It's been a long, long road from Kanazawa, Japan to here, but artists Laura McMorrow (28), originally from Manorhamilton, Co Leitrim, and Ciarán Hussey (32), from Glenamaddy, Co Galway, are back for good.
They left Japan in June of last year and didn't arrive back in Ireland until Christmas, having taken a scenic route that would take in half the world and defy Laura's dad's expectations of getting the pair back safely by October.
Well, the pair were having fun – if your idea of having fun is peddling the sandy back roads of Mongolia, that is. Plus, they were cycling 10,000km, so a little leeway is allowed.
McMorrow and Hussey had chosen Mongolia as their first port of call after Japan, where they had both been teaching. Their choice turned out to be spot on – especially when they partook of the Mongolian tradition of drinking vodka at breakfast.
“I would prefer that they wouldn’t do it, and I do worry about them, but I insisted they have a tracker system with an emergency button they can press if they get into dire straits, and we can find out where they are. They let us know at midday every day where they are, so it puts our minds at rest,” concerned parent Jim McMorrow told me at the time.
The tracker system kept worried minds at rest and the pair managed to fire off the odd email and update their blog, crankandcog.net.
Hussey is a photographer, so his visual record of the couple’s odyssey is well worth a look, and his photographic skills are coming in handy for his most recent venture – but more of that later.
When she managed to get a connection, Laura sent this email from Mongolia.
"We are in a small town with no internet cafe, but a nice man brought us into his office. There is a power cut in the town now. We are in Tosontsengel. We had vodka for breakfast this morning. Sleeves down, right-handed (as is the custom in Mongolia!)."
Unfortunately, the pair relaxed their vigilance about drinking the water and got very sick in west Mongolia, Hussey said. “We got sick in Ölgii so that stopped us in our tracks. When we were better, we crossed into the Altai Republic in south Siberia and it was really, really cold.”
It got even colder when McMorrow’s front pannier, which contained her cold-weather gear, disappeared as they went through security at a border checkpoint.
After that, the pair had to take it in turns to have the sleeping bag and the sleeping mat and clothes were shared. If a relationship can withstand that, it looks like it will cope with any long haul.
Although they would occasionally pay to stay in a wooden tourist hut, Hussey says that they only spent €5 a day. Breakfast vodka not included, we assume.
From Novosibirsk, they flew to Bucharest, and fell in love with Romania. "Apart from the dogs trying to get at our heels," says Hussey.
By the time they reached Hungary, the land "had flattened out", he says, which made cycling a lot easier. The pair were getting into their stride and headed to the Czech Republic to visit an Irish friend, Sam Grubb, who lives there with his Czech girlfriend.
From Slovakia (and the pair were on bicycles remember, before it all sounds too easy), it was on to Poland, with its amazing "milk bars in Poznan, which are like really basic greasy spoons", Hussey said.
They met a lot of "old people" in Poland, he noted, before heading for frosty Slovenia, where the cold made getting the porridge on to cook each morning a priority, usurping the attractions of that Mongolian vodka.
Having traversed Europe, they found themselves in Amsterdam, where they took the ferry to Newcastle. "At this stage, Christmas was coming and we just wanted to get home and have a pint in Connolly's of Manorhamilton," Hussey said.
Unlike most of us, who would have just jumped on something cheap, cheerful and air-bound at the airport, McMorrow and Hussey did it the hard way – as usual – and headed across Hadrian's Wall to Stranraer to get the boat to Larne.
They had both studied art in Belfast, so a stop off to catch up with old friends seemed in order before they finally headed home to the west coast.
Christmas came and went and the pair moved to work in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, before returning to Hussey's home county last month. McMorrow has exhibited her sculpture in Manorhamilton and continues to work as an artist. Hussey works on his art too, but, never one to stop peddling, he is now exploring the trendy art of forgaging.
Populating the plates of eateries such as Denmark’s Noma and San Sebastian’s Mugaritz, stuff in the hedgerow or the forest that you might normally pass by, has found its way into the vernacular of haute cuisine.
And Hussey is getting better acquainted with the hedgerows and backwaters of Ireland. The Crank & Cog blog is now populated by photographs of edible flora and fauna that Hussey has located when cycling the highways and byways of the west coast. And he plans to cycle to a location near you. This is a man to whom 10,000km on a bike is nothing.
Although foraging has achieved a zeitgeisty makeover, there were no Michelin stars involved when Hussey discovered it. "Foraging became part of our cycling trip. We are all about sustainability, really. Also, we saw a lot of it in Eastern Europe, where they forage for berries and plants for food. Foraging is important to them and they eat what they pick."
When Hussey got back to Ireland, he asked his dad if he could remember what plants and berries he had picked as a boy. Unfortunately, his father was a little hazy in his recollections, but he did remember that his own mother would go out into the woods and fields to pick plants and herbs that she would use to make draughts to help people who had become ill.
After doing a course at The Organic Centre in Leitrim, Hussey has set his stall at finding the bits we all leave behind. The free bits, the tasty bits, the fragrant bits, the aromatic bits.
He cautions though, on his blog and in person, about eating anything you are not absolutely certain of. “Unless you are absolutely certian you can eat something – don’t.”
Already he has turned up things that grow on bogs in the west that many of us think only surface on supermarket shelves.The cranberry? Really? Yes, says Hussey, it grows wild in Ireland and he has the pictures to prove it. Christmas is taking on an entirely different perspective.
There are crowberries, too, which taste like juniper. We wonder if they can be used to make gin. Hussey is not sure, but he stands by the juniper.
“You’d be forgiven for thinking that a meal couldn’t possibly be foraged from a bog, but there are berries and plants for the taking – if you know where to look.”
The curious and the motivated can find Hussey’s photographs and musings on crank&cog.net. He is also combing his love of cycling and his love of foraging and plans on taking anyone who is interested along for the ride. You can book on the website.
A recipe for Bog Salad
• Common sorrel
• Pecan nuts, halved
• Feta cheese
• A crackle of pepper
Wash the wild leaves thoroughly. Chickweed can be quite stringy, so it’s best to chop it up. The sorrel leaves can be kept whole. Add pecan nuts and feta cheese. Cranberries are usually processed in some manner, by stewing or adding to casseroles, but for this we’ll simply wash them and add the ripe berries.
The crowberries can be quite tart, so add them sparingly to avoid over-powering the other ingredients. Add some ground pepper and a dressing of your choice and you’re ready to tuck in.
A lot of wild plants can taste bitter and can be a turn-off. As consumers, we are used to and prefer the sweeter tasting flavours of fruit and vegetables. Our taste buds are losing the appreciation of bitter tastes.
However, bitter-tasting wild plants and foods have been proven to be very beneficial to our health, stimulating the digestive system, adding balance to our diet and helping to control our appetite. They are also packed with antioxidants.
Caution: Never eat plants unless you are absolutely sure they are edible. Harvest wild edibles and plants at your own risk.