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This summer has officially been one big rain shower.

But, at least we have gooseberries.

And, memories of sunnier days.

Right?

When the weather gets me down, I try to recall my first BBQ in Ireland for a little comic comfort. I wrote a little ditty about it in Irish Country Magazine last year, and thought it would be apropos to share here today, so here goes:

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Early on, I figured out that the Irish summer can be quite different from its American counterpart. Practically no matter where you find yourself in the United States during the months of June, July, and August you are basically guaranteed a daily dose of blue skies and a long stretch of strong, bright sun that will warm both your skin and your soul. At least that’s how I prefer to remember it.

If it rained when I was growing up, the pavement would literally steam. And, if you were like me and my childhood friends you would happily rejoice, splash and stomp about in the streets, getting thunderously drenched by those warm showers and simply enjoying the spectacle of it all. We couldn’t get enough of that summer rain because it occurred so rarely during the season.

Precipitation took on a whole new meaning after moving to Ireland. I first learned about “getting on with the weather” when it came to planning a summer party. Until then, the business of partying in the rain was a foreign concept to me.

During my first Irish summer, I tried my hand at hosting a garden BBQ party at the sweet little bolthole that we inhabited in the nearby village of Adare while our home on the farm was being built. This gathering was meant to be my concerted, heartfelt effort to be social and meet people in my newly adapted surroundings.

Naively, I never considered the weather report for the big day. It was summertime, right?

I had spent the entire week planning and preparing what I consider a proper, traditional, American-style BBQ feast: creating a tangy barbecue sauce and spice rub for both chicken and brisket, digging frantically through unpacked boxes to find my tried-and-true recipe for baked macaroni and cheese, ringing round robin to locate various ingredients that didn’t seem to be available at the corner market (sweet corn, watermelon, big fat marshmallows for toasting over hot coals, all of which I soon found out, was seemingly unheard of in these parts at the time), skimming through old Martha magazines for suggestions on being the hostess with the mostest. I wanted the day to be absolutely magnificent; full of fun, folly, fantastic food, and most of all: new friends!

I woke up that Saturday morning only to hear the rain bucketing down. It was worse than anything I had seen on Universal studio lot production shoots. It was coming down in sheets and looked totally unrealistic to me, it was so heavy. I just couldn’t believe my eyes.

I panicked and rang my one and only acquaintance, Yasmin, a friendly, local female expat from England who had ironically spent her years prior to Ireland working in television and film production like me and had also married an Irish farmer ten years earlier. Yasmin essentially (and very generously) created the guest list by inviting all of her family and friends.

When Yas picked up the phone, I cried out in my typical Yankee twang, “Oh my Gawwwd, what am I going to do? No one will come, it’s raining and I’ve made all this food. We must cancel. I am so, SO disappointed.”

Her response cut right through my sobbing with a calm and clever giggle followed by, “Imen, we get on with it here in Ireland. We just get on with it. Put up a tent or marquis if you feel the need. Everyone will come, you’ll see.”

Honestly, I wasn’t going for it. I thought to myself, why would anyone want to come to an outdoor BBQ party in the rain? Call me a fair weather friend, but I’m pretty sure I would have bailed on that party.

Ultimately, yet oh-so-shockingly to me, she was dead right. Every single guest showed up. And, we all milled around the garden in the cool (okay, cold!) lashing rain, eating smoky, spicy American-style bbq’d chicken, southern-style baked macaroni and cheese, beautiful fruit and salads, while happily sipping cider and shivering under a tent.

My father-in-law suited up in his rain slicker and graciously stepped in as rookie grill master, valiantly manning the bbq cooker, which was strategically placed underneath the awning of the house. My husband organized a game of spoon and egg with the children. I just kept feeding everyone with a big smile and a brolly in hand. “What’s a little rain?” seemed to be the theme of the day.

Nobody flinched. I was literally in awe of this extravaganza. To me, the idea that people would carry on like normal while it poured rain was bold and magnificent, and, well, a bit mad.

That day, that rain, those people, moved me. And, if I’m honest, it just might be the moment I fell a little more in love with Ireland.

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Once we moved to the farm, I found out that nothing says Irish summer like gooseberries. Geoffrey and I picked the gooseberries on the ONE sunny afternoon we had last week, and ever since then I have been experimenting with combinations and flavour blends. I hay-smoked and carmelised some of our pickings which made for a lovely compote to accompany sausages and cider gravy; and was also splendid blended into ice cream. Right now I have a pint of gooseberry sherbet on the go in the freezer (fingers crossed it’s lovely!). Still, aren’t the classics just always the best?

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Grandma’s Gooseberry Tart
The first time I picked gooseberries with my mother in law, we collected a massive basketful. It was a gloriously sunny summer’s day and gooseberries (pronounced “gooze-berry”} were most certainly a novelty for me. We divided our berries into two lots: I took one and she took the other. Peggy made jam and I decided to bake tarts. The next afternoon, I brought the first tart I made to tea, and afterward my father-in-law kindly asked me if I would try making the next tart like his mother would have done, doubled up on gooseberries with a very short crust. I went back to my kitchen with his instructions and an hour later the most beautifully fruity pie popped out of the oven, and was later granted the honor of being “just as good as Grandma’s gooseberry tart.” 

Basic Short Pastry
2.5 cups/320g standard plain flour
1 cup/240g butter
pinch of sea salt
Scant 1/2 cup/100ml cold water
For the Gooseberry Filling
2 cups/300g gooseberries
A slug of elderflower cordial
½ cup/100g caster sugar
Place flour, butter and salt in large mixing bowl. Using your fingertips, gently rub ingredients together until they resemble rough breadcrumbs. Do not over mix or the butter will begin to melt from the heat of your fingers.
Add water and mix until a dough is formed. Cover with cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes or overnight.
Gently re-work pastry before using, taking care to ensure it remains cold and firm.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out pastry into 2 round sheets about 3mm thick.
Prick the bottom of the tart with a fork before placing a sheet of baking parchment over the top. Add beans, rice or baking weights. Place in the oven for 15 minutes or until cooked but still pale.
Remove from the oven and take out the baking parchment and beans.
Put the gooseberries, sugar and elderflower cordial into a saucepan and heat on medium until the gooseberries are just softening, check the flavour and add more cordial if desired.
Spoon the gooseberry compote into the part baked pastry case, cover with pastry top, sprinkle with granulated sugar and return the tart to the oven for a further 40 minutes or until pastry is golden.
Scullery Notes: Serve with a scoop of sweet cream ice cream.

