A harvest from the hedgerows
An Irishwoman’s Diary: Help yourself to nature’s larder
‘Kit Ó Céirín, a trained nurse who met her husband in a South African gold mine, was a keen forager, having grown up on picking crab apples and blackberries in the midlands. Yet she was aware that the practice was associated with poverty, and the “pot of jam or jelly you bought in the shop had to be better than the one you made yourself”.’
Burn ’em all. Ever tempted to make a precious pyre of a certain genre of books? “Self-help” books, that is. Liberating though it may sound, the phrase “self-help”has to be as much of an oxymoron as “open secret” or “organised mess”, or the “deafening silence” that this argument might meet!
As a friend far more eloquent than I has observed, the “self-help” concept promulgates the notion that “the imperfections of the world and the lotteries of pain and disease” are presented as “little more than mirages generated by the culpably diseased, can’t-do mind”. Try selling the concept to the 1,600 who turned up for food parcels on one day recently at Dublin’s Capuchin Day Centre. All that boostrap pulling can be pretty exhausting on one’s own.
But there’s one book that won’t be on my pyre. “Help yourself” rather than “self-help” is the approach taken by the Cyril and Kit Ó Céirín in Wild and Free: Cooking from Nature, which was first published back in 1978 by O’Brien Press.
“Probably no people take less interest in the wild harvest than the Irish,” the couple noted in their essential handbook for harvesting untouched hedgerows. Yet as the poet Raifteairí had noted two centuries back, “there’s cress in the river there and walnuts on the trees there, fine fresh leaves and berries, cherries and sloes . . .”
The late Cyril Ó Céirín was an established Gaelic scholar, poet and writer, and latterly, with Kit, became prominent in the Burren Action Group formed to oppose a planned interpretative centre at Mullaghmore. In his research of medieval Ossianic tales and poems, he had come across constant references to wild foods, such as the berries with the “intoxication of wine and the satisfaction of old mead” described by Diarmuid to his love, Gráinne. There was a plethora of references to the hazelnut, which was a major source of nutrition here before the advent of the potato.
Kit, a trained nurse who met her husband in a South African gold mine, was a keen forager, having grown up picking crab apples and blackberries in the midlands. Yet she was aware that the practice was associated with poverty, and the “pot of jam or jelly you bought in the shop had to be better than the one you made yourself”. She recalls that one of the reasons she and Cyril embarked on the project was a sense that knowledge and skills relating to wild food could be lost within a generation. The couple had jotted so many recipes down over the years that it seemed imperative to pass them on.
Their first edition soon became a bit of a hippies’ bible, and impressed this newspaper’s Another Life columnist Michael Viney. The work was not peddling “idyllic self-sufficiency”, he wrote some 35 years ago, but was “fairly down-to-earth” in its advice on soups, wines, jams, syrups and puddings that could be cooked from nature. As the republication reminds us, the hip, a fruit of the wild dog rose, contains more vitamin C than any other fruit or vegetable, while nettles make for neantóg tea and dandelions make for coffee.
It was only after the second World War and the growth of agribusiness that people turned their backs on wild crops, opting instead for processed substitutes, the authors point out. Now foraging is a “new cool”, with restaurants such as Copenhagen’s Noma and Galway’s Aniar building reputations on use of wild ingredients. Kit Ó Céirín believes people are turning towards inconvenience foods for economic reasons, for the experience, and also for that unmistakable “raw uncensored taste”.
There are some cautions about the hazards of regarding the outdoors as an “unrestricted natural larder”. The 100 recipes and month-by-month guide to plants and fruits in season, and how they can be preserved, are prefaced by a code of practice for responsible harvesting.
“If you cannot clearly and unequivocally identify something, don’t eat it”, they advise. Watercress, for instance, should not be picked from stagnant pools or from run-off through sheep’s land, due to the risk of liver fluke. And asking permission before venturing onto private property is usually a pretty good plan.
Wild and Free: Cooking from Nature: 100 Recipes and Folklore of Nature’s Harvest by Cyril and Kit Ó Céirín, with a new introduction by Sally McKenna, is published by Wolfhill Publishing.