Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Rhubarb Tart and Trivia - with a Twist

This is rhubarb season and ours is growing like a weed with all the rain. I made a few lovely rhubarb tarts over the past week and I must say there's great satisfaction to be had in making something that's picked fresh from the garden - from veg plot to fork in about an hour! We have these rhubarb stools in their present bed near the house, beside a high stone wall, for the two years. As this is their third year in this plot, according to the anorak's guide to rhubarb, we should consider dividing and replanting next year.

I discovered this strange lotus-like bud growing in the middle of one of the plants last week, and on asking hubby and Google, it seems it is a flower bud. This will have to be nipped in the bud, literally and metaphorically, as it will leach all the energy that should go into the stalks. It doesn't seem to mark the end of its life, but is a feature of mature plants so probably needs replanting next year.

It is a fascinating plant as it thrives on repeated frost exposure - no problem there so - and it can be forced to grow out of season either in the ground using a forcer pot, or as I used, an upturned bucket. This gives small leaves and pale whitish stalks, which are less acidic. They don't look very attractive, but these anaemic stalks are sweeter and more tender, thus more desirable and probably give their grower bragging rights. The redder the stalks, the more acidic and bitter the flavour. That's easily countered with plenty of sugar in the finished dish.

I always handle rhubarb with great respect as the leaves are toxic - they contain oxalic acid which is a cousin of cyanide but you would have to eat about 5kg/11lbs of leaves to get the lethal dose - which I can't imagine anyone having the will or the stamina to do! The cooked stalks are non-toxic, lucky for me or any rhubarb fans out there.

For anyone who's interested I discovered (through the miracle of Google) that contrary to my erroneous belief, you can compost rhubarb leaves. I have been dumping them with the non-compostable garden waste, but no more. They are destined for the green compost bin which has yielded a wonderfully rich dark humus-y compost now enriching our polytunnel strawberries. It is a bit home-made looking with recognisable eggshell bits and teabags throughout, but these don't seem to hinder it and the strawberries are in full flower, with the promise of a rich harvest in a couple of months.

That's enough rhubarb trivia to keep any anorak happy for some time; there is so much out there on the web that it's apparent there are plenty of anoraks abroad, much to my amazement. This link has everything you ever wanted to know about rhubarb but were afraid to ask, and I think it must come from someone who has waayyy too much free time!

Time to turn to the primary purpose of this post, the recipe for one my favourite tarts (besides apple). The twist in the tale is that I have made this one with Self-Raising flour instead of plain flour, and was pleasantly surprised that it worked very well, giving a light shortbread pastry that is subtly different from the plain flour pastry, with a biscuit-y texture. I hope you enjoy it!



8ozs/250gm Self-Raising Flour

4ozs/125gm butter or hard margarine (preferably butter)

1oz/25gm icing sugar

1 egg

Rhubarb stalks - about 4-6, washed and diced into 1cm/half-inch pieces
Sugar to taste

Preheat oven to 200 degrees Centigrade/350degrees Fahrenheit


Using pastry attachment on food processor (I have one on my nice new Kenwood and it is still a treat, and makes great pastry!) mix flour and butter to crumbly texture.

If no processor, rub in butter to flour lightly with fingertips.

Add icing sugar
Add egg to bind and knead lightly
Roll pastry to size of pie dish on floured surface
Line base of dish
Fill with rhubarb pieces

Sprinkle liberally with sugar
Cover with pastry rolled out to size
Moisten edges of pastry and seal
Decorate top if desired - leaf or flower pattern is nice
Bake in oven until golden brown, reduce heat to 150 degrees Centigrade/300 degrees Fahrenheit after 15 mins.

Serve warm with lashings of whipped cream and enjoy with the ubiquitous nice cuppa tea!
Cool on wire rack, sprinkle with icing sugar

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Running of the Bulls in Ballinrobe, and random Irish Bull

Here is a still from a YouTube video clip , which is simply irresistable and hilarious! I wanted to share it with my blog readers as I have already posted it to my Facebook profile and it's on the sidebar of this blog.