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Slan Abhaile,

Imen

(excerpted from my column in Irish Country Magazine 2014. Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2015 )

 

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Sunday Bits

05 Jul 2015

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Aren’t Sundays sensational?

It’s just that Sunday is the one day of the week where we can all take a bit of time off (in between milking, of course) and simply exhale. After our commitments in the morning, I love to read the newspaper (online + paper versions), a few pages of any new magazines or books that have been stacking up on my nightstand (currently Porter, White Goats & Black Bees, Garden & Gun, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying…ahhh, too many to list!) or catch up on emails, blogs, Pinterest, make some Skype calls to the USA. As a family, we’ll do some weeding (i.e. meditation), play some American football catch (yes, me too), watch a hurling match, and I usually prepare a proper Sunday lunch for anyone who wants to drop by. From morning to evening, Sunday is my absolute favorite day of the week.

So, in the spirit of Sunday and all the bacchanalia that it brings to my attention, and in keeping with various requests to post a wee bit more, I am happy to share some people/places/things that have inspired me this week. I will make this a regular blog feature and look forward to it, the best thing in this whole business is sharing ideas and forging friendships along the way….I love this kind of thing so I hope you do too.

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I realllly want to visit Sophie at Mandagery Farm and attend one of her beautiful Farm Kitchen Lunches…

My Lens & Larder partner, Cliodhna Pendergast’s incredible children’s cooking films, Breaking Eggs are currently being featured in the Irish Times online, so much fun!

Pure Green Juice delivered a 3 day detox/cleanse to me today, I will report back on the results, but how wonderful to have a new Irish raw juice company available!

Ice cream! The first photo above is my little experiment with poppyseed vanilla bean ice cream made with farm fresh cream, mooooo!….the recipe is here if you fancy trying it

The most beautiful Irish crafted cutting boards, Two Wooden Horses, have opened their online shop

The Gathered Table is a fantastic concept with loads of weekly meal inspo

We’ve been listening to the Chopped podcast lately (when I say we, I mean anyone who is trapped in the jeep or tractor with me for any extended amount of time), it’s very conversational, and also really touches on some interesting food blogging tips like how to use Snapchat as a food blogger, how to improve your SEO, creative ways to grow your audience, tips on food photography and more….including interviews with professionals like Matt Armendiaz and many top US food bloggers.

Recently I was fortunate to have dinner at Skye Gyngell’s dreamy Spring restaurant in London, which was a positively heavenly experience with regard to both food and ambience. Of course, the company wasn’t bad, Claire and Cliodhna, but the food was so remarkably fresh it felt like it was literally coming from my own kitchen garden (something about food feeling like it came from steps from your own garden is magnificent and divulging in a feast like this in such a beautifully appointed, clean, dare I say, regal dining room was really a special treat for me!) everything was absolutely in step with the season. Do nip in for lunch or dinner if you are near Somerset House. Unforgettable.

According to Andrea Gentl’s insta-feed, the great Julia Turshen has a new book coming out soon, and I for one, cannot wait!

We hosted a small dinner party here a couple of weekends ago and for pre-dinner cocktail, I prepared Susan Spungen’s Pink Sangria from her Strawberries Short Stack Edition book. It went over a storm and is one of those recipes that will be made again and again. Try it!

I’m loving 31 Chapel Lane in London, lovely purveyors of Irish linens for the home and kitchen with roots to an Irish farm.

Did you know that Ashley of Not Without Salt’s amazing salted choccy chip cookie mix is available at Sur La Table? Well, they are! I wish they shipped to Ireland! Will get some when we travel to America again later this summer.

Ooooh this is really fun, do I have to stop? I didn’t think so.

Have you ever really wanted to “unplug” and can’t resist spending time on the internet? MacFreedom will free you! Amazing for productivity; even on the farm we find it easy to get sucked into too much social media time, but it’s hard to resist when you only have a herd of cows as your supervisors. Check it out. 

In keeping with the above, we’ve recently also discovered Headspace, an amazing meditation app. Ommmm. (although weeding works remarkably well too)

My hedgerow martini photo inspired by my friends at Ballyvolane House was featured by the amazing Susan Zelouf in this week’s The Gloss. Also, that leather apron!!!!

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And, last but not least, our cows with hearts on their heads make our hearts swell, and a few other snaps from the holiday weekend. 2. Geoffrey “building a lake” at Ballyheigue Beach. 3. Our annual seafood boil at the farm….featuring Kerry crabs and Cork sausages with a side of crisp Orpen cider!

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I hope you enjoy, more soon!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen xx

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hi.

It’s been awhile.

Lately I feel like my blog is taking a backseat to the easiness of Instagram where I have been documenting much of where our crazy country life circuitously takes us. (For those that aren’t on Instagram, I apologise, but do have a look and not just at my profile, it’s a proverbial rabbit hole of lifestyle and food inspo)

But, as I sit here looking out onto our front garden of verdant green, bearing no sounds other than the call of the wind rustling through the trees, and the singing of cows snacking in our pasture to the right, it sure feels good to be writing.

Something.

Anything.

I have to be honest, writing isn’t coming as easy these days as it used to….perhaps it’s that life has been, well, brimming with life and business, or perhaps that I’ve spent so much time writing my book over the last year and a half, that sometimes the words are just literally not there…they seem to have been used up, putting on a disappearing act, playing a cruel joke on me…..or maybe (gasp) my writing brain is not the lavish bouquet I thought it was? Let’s hope my words have just been on a bit of a hiatus. Taking a beach break in Ibiza. Going on safari. Crossing the Great Wall of China. Going on a long, long Forest Gump-style run?

