Saturday, September 26, 2009

Blackberry picking - a Recession-Busting Sentimental Journey

The weather has been lovely for the past few weeks, and we are all grateful for this Indian Summer after three wet and dreary months of supposed summer . One of the bounties of this late good spell has been a fantastic crop of blackberries in those hedgerows that have escaped the ravages of the industrial hedge-cutters that have transformed our highways and byways into regimented straight-edged bordered roadways.

I guess it is good and safer to have some control over our wild roadside borders, but the downside of all the traffic and road improvements is that it is a bit of a gamble with your life to go for a stroll down any road where there are no footpaths (pavements), and also the dearth of any wild fruit like blackberries in the ditches. (I use that term advisedly - it means a hedge to me, though Dutch hubby assures me a ditch is a water-filled drain or moat in Holland! We agree to differ on the semantics, I always called hedges ditches so I will hardly change now!)

Anyway, blackberry picking and foraging in the hedgerows for the lucious black fruit that ruins your hands and dyes clothes a deep purple generally beyond redemption has fallen foul of two things since my childhood halcyon days - traffic and pollution on the roads and also the hedge-cutting machines. I spent hours blackberry-picking as a child out the roads along with all the other kids in the town, and we fought for the best bushes, as we could sell our fruit to a local shopkeeper who presumably made jam or sold them on - I remember getting 6d (old pence from pre-decimalisation 1972 days) a pound so there was a great incentive to get bucketloads. My mother didn't get much of a look-in for her jam unless I was feeling very generous.

Imagine my delight then this year when I was in a remote part of my work area one day and coming out of a house I saw the brambles heavy with ripe blackberries on a narrow country lane where there were few houses, no agriculture and fields with undisturbed hedges where a cutter could hardly get by. There were a few cows and horses in the nearby fields, and I made sure that I came to work armed with some plastic containers the next day.

I spent a few lunchbreaks this week picking pounds of fruit, and the pickings were so rich I managed to fill two containers with about 1-2 pounds of berries each in the space of about a half-hour, leaving me enough time to have a sandwich overlooking the beautiful sea views you see in the top photo.

I made jam over the course of this week about 4 times, and a few tarts with apples and blackberries, while I gave away a couple of pots of jam and still have over a half-dozen.

The recipe for the Blackberry Jam is here and it is simplicity itself - and delicious!

  • 2 pounds or a Kilo of Blackberries - wash in a colander and pick over for any blemishes and little bugs that can get on them.
  • 300ml water.
  • One Pound sugar for every pound of fruit.
  • Boil the blackberries and water in a covered pot until fruit is soft.
  • Add sugar and mix wel.
  • Boil and skim off any foam that rises to surface.
  • Turn down heat to a steady simmer.
  • Simmer/boil gently till setting point reached (wrinkles when dripped onto a clean plate)
  • Warm jars in oven and pot jam when it stops bubbling
  • Cover jars immediately with metal caps or jampot cellophane covers and rubber bands.
  • When you hear lid pop closed it has sealed and jam will stay fresh for a year or more until opened.
It is delicious on oven-fresh baked bread and with rice pudding or yoghurt, ice cream or with a number of desserts - you can use it with other fruit in summer puddings for added flavour as it is so intensely flavoured.

The tart you see in the photos is similar to my earlier post on Apple Tart but with the addition of about a cupful of blackberries along with the sliced apples and sugar. No need to add cloves or cinnamon as the flavours blend wonderfully and should stand alone. Delicious with whipped cream or ice cream!

At any rate, enjoy yourself! It is a real labour of love and a great sense of achievement to have such wonderful food from free stuff - a real recession-buster in the "current economic climate"!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Lismore Castle Arts - a challenging encounter with installation art

Last Saturday I paid a visit to Lismore Castle Arts, to see the collection of installation art United Technologies which is the Summer 2009 exhibition and has been in place since late April, shortly after the Sotheby's Irish Sale show which I wrote about earlier this year. This exhibition showcases different artistic installations from renowned contemporary artists, though I confess ignorance in that I hadn't heard of most of them. It has a guest curator from Berlin's Kunsthalle, Philippe Pirotte.

