Grace’s Guide to Scones, for the Uninitiated.

scone

            You know you’re advancing in years when you begin to frequent coffee shops on a regular basis. You begin to have favourites. You get to know what’s on offer besides the coffee, too. For me this is likely to be a scone. For overseas readers here is an explanation of ‘scone’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scone
I consider myself to be something of an expert on scones and it is this, besides the quality of the tea or coffee that determines whether a coffee shop makes it onto the favourites list or if it is cast into the venues that are forever shunned. I have fond memories of scones in New Zealand, where the ubiquitous dairies produced substantial offerings boasting dried fruit in abundance, or made from wholemeal flour, often warmed and with ample butter on the side. Ireland also serves up generous, delicious scones in their many forms.
And yes, for the uninitiated there are several forms of scone, the most common being the fruit variety. This is best enjoyed with butter only but is too often used as part of a cream tea [that is to say, with jam and clotted cream: [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clotted_cream]. The most suitable scone for a cream tea is a plain or ‘Devon’ scone, since fruit detracts from the whole jam/cream experience. The best establishments may also offer cheese scones, which are a nod towards the less unhealthy option, being free of sugar, although it has to be said that dietary health is not a feature of this post.
Sometimes, having established that a café has scones before we select a table there is a prolonged wait for the scones to arrive. This is because the scones are already plated up and part of the [aforementioned] cream tea. Please note, café proprietors, that if we, the customers request a scone, this is not the same as a cream tea and while we are unlikely to turn it down we are not in the habit of devouring cream teas [treats that should be enjoyed on an infrequent basis].
Scones that do not pass muster tend to be dry, with a consistency akin to sawdust [such as those from a prestigious castle tea room in our locale] and too flat, with the appearance of an inflated biscuit. Mass produced scones may also have a slightly bitter taste, from having had too much raising agent added or with a leaden texture that sticks to the roof of the mouth and are sometimes available in the cafés of large department stores. Best are the offerings of small, independent coffee shops with their ranges of homemade cakes.
I am of course perfectly capable of baking scones at home and have done so in the past, but these days baking at home is an activity best avoided due to Husband and my propensity for eating the results.
For the foreseeable future, scone research has been put on hold. This, reader is due to the fact that overconsumption of scones has lead the researcher to begin to look like one. So having imparted what I know I leave you to pursue your own investigations. Enjoy!

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About ‘Nora Webster’

I just finished reading Colm Toibin’s ‘Nora Webster’. Although a companion book to the more commercially viable ‘Brooklyn’ which was made into a film, I found it an altogether more thoughtful and evocative novel.

Set in early sixties Ireland, it is the story of widowed Nora’s journey into some kind of independence and happiness following the death of husband, Maurice.

At the beginning of the novel I felt that Nora’s conservative, narrow way of life had everything to do with her staunch Catholic background but as I read on I began to see that the era in which the story is set was itself an era of conservatism. This will resonate with anyone who was born in the fifties as I was.

The story plays out against a background of the Irish troubles, when TV news footage impacts on Nora’s family life in their jittery responses and constant anxiety.

Nora struggles with bringing up her four children, with money and with every decision, since during her marriage she’d looked to teacher husband, Maurice to decide everything. ‘What would Maurice do/say/choose?’ she asks, constantly. My own mother was the same, an unwaged housewife, leaving every decision for my father to make. Her views, like Nora’s were my father’s views. We all holidayed in his preferred destinations, bought things when he wanted them, agreed with his political viewpoint and his wellbeing was paramount in the family. This, I believe was commonplace in the post-war era.

Nora’s children are her preoccupation, a constant worry as she has to find a job and keep it under some trying circumstances. At first she either relies on advice from family or makes knee-jerk decisions which she then regrets. But gradually she learns to trust her own judgement and gains confidence. She finds joy in the appreciation of music and takes singing lessons.

The older of Nora’s sons exhibits behaviour which we would now realise is autistic, being disruptive in class and obsessing about photography. The behaviour deteriorates in the time after Maurice’s death. One of her daughters, Aine becomes involved in the struggles and the other, Fiona, a student teacher wants to spread her wings and spend money that Nora doesn’t have.

Most of these difficulties are likely to plague any single parent today. Juggling the needs of a family and the imperative to hold down a job is a tricky business. The problems that Nora experiences are no more trivial for the children being older.

Nora is a complex character, reserved but at the same time feisty. I liked how she stood up to a difficult manager at work and manoeuvred herself into a better position. She is constrained by her religion and influenced by the religious figures in her life. In many ways this is a feminist novel. I wish I could say that life is completely different for women today but there are still too many outstanding inequalities to address.