Gulp.

I know, it’ll be grand*. Before you know it, I’ll be back on a blogging binge. But, I might take the time to ask, what would you prefer? I often feel that subscribing to blogposts + recipes that arrive in my inbox every day or even every week is overload with so much other information that we are taking in….what are your thoughts? How often should a blogger post? Or more specifically, how often do you think I should post?

It’s been a lively few weeks here: we are making some exciting positive changes on the farm which I will share with you soon, our vegetable beds are growing in full force (weeds included, I might add!), I traveled to my old stomping ground of Brooklyn, NY last month for the Saveur Blog Awards as a finalist in the Best Writing Category (irony?). I didn’t win, Molly Wizenberg rightfully took the honour, but I got to meet some of my most favourite + inspiring food bloggers/journalists/photographers who were happily just as amazing in person as they are online: Nik Sharma, Molly Yeh, Phyllis Grant, Marian Bull, Kenzi Wilbur, Yossi Arefi, Linda Xiao, Ted Lee and more. The following day, I hopped around to some of my favourite spots in Manhattan, and then the last night was spent visiting friends Susan Spungen and Steve Kasher over a long, lingering meal at their beautiful Amagansett home.

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New York was utterly brilliant, but I was admittedly quite delighted to be back to the bastian of bucolic society. To a greater extent, I am more and more comfortable on this side of reality. The energy of the city seems to suit better me in teaspoons rather than the heaping cups that used to serve its purpose.

When I returned to the farm, it was straight to work. My first task was to help bring cows to some grazing land a few kilometers away from the main farm. This group of 25 cows will stay on these particular pastures until next December. It will be my job to make sure they have enough grass and water, count them each day, and move them to the next paddock of grass when needed (about every 3 days.)

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My next assignment was a wee bit more enchanting, although I still got to wear my wellies. I was contacted by Nathalie Marquez-Courtney, the young, intrepid editor from Image Interiors and Living, who rang up to see if I would be interesting in working on an Irish artisan picnic piece for the magazine. After quietly letting out a little happy squeal, followed by some soothing pranamaya breathing, I eagerly agreed as this is just the most exquisite Irish magazine, I never miss an issue.

My job was to create a menu, prepare, style, shoot, and write up an editorial for their summer issue (on newstands now, grab a copy for some fun picnic recipes!) From the minute she said picnic, I immediately knew that I wanted to photograph it in the wood down by the river where we have our honeybees and where I do a lot of foraging for wild foods. I pictured a woodland picnic with plenty of ivy and moss featuring some of my favourite small Irish food producers along with a charming High Nelly bicycle for good measure.

Here are a few outtakes from the shoot and a recipe for one of my favourite summer strawberry pies, I hope you enjoy.

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Will be back soon with more words, a recap of the Kinfolk Gathering that I recently worked on with Cliodhna and Joi, and an exciting announcement for our next Lens & Larder retreat happening in November.

Strawberry-Rhubarb-Wild Irish Rose Glazed Tart

Each summer, I bake up a gaggle of strawberry-rhubarb tarts. I can’t resist because Irish strawberries are so ridiculously sweet and juicy, and you can’t beat the yields of homegrown rhubarb we have here in the garden. Inspired by Galway’s wild elixir guru, Claire Davey, I made my own wild rose water and wild rose simple syrup which I used to the glaze this pie. The flavour combination is really divine, this wild Irish rose, or rosa rugosa (bottom photo above) is not perfumey, it has a rather delicate and sweet taste and fragrance which, to me, is a perfect pairing with the vibrant strawberry and tart rhubarb, of course all encased in a flaky shortcust pastry.

400g/ 14 oz strawberries, stemmed and sliced
600g/ 20 oz rhubarb stalks cut into 1/2 inch pieces (Trim away and discard the leaves which are toxic; trim ends.)
125g/ 4 oz caster sugar
1/8 teaspoon of salt
2 teaspoons of orange zest

For the glaze
100g/ 3.5 oz caster sugar
2 tbsp cornflour
180ml/ 6 oz rosewater or homemade Wild Irish or conventional rosewater (see recipe below)

23cm/ 9 inch double crust pie pastry

Preheat oven to 200°C/ 400°F. In a large bowl, gently combine the rhubarb and the strawberries with the sugar, salt, and orange zest. Let sit for 10 minutes.

Make the glaze by combining rose water, sugar and cornflour in a saucepan, stirring over low heat just until sugar is completely melted. Remove from heat and set aside.

Roll out your pastry dough and line the bottom of a pie dish with it. Trim to 2.5cm/1/2 inch from the edge. Pour the filling into the pastry lined pie dish. Evenly tip the rosewater glaze over the filling. Roll out the second pastry dough, punch venting holes all over the top and then place pastry over the pie.

Trim the edges to 2.5cm/ 1/2 inch from the edge of the pie dish. Tuck the top crust edges over the bottom crust edges and use your fingers or a fork to crimp the top and bottom edges together. (If you want, for a nice golden crust, use a pastry brush to brush a thin layer of egg white or cream over the top of the pie.)

Place pie on the middle rack of the oven, with a baking sheet on a lower rack to catch any juices that might spill over. Bake for 20 minutes at 200°C/400°F, then reduce heat to 176°C/350°F, and bake an additional 40-50 minutes longer. The pie is done when the crust is nicely browned and the filling (that you can see through the venting holes) thick and bubbly.

Remove from oven and let cool on a rack.

Serve warm or cold. If you do cool to room temperature, the juices will have more time to thicken.

To Make Wild Irish Rosewater

The Wild Irish Rose (Rosa Rugosa) can be found in hedgerows throughout the Irish countryside. To make your own rosewater, find a bush that is not located on a busy road or could be contaminated by pollution. Pick the petals two to three hours after sunrise when the morning dew has evaporated. To make the your rosewater, use only petals, not the stem and leaves.