Tonight's RTE news had this clip on its "...and finally..." slot. We have been inundated with bad news for so long that the sight of a bull on the loose in a Mayo supermarket was something to lift the heart of the nation. The parallels with Pamplona's famed Bull-Running San Fermin Festival are undeniable, particularly where the farmer is legging it out the supermarket door with the bull in hot pursuit.

I watch the news lately with trepidation as I know it will bring more budget cuts, health cuts, staffing cuts, redundancies, layoffs, "downsizing" and other euphemisms, with a few factory closures thrown in. I see my payslip diminishing every fortnight since the March pension levy came into force, and I know that this is only the start of the slippery slope, as we await further cuts and levies - read taxes - in our May payslips.

One of these levies is laughably called a Health Levy which is meant to go towards the public health service, and it was introduced ten or fifteen years ago as an interim measure. Interim is a term open to very loose interpretation and the levy is now firmly entrenched in our Social Insurance (like National Insurance in the UK), never to be rescinded. It has now been doubled from 2% of all income to 4%, and there is a doubling of the Income Levy as well. Don't ask, I have no idea what it's for either, but it sounds suitably ominous and necessary, doesn't it?

There was a government semi-putsch yesterday which nearly caused a palace revolution. Biffo (remember him?) did a cull of the Junior Ministers or Ministers of State, reducing their inflated numbers from 20 to 15, a somewhat token reduction but giving him scope to enhance cronyism with some new appointments in the reshuffle. The distressed displaced and dispatched former junior ministers sang like canaries of their displeasure; showing no stoic acceptance of the hand of Cowen, their party loyalty took a sabbatical, possibly permanent, as they considered their fate.

As I drove home from my Nurses' Union meeting in Waterford last night, I enjoyed listening to The Late Debate, where the hapless Conor "Kebabs" Lenihan (brother of Brian of Budget and Finance fame) who came out to bat for the government reshuffle was roundly hammered by Ruairi Quinn of Labour who wiped the floor with him.

Some of those who were cut off in their political prime had laid their public lives on the line with their constituents by attempting to uphold and defent the indefensible budget cuts on the elderly last October (Maire Hoctor from North Tipperary), while the deeply unpopular downgrading of services at some of the smaller general hospitals, like Sligo was opposed by Jimmy Devins of Sligo, a step tantamount to political suicide, where his demise was predictable. The most trenchantly vocal critic of the cull was victim John McGuinness from Kilkenny, whose ministerial demise was largely unanticipated by the media.

Some were no surprise, as they were seen as pretty ineffective in their given brief, and it never ceases to amaze me how skill or knowledge seems not to count when appointments are made in a particular area, e.g. the junior minister with responsibility for older people. These vague, woolly titles lead to total lack of achievement as there are no quantifiable targets set out, and junior ministries are seen by the cynics (i.e. everyone in opposition to the government) as a loyalty card for TDs, to keep them on side and toeing the party line. This gives the opposition unending fodder for satire, as immortalised by my earlier YouTube clip of Pat Rabbitte of Labour "eating his Greens", where he derides Trevor Sargent as the minister with responsibility for turnips and parsnips or some such vegetarian reference to his post as Minister for State in the Dept. of Agriculture.

So I hope you enjoy the video clip, and my update on the ever-changing political and economic home front.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Lesser-Spotted Google Earth Street View Car

Yesterday I was driving on my rounds at work and around lunchtime I was planning a visit to a remote farmhouse down a very narrow country road. Imagine my surprise when I turned into the road to find myself behind a very odd looking car, a brand new red Opel Astra - 09 registration - with a tripod on the roof-rack topped with a weird looking object that I knew to be the Google Earth Street-view Camera.

These strange cars have been spotted like rare birds in the vicinity of Dungarvan in West Waterford in recent weeks and this is the third time I've seen them. This time I was prepared and like a true anorak I whipped out my trusty Panasonic Lumix digital camera and took a few photos.