The Road West

                “Bacon and cabbage now, that’d be the thing,”

                We were in ‘Brendan’s Bar, Clogheen. It was our second night, and second attempt to find some life. The first evening we’d walked into the village, a single, long street of terraced houses broken only by the ‘supermarket’-an exaggeration, a grocer’s shop, a pharmacy, a diminutive fire department, a takeaway [the only remotely animated spot in the street] and three bars. It had been a gloomy day and continued a gloomy evening. There was little sign of habitation and I fully expected to see tumbleweed whisking down the long sweep of the street. We squinted into the window of the first bar-‘Nerdeen’s’-and detected a light, and yes, the door opened when pushed. A teenage barman, distracted by his mobile phone, managed to serve us. Sky Sports News played to the empty bar. We sat in a corner of the desultory space with our drinks. A man came in to sit at the bar, staring morosely into his cider, then one other. The landlady came in, talking on her phone.

                I know that Husband is seeking wild, folksy nights with impromptu musicians and perhaps some spontaneous dancers leaping about with ramrod backs and high kicking feet.  This was definitely not the ‘craic’.

                Brendan’s Bar was distinguished in having a lone, redundant, ancient petrol pump outside, growing out of the pavement. Brendan, sitting on a stool, arms folded, was a fountain of Irish knowledge, backed up by his friend-the only other customer in the pub. I quizzed him on Irish cuisine; and why was the petrol pump there? The friend mumbled that perhaps it should have been taken away. ‘The tank’s in the middle of the road there’, Brendan affirmed, as if in explanation. He urged us to visit all the places he recommended, even ringing his wife [who may have been upstairs], when a name escaped him.

                Next morning as we left Clogheen I felt I’d warmed to the place. We drove into the centre to find our onward road, past a wandering, stray donkey strolling along the pavement.

                It was relentlessly wet. We stopped only to make a visit to Blarney Castle, running the gauntlet of a swathe of visitors from all parts of the globe, their enthusiasm not dampened. We queued to climb the spiral stone staircase to the top of the keep, queued again for an unceremonious tipping back in the rain to kiss the famous stone for the gift of the gab. Husband, I feel, hopes that by brushing my lips against the damp slab, the opposite may occur.

                Then on to Kerry-wild, wet, windy and a tourist magnet, judging by the abundance of hand woven garment, pottery, craft, fudge, woodwork and local art outlets. We find our site at Cahersiveen with a prime view across to Valentia and the prospect of some spectacular sunsets-if there is ever any sun!

Literature, Religion and the Other Thing

                We have come to Ireland, just as I am reading Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’. Set in London, against the background of 1976’s long, hot summer it is the story of an Irish family’s struggle with the disappearance of the patriarch, a plot device that serves to bring together the disparate adult children with all their demons including abortion, infidelity and dyslexia. When we travel I like to read a work of fiction that relates to the location I’m in, such as ‘Winter in Madrid’ by C J Sansom, when in Spain last year, although the selection of reading material is sometimes by design but more often by accident.

                The summer of 1976 stands out in my memory as no other for its exceptional heat-wave that seemed to last forever. I was working in Putney, London, in a special school-the best teaching job I ever had. There were 12 children in my class in a purpose built school made almost entirely of glass. The kindly, avuncular head teacher insisted we take our children out on to the grass under the trees each afternoon to avoid overheating so we decamped into the al fresco, where I then acquired the best tan of my life, and all before the holidays.

                It shames me to say I’ve only ever been for a short visit to Dublin before, despite my advanced years and the proximity of the emerald isle, but at least I’ve got around to it now.

                For a small country, Ireland seems to have produced a huge number of literary giants; James Joyce, Edna O’Brien, Maeve Binchy, Samuel Becket and Oscar Wilde, to name a few. It makes me wonder if one’s origins need to be rooted in a country with a strong history of religious conflict, poverty, oppression and hardship in order to be able to achieve success in writing. But perhaps I’m merely using lack of robust historical identity as an excuse for my own shortcomings!

                We spent our first day striding out on the coast path in a warm breeze, along strands of boulder strewn beaches in the company of seabirds. There were few other walkers, except for a couple we passed and exchanged pleasantries with. “Bless St Steven for the good weather”, the woman exhorted, startling me with this first glimpse into the Irish psyche. Later we came to ‘Our Lady Island’ where there was a special well and a shrine. Turning inland I was struck by the plethora of lurid, newly built bungalows, personalised with eccentric faux period features-stone cladding, gable adornments or pretend Georgian windows. A considerable number featured white, plaster columns at the door. Perhaps some salesman with an eye for the main chance had passed that way? Despite their proximity to the coast, none of the bungalows actually faced out to the Irish Sea for a stupendous view, although judging by the number of crumbling stone piles littering the countryside a sea view must once have been a desirable aspect. Tractors outnumbered cars by about five to one here in the lanes.

                Passing through the countryside and the villages sweeps me back in time, as in New Zealand, to my fifties childhood, when there was a village garage, a dairy, a rustic barn of hay bales and an overgrown churchyard, although without the eternal summer!