150g/roughly 6 cups fresh rose petals
1.5 litres/50 oz spring or distilled water
Wash petals thoroughly to remove bugs and dirt particles.
Place the rose petals into large saucepan.
Add just enough spring or distilled water to cover the petals. (Too much water will give you very diluted rose water.)
Cover the pot with a lid and simmer on a low heat. The water should be steaming hot not boiling hot.
Allow the water to steam until the petals have lost their colour and the water has taken on the colour of the rose petals. You will see the rose oil floating on the surface.
Strain the water and collect in a container. Store it in a refrigerator. It will last for 6 months.

*It’ll be grand is Irish for It’ll be okay. And, I probably use this phrase 100 times a week!

Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2015 with some props borrowed from Diva Boutique Bakery in West Cork. 

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Rock Cakes

18 May 2015

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I ate a rock cake.

And DAMN, I liked it.

It all happened during Listowel Writer’s Week in County Kerry on a particularly blustery week in May 2012. I wasn’t intending on attending the renowned writers’ festival, in fact, I had never heard of such a gathering which is satirical because, 1. I was steadfastly working on creating a career in writing, and 2. it was taking place only 20 minutes from the farm.

No, I was on my way to the cattle mart, and it was literally lashing sheets of rain, sideways drops coming down so hard and fast that I had no option but to pull over in Listowel town. I was sitting idly awaiting a break in the rain, leafing through a beat up issue of Bon Appétit that I had found under my seat when I noticed a charming little café through the passenger window. Since there was no sign of cow evidence on my clothing and my wellies were next to new, I foraged for my brolly in the back and made a run for it.

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When I walked through the door, I was struck by the warmth, of not only the bustle of interesting, clever looking patrons, but of the scent of an old wood-burning stove in the corner and steamed up windows with cushioned seats at the front. I glanced at my watch, looked back outside at the heavy rain and decided there would be no harm in staying for a spell. I found a seat at the only available table edged into a corner next to the counter and requested a coffee.

I sat sipping on a scalding hot cappuccino, peeking at literature for the writers’ festival left behind on the table while observing a group of gentlemen in tattered Irish tweed coats in lively conversation with one another in front of me. As they drifted out of the room, I noticed an array of baked goods on top of the beautifully appointed vintage bakery case. A basket of scone-like pastries with a sign identifying them as “Rock Cakes.” stood out to me as peculiar. Curious, I walked over and asked the barista what they were. She dutifully explained that rock cakes were essentially a combination of scone and cake with currants inside. “Would you like to order one?” she gently asked, “Oh, how could I resist?” I cheekily answered. She placed a rock cake on a dainty plate and handed it to me. I sat back down, took a nibble, and was absolutely bowled over by the tenderness and sweet flavour of something called a rock cake.

Before I knew it, I was finger-dabbing rock cake crumbs from the plate as the rain cleared, and it was once again time to carry on with farm business. I grabbed the Writers Week brochures and my umbrella, and bid adieu to the little café on the corner, promising to come again.

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Apparently, rock cakes became popular in the UK and Ireland during the Second World War, when eggs and sugar were at a premium. They are called Rock Cakes or Rock Buns not because they are hard, but because the rough tops resemble rocky outcroppings . If made with the best possible ingredients, these cakes can rival both scones and cakes. Substitute chocolate chips for the little ones (or little ones at heart) and they are really quite a treat. Nowadays, like to pack “choccy rock cakes” for a country picnic, but they will always remind me of that rainy Writers’ Week day.

Rock Cakes

Makes 6

1 cup/225g all purpose flour
1/3 cup/75g caster (superfine) sugar, plus extra for sprinkling.
2 tsp baking powder
8.5 tbsp/125g unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 egg
About 2 tbsp/30ml milk
A good pinch of salt
Plus, optional, any or all of:
1 ¼ cups chocolate chips, dried currants or sultanas,
1-2 tsp mixed spice or vanilla extract, the finely grated zest of 1 orange or 1 lemon

Line baking trays lined with nonstick paper, and heat the oven to 200C (180C fan-assisted)/400F
Sift the flour, sugar and baking powder into a large mixing bowl, add the cubed butter and rub it through evenly.
Add chocolate chips, dried fruit and/or spices.
Beat the egg with the milk in another bowl, along with any flavourings such as extracts or essences that tickle your fancy.
Pour the egg mixture into the dry ingredients and mix to a stiff, but spoonable dough – add a dash more milk, if you think it needs it.
Scoop egg-sized dollops of the dough on to the tray in rows of two, keeping them rough looking.
Sprinkle with sugar.
Bake for 15-20 minutes, until just turning golden-brown.
Cool and serve.
Scullery Notes: If prepared with currants or dried fruit, serve with clotted cream and jam.

You may have noticed that I have added an Upcoming Events page to the blog, some fun stuff on the calendar! I have two tickets to give away to the Irish Country Magazine Reader Evening on May 27th, leave a comment below to be in the draw, it would be great to see you!

Also, I’ve added a little page about The Farm for those interested in how we are set up here.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

 

 

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A couple of years ago, I had the fortune of being asked to talk about my greatest taste memories for a food festival in County Kerry. After agreeing to relish this summons of flavour nostalgia, I made a strong cup of tea, grabbed the last queen cake, and sat down to give my task some serious consideration.

In a matter of moments, in true thought-bubble style, ideas started rushing to my head. I quickly scribbled notes, bandying between surprising things like bratwurst and bologna, Boston cream pie and pierogi. Just as I was about to start devising a way to satisfy an acute Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch craving, Geoffrey walked up with a jumbo marshmallow in hand and pleaded with me to allow him to roast it over the flaming turf in our sitting room fireplace.

The kid in me smiled and said, “sure, go right ahead” while the mom in me flashed him my “you better be careful” eyes.

As I glanced over at Geoffrey merrily toasting his marshmallow over the fire, I put my No. 2 pencil behind my ear and just sat and pondered how important food memories are, specifically when you are an expatriate.