I have been amused at the indignation that has been expressed over privacy invasion and civil liberties in the UK in recent weeks (where Street View has gone live and been given a mixed reception) by the "victims" of this cruising camera car. There have been some hilarious stories of people spotted where they shouldn't have been, or cars that weren't pixelated out (number plates and faces are supposed to be pixellated but there have been glitches) and identified by spouses as being where they weren't meant to be. Also people have been indignant that their des res isn't all it's cracked up to be on the property pages when the prospective buyers can google earth it in its original street view!

I absolutely adore Google Earth and Google Maps - I think it was made for nosey parkers like me who love to see where places are and how they look, and since discovering it some years back I visit regularly. I know where my friend in New Jersey lives, and what her street looks like, and I also know that my son's rooftop of his apartment block is visible quite clearly on it, and I am annoyed that Lismore is not given an enhanced view, and is quite blurry, unlike other cities and towns of Ireland.
Another thing I love about it is that there are plenty of photos posted by various people, and they give a totally different impression of a place. When hubby visited Reykjavik in Iceland last year I was able to see the places he was raving about, like the geysir and the blue lagoon - hot springs in February snow! In Tanzania I can go on a nostalgia trip through Dar-es-Salaam and track the roads I drove daily to and from the International School, or out to Bahari Beach and the Kunduchi guest house where we spent many happy days on visits from Iringa. I can visit Iringa and my old haunts like India Street, Lulu's, Hasty Tasty, and Gangilonga Rock.
Of course I can also see these places on the wonderful groups that have sprung up on Facebook to celebrate places we love. One of my favourite is the group "I know Iringa inside out" and I have posted a number of photos of the kids in their homeschool days there, much to their cringing embarassment!
So if you haven't already got it, get downloading Google Earth for free and enjoy more time-wasting than Facebooking or blogging combined. You can justify it by its vaguely educational geographical appeal, if you need to appease your conscience or your partner! There's even a blogger widget which might be fun to add.
The internet is a wonderful place to connect and reconnect with people, when it is used as such, and I have renewed links with old friends from years ago through this very modern medium.
So the art of letter writing might be dead but as long as it is replaced by good communication by email and blogging I think I can live with it! It's a paradigm shift as the boffins might say but I am glad to be able to join in and go with the flow, and am heartened to see so many of my generation linked up through cyberspace. It makes the world seem a much smaller and more connected place - a global village in a positive way.
To finish up, I want to share this lovely photo of the cherry blossom in full bloom on the N25 ring road in Dungarvan yesterday. It might even end up on Street View!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Recession-proof Art - Sotheby's Irish Sale Preview at Lismore Castle

Easter weekend is over and one of the things on my to-do list was to visit the Sotheby's Irish Sale preview at Lismore Castle Art Gallery which took place on Friday and Saturday, an event that was free to all. I had missed this gig since its inception a few years ago, either because I didn't know it was on, and heard of it after the event, or I was away that weekend. So when I saw the piece in the Irish Times the previous weekend I flagged it as a must-see for the Easter weekend.

The gallery in Lismore Castle is a fairly recent innovation, the brainchild of the current resident of the Castle, Lord William Burlington, son of the Duke of Devonshire who lives in Chatsworth House in Derbyshire in England. I have referred to this family in my blog post on Devonshire Day last month. Lord Burlington had the West Wing of the Castle renovated from dereliction to its present ultra-modern minimalist state, a wonderfully lit art gallery with some side rooms and a round tower, and a smaller room at each end of the main gallery.

Last year there was a number of installations and weird sculpture on display, including a steel plate that the artist had urinated on to make it rust! I guess this is art in the Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin tradition of, well, different! There has been a previous Turner Prize winning entry here on display also, Richard Long's Slate Walk, which was only dismantled this year, and returned to the UK. This has left a long rectangular bed in the lower garden, which would make a nice vegetable patch or flower bed.

This exhibition showed the artworks that will go under the hammer in Sotheby's in London on May 7th from the Irish Sale, and it is fascinating to read the online catalogue with all the detail of the paintings and the artists. I was too stingy to spend €20 on the catalogue at the preview, given the recessionary times we live in, and bearing in mind that the that the Emergency/Mini/Supplementary Budget was still burning a major hole in my pocket I was pretty unprepared psychologically for the reserves on some of these works. I suppose I was surprised some were not dearer, given how well-known the artists are, and also surprised at the high cost of others that I had not heard much about.

