The word ‘heritage’ has a warm glow around it. It speaks of placing an important value on some elements of our past. Of course, we are all products of our past and of our shared history with others. Each of us holds some moments, items, images and memories special. They help us cope with the constant nagging in our inner spirits for an answer to the questions about who we are. These are a few of the pieces of my identity jigsaw.
For as long as I can remember, I associate my late mother Lena with home baking. Baking the brown bread was her responsibility and her gift. And she was good at it and did it with devotion. She learned her baking skills from her own mother who baked in an open fire in the traditional bastible. When my mother married she upgraded to a range. The range boiled all the water, all day long, for the house and the farmyard; it cooked the dinners; aired clothes and welcomed visitors who came for a scoríocht.
The routine of the daily baking seldom changed. It had to be daily because there were three generations in the house. Between them, these provided ten mouths that sat on the stools and chairs at the table a few times every day. The key ingredients of the brown bread were the wholemeal and the white flour which were lined up along with a few pints of our milk which had been left to go sour overnight, and added were some bread soda and baking powder. The measures were always the same but unwritten. Everything was measured between the eye, the fingers and the open palm.
The batch of implements was not at all complicated. There was a large earthenware mixing bowl which was white on the inside and brown on the outside and a selection of square baking tins. These were lined with the wrappings which had been kept from the used pounds of Aughadown and Drinagh butter. The remnant of the butter paper was layered inside the warmed baking tins and a knob of butter was used to coat the heated tins and paper generously.
Mixing the ingredients was always a social occasion as Mum had the motherly gift of being able to sort ingredients, keep an eye on the clock, watch the fire to see it was heating the oven to the right temperature and, all the while, engage the family in conversation around the table. It was this mix of telling the story and preparing food that gave me my first real insight into what the Church now calls Eucharist — the gathering of God’s people around his table to hear his word and be nourished by the Bread of Life. The Lord builds up his family, too, in the breaking of bread.
In my mother’s life, the work in the kitchen seemed to flow in and out of the work in the rest of the home and the work in the yard. They were all parts of the same cycle. So the hands that carried buckets of milk to feed the young calves were the same hands that provided closed knuckles with which Mum kneaded the dough for the bread. With a gentle twist and turn the dough made its way into each corner of the prepared baking tin and with a final sprinkle of flour on top the oven door was opened and in it went. Any small bits of leftover dough were gathered and combined to make small scones that the apprentice bakers shaped to their liking before they too made their way to the oven. Once the kitchen table was restored to its previous flour-free state and all the cooking paraphernalia stored away until tomorrow, there were always other chores to be done before, at half time, the cake was turned in its tin and the mental clock reset in my mother’s head to ensure the cake wasn’t burned. When the bread was baked, it was turned onto a cooling wire and a gentle course of more butter was rubbed onto its crust to ensure it would have just the right texture.
There were all kinds of reasons for varying the baking programme. Extra bread would be needed for the Stations, the threshing, the combining of the corn, the day at the bog, or whenever neighbours had a similar event going on or whenever they had a family event like a funeral. On those days, the standard brown bread was the main fare. There were also days which required that the recipe be changed, or to put it more accurately – it was enhanced and became a “currany” cake.
The currany cake was made from white flour and it got its name from the mix of fruit that included currants, sultanas and fruit peel. Hanging around the kitchen table while my mother was baking a currany cake had its special advantages. There were always bits of fruit to be nabbed and swallowed before they made it to the mixing bowl. Put the prize was a bit of the peel. Someone, somewhere, came up with the sweet idea of taking the peelings of oranges and lemon and mixing them with lots of sugar and cooking them so they could be used as ingredients for baking.
Nowadays, they come in plastic cartons and are already sliced and diced into evenly sized pieces ready for mixing. But that takes the fun away! When I was a child, they came in chunks which needed to be sliced and diced at home. And of course, some slices were thicker than others and remained glued to the coating of icing sugar that enrobed them. The prospect of a lump of freshly cut peel would have me promising to do all the tidying up in the world! The sweetness of the fruit peel gave Mum’s currany cake its speckled fruity flavour which was always hard to beat. We always hoped there would be some left over after the visitors had left! But even if there wasn’t, we knew that the excuse to make another one would never be too far away.
(This article was written for and published in the Third Volume of local history of the Coppeen Archaeological, Historical and Cultural Society, August 2013.)