Monday, 29 October 2012

Dancing through Darkness

I love this time of the year when golden afternoons on the mountain turn to silver evenings by the sea.

I love the smell of frost on the grass, the low light casting long shadows and the mist drifting low on the slopes of Mount Brandon.

Most of all I love the sense of warmth and nourishment that comes from the familiar round of each year's winter festivals.

As Halloween approaches, the house fills with the warm fruity smell of baking brack, the sharp tang of vinegar, and the satisfying sounds of onions, apples, and spices being chopped and ground up for chutney.

Wrapped up against wind and rain, we drive to Dingle to buy monkey nuts, then home again to pile them into a bowl on the bench by the fire.

Squelching between the ridges where the last of the potatoes are still waiting to be dug, I pull a knobbly green and purple turnip and carry it indoors, muddy roots and all, to carve into a lantern. 

On Halloween night it sits on the gatepost, banishing the darkness of Samhain and welcoming all the familiar ghosts returning to bless the house.

This was the night when the ancient Celts danced and sang through the darkness, lit bonfires high on the mountains, and shared the best of their food and drink with neighbours, strangers and friends.

It was a gesture of courage and confidence in the face of the dark months ahead. And a triumphant communal celebration of the certain return of Spring.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Harvest Goddess and The Holly Man

In Corca Dhuibhne, living between the ocean and the mountain, I've become increasingly aware of how profoundly my neighbours' lives are shaped by Ireland's seasonal festivals. It's an ancient inheritance, rooted in the time when the Celts saw the steady turn of the seasons as a sign that the universe was in balance.


Each festival had its own dances, music, customs and food. And each year they're celebrated with the same communal rituals that express joy in the present moment and hope for seasons to come.

It's not surprising to find a profound awareness of the seasons in rural Ireland. But when Wilf and I found our flat here in Bermondsey I was amazed to discover echoes of the same seasonal rituals in inner city London.

Huddled under Victorian railway arches, in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral, Borough Market's one of the oldest markets of its kind in England: food and drink have been sold there to Londoners since at least the eleventh century. And probably far longer.

These days Borough market's about as fashionable as city markets can get, a must-see stop on every tourist's schedule where camera crews jostle with celebrities and locals frequently discuss their dinner menus with tv chefs out on a recce. And each year, on Apple Day, in a festival that's now called October Plenty, it hosts the annual procession of the Goddess of the Harvest.

Her journey begins in Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on Bankside and continues through streets that Shakespeare himself once walked in the footsteps of countless Londoners who'd lived here long before him.

With St. Paul's Cathedral in the background and ordinary life flowing round it, passers-by join the procession. Cameras flash, kids are hoisted onto parents' shoulders, buggies bump over cobbled streets. And versions of jigs and slides I know well from sessions in Ballyferriter bounce back from the high walls of offices and apartment buildings .

When the crowd reaches Borough Market the goddess, still surrounded by music and dancers, weaves her way between the heaped-up apples and cider kegs, in a ritual progress from stall to stall to bless the stallholders, celebrate the harvest and invoke good luck for the future.

Exciting, dynamic and numinous, harvest festivals tap the roots of human hopes and fears. They're local celebrations of fertility echoed throughout the world and across millennia. They're shared rituals, rich with communal memories of firelight, warmth, comfort and plenty.

But the cold days and nights ahead hold other memories too, of harder times when survival through the winter months was never certain.

These days they're the months when the old and the poor juggle the price of food and fuel, and the homeless sleep on freezing pavements and die in their sleep before morning.

That's why the Holly Man who accompanies the Harvest Goddess has an edge of ancient terror to his beauty.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Embrace Your Inner Celt

I love watching food programmes on the telly. Could be Indian cuisine, which I’ve never cooked and never expect to, could be fifty shades of feta, or how to do Tarte Tatin without turning your kitchen floor into a skating rink. Basically I’ll watch anything, especially if it includes shots of a windswept presenter ambling down the garden with a trug – and, possibly, a dog – and ambling back up again with armfuls of seasonal vegetables. One thing about this rash of seasonal food programmes, though. It may be trending on Twitter, and tv commissioning editors may think it’s the happening way to go, but seasonal food isn’t, and never has been, just about fashion. 