This petrol pump painting was one of my favourites - it is so lifelike that I thought it was a photograph - but on closer inspection it is a painting by John Doherty entitled "Pay double this amount" and is oil on canvas with a reserve of £35-45,000/€38-48,000. It reminded me of those paintings of Edward Hopper that evoke rural isolation; gas stations on lonely roads, whimsical and nostalgic. Alain de Botton, the contemporary philosopher and social commentator depicted his works in his lovely book "The Art of Travel" which we read for our book club a few years ago. So for this alone I am glad I saw the exhibition; paintings can trigger happy memories too!

I was absolutely blown away by the more famous works, which I felt really privileged to see, as most were from private collections and going to auction on May 7th in Sotheby's in London, after a preview at Lismore, and two other venues on the island of Ireland, one in Belfast and one in Dublin.

What intrigues me is that so many of these works of Irish Masters past and present are in private collections, and that they are turning up for auction, some for the second year in succession, as Noll by William Orpen was on display last year. Is it being re-sold, or did it remain unsold? I am not sure, and I only heard that it is doing the rounds again through a friend who was at last year's show. It has a hefty reserve of between €250,000 and €350,000, and you would want to have a good large wall to display it.

Now I am not an art connoisseur, and claim no knowledge above that of the ordinary Joe Soap of art and their value, but I was pretty amazed at some of what passes for art and wonder if there isn't a bit of the Emperor's new clothes about it all! I can appreciate beauty and I am probably a traditionalist in that I prefer art that conveys some meaning rather than very abstract modern art. I absolutely love the surreal works of Dalí even though I abhor his Francoist/fascist politics, and have managed to separate them in my mind, whether this is ethical or not, and his Teatro Museum in Figueras is one of my favourite places to visit on the Costa Brava. I also love Picasso and Míro, though I haven't seen so much of their art.

So I was equally thrilled to see the works of Paul Henry, with his Connemara landscapes, and Jack B. Yeats, and also intrigued to see Louis le Brocquy's very abstract impressions of Francis Bacon and Beckett, and thought they would be way dearer. On the other hand I was pretty underwhelmed by the naive modern work by Scott of kitchen pots and pans, and thought I would put €500,000 to much better use, and likewise with the Roderic O'Conor Breton seascape. The latter was beautifully lit and had very vibrant colour but I didn't realise his work was commanding such value. The work by Sean Scully who is a leading contemporary Irish artist was very abstract and I guess I don't know enough art to fully appreciate it.

I was able to take photos with a clear conscience as I had the flash turned off, and the light was good enough to get a pretty good picture of most, except those with glass in the frames. They inevitably reflected the light and this affected their clarity. You can see all the pictures in the online catalogue if you wish, as I only took the photos for my pleasure and yours, and didn't realise they were all easy to view online.

Roderic O'Conor's Breton Seascape "Rocks and Foam, St Guénolé" (£300-£500,000)
It is fascinating to read the background to the paintings in the catalogue, as it gives a snapshot of the history of the time in pre- and post-colonial Ireland.
It certainly puts the recession into perspective, as there is no evidence of any constraint when it comes to private investment in art; perhaps people think there will be less likelihood of an "art bubble" than a property one.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if these great works could be bought by the State for the National Gallery instead of going yet again into anonymous private collections? We sometimes have our priorities skewed when it comes to showing national pride, and it could do wonders for our collective morale to have a stake in this art - surely we can claim it as much our heritage as are Joyce, Yeats and Synge, to name a but a few.
In any event, I wish them all a good home - meanwhile we can all enjoy the fruits of the artists' labours while the haves and the have-yachts agonise over their bids on May 7th in London!

The William Scott (See label below)

A selection of Louis le Brocquy - a tapestry and the Francis Bacon study

The entrance to the gallery at Lismore Castle Arts

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Rabbitte eats his Greens - the Budget and other Emergencies

Here is a photo from the recent Labour Party Conference of Jan and me with the party leader, Eamon Gilmore, with Jan in his Lismore Mayoral bling and me festooned with badges and a red rose looking quite the photographer!