I realized that there are things that I eat solely for memory’s sake that I definitely would not consider as special if I were still living the USA. Absolute Americana: Sloppy Joes, S’mores, Angelfood cake (so much better from scratch!), Chicago-style hot dogs, to name a few. I also must confess that I have gone as far as to whip up a bowl of glow-in-dark green “pistachio” Jell-O brand boxed pudding brought back from a Stateside trip years ago.

It sucked.

But, certain food hankerings undeniably hinder homesickness.

Are food recollections and their delicious by-products meant to be crucial remedies for melancholy when adjusting to a new culture? And, if so, are the edible results of these nostalgic cravings really just another form of soul food?

In the U.S. “soul food” tends to be evocative of a certain style of food prepared in the American south. While I don’t disagree with that, I do wonder how to define the soul nourishing foods that I now prepare here on the farm, or the chinked with time classics that I’ve left behind which now provide me with an odd form of heightened, toothsome, soul-affirming pleasure.

Each year that I live in Ireland, I embrace what our farm and the bounty of the land lends to us. For me, I am building new taste memories, and for Geoffrey these ingredients, techniques, and traditional skills will become lodged in the fabric of his food and taste memory bank. They are his soul food.

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One of the most extraordinary, yet absolutely unsullied wild Irish ingredients that I have come to love are ramsons, otherwise known as ramps, wild garlic, or spring leek.

We have a wooded area on the edge of the River Shannon where you can see clear across to County Clare, where the honeybee hives live, and where there is a wellspring of wild edibles. Each spring we look forward to our excursion to collect ramsons, sorrel, ground elder, and stream watercress as well as seaweed and dulse on the shoreline.

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Today I built a bridge between wild Irish soul food and an eponymous soul food from the American south.

And, it was SAVAGE.

We collected a modest amount of ramps, cleaned, and simply dipped in a bit of olive oil for the grill, then served them charred and hot on a bed of creamy, cheesy, country grits.

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Comforting doesn’t even touch on the feeling that went with the satisfaction of preparing and sharing this simple yet exceptional dish with our family and friends.

What foods nourish your soul?

Country Grits with Grilled Wild Irish Ramps
Serves 4
1/2 cup/75g of yellow, stone ground grits (can substitute polenta or coarse ground maizemeal if absolutely necessary, or just order grits online at Amazon.co.uk)
2 cups/500ml boiling water
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
15-20 freshly cultivated wild ramps (could sub spring onion here if you don’t have access to ramps)
1 tbsp olive oil
Sea salt
Light a charcoal fire in your grill and allow coals to get white hot, or prepare and oil a grill pan. Coat the wild ramps with olive oil. Set aside.

Stir grits into a saucepan of rapidly boiling, salted water. Cook and stir until the boil comes back up then over and continue to cook for 5-6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in cheese, cover, and let sit on stovetop while grilling the ramsons.

Place ramps on your grill and cook until just charred. Remove and set aside.

Spoon creamy grits into individual bowls, top with 4-5 grilled ramps, sprinkle with sea salt and serve.

Scullery Notes: When digging ramps, unless they are scarce in your area, be sure and get the whole root where the most profound flavour is found. The leaves are also great for making pesto, and the bulbs are great pickled and used for dirty martinis! Be mindful of how much you are taking from the land in relation to what is available to you. Never forage on the side of busy roads or where there is a lot of foot traffic which can be contaminating.  

I have some amazing news! Saveur Magazine has named me a finalist in the Writing category of their 2015 Food Blog Awards. I am stunned and so grateful for this honor. Out of 50,000 nominations, they have chosen 6 finalists for 13 categories. I am amongst writers that I totally revere and respect. The voting is open from now until the end of the month, so if you fancy, the link is here. If it wasn’t for you reading this blog, I would not be recognized in this way, so many, many thanks to all!

SAV_15_SBA_Badges_Finalists_writingSlan Abhaile,

Imen x

Photos and styling by Imen & Geoffrey McDonnell 2015

 

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A Drop of Irish Cream

11 Mar 2015

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“Come in, make yourself comfortable in the sitting room.” The blood rushed to my cheeks as I said thank you, and nervously sat down on a beautifully upholstered high-backed armchair facing an identical chair positioned in front of a tiny, ornate fireplace burning with hot coals. “Can I get you a drop of sherry or a drop of Baileys?” I quietly breathed a sigh of relief as I chose the Baileys, a very warm and welcomed icebreaker.

It was my first time at the farm. I’d already had the great privilege of meeting Richard’s mother, father, and briefly, his brother, but it was time to meet the matriarch of the family, Mary McDonnell (may she rest in peace), otherwise simply known as “Grandma.” Grandma lived in the little flat attached to the main farmhouse. But, where she slept was only a matter of semantics, she clearly still ruled the roost at Dunmoylan. And deservedly so, in her day she could milk 20 cows by hand in less than an hour before coming in to cook breakfast for her family of 7. Badass.

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After I moved to the farm, my chat sessions with Grandma became more frequent. Over drops of Irish cream served in delicate cordial glasses, we swapped stories with one another; she was kind yet opinionated, and as curiously interested in me as I was in her. At a certain stage, Richard told me, “Well you passed the muster with Grandma,” which was no easy feat apparently. I felt welcomed and proud.

I loved listening to Grandma yarn astonishing tales of banshees, gun hiding and squabbles between political parties, which became very colourful because she cheekily favoured the opposite party of her husband and his family. She, like many Irish of a certain generation, believed in a bit of folklore, and recanted the time she found herself on a magic road in County Louth where her car actually rolled uphill in the Cooley Mountains, an anecdote for which I had no idea how to respond. (But look, Andrew McCarthy proves it’s true!)

Grandma had a certain savoir-faire and impeccable style, and, luckily for me, a generous sense of humour. I recall during one of our chinwags, her telling me about a weekend break she had taken to a beautiful, remote island on a lake in the northwestern part of Ireland. She described how breathtaking it was, and that you had to go barefoot and walk on rocks across the water to the Island and only drink a sort of broth with salt and pepper for three days. When I presumed she’d been to a natural spa retreat for some type of intensive 3-day cleansing detox, she thought I was absolutely mad because it was Lough Derg, a world-reknowned religious pilgrimage in Donegal. Again, something I could not fathom, but also could not help but respect.

