See You in September

(Photo: Tourism Ireland)

By Edythe Preet, Contributor
August September 2005

Americans vacation in July. Europeans do it in August. No one goes anywhere in September. During the peak summer months, regardless of continent, the shops are crowded, the beaches are jammed, flights are overbooked, and hotels (if you can even find one with a vacancy) charge astronomical rates.

Come September, beds are bargains, shops offer sales, and beaches are bare. Hint: if there’s any way to juggle schedules, it’s the finest time to hit the road. Even if there are school-age children in the house, most programs will allow a delayed entry as there’s hardly a more memorable and enlightening learning experience than travel.

Ireland’s a really good example of the benefits that come with September visits. I’ve been there in June. It was regularly chilly and rainy. July was better as the early morning fogs burned off by three-ish and the sun didn’t set until very late evening. In August, the island was awash with European tourists. But, aaah! September was brilliant! I had the place practically to myself. And the weather was knock-your-socks-off glorious.

A few other benefits come from a September trip. Things the guidebooks will never mention. For instance: it’s the peak season for potatoes. I still carry a vivid memory of a greengrocer’s shop in Dublin whence a fellow food-writing Irish journalist had ferried me with a gleam in her educator’s eye. Potatoes were proffered in such preponderance that at first glance they seemed to be the only veggie in stock.

There were pink potatoes and white potatoes. Brown potatoes and red potatoes. Tiny potatoes and huge potatoes. Lumpy bumpy potatoes and smooth-as-a-baby’s-bum potatoes. Stacked in cases and spilling out of tubs in a riot of shapes and sizes and colors I’d never before imagined with names I’d never heard in the whole world of cookery. And each one defined an Irish culinary potato specialty. Some were `floury’ (the best for mashing and recycling leftovers into a breakfast sort of pancake delight called Fadge). Some were pasty (wow! when roasted with garlic and herbs). Others were tops for grilling, braising, baking, or boiling. Ever wonder why the spuds you throw in a long-simmering Irish stew dissolve into mush? Wrong potato, pal. What a concept!

If even a drop of Irish blood trickles in your veins, you love spuds. My father used to relish savoring a plate of little `white’ `new’ potatoes which he would boil up `in their jackets’ (unpeeled), cut in quarters, sprinkle with hefty shakes of salt and pepper, and chase each bite with a glug of cold milk. Throughout my youth, I thought it was just one of his charming food eccentricities. Long after he had passed away, I discovered that Dad’s `new’ potato penchant was practically a national paean to the onset of Ireland’s annual spud harvest.

Another item you won’t find in the guidebooks is the September hedgerow phenomenon. All along the country roads (by all means, bypass the newfangled superhighways for winding rambles on secondary and tertiary thoroughfares), hedgerows flourish, turning country roads into tunnels of towering fuchsia and blackberry bushes. The sight is astounding.

Interspersed among the lush greenery, dangle bell-shaped blossoms in forty shades of pink and purple, and millions (yes, millions) of plump juicy blackberries. The blossoms are easy to spot. They punctuate the verdant roadside vistas with polka-dotted swaths of neon color. The blackberries are another story. Tucked away among the thick layers of leaves, they hide among the foliage from all but the canniest feathered foragers. And that’s a clue. Where birds pause to perch and nibble, one often discovers blackberry troves.

Ordinarily, one would exercise extreme caution experimenting with eating wild plants, but our feathered friends are not stupid. When it comes to fruit, what they eat, we can eat, and they only eat the best. Ask anyone who owns a vineyard and has to protect the grapes from being gobbled by enthusiastic winged gourmets.

Less frequently, you may spot a local resident who’s picking baskets of berries from the roadside bounty. Stopping for a chat, a lesson in blackberry picking, and a leisurely munch of top quality ripened on the bush succulent berries is well worth the investment of time. The only downside is that you’ll end up with fingers stained purple, which can pose a real danger to your wardrobe. A simpler and surer way to experience Ireland’s September blackberry harvest (though not nearly so nostalgic, romantic, nor potentially new friend forming) would be to stop in at village bakeries, pubs and restaurants where blackberry tarts and crumbles are daily specials during the season.

A third September treat completely ignored by the travel guides is a smell unique to Erin. My initial exposure to the scent was somewhat embarrassing. It was my first trip to Ireland. After deplaning in Shannon, I rented a car and set off to my destination, Delphi Lodge, a fabulous Edwardian fishing lodge on the far edge of Connemarra. There was a slight chili to the late afternoon air and, after an hour or so drive into the countryside, I began to smell something burning. A stop at a garage proved only that the auto was fine and the attendant thought I was a stereotypically mechanically challenged female. But the smell persisted, so I pulled over again supposing the first mechanic was less than an expert. Once more, the car was pronounced fine, and I was given a goggle-eyed appraisal. So I drove on, praying that the guys were right and I was wrong, even though the deeper I drove into Connemarra the more pungent the smell became.

On reaching my destination, I passed through the manor’s entry where I was greeted by three stalwart fellows scrutinizing two huge salmon ceremoniously laid out on enormous silver platters. I could not detect even the slightest scent of finny trophy, but the smell of something burning was stronger than ever. To my city-gal chagrin I was ever so politely informed that it was merely the aroma of burning turf, several large clumps of which were smoldering away in the entry’s massive stone hearth. We had a good chuckle about my turf naiveté over glasses of sherry, and we had the most massive of the day’s catch for dinner. The chap who bagged the hook-nosed behemoth was awarded the honor of carving. Slainte!

RECIPES

FADGE — PERSONAL RECIPE

2 cups leftover mashed potatoes

salt &pepper

flour

2 tablespoons butter

Mix mashed potatoes with salt &pepper to taste then add enough flour to make a dough that will hold together. On a lightly floured pastry cloth or cutting board, roll or pat dough into a circle, then cut in wedges like pizza. Melt butter in a frying pan or pancake griddle and fry Fadge wedges until golden brown on both sides. Serve with an Irish Breakfast, as an accompaniment to dinner, or just eat out of hand. Makes 6 to 8 pieces.

Recipe: Edythe Preet

BLACKBERRY COBBLER

1 pound blackberries

1 tablespoon lemon juice

3 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoon shortening

1/2 cup milk

cinnamon

Preheat oven to 400F. Mix blackberries with lemon juice and sugar, then place in a buttered baking dish and dot with butter. In a medium size bowl, sift flour with remaining sugar, baking powder, and salt then cut in shortening until ingredients are well mixed. Stir in milk and drop batter by spoonfuls on the surface of the blackberries. Dust lightly with cinnamon. Bake until golden brown and fruit is bubbling. Serve warm or room temperature plain or with vanilla ice cream. Makes 6 servings.

Recipe: Edythe Preet

BLACKBERRY CREAM

1 pound blackberries

3 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup milk

1 packet unflavored gelatin

1 cup heavy cream, whipped stiff

Cook the blackberries with sugar in 1 cup water until soft, then sieve them to remove the seeds. Warm the milk, dissolve the gelatin in it, and add to the fruit puree stirring well. Fold in the whipped cream, mixing thoroughly, then pour into individual dessert dishes, and chill until set. Makes 4 servings.

Recipe: Irish Traditional Food, Theodora Fitzgibbon ♦

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