Eating and staying warm in Ireland may not have quite the same connotation as they did in ages past; and many ethnic cuisines share similar recipes, and other countries also harvest fuel from bogs; but Irish Firebrands necessarily addresses the traditional Irish approach to providing creature comforts from potatoes and peat, as cheap and convenient sources for internal and external heating.
After the first time I made champ, I decided not to make mashed potatoes any other way. To make this recipe, you’ll need enough boiled potatoes to feed two; a handful of long, green scallions, finely chopped; just enough milk to heat the chopped scallions; two tablespoons of real butter (chilled, firm), to push down into the middle of each serving; and salt and pepper (to taste).
Chapter 6: Lana had invited Dillon to supper, asking him what kind of “comfort food” he’d like her to cook. His choice of entree is champ. This is how their dinner date begins:
He saw that she finished peeling and chopping the potatoes just as a stewpot of water came to a boil. The potatoes went into the pot; she set the timer on the cooker, and then took milk and scallions out of the fridge. She measured the milk into a saucepan, and washed and minced the scallions, finishing just as the timer rang. The onions went into the saucepan of milk on another hob and she reset the timer. When it rang again, the vegetables were cooked. She shut off the heat under the scallions; then she drained the potatoes and set them back on the hob to dry while she retrieved butter from the fridge, and rummaged in a drawer for a potato mace and a wooden spoon.
“So, where did you learn to make champ?” Dillon said.
Lana shook the potatoes around in the pot. “This is my first try. I’d had it at a pub, so I knew what it was, and I went to the library and found a recipe online.”
“You’ve gone to a lot of trouble to make a treat for me.”
She began to crush the potatoes. “It’s a treat for me, too. I like mashed potatoes, but without an electric beater I don’t have the stamina to get ’em as smooth as I like ’em.” She poured the scallions and milk into the potatoes; then she smiled and handed him the wooden spoon. “Here’s where you get to earn your keep!”
Chapter 9: Dillon had told Lana that he’d teach her how to cut turf, and she has called in that promise. They go out to the bit of raised bog that makes up part of the acreage at his family farm.
Where the apple trees and eroded furrows ended at the crest of the ridge, the lane followed the slope down to a swale where there was a pond ringed with rushes. The pond was fed by a ditch or streamlet that oozed across the bog from a gash in the ground some distance away.
When the lane faded away into the sedge, Dillon turned the truck and followed the side of the watercourse. He pulled up near the excavation, and when Lana got out she noticed loaf-like pieces of sod lying in rows, and other pieces propped on end against each other, forming tiny pyramids.
“Seán Murtagh’s been cutting,” he said, as he unloaded the barrow. “I won’t want the scraitheog.” He put the sleán on his shoulder, and Lana pushed the barrow.
At the edge of the turf bank, she looked into the pit. “This hole’s deeper than it looks, from the ridge. Must be five feet.”
“The deeper you go, the better it gets. The best burning peat is black turf, from the bottom of the bog. Look here.” He knelt on the edge of the bank and poked the layers with a forefinger. “At ground level are live plants – the top scraw. You clear that away with the scraitheog. Next is white turf – buried bog cotton plants. Then there’s a layer of brown turf, before you get to the really good stuff.” He pointed to the bottom. “Peat that’s five thousand years old.”
“Kind of like a giant compost heap.”
“A soggy one, rotting very slowly. Thousands of years ago, this was a land of lakes that became fens, and later morphed into one great raised bog. It used to be much bigger than it is now. The turf was cut away hundreds of years ago, in that low place where the osiers are growing.”
“Osiers? You mean those willow trees?”
“That’s right. When they were young, they’d have been cut for withes to make skibs and creels.”
Dillon sat on the edge of the bank and dropped into the hole. Lana handed him the sleán, and then she slid down after him. She followed him along a ledge in the cut area, to where the face of the turf bank showed fresh rows of vertical cut marks.
He aligned the sleán on the shelf of turf and stepped on the edge of the blade, sinking it to the sole of his boot into the peat. He gave the handle a slight twist that broke off the sod at its base; then he lifted the tool and tossed the turf over the edge of the bank. “In and twist and up and over.” He repeated the process, and then he handed her the tool. “Now you try it. Don’t try to throw it – just lay it to the side.”
Lana had to stamp twice on the blade to get it to go deep enough into the turf, and the first few times she tried to twist the tool and raise it, the sod broke into pieces and fell off the sleán into the mud at the bottom of the trench.
Dillon fished out the pieces. “There used to be a saying, ‘better a broken back than a broken sod’, but I’ll forgive you, this time!”
“My back’s broken already. It’s heavier than I thought it would be.”
“That’s because it’s ninety-five percent water. It’ll lose two-thirds of its weight, when it’s dry.”
At last Lana began to produce smooth, rectangular sods. Dillon nodded his approval. “You’re getting the hang of it, now. But you’ll never be able to throw them up to the top. So, I’ll keep cutting, and you pick them up.”
Lana clambered out of the pit, and then she followed the edge of the bank with the wheelbarrow, while Dillon worked the length of the trench. When he stopped to catch his breath she asked, “Anybody ever dig up anything interesting here?”
“You mean, relics? Not that I know of. At least, not since the land’s been in my family.”
“Wouldn’t it be exciting, if you did?”
“It’d be a big pain in the arse, if I did. By law, everything like that belongs to the State, and I’d have to report it to the National Museum within two days. And then, before you knew it, the place’d be crawling with God knows what kind of preservation-activist Druids, taking legal action against me for operating a nuisance on hallowed ground.”
He thrust the sleán into the peat, tossed up a sod, and then he smiled at her. “And besides, with my kind of luck, it’d be something gruesome, like the nether end of a bog body!”
Blog text © 2016 Christine Plouvier. Excerpts © 2012 – 2016 Christine Plouvier. All Rights Reserved.