Jan 182010
 
Gordon Ramsay

Image via Wikipedia

Another late one – this from the 30/12/2009.

Sometimes it seems as if celebrity chefs have managed to hijack more of our television airwaves than any other genre in TV history, and Christmas week it’s worse than ever. Cooking programmes are great… but wall-to-wall recipes and a surfeit of inflated egos is enough to turn anybody’s stomach. With some, like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, I appreciate the food and the ethos and philosophy behind it, but could probably do without the lame one-liners.

Others like Jamie Oliver come up with great recipes that really are easy to cook at home, if you can endure the cheeky-chappy facade. Actually, as I type this I have a Jamie Oliver Christmas jerk ham joint in the oven. Yum!

Even with Gordon Ramsey, who is perhaps the most egotistical of the bunch, you have to appreciate his consummate skill in the kitchen, and his unequivocal passion for great food, despite his caustic language and bullying, autocratic style.

TV chefs span the gamut, from the sublime to the truly ridiculous. The week before Christmas, for example, I was unfortunate enough to land on "The Hairy Bikers" while channel flicking… they were cooking up the twelve-days-of-Christmas, which sounds like a pretty solid concept for a festive cooking show, until you realise that this is "The Hairy Bikers", and that they’re insisting on spicing things up by punctuating the actual cooking with assorted seasonal pranks. This included cavorting across the stage in leotards with the cast of Lord of the Dance. It was enough to make anyone lose their appetite.

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Oct 122009
 
Amethyst Deceiver

Image by Dave W Clarke via Flickr

Amethyst deceiver is an ominous name for a fungus… and the purple colour, while pretty, does little to suggest that this mushroom is anything other than seriously poisonous. The truth is that it’s not only harmless, but is also edible and apparently tastes quite good. Looking at it, you’d swear blind it was deadly… but that’s the trouble with fungi… they’re tricky little so-and-sos.

On Sunday we went to the Irish Natural Forestry Foundation’s (INFF) headquarters at Manch Estate, near Dunmanway in West Cork, for their second-last open day of the season. The estate is open to the public on the first Sunday of the month from March to November. These open days involve talks on sustainable native forestry, a chance to see craftsman utilise traditional woodland skills like charcoal making, wood-turning, woven hazel fence construction, gate making, birch broom making and more. There are also activities to keep the kids occupied, like woodland "treasure hunts" and nature art. But the highlights are the guided walks along the 20km of woodland, meadow and riverbank of the estate.

This month Cork nature writer and fungus aficionado Damien Enright was leading a walk dubbed "Fungi in the Woods". We love looking for fungi. We also love the concept of foraging for wild food, be it picking blackberries, catching fish or whatever. So far though we haven’t had the courage to combine the two — other than the odd occasion when we come across a patch of field mushrooms.

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Sep 242008
 

Frida the baby ferret It was 4:30pm on a Friday afternoon. I was sitting in the office about to start writing this column when one of the twins burst in.

“Dad, can we take the ferrets for a walk?” she asked. I looked out of the window. For once the sun was shining. You’d be amazed at how quickly I can move when a viable opportunity to avoid work presents itself. I was out of the door in a flash, the laptop and the column forgotten.

We’ve had the ferrets for just over two years now… and they really are wonderful pets. They’re so much more fun than alternative small animal options: rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters.

Ferrets are naturally playful, inquisitive and affectionate. They ‘re predators… and like all predators (cats, dogs, lions, etc.) they get their energy in small, high-value doses. That means that, when they’re not sleeping (and they can sleep for up to 16 out of every 24 hours… which, I must admit, makes me a bit envious), they spend most of their time playing and exploring to hone their hunting skills. Compare that to a guinea pig, for example, which needs to spend every waking hour chewing frantically just to stay alive, and you’ll start to see what I mean.

A slightly more mature Frida exploring my desk And then there’s instinctive behaviour: when a herbivore hears a sudden noise it’s primary instinct is to flee, but a carnivore’s natural instinct is to investigate a potential meal. Both are thinking of lunch… it’s just that one is looking for its lunch while the other wants to avoid becoming lunch. So, guinea pigs, rabbits, et-al spend all their time running away, while ferrets tend to run towards strange sounds and actually engage in active play. When was the last time your guinea pig played chase with a feather on a string?

As for the supposedly vicious nature of these marvelous mustelids, I have to say it’s mostly a myth. Yes, they have the arsenal to inflict a nasty bite… but then so does your average dog, cat and even the aforementioned rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters if mistreated. Vicious ferrets are, by and large, mistreated ferrets, and as a general rule they won’t bite unless seriously provoked.

I went out to their large hutch/enclosure to fit their leads and harnesses (matching little red and black numbers) and after a bit of squirming, wriggling (the ferrets) and cursing (me) we were ready to go. Walking with ferrets is a slow process – especially when you’re heading down a country lane. They keep diving into the hedgerow investigating smells – mice, rabbits, rats, foxes, badgers and whatever else has crossed the path the night before. Their leads get tangled in the undergrowth and progress is… well, let’s call it gradual.

At this time of year that’s ideal, because ambling slowly along a hedgerow thick with brambles gives you ample opportunity to pick out the best of the blackberries. The crop this year is, admittedly, not spectacular – spoiled by rain and lack of sunshine – but there are enough around to make picking them worthwhile as you wait for a stray ferret to emerge from a hole in a drystone wall.

That night, as the bread machine beeped to tell me the jam was ready to pour into jars, I found myself smiling involuntarily. This is what country living is all about (strange looks from local farmers while walking the ferrets notwithstanding). There are a few things I miss about living in the city – largely involving more convenient access to products and services – but by and large the country wins hands down. At this stage I wouldn’t move back to the city for diamonds….