slieve gullion

slieve gullionI’ve hiked and driven these quiet lanes so many times over the years that I sometimes take it for granted how much this part of Northern Ireland is soaked in history and mythology. Slieve Gullion – literally, mountain of the steep slope in Irish – is the eroded remains of a Paleocene volcano. It lies at the heart of the Ring of Gullion, which is itself a topographical curiosity only recently understood: an ancient ring dyke. (With the collapse of an active volcano’s caldera, a concentric ring of fault lines radiate outwards. Magma is extruded through these fractures to create mountains which are a geologically helter-skelter composite at their surface. Here the mix is molten granite with igneous rock from the Silurian period some 400 million years ago.) It’s the highest point in County Armagh, and on that rare clear day offers views as far away as Dublin Bay and Wicklow. At the top of the mountain are two cairns on either side of a small lake. The southern one is the highest surviving passage grave in Ireland – radiocarbon dating suggests it was built circa 3000 BC – and its entrance is aligned to the setting sun of the winter solstice. According to legend, however, Slieve Gullion is named after Culann, the metalsmith. And it is here that the legendary warrior Sétanta spent his childhood and received the name Cúchulainn. Culann invited Conchobhar mac Neasa, King of Ulster, to a feast at his house on the slopes of Slieve Gullion. On his way, Conchobhar stopped at the hurling field and was so impressed by Sétanta’s playing that he asked him to later join him at the feast. Conchobhar went ahead, but he forgot about Sétanta, and Culann let loose his ferocious hound to guard the house. When Sétanta arrived the hound attacked him, but he killed it by driving a hurling ball down its throat with his hurley. Culann was devastated by the loss, so Sétanta promised to rear him a replacement, and until it was old enough to do the job, he would guard Culann’s house. Henceforth he was known as Cúchulainn, or Culann’s Hound. But that’s just the beginning for young Cúchulainn, who will later single-handedly defend Ulster against the invading Connacht armies of Queen Medh at the nearby Gap of the North and take his place as Irish literature’s greatest mythic hero. All in a day’s hike, as they say.

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plotting: early stages

IMG_2103Sometimes I think that half the fun of travel is in the research – and the plotting.

 

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obit (the dust) of the month: tom sharpe

Tom SharpeTom Sharpe, who has died aged 85, was in the great tradition of English comic novelists and his bawdy style and vulgar approach were said to have made bad taste into an art form. Sharpe did not start writing comic novels until he was 43, but once he got going he gained a large readership. Surprisingly for a comic writer and such a jovial character, Sharpe came to attention first as a hero in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He had written many symbolic – and unproduced – plays while living in South Africa, which was enough to bring down on him the wrath of the Bureau of State Security, but he was, he said, as surprised as anyone when in just three weeks he wrote the novel Riotous Assembly (1971), a dazzling comic send-up of the South African police. The inspiration for the book came from hearing about the old-fashioned English colonial aunt of a friend of his who lived near the police station and complained that the screams of tortured prisoners disturbed her afternoon naps. In a marvelous piece of irony, Sharpe dedicated the book to “the South African police force whose lives are dedicated to the preservation of western civilization in southern Africa.” Sharpe continued his noble crusade against racism in South Africa with Indecent Exposure (1973) – personally, one of my all-time favorite books. Readers thought Sharpe perhaps a one-subject writer, but with Porterhouse Blue (1974), set in a Cambridge college, he proved that he was a true comic novelist in the great English tradition. Born in Croydon, south London, Sharpe had a most unusual and troubled boyhood. His father, the Unitarian minister Reverend George Coverdale Sharpe, was a fascist, a follower of Oswald Mosley and a great believer in Adolf Hitler. From the start of the Second World War, the family was continuously on the move to avoid the father being interned with other British Nazis. Read the full obituary HERE.

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where there’s a will there’s a play

shakespeare's plays

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just published: the truth about poop

File under strange but true: a Korean publisher contacted me earlier in the year through this website asking permission to use a few of my images for a book being published out of Seoul. It was to be part of a series, she explained, used to teach children basic English skills. I agreed, asking only for a copy of the book once it was published. The humorous results arrived in the mail this week: The Truth About Poop. Little did I expect last summer in Kenya that my snapshots of a hyena and its scat would one day find themselves a global – if underage – audience.

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live blog: quite possibly the best bookstore ever

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live blog: bedtime stories

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‘ello, ellas

Today I’m on my way to Greece, country of my ancestors. I can’t believe how sentimental those words sound, yet even now I’m a little choked up at the thought of standing at the foot of the Acropolis. To keep things light, I’m carrying only a backpack and small weekender to get me through Athens, Rhodes, and a handful of Dodecanese Islands. That means no computer for a welcome change. I’ll be live-blogging via Iphone if and when the wi-fi gods allow, so the next few weeks here might be a bit of trouble. Not that I’m bothered. As Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek memorably pointed out, “Life is trouble.” Then again, he continued on in a much more interesting – if less eloquent – fashion: “To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.”