I took some photos and will share them with you in a sidebar slide show, and some here on the blogpost. I know some of the followers of this blog are artists already (you know who you are!) and may enjoy seeing this art. I am an already self-confessed art virgin when it comes to knowledge of contemporary artists outside the well-known (read notorious) artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, and probably Graham Knuttel and Banksy. So my take on this exhibition must be seen in that context, and not that of a knowledgeable art critic!

I always feel a bit of a fraud at these exhibitions, as I think all the other punters look so earnest and informed and they look at the artworks as if they are really appraising them, whereas I just look and wonder what exactly is the artist trying to convey. I guess a lot of contemporary art goes right over my head and I just don't "get" it, and even reading the guide in the gallery doesn't enlighten as it is often couched in language so flowery and convoluted that it seems to speak to other artists and not to the common man - or woman.

So that's probably why I have a somewhat cynical view of a lot of installation art in particular. Tracey Emin's Bed for example - I can well understand why one lady so felt the urge to tidy it up and throw away the detritus in which it is embedded that she took cleaning materials along to the Tate. Nor do I quite get what's so wonderful about Francis Bacon's horrendously messy studio that warranted replication in Dublin's Hugh Lane Gallery. Oh well, maybe one of the artistic readers will be able to educate me accordingly!

Well, I had some idea that this exhibition would be "different" having heard from hubby who was at the launch back when he was still Mayor, (I missed it as I was at something dull and worthy like a union meeting that night) and sons who work there butlering part-time. So I knew there were ceramic oil spill blobs randomly around the gallery, and a ton of tea in a cube, and some dandelion wine in its early stages that would be there right to the bottling (and maybe drinking!) stage.

I knew there was some scaffolding and a room full of quasi-erotic neon lighting, and a photo of a stone wall, and a collage wall made up of photos of a real garden shot from above and arranged like a cartographer would make a map. There were some gold-leaf sticks, which were very pretty if not very functional, and the staff were hard-pressed to keep the visitors from touching the exhibits, particularly the tea cube, which was crying out to be touched as it looked so tea-like you wondered how did it stay stuck together and not get all mouldy like tea-leaves you forget to rinse out of the pot, or teabags in the compost bin!

The whole gallery was wallpapered in this amazing silvery wallpaper with the words Conceptual Decoration in black printed all over, and it will all be removed (presumably scraped unceremoniously off like you would any old wallpaper!) when the exhibition is over at the end of September.

The artists were people I had never heard of, although one of the gallery guides informed me the Ton of Tea and Oil Spills guy was Ai Weiwei also designed the Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics, which he boycotted. I hadn't heard of him but his stadium is certainly beautiful. I wonder why he did it if he had such difficulty with the regime, it would seem to be contradictory in my eyes, and diminish whatever boycott he might decide on after the job was done (and paid for.) I must read up more on the whole issue, seems like there's a lot of articles about it and the answers are probably in there somewhere.

Jason Rhoades died of a heart failure from accidental drug intoxication at age 41, and his controversial art is included here, with his erotic neon signs with international slang words for vagina certainly raising eyebrows among any visitors with a penchant for Irish Catholic Guilt after a convent sex education (which is a pretty oxymoronic concept!). He also did the scaffolding and the wall garden collage, an aerial scaled down view of his dad's garden which he seemingly reproduced in life-size at another exhibition. It's made up of a lot of 4"x6" photos which don't all align so it doesn't quite make a jigsaw picture but close up you see all the elements - courgette plants and fencing and grass. He stuck tiny rugs on it to represent magic carpets flying over the garden. It would take ages to see it all in detail but the overall effect is pleasing - I can't imagine the patience required but then he seems to have been very much an alternative kind of guy.

Corey McCorkle was the dandelion wine guy, although this was at the fermentation-stopping stage and not on display; we could see the glass bottles it will eventually be decanted to out in the Paxton greenhouse, and they were cut-and-paste bottles which I hope won't leak. He also made the gold-leaf walking sticks, more style than substance for any hill-walkers with a fancy for a bit of bling!