With Mother’s Day this weekend here in Ireland, I’d like to propose a toast to ‘drops of Irish cream’ and a good old natter with the special ladies in your life. What are some of your favourite Grandmother memories?

Homemade Irish cream is second to none (sorry Bailey’s!) and super straightforward to make from scratch. Bring this tipple out at the end of a long lingering dinner party as a decadent way to end your feast, and the perfect invitation to share some more stories together….

Irish Cream
Makes 24 ounces
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. instant coffee powder
½ tsp. cocoa powder
¾ cup Irish whiskey
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 (14-oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
Combine 1 tbsp. cream and the coffee and cocoa powders to make a smooth paste. 2. Slowly add remaining cream, whisking until smooth.
Add whiskey, vanilla extract, and sweetened condensed milk; stir to combine.
Pour into a 24-oz. jar and keep refrigerated until ready to serve, up to 2 weeks.
To serve, pour into a tumbler filled with ice.

Slan Abhaile,
Imen
Photo by Imen McDonnell 2014

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My beloved late mother-in-law, Peggy, and Richard’s grandmother, Mary (RIP)

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INT. Irish country bedroom. SATURDAY morning, before SUNRISE.

“Mom, time to get up! When can we go meet the kids?”

I slowwwwly, squintedly, open one eye, blink twice, then try to focus on the ebullient face of a little farmer who seems far too jovial upon waking for my fragile morning head to manage. (note to self: making homemade mead might not be a good routine to start after all)

The clock reads 6:41am.

Confused, I mumble, “kids? what kids?”

He, in his best clever clogs lilt, points out, “Not kid kids, mother… baby goat kids! Remember?”

I pull the covers over my head.

He pulls them down.

I pull them back up.

I lose.

“Your hair looks really weird mom”

Baby goats are a treat.

We don’t have them on our farm.

We want them here, but we don’t have them here. (YET)

Farm envy. It is possible.

I throw back the duvet and drag myself out of bed. As I draw open the shades I tell myself that I should always be the one who is awake first no matter what day of the week it is. Mother guilt, can’t go without a daily dose, right?

We rustle up some brekky.

And, text our goat mama friend.

FB goat mama friend.

Wait.

Weed. (highly recommend weeding while waiting, soothes anxiety)

Wait.

Wonder if..…. “Mom, let’s just turn up at their house.”

Nah, still not quite Irish enough for that yet. Need confirmation for visitations.

Wait.

Walk to our farm to feed our own babies.

Work out a plan to visit the following day with a bonus: another new kid happened!

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INT. Irish country bedroom. SUNDAY morning, before SUNRISE.

“Mom, time to get up! When can we go meet the kids?”

I slowwwwly, squintedly, open one eye, blink twice, then try to focus on the ebullient face of a little farmer who seems far too jovial upon waking for my fragile morning head to manage. (note to self: making homemade mead might not be a good routine to start)

The clock reads 6:41am.

Confused, I mumble, “kids? what kids?”

He, in his best clever clogs lilt, points out, “Not kid kids, mother… baby goat kids! Remember?”

I pull the covers over my head.

He pulls them down.

I pull them back up.

I lose.

“Your hair looks really weird mom”

Baby goats are a treat.

We don’t have them on our farm.

We want them here, but we don’t have them here. (YET)

Farm envy. It is possible.

And, off we went…..

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Afterwards, I couldn’t resist making some fresh cheese. (see my fresh farmer cheese method here, just swap raw goats milk for cow’s milk and use a tbsp of lemon juice instead of vinegar for creamier texture)

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Followed by fresh cheesecake.

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Goats Milk Cheesecake with Woodland Honey
This is a super easy, non fussy fresh cheesecake that is always a hit with family and friends. Prepare in the morning and have it for dessert in the evening. The goats cheese provides a richer, fuller flavour than cow’s milk cream cheese, and making the cheese fresh makes it even more wholesome. The honey gives it a bit of a sweetness boost for the finish. I love my father-in-law’s honey from down in the wood, it’s delicious!
Ingredients
125 grams/ 1 ¼ cup crumbled digestive biscuits or graham crackers (Bourbon
biscuits would be nice too)
75 grams/ 6 tbsps soft butter ends ingredient
300 grams/ 10oz soft goats cheese (homemade or from the market)
60 grams/ ½ cup icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
250 ml/ 1 cup heavy cream
Honey for drizzling
Method
1. Process biscuits in a food processor until they turn to large crumbs, then add the butter and pulse again to make bring the mixture together.
2. Press mixture into a 20cm / 8 inch springform tin; press a little up the sidesto form a ridge.
3. Beat together the goats cheese, icing sugar, vanilla extract in a bowl until smooth
4. Lightly whip the double cream, and then fold it into the cream cheese mixture.
5. Spoon the cheesecake filling on top of the biscuit base and smooth with a spatula.
6. Put it in the fridge for 4 hours or overnight.
7. Drizzle liberally with honey and serve.

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Portraits for Marte Marie Forsberg

SOLD OUT

If you have ever dreamed of learning about food styling and photography in the heart of the Irish countryside, here is your chance.

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I am teaming up with Cliodhna Prendergast of Breaking Eggs  and Ballyvolane House to present a very special Lens & Larder Spring 2015, a unique opportunity to learn the art of Food Photography and Styling from acclaimed international stylist & photographer, Marte Marie Forsberg.

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Join a small group of fellow food styling and photography enthusiasts on this creative retreat to a historic Irish country house to tell your very own special food stories through the lens of your camera and the ambient light + shadows of Ballyvolane House, County Cork, one of Ireland’s most visually inspiring and intimate houses.

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For two full days, Marte Marie Forsberg will gently guide each participant in telling visual food stories using “your camera eyes” and “your styling eyes” to create beautiful, simple settings, and photograph delicious tales of gathering, preparing, feasting and lingering on food made with honest ingredients sourced from the haven of Ballyvolane estate and surrounding farms.

