Tuesday, August 30, 2011

dust-gathering kitchen utensils

I came out of my weekly shop in Lidl this week and the sun was shining. It is always raining in Ballina Lidl car park. I have come to think of it as a sort of punishment. I go in on a perfect sunny day, get my trolley, fill it – go through my impressive high-speed bagging routine. (I often attract an audience as I can separate frozen, fresh and larder goods at the same speed the uber-fast checkout workers throw them at me.)
I love Lidl. It’s cheap, has a limited and regular selection of stock – so you are not loading your trolley with foie-gras-in-a-tin and ingredients you are never going to use or forget you already have. (I have about five complete sets of sushi ingredients in my larder and every time I want to make sushi, like - once a year, I go and buy more.)
However my real motivation for shopping there is that I have a weakness for Lidl lifestyle offers. Camping gear, workshop benches, scuba diving equipment, oil-painting kits. Wonderful hobby-enabling stuff that inspires me to take up a new activity with impressive Germanic confidence. “Why, if I buy that harness and hat in Lidl, I shall be horseriding in no time!” “A complete sets of oils in a box that turns into an easel! Well, if that doesn’t get me painting a masterpiece, I don’t know what will!”
It is the curse or the gift of a peculiar sort of optimism, depending on how you look at it. If only I had a surf-board, crepe-pan, bread-maker, compost-making kit – everything would be better. Everything could be so different. I’d be the sort of person who’d have crepes for breakfast and go surfing and make-my own compost. Whatever that means. It’s an escape from oneself, of course and yet – sometimes it works, and when it does, it’s wonderful.
My father in law Joe, who passed away in 2009, was my Lidl-buddy. Joe and I clashed horribly at times, but on that one thing we were agreed. Lidl rocked. While my husband and mother in law raised their eyebrows in frustration, we formed a sort of Lidl support group. Joe was a generous man and a great man for buying gifts. He was the person who gave Leo his pocket money every week, and he always had the eye out for bargains that he could pass on. The key to Joe’s gifts was they had to be something that you didn’t know you needed until he arrived up “da-daah!” and presented you with it. A car cover, hose attachment kit, a pasta-making machine. Most of them went straight into the cupboard with a curt thank-you. Joe didn’t mind - he was wiser than that. He knew his stuff would come in handy one day.
And it almost always did. The car cover got dug out and used to cover Niall’s vintage jalopy the winter we did the garage up to house his office. A few years ago when Niall’s brother Fintan came home from Australia for my husband’s fortieth bash he decided to teach me how to make pasta. Joe’s pasta making machine was in the very back of the cupboard under the sink. Covered in that mysterious sticky dust that gets inside my kitchen cupboards, I honesty never thought it would see the light of day. Fintan was thrilled with it and, after a short lesson in making home-made pasta, so was I. It has become one of my kitchen staples, serving all sorts of culinary mood. I use it for kids cooking when the cake icing runs out and if I want to impress guests with home-made ravioli – out it comes.
Since that afternoon when my jovial brother in law broke eggs in my kitchen, and the two of us wondered at the miraculous compulsion of his father to buy me a pasta maker in Lidl, both of those men have died. Tragically and unexpectedly, insofar as all death is both.
Joe’s gifts have outlived him. The car polishing kit is still in the cupboard under the stairs along with the baseball mitt Leo has yet to use. Niall had to fix a burst pipe in the garden the other day and broke open a multi-purpose hose attachment set which has been in the shed for years and which I am certain has Joe’s stamp on it.
It’s the small details of ordinary life that sometimes put us in mind of lost loved ones. The memories they made for us are the real gifts.
I’ll never make pasta again without thinking of Fintan and Joe.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Polytunnel

A co

Aspiring to country living begins with looking out your townhouse window at your fat neighbour getting out of the shower and vowing to replace your current view with one of devoid of other people.
That done and a couple of years pottering about the village, boasting to city friends about the quality of local schools, tinkering about making jam for the farmers market one has finally had the last of the Cath Kidston sale fabric made into cushions and it is now time to get serious. The next step is self-sufficiency, the ultimate badge of the nouveau country wannabe – I speak of course of the polytunnel.
A couple of years ago we were out of our minds trying to score a bit of fresh coriander in the village shop and coming home from the supermarket bemoaning the price and quality of slimy bagged salad leaves. This year the asian herb has already bolted and there is a veritable field of mixed greens for us to choose from. Am I feeling smug? Frankly, if I wasn’t me – I’d hate myself.
Recluctantly I have to admit the polytunnel is not an entirely sole achievement. We share it with our neighbour Steve although, that was my idea. I knew if we invested on our own it would quickly become one of our great family failures. Like the platinum gym membership a life-changing lifestyle choice that came with great intentions and turned out to be a waste of money. My husband used to be one of those men who would edge himself out the patio doors for the odd fag, shrugging himself cautiously against the bit of rain, doubtless still wondering just quite how in God’s name he had come to live in Killala, County Mayo when he had signed up for a life in Dublin’s city centre with a media chick. Steve, on the other hand, is one of those energetic outdoorsy types, always mowing his lawn and calling to the door with hand-picked mussels and going mackerel fishing so I hoped he’d be something of a driving force.
As with most of my ideas I had sold it to my husband as a no-big deal thing. I have a terrible tendency to understate the amount of work involved in any outdoor activity I commission of him - my complete ignorance overtaken by unreasonable expectation. “It’s only a tree babe – how hard can it be to trim a tree? Look, I’ve borrowed you a ladder and everything….” So, having booked the tunnel men to come and erect it for us, (and having cleverly absented myself from all real work by falling pregnant) all the men had to do was dig up a patch of land. Easy. Or not at all, as it turned out. It seems that the scrub grass growing on our narrow field was, in fact, an obnoxious weed whose roots had reached down into the earth’s core. They hired every shape and type of man equipment from the man equipment hire store to no avail. Strimmers, rotivators, killer-grass cutting machines – until eventually they found somebody with a digger deep enough to wrench the triffid a few feet from it’s bedrock, and stop it growing for long enough to get the tunnel up.
Steve had, of course, already seeded his lettuces and planted them all in a neat row on his side. So, I had to quickly run to the garden centre and stock up on seedling greens, sprinkling a bit of compost over them so I could make them look convincingly home-grown. Other veg enthusiasts gave us various plants which I threw down willy nilly with great enthusiasm, labelling nothing and hoping that every salad contained actual lettuce and not a roving, poisonous weed.
A year later it’s a different story. My rain- reluctant, urbane husband has transformed into a Monty Don pin-up – all Hunter wellies and Barbour Jacket – out there every night watering and weeding and keeping evil slugs and weevils at bay. Every time I see him leave our back door, trowel in hand full of stern intent to plant another lettuce, or attack a chard that’s grown too big for it’s boots, I get a quivery feeling of marital contentment.
I remember sitting in a married friends kitchen in my early thirties and watching her husband mow the back lawn. I wanted what she had so badly - a kind man and a shed for him to potter about it – yet, at thirty three I thought I would never find it.
I assume, like everyone that life is short, yet my life suggests it is long enough. I look back on where my life was before I met Niall twelve years ago and it looks so different now.
Day by day, step by step in small un-noticed increments, my dreams have come true.
I’ve got a sexy outdoor-man in Hunters and a polytunnel full of fresh veg. Life doesn’t get better than this.