Folklore and History, Food

Happy Nollaig na mBan, 12th Night, Epiphany 2019!

We took down the last of our Christmas decorations today, as we always do on the 6th January, or the Epiphany; it’s a tradition carried on from my own mother, who insisted almost fearfully that every last scrap of tinsel and turkey must begone by this date, or a calamitous year of bad luck would lie ahead.

I recall as a very young child the decorations coming down and then a visit to one of my mother’s friends for a cup of tea and maybe something light to eat; a cake maybe, or biscuits.

It wasn’t until much later that I recognized this as a hangover from the old Irish tradition of Nollaig na mBan, or  Little Christmas/Women’s Christmas, which is seeing something of a resurgence in the Republic of Ireland, and which my mother’s family may have observed as Catholics.

Nollaig na mBan (pronounced something like “Null-ag na Mon”) marks not only the end of the 12 days of Christmas, the Epiphany, and the deadline for many for the removal of Christmas frippery, but also the day when hard-working Irish wives and mothers would be granted a much-needed break after feeding their large families throughout the Christmas period. Menfolk and children would pick up the reins for this day, while their women met for a break, a breather, a natter and maybe something to eat.

I’d like to state that this was an outdated notion by the time of my childhood (1970s), but alas the tradition, if not the name of the day, was still in full force in most of the families we knew.

Coincidentally my husband prepared Sunday lunch today as I untangled the garden lights and nodding reindeers, once more retired to the garage for eleven months or so, but I’m glad to say that this was a coincidence; I no longer have to slave until the first week in January to get parity of workload around the house for a single day.

So as I boil the kettle for a refreshing cup of Punjana, I wish mammies around the world, Irish or otherwise, a happy Nollaig na mBan, while simultaneously hoping devoutly that it’s just a symbolic break for them, and that the division of labour is more enlightened in their families. img_2246

The Codsway Chip Shop, Bushmills, Northern Ireland
And The Buntings Flew, Food, Travel

For Cod, and Ulster – Northern Ireland’s Enduring Love of Chip Shops

This is a post I wrote on my family history blog in July that I meant to crosspost sooner;  it’s a short musing on food and language in Northern Ireland, both important themes in much of my writing!

via For Cod, and Ulster – Northern Ireland’s Enduring Love of Chip Shops

Vegetable Roll, courtesy of McCartneys of Moira
And The Buntings Flew, Food, Reading and Books, Writing

8 Foods of Ulster featured in “And The Buntings Flew”

I recently read a great article in the Guardian Food in Books series by blogger Kate at The Little Library Cafe; – you can read the latest article here.

Kate writes about the food that features in some of her favourite books, and she often recreates recipes for foods as described in such classics as To Kill A Mockingbird, The Fellowship of The Ring, and Vanity Fair.

I love this idea, and it got me thinking about the food that’s featured in the novel I am  writing, And The Buntings Flew, which is set in 1970s Belfast.The food of Northern Ireland was and still is very traditional, and may seem limited (not much pasta or rice was in evidence, and salads were sorry affairs), but Irish meat, dairy produce and vegetables are of world class quality, and food was often bought fresh from the butchers and grocers, when shopping was a little-and-often affair before the widescale introduction of supermarkets.

Below I’ve listed eight of the Northern Irish food and drinks you can read about in And The Buntings Flew, and if you find yourself in Ulster, please do try as many as you can!

Tea (Lots Of It!)

I may have mentioned this before on here: the Irish are some of the most prolific tea drinkers in the world! Wikipedia lists the Republic of Ireland at number 3, and the UK at number 5 of the highest consumers of tea per capita

Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have their own popular tea brands, one of which is Thompson’s “Punjana”. In the 1970s, the period in Which And The Buntings Flew is set, loose leaf tea was the norm; I still think it’s more flavourful, although spitting out errant tea leaves is one of its drawbacks. One of my memories of my late father is of his never being more than a few feet from either a mug, cup, teapot, flask or bottle of strong white tea.

Punjana teapot, courtesy of punjana.com
Punjana loose leaf teapot, courtesy of Punjana.com

Ulster Fry

The BBC asked if the Ulster Fry was the best-cooked breakfast in the UK, and the answer to that is surely a resounding yes! What’s so special about a wee fry you ask? For me it’s the addition of the Potato and Soda breads, adding a range of glorious flavours and textures that toast simply can’t match. Vegetable roll is also a winning addition to the cooked breakfast, as are the wonderful Irish sausages, which usually have a higher meat content than their mainland counterparts; put them all together and you have a taste extravaganza and a meal that sets you up for the rest of the day!

Ulster Fry by The Hairy Bikers, courtesy of the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zgk7mp3
Ulster Fry by The Hairy Bikers, courtesy of the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zgk7mp3

Champ

A cheap, simple but wonderful dish celebrating the potato and made even better with flavourful Irish butter; potatoes mashed with butter and milk, with the addition of chopped spring onions, or scallions as they’re known in Northern Ireland. The scallions give the mash a real tangy kick.

Scallion and brown onion champ, courtesy of Voodoo and Sauce.com
Scallion & brown onion champ, courtesy of Voodoo and Sauce.com

 

Dulse

Dulse (Palmaria Palmata) is a strongly flavoured, salty seaweed that grows on the northern coasts of the Atlantic, including Northern Ireland. Dulse is harvested at low tide by hand during the summertime and then dried.Dulse can be found for sale in little plastic bags at markets, fairs and bars; we always bought a few bags on day trips to Ballycastle, where it is also sold at the Ould Lammas Fair in August. It is something of an acquired taste!

By Cwmhiraeth - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16824956
Dulse, by Cwmhiraeth Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16824956

Potato Bread/Farl

Another potato dish, this reminds me of Sunday evening teatimes and was often in evidence if there wasn’t much in for dinner. The main ingredient is leftover mashed potatoes mixed with plain flour, a pinch of salt and a knob of butter or a drop of buttermilk if available. Potato bread is dry fried in a pan or griddle, is quick and easy to make and is absolutely delicious. A true Ulster Fry must include both Potato bread and soda bread, at least in my family!

Soda Bread

Soda bread was created in the 19th century when locals used baking soda and buttermilk for raising agents as a substitute for yeast. Soda bread is divinely soft and fluffy, and is served either fried or sliced with butter (my preference) on its own or as part of an Ulster Fry.

Irish Soda bread, courtesy of blissfuldomesticity.com
Irish Soda bread, courtesy of blissfuldomesticity.com

Yellowman

I have happy memories of munching bagfuls of crunchy bright Yellowman on days out to the seaside, but I haven’t seen it outside Northern Ireland; it is similar in texture to the bags of honeycomb you can still buy at fairs and markets, but chewier, with a hard, rock-like “rind”.

By Wild quinine - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yellowman_honeycomb_comparison.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36019713
Yellowman, by Wild quininehttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yellowman_honeycomb_comparison.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36019713

 

Vegetable Roll

The name “vegetable roll” is a total misnomer for this sausage-like roll of fatty meat (often beef brisket and rib trimmings) seasoned with onion, carrot and celery. Vegetable roll can be served in an Ulster Fry or on its own with potatoes or champ, or with mashed carrot and swede. My wonderful late aunt always brought home a batch whenever she returned to East Belfast.

Vegetable Roll, courtesy of McCartneys of Moira
Vegetable Roll, courtesy of McCartneys of Moira

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve tried any or all of the above Northern Irish food favourites, or if you feature any of them in your writing?

Margaret

(With grateful thanks to the following websites and blogs)