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This is a beginner’s level workshop, but a DSLR camera is required with an understanding of the basic elements of photography. You will learn basic natural lighting & lensing techniques, visual styling; both food and props, as well as some post production tips. This class is an invaluable introduction for aspiring food photographers and stylists starting to build a portfolio.

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Marte Marie Forsberg is a self taught food and lifestyle photographer from Norway. She’s lived in many beautiful and exciting places around the world during her studies in fashion design and art history, and after years on the road she found her tool, the camera, settled in an old thatched cottage in the English countryside, and began telling visual stories around food full time.

Whether it is rediscovered her Norwegian cultural roots and heritage, exploring the food scene around the world, or simply discovering the local pub and restaurants around her cottage in England, she takes great delight in capturing these food stories with her camera.

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Today Marte Marie, works for food and lifestyle magazines around the world and has a varied client list with in the food and fashion industry doing regular jobs for brands on location and in her charming little cottage in the English countryside.

You can view Marte Marie’s beautiful body of work here

When:

April 21st to April 24th, 2015

What:

2 days/3 nights = 2 full days filled with instruction interspersed with hands-on practice. There will be a small amount of time off to explore the area individually as well.

Included:  3 nights accommodation at Ballyvolane House, 3 full Irish breakfasts; 2 lunches; morning and afternoon tea/coffee and 3 evening dinners. All food will have a focus on locally sourced, artisan ingredients (vegetarian options will be catered for). One foraging for wild ingredients expedition is also included.

Excluded: Travel to Ireland and transportation to Ballyvolane House; Travel insurance; Extras

Cost:

EUR €1,550 ($1765 USD) per person sharing dual occupancy or EUR €1,775 ($2022 USD) for private accommodation. A 90% non-refundable deposit will be required to secure your spot. The private rooms are very limited so will be offered on a first come, first served basis.

Final 10% Payment  will be due on April 10th, 2015.

Due to timing logistics, there will be absolutely no refunds for this workshop. Please make sure you can attend before securing a space for the retreat.

(We recommend that you to take travel insurance. Tripod and computer with photo imaging software are not necessary, but would be useful)

Email lensandlarder@gmail.com to register.

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos by Marte Marie Forsberg, James Fennell, Ditte Isager and Jorg Koster. 

 

 

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[turkey harvests.]

holidays.

new Years.

[weddings.]

Birthdays.

New beginnings.

[old friends.]

[Family time.]

farming time.

Flax Dreams.

linen Fairs.

[Milk Jam.]

beach walks.

[Cookbook Edits.]

Paris [Through the Excited Eyes of a Little Farmer.]

More life, less blogging. 

Rather than banter on with 5000+ words about all the reasons it’s been awhile since my last blogpost, I thought it might be nicer to sum it up e.e. cummings-style. Bit more poetic, right?

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It’s been busier than a milking parlour at 4pm these days, but let’s jump right back in with some beautiful bits of bacchanalia.

First thing’s first, the lucky recipient of Darina Allen’s book is Kit Mitchell, whom I have emailed for shipping details. Many congratulations Kit! This book is a true treasure.

I have one big blogging resolution this year and that is to share more vintage Irish recipes with you in 2015 (with more frequency too). I have been spending some clandestine time researching antique housekeeper’s books and hand-written recipes from the sculleries of some very old Irish estates and cooking hearths of thatched farms. These recipes have proven to be both extraordinarily fascinating and quite simply delicious. I hope you will agree, so please stay tuned.

It would be impossible to not be absolutely smitten with acclaimed The Year in Food blogger Kimberley Hasselbrink’s first book, Vibrant Food. I made her gorgeous grilled Halloumi with strawberries and herbs for lunch today and I swear I was instantly transported to a sunny day in Santorini.

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Kimberley creates irresistible masterpieces from fresh, vibrant, honest ingredients and there isn’t one recipe in her book that I wouldn’t want to prepare.

Baking Mad sent me a crazy good care package filled to the brim with baking goods and asked me to try my hand at some recipes on the Baking Mad website. Any excuse to make salted milk jam (aka salted caramel) right?!

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Find the recipe for salted caramel ring doughnuts (pictured at the top) below.

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I was thrilled to contribute to GIY International’s cookbook Grow, Eat, Cook along with many amazing Irish food personalities such as Rachel Allen, Donal Skehan, Clodagh McKenna and more. You can find my recipe for a Wild Chanterelle, Caraway, and Toonsbridge Buffalo Cheese Tart in the October chapter. Order the book online here.

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Some big news. I have been asked to contribute to the new (and improved) Condé Nast Traveler with Editor-in-Chief, Pilar Guzman, and Creative Director Yolanda Edwards at the helm. You may be familiar with Guzman and Edwards as the team that previously headed up editorial at Martha Stewart Living, and before that basically reinvented the parenting magazine genre with the magnificent (and much missed) Cookie magazine.

I have long been inspired by this dynamic duo, have followed their trailblazing paths throughout the years, so the invitation to be a part of their team of tastemakers was certainly a huge honor and privilege. The new Traveler feels so fresh and fun and attainable, yet still holds onto a timeless spirit of splendor, romance, and adventure. I will be submitting food stories from Ireland and abroad. Here’s a look at my first piece.  And, the cover of the fabulous February issue.

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I did a fun interview for Australian SBS Feast last month….a little bit of this and that….have a peek here if you fancy.

And finally, I have begun edits on my own book, Farmette, Stories and Recipes from Life on an Irish Farm (Roost Books). The process is moving along a bit slower than I presumed, but has been just as fulfilling as imagined. There will definitely be a post on the entire process once we are nearly ready for print. You will be the first to know the precise publishing date.

Back soon, promise!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Food Images and Styling by Imen McDonnell 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mince pies. Those lovely little devils. If only they had been called mince pies when I was a child. There seems to be a bit more mystery to a mince pie than a minceMEAT pie. Meat was not something I desired in a pie when I was 10 and sitting at my grandmother’s Thanksgiving Day table waiting patiently for dessert. No matter if such a pie had been lovingly prepared, nestled up in a tea towel, and kept cosy on top of a warm tumble dryer alongside his sweet, fragrant friends, pumpkin and apple.