Rita McBride must have Irish roots, though she is American based in Dusseldorf. She did these intriguingly titled Mae West Templates - steel stencils, curvy cutout shapes which reminded me of African drums. She did the relief rock wall, which is a bit optical illusiony as it is partly mirror-imaged, and sits nicely in the gallery, leaning against one wall.

Stefan Bruggemann
is the decorator guy - he designed the wallpaper that covers all the gallery walls and he must have no difficulty with the transience of his art given that it all goes in a few weeks when the gallery is returned to its pristine white walled state. Looking at his website he has plenty of rolls of this design as it featured frequently elsewhere!

I went to this with an open mind, and prepared to be surprised. Maybe I have learnt something new, certainly about the artists, and despite my skepticism on installations, I admire the tenacity of people who go to such lengths for their art, and to me much of it seems to have more merit than a lot of the better known Britart, which aims to shock rather than please the general public.

I also enjoyed seeing the gardens in their summer glory on a rare sunny September day, as I spent last year squelching around in wet shoes on a filthy day when I visited the gardens and the gallery with a friend.

You should be able to match the photos with the artists from the descriptions - and there are plenty of links to various sites to satisfy the connoisseur in you!
I will also post a sidebar slide show for all the photos of that day.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Irish Indian Summer - at last

After what must be the worst summer in Ireland on record we are finally having a break. The weather for the past few days has been sunny and warm, and while the nights are cool, I can live with that if we have such beautiful days.

It must seem bizarre to those of you living with normal weather with a fairly predictable seasonal pattern, but in Ireland we can get very exercised over a fine spell, especially after what seems like months of unrelenting rainfall.

Ireland isn't called the Emerald Isle for nothing you know, there's a price to pay for all the greenery, it's called the Irish Summer!

It makes a day's work more productive and enjoyable when I don't have to dodge the showers and duck in and out of the car on my calls around my work area of Ring and Old Parish. We get extreme fog when the weather is bad and as a large part is upland moor and forestry commission plantation it can disappear in the fog in a heartbeat, leading to disorientation for those unfamiliar with the area. When I was a student public health nurse I got so lost that my preceptor had to guide me by mobile phone from house to house using whatever landmarks we could identify in the fog.

You can see what it's like in good and bad weather from these photos, and I included two contrasting views of my health centre - in sun (last week) and snow (last February) - weather extremes that we rarely seem to see these years!

I had to go to Dublin for a meeting yesterday, so I took some photos of the Vee - the mountain pass about 8 miles north of Lismore which is one of the most beautiful scenic spots in Ireland and is unsurpassed when the weather is like this. Of course it begged to be photographed and I duly obliged - even the sheep were co-operative! It looks great now as the heather is in full purple bloom, and I love that when I leave home within 10 minutes drive through thickly wooded roads I am in the heart of the open mountain wilderness.

A bit of trivia for film buffs - Kubrick's adaptation of Thackeray's Barry Lyndon with Ryan O'Neal had a battle scene filmed on location in the Knockmealdown Mountains you see here, near the sheep! The area is covered in gorse and heather and is very wild and sparse, open treeless moorland, and any rhododendrons there were planted in the colonial era and have become a nuisance invader, a bit like giant rhubarb (Gunnera) which has become a real Triffid in some parts of the West of Ireland.

The only shame about the bounty of our Indian Summer is that it's dark by half eight most evenings now and autumn chill is in the air, so evening BBQs are probably not an option. Unless of course you have one of those patio heaters that are so global-warming inducing - something that's very tempting if you live in Ireland of the noughties, where the long hot summer is a distant memory and we dream of a spell of warm weather on our too-green island.

Top photos show the Vee - a gap on the Knockmealdown Mountains between Waterford and Tipperary where 4 or 5 counties can be seen from the lookout points. Sunset and daytime view of same spot.

Bottom photos show Old Parish and Ring in fog and sunshine (except for the snow, all taken in the past month!)