Look at the ancient Celts. A couple of thousand years ago they crossed the Irish Sea moving west ahead of the Romans. As a plan it worked. The Roman legionaries never made it to Ireland, so having got here the Celts could stop charging like lemmings into the west. Which was just as well because, if they’d had to keep going, they’d have faced a long swim to America from the end of the Dingle peninsula. Anyway, once they got here they settled down and became our ancestors. And in Ireland we’re still living with that Celtic inheritance – red hair, freckles, endless talk, and a rich legacy of artefacts, stories, myths and poems. As well as a deep urge to throw enormous parties.

Lounging on a sofa in your pjs, it’s easy to see seasonal food in terms of lifestyle. But if you actually depend on the food you grow and rear yourself, bad weather, sick animals or a poor harvest can mean famine - a scary scenario which could easily lead to a tendency to slam the door on the neighbours if they happen to roll up at mealtimes. But the ancient Celts did exactly the opposite. No matter how bad the harvest, each year at the turning point between autumn and winter they flung open their doors, reached for their musical instruments, and ate and drank all round them, in ballsy, communal expressions of confidence in the future.

I love that confidence. I think we should recapture it as a nation. And I love the ancient Celts’ passion for turning points, those dynamic moments of balance between one possibility and another. Life for them was all about celebration, and body and soul were interdependent. Their spiritual awareness and sensual appreciation of food and drink live side-by-side in spare, delicate nature poems and grotesque, mind-blowing stories about forts of butter, rivers of cream, and bridges made of sizzling sides of bacon. 

Cut to twenty-first century Dingle on the first weekend of October and you get much the same vibe at the Dingle Food and Wine Festival. A little less human sacrifice perhaps – though that rumour may just be sore-loser Roman propaganda – and a little more chilli in the chocolates. (Ok, not exactly native or seasonal, those, but definitely hand-made in Ireland.) In fact, a blue-faced druid strolling up Main Street wouldn’t bat an eyelid – or, indeed, raise an eyebrow. Ancient Celtic festivals lasted for days. Families met and hung out together, playing music, singing and dancing; marriages were arranged; bargains were made; and everyone indulged in an orgy of seasonal produce. These days there’s all of that. Plus Tasting Tickets.

Like everything Dingle does, there are no half measures. Out in the streets locals and visitors wander happily along the festival’s famous Food Trail, over 60 establishments, ranging from pubs and restaurants to pottery studios and hat shops, showcasing Dingle Bay shellfish, Blasket Island lamb, local beef, and Dingle peninsula cheeses. Halfway up Main Street, St. James’ churchyard is lined with stalls offering artisan food from across Ireland. In the church itself, free cookery demonstrations are packed throughout the weekend. And there’s music everywhere – outside on the streets, in hotels, pubs, restaurants and shops, wherever yet another fiddler, piper or concertina-player could squeeze behind a pint.

This year, the festival has a Heritage Food theme, highlighting foods and cooking methods used on the peninsula in living memory. That probably excludes the ancient Celt’s method of stewing meat by dropping red-hot stones into a deerskin full of water suspended from spears. But you never know. There’s certainly emphasis on the ancient Celtic art of brewing, one of the few things the Romans admitted we were good at. An Canteen, one of the town’s restaurants, is hosting a beer and cider festival, featuring the Dingle Brewing Company and the West Kerry Brewery. The festival also launches the new Dingle Whiskey Distillery and includes the finals of the Blas na hEireann, Irish Food Awards, with over 40 judges blind tasting produce across 40 food categories. 

So between the jigs and the reels, the craic and the crab claws, you never quite know what’s round the corner. One thing’s certain, though; whatever it is, it’ll look good, smell great and taste like heaven. I can still remember last year’s fudge flavoured with heather honey, chunks of dillisc-flecked cheese on warm soda bread, wine drunk sitting by the harbour, and my Dingle Dexter burger, made from the meat of hardy little cattle grazed on the high mountains. It’s a brilliant way to spend a long weekend as autumn turns towards winter, a gourmet celebration of life, and a communal demonstration of confidence in Ireland’s quality, seasonal, native food and drink. Why hang round on a sofa watching telly this weekend when you can rock on down to Dingle and express your inner Celt?