“No mincemeat pie for me,” I would say year after year, which was always followed by the obligatory “one day you’ll know what you’re missing.” (which, by the by, has now been inducted (inherited?) into my ridiculous lexicon of parental vernacular, alongside “were you born in a barn?” (close!) and “hold your horses!” (goes without saying)

Ironically, and most happily surprising, I really didn’t know what I was missing when I declined Grandma Johnson’s mincemeat pie. Turns out this mincing of meat is really pretty terrific. When it doesn’t have meat in it, that is. (Although, having learned that mincemeat pie actually originated in the Middle East, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at a savoury/sweet Ottolenghi-fied twist on the classic…but I digress…)

In my humble mincemeat research, I found a North American filling recipe that was published in 1854 which included chopped neat’s (beef) tongue, beef suet, blood raisins (yikes!), currants, mace, cloves, nutmeg, brown sugar, apples, lemons, brandy and orange peel. It was said that this mincemeat could be preserved for up to ten years. Then, on one special Monday at the turn of the 20th century, meatless mincemeat was introduced and the world was a better place. Now that I have sampled a host of variations, I am proud to point out that I am particularly partial to a cranberry-walnut blended mincemeat filling.

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I mention all of this because mince pies are the cornerstone of Irish holiday baking. They are what hot cross buns are to Easter. Quotidian. They are always the first smattering of Christmas spirit to hit the bakeries and markets across this fair country and the last to leave. When you see the mince pies, you know that elaborate Christmas cakes are not far behind. Their debut tips you off to the perfect storm of puddings that lies ahead. From that day forward, you strap on your Santa face and carry forth honorably to channel Darina Allen in your kitchen. You are granted the perfect excuse to whip up a boozy brandy butter, and sip copious amounts of mulled wine with friends and family… or, not with friends and family.

This weekend, we had our 2nd annual DIY holiday wreath-making party. The first thing I did was bake up a batch of Ballymaloe mince pies along with a few fun variations. Afterward, Geoffrey and I headed down to the wood to collect holly and ivy, evergreens and laurel leaves. We snipped branches from the olive tree and rosemary in our garden. Then, we made our traditional rosemary-mint cake, this time with chocolate instead of a snowy white sponge. My sister-in-law and her three children came over on Sunday afternoon and we gathered round the table to craft three wreaths. One for each of our homes, and another to place on Peggy’s grave with a prayer. We sipped mulled wine and nibbled on warm pies slathered up in zesty orange brandy butter and planned the big Christmas Day meal. Then, when everyone went home and Geoffrey was off to the farm to feed the calves, I cleaned up our workstations, sat down, and savoured every last morsel of the lone mince pie left on the platter.

Grandma would be proud.

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I am giving away one copy of Darina Allen’s A Simply Delicious Christmas. This epic compilation was first published in 1989, and is a much-loved cookbook, with tattered, well-worn copies surely to be found in most households in Ireland. Twenty-five years on, Darina is back with a stunning new edition, revised and updated to reflect today’s tastes. A Simply Delicious Christmas caters to every need over the festive season, from planning ahead for the Christmas Day feast to suggestions for drinks and nibbles for entertaining, including those magnificent mince pies; it really is what Irish Christmas memories are made of!

Be sure and leave a comment at the end of the blogpost to be in the drawing to win a copy of Darina’s beautiful new book before Christmas!

The traditional, tried and true, Ballymaloe House Mince Pie recipe
Ingredients
225g (8oz) plain flour
175g (6oz) butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1 dessertspoon icing sugar, sieved
a pinch of salt
a little beaten egg or egg yolk and water to bind
1lb mincemeat (see recipe below)
egg wash
Method
Sieve the flour into a bowl. Toss the butter into the flour and rub it in with your fingertips. Add the icing sugar and a pinch of salt. Mix with a fork as you gradually add in the beaten egg (do this bit by bit because you may not need all of the egg), then use your hand to bring the pastry together into a ball. It should not be wet or sticky. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 180c/350f/gas mark 4
Roll out the pastry until it’s quite thin – about 3mm (1/8 inch) Stamp into rounds 7.5 (3 inch) in diameter and line shallow bun tins with the discs. Put a good teaspoonful of mincemeat into each tin, dampen the edges with water and put another round on top. Brush with egg wash and decorate with pastry leaves or stars.
Bake the pies in the preheated oven for 20 minutes approx. Allow them to cool slightly, then dredge with icing or caster sugar. Serve with Irish whiskey cream (or brandy butter.)

Myrtle Allen’s Ballymaloe Homemade Mincemeat
Makes 3.2kg (7lb) approx 8-9 pots
Ingredients
2 cooking apples
2 organic lemons
900g (2lbs) Barbados sugar (soft, dark brown sugar)
450g (1lb) beef suet
450 (1lb) sultanas
224 (8oz) currants
110g (4oz) candied citrus peel
70ml (2.5fl oz) Irish whiskey
2 tbsp Seville orange marmalade
pinch of salt
Method
Preheat the oven to 180c/350f/gas mark 4
Core and bake whole apples in the preheated oven for 30 minutes approx. Allow to cool. When they are soft, remove the skin and pips and mash the flesh into a pulp.
Grate the rind from the lemons on the finest part of the stainless steel grater, squeeze out the juice and stir into the pulp
Grate the rind from the lemons on the finest part of a stainless steel grater, squeeze out the juice and stir into the pulp. Add the other ingredients one by one, and as they are added, mix everything thoroughly. Put into sterilized jars, cover and leave to mature for two weeks before using. This mincemeat will keep for two to three years in a cool, airy place.

The winner of Rochelle Bilow’s signed book, The Call of the Farm is YVONNE CORNELL. Many, many thanks to everyone for their heartfelt turkey comments, you have helped me in ways you’ll never know!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2014

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