Rabbitte eats his Greens - Former Labour Party Leader Pat Rabbitte's Contribution to this week's Budget Debate was simply a masterclass in razorsharp political speechmaking.

Jan, Eamon Gilmore, and me at the Party conference in Mullingar

The video clip is just too good to keep to myself - it has already been shared around Facebook and YouTube, and now can be seen by followers of this blog on the sidebar as I was not able to embed it in this post - some Green gremlin out there forbade it!

It is one of the only lighthearted moments of the last week, which has seen the 2nd savage Budget in 6 months, known variously as the Mini-Budget, the Supplementary Budget and finally the Emergency Budget.

This has a nice resonance in Ireland of the Euphemisms, where what was known globally as World War II completely passed us by in our state of Irish Neutrality, and instead we had what we termed "The Emergency" which coincided with the period from 1939-1945.

Ireland has clung to neutrality with great tenacity since then and it has not been without its somewhat Kafka-esque moments. Eamonn de Valera, our then Taosieach (Prime Minister) famously and shamefully made a trip to the German Chancellery to sign the book of condolence on the death of Adolf Hitler in 1945. This action was defended by him and his many supporters in the name of Neutrality, and indeed then President Douglas Hyde also visited Hempel to offer condolences on Hitler's death.

This was defended as a Diplomatic duty that was only revealed when the national archives were released in 2005. At least such contentious issues are rightly debated in these times, as what was deemed due deference to those in high office resulted in an unquestioning acceptance for many years. Thankfully those days are long gone and we can objectively view the errors of former national heroes in their true colours.

We will all have more time to reflect on our newfound relative penury as the Orwellian terminology and euphemisms make their impact on our salaries and payslips in May. Taxes are now Levies (much less threatening), ceilings are lowered on all entry points for same, and these were doubled, including one introduced in last October's "budget horribilis". Most salaries will be pushed back by a number of years with average monthly cuts in take-home pay of between €200-€400 - that's public sector, factoring in the Pension Levy I blogged about here.

The Labour Party called it the "Budget from Hell" and it certainly hits the lower earner and those on social welfare, as the Christmas bonus payment of a week's extra pay has been cut, and the grant for providing The one cut that really annoyed me was the cut in the grant to provide emergency alarms for older people, which is a lifeline for those living alone or in isolation.

So all in all it's been quite a week, we still are reeling from the impact of this budget, as there is a sense that while not making the catastrophic blunders of October's budget - like the near-blanket withdrawal of medical cards from over-70s - they still appear to have let the bankers and developers off the hook. The medical card debacle was reversed in jig-time after massive street protests showing that the erstwhile children of the 60's hadn't lost their revolutionary zeal.

The taxpayers and citizens now have the government putting its hands in their pockets for the foreseeable future to buy back the toxic assets of the banks and developers at what seems to be massively over-valued rates. This is all to be determined by a new "bad bank" hiding behind another euphemism - the National Asset Management Agency or NAMA - which appeared with Orwellian rapidity on Budget Day.

It remains to be seen where we will all end up in this crisis. An end to vulgar excess we can all do with, but the general impression is that the little people will still end up bearing the brunt of it all.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Narnia and Nostalgia in Mullingar

Last weekend when I was at the Labour Party Conference in Mullingar at the Park Hotel I took some time out from the proceedings on Saturday afternoon to explore Belvedere House outside Mullingar on the shores of Lough Ennell. It was a place I was curious about as I had seen in signposted when en route to the INO (nurses' trade union) conference in Cavan some years back. Also when the film of C.S. Lewis's Narnia Chronicle "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was released a few years ago Belvedere House was described as the Irish Narnia. A Narnia Trail had been developed in the grounds of this old estate, and it was a popular attraction for Narnia fans.

