tea when I arrived, and I automatically said something along the lines of "Ah no, I'm grand/don't want to be putting you to any bother" - and that was it ! She said "OK, fine" and left me reeling in shock - and gasping for a cuppa! My Dutch husband could perfectly empathise with her response and from then on I never hesitated in any non-Irish situation when offered that nice cup of tea.

New Year Reflections

One of the nice things about a new year is the new beginning that it inspires - all kinds of good intentions that generally don't amount to a hill of beans by the end of January, but give a sense of purpose to this dreary time of year - at least in this part of the world.
This year in particular is faced with some trepidation by everyone I know, what with all the economic doom and gloom. Global conflicts are in mounting turmoil, with the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the recently stepped-up and relentless onslaught on Gaza - we can only hope that the imminent Obama presidency will restore some peace, balance and reason to the international stage.
Here in Lismore we welcomed in 2009 with a recession party at home with our family and friends, and even in these lean times we had some bubbly to toast the new year. We heard the church bells ringing at St. Carthage's Cathedral at midnight, and someone said there was an extra second added on to allow for the varying length of the year - not that I noticed! The party went on well into the New Year and it was very enjoyable.

We had a fine feast of easy-to-prepare-in-advance food reflecting our past lives in tropical climes - curries (beef, chicken and vegetable, to cater for all tastes), with rice and dal and chappatis, the most versatile street food of all for dipping and wrapping, and appropriately frugal and guilt free! Jany, Shayne's girlfriend, made delicious Dutch tomato soup with meatballs, which was a meal in itself and not at all reminiscent of a soup kitchen! Desserts are my forté and we had a good selection - apple tart, lemon meringue pie, banoffee pie and fresh fruit salad with whipped cream on the side for everything!
(You can see some of the end results on the photo, behind Jan and me.)
Everything went down a treat, and we had the leftover food on New Year's day, which was spent tidying up the post-party debris, and relaxing in between dishwasher loads.
Inkeeping with the spirit of change, we moved some furniture around today, for a new look to our living spaces, and might make more minor upheavals tomorrow - where will it all end?
May you all have an optimistically Happy New Year and a recession-proof 2009!
(There's a link below to a Facebook group I made, Cakes, Bakes and Tasty Treats - self-explanatory, it does exactly what it says on the tin! Have a look and enjoy the recipes - all tried and tested by willing guinea pigs!)