It was a beautiful sunny spring day, a rarity in itself after so much bad weather recently, so I was glad to get out and explore a part of the country I had never visited before. Mullingar is a garrison town in Co. Westmeath, in the Irish Midlands, and it is famous for the late Joe Dolan, who was known as "The man from Mullingar". Joe boosted our fragile national pride back in the '70s when we were still very insecure, there were no jobs and everyone expected to emigrate, as he had international hits with "Make me an Island" and other popular songs. He is immortalised in Mullingar town centre with a bronze statue made by Genesis, a local company.

I tried to take a photo of Joe's statue as I was driving through town and managed to get a shot while stopped at the lights, as it was impossible to get parking on the street. So much for the bypass, the town was jammed with traffic. Of course I discovered later that I could have gone to Belvedere House by another route, but I wanted to see the statue as there had been so much hype about it, and while I wasn't a hardcore Joe fan, I did spend many a night dancing to Joe Dolan and the Drifters in their showband heyday, which coincided with my Dancehall Days!

The showband era in Ireland is a peculiarity of this island and much has been written and filmed about it, most famously in the film version of William Trevor's short story The Ballroom of Romance, coincidentally made by a Lismore man, the internationally renowned film director Pat O'Connor, who is married to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, the film star.
Belvedere House and Gardens
Back to Belvedere House. It was bought in 1992 for the price of a semi-detached house today - IR£250,000 - by Westmeath County Council, who seem to have handled the stewardship very well, in that it is well-maintained, and preservation is sensitive to the original design in the house and the gardens. So they are doing a good job from what I saw on my short visit. The history is fascinating, as there were a host of eccentric aristocratic and bohemian characters in residence from 1740 right up to the 1980s when the last resident died. No children were ever born there so there were no inheritors when the last owner, Rex Beaufort, died. It is a very imposing house, a Georgian Palladian villa, and has lovely Italianate formal gardens laid out in terraces down to the shores of Lough Ennell. The midlands of Ireland are full of lakes, and many drain into the River Shannon, the longest river in the British Isles.

The grounds of Belvedere House are parkland dotted with obscure follies which reflect the owners' vanity as well as their state of mind at the time. The most fascinating is the Jealous Wall, the largest folly in Ireland, which was built to hide a more imposing mansion, Tudenham House, now in ruins, that the brother of the 1st Lord Belvedere, Robert Rochfort, had built nearby and was visible from the terraces of Belvedere House. He couldn't bear to have to see this daily reminder of his brother's wealth so he blocked it with this facade! A classic case of status anxiety, and obviously keeping up with the Jones's isn't a 20th Century invention. Robert seemed to have been paranoid, and a thoroughly nasty piece of work. He was known as the Wicked Earl, as he kept his wife, Mary Molesworth, imprisoned in the house for 31 years for alleged adultery with another brother.
The grounds are laid out in pathways along the lakeshore, and through forestland. It is wonderful to see how the Narnia settings and locations are incorporated into the landscape, which is all a bit magical, and even though there wasn't a snowflake in sight, you could see how captivating it is to children. There is a lovely octagonal folly, denoting Cair Paravel, and a pretty convincing Beaver Dam. I liked the way you stumble upon the various scenes as you wander around, and there is an adventure playground with ropes across a Bridge to Terabithia, with its Narnia reference. There is the inevitable coffee and souvenir shop, incorporated into the outbuildings, and a wonderful Victorian Walled Garden with the original fully restored glasshouse.

I thoroughly enjoyed playing tourist in Mullingar and the visit to Belvedere was a fascinating snapshot of how the other half - no, perhap a fraction of that - lived in an era of noblesse oblige for the privileged aristocracy.
The irony of visiting the local "Big House" during the Labour Party Conference wasn't lost on me - after all, Belvedere House was the setting of the now-defunct "Mullingar Accord" between Labour and Fine Gael in 2004!

We stayed in a nice B&B in a pub near Mullingar, as the hotels were either full or charging over the odds for the conference weekend. Mary Lynch's Pub is on the banks of the Royal Canal that goes all the way to Dublin from the Shannon for 146km. It was pleasant, warm and comfortable, with a delicious full Irish breakfast to start the day, and the pub itself was a real old world local - not an ersatz Irish pub with faux artefacts like so many are nowadays.