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live blog: if beale street could talk

As a teenager I discovered the writing of James Baldwin. His novels, plays, and essays fictionalized the fundamental intricacies of a mid-century America teeming with racial, sexual, and class distinctions. Individuals were placed in the context of complex social pressures which seemed to thwart their integration at every turn. Young and confused myself, I ate it up: Giovanni’s Room, Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Fire Next Time, Another Country, and Blues for Mr. Charlie – works saturated with outrage, unrest, and a melancholic disappointment founded on a promise left unfulfilled. Yet one book has remained on my bookshelf unopened for some twenty-plus years: If Beale Street Could Talk. I’m not exactly sure why it’s gone unread for so long but that’s going to have to change after this trip. Beale Street was once the lifeblood of Memphis’ African American community, a National Historic Landmark and Home of the Blues. To quote B.B. King, “When you walked down Beale Street, you felt you really had something. Because you could get work on Beale Street. You could get justice on Beale Street. You could get whatever was available to people on Beale Street.” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination near Beale Street, however, and the unrest that followed hastened the street’s decline. By the early 1970’s a disastrous experiment in urban renewal cleared most of the area’s old buildings to make way for a projected renovation that never materialized. I can only imagine how Baldwin would have reacted to such a scenario. Today, Beale Street is at the center of an economic revitalization happening all around downtown Memphis. The juke joints are once again lively and the food is too. Blues fills the air like a trumpet of triumph, not tragedy; making me wonder all the more what tales this street might tell, if only it could talk.

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bookshelf: the sorcerer’s apprentices

When The Sorcerer’s Apprentices was first published last year the book was heaped with praise on all sides. The New York Times and The Huffington Post both declared it one of the best food books fo the year. Now available in paperback, I finally got around to reading Lisa Abend’s peek into the kitchen at el Bulli. Named best restaurant in the world an amazing five times by Restaurant magazine before it caused international headlines by closing in 2011, el Bulli was the hugely popular, site of Chef Ferran Adria’s innovative culinary creations, which have now entered the popular lexicon as “molecular gastronomy.” Yet few people know that behind each of the thirty or more courses that comprised a meal at el Bulli, an army of stagiares or apprentice chefs labored at the precise, exhausting work of executing Adria’s vision. Abend’s behind-the-scenes look into el Bulli’s kitchen explores the remarkable system that Adria used to run his restaurant and, in the process, train the next generation of culinary stars. And there’s the rub: Abend’s book details the quotidian grunt work when it should  be investigating the mysteriously creative mind of one the world’s most influential chefs. Focused strictly on what’s tangible, the writer leaves no room to ponder what’s unobservable. That’s not to say the book is unenjoyable. Au contraire, it’s as dishy as they come. Abend brings to life the stagiares’ stories, following them over the course of a season at el Bulli as they struggle to master the long hours, cutting-edge techniques, and interpersonal tensions that come from working at the most famous restaurant on the planet. Taken together, the stories form a portrait of the international team that helped to make a meal at el Bulli so unforgettable. But Abend is no food writer. Her descriptions of the gastronomic efforts are so remarkably antiseptic that I have the sneaking suspicion she doesn’t really care for food at all. This could have just as easily been a book about a season in the offices of Norman Foster. Or the studio of Jeff Koons. It’s about teamwork – the men and women behind the genius but not about the mad rush of genius itself.  That book remains to be written.

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charles dickens, theatrical

Charles Dickens was Britain’s first true literary superstar. In his time, he attracted international acclaim and adulation, while many of his books became instant classics. Today, his popularity continues unabated, and his work remains not only widely read but also widely adapted for stage and screen. Celebrating the bicentennial of the writer’s birth, The Morgan Library & Museum is taking pains to also reveal the polymath behind the fiction. Yes, the museum’s famous manuscript of A Christmas Carol is on display – & available to view online HERE – but more interesting are his exceptionally brilliant and entertaining letters, which track not only his work as a novelist but also his reading tours across the United States, his philanthropic pursuits, and his lesser-known experiments with mesmerism, a precursor to hypnotherapy. Of particular interest to me is the ephemera of Dickens’ theatrical pursuits. Together with playwright Wilkie Collins, Dickens produced amateur theatricals at Tavistock House, his family home. On display are a handful of leaflets promoting these evenings, advising the audience – largely made up of friends, members of Parliament, judges, and various government ministers – at what time their carriages home should be ordered, as well as God Save the Queen! Most amusing is a broadsheet for the Theatre Royal, Adelphi, promoting the only dramatic version of A Christmas Carol sanctioned by Dickens. It goes into great detail summarizing the events of the story before advertising the theater’s subsequent offerings. Lastly it offers a tease of what’s on the horizon: Anthony & Cleopatra, Married & Settled. I’d like to see Dickens tackle that one.

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cassoulet bonne femme

Many home cooks get gun-shy when it comes to French food, having neither the time nor expertise to execute a multi-pan exercise in precision. Yet as Wini Moranville makes clear in her new book, “The Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day,” Americans needn’t be afraid of French cooking. They just need to learn the bonne femme style. With a focus on fresh, tasty ingredients and a generosity of spirit, this is French cooking without fuss or fear. Now that the typical bonne femme works outside of the home just like her American counterpart (and now that French men, like their American frères, are often in charge of getting dinner on the table), Moranville’s emphasis is on easy techniques and speedy preparation in a book which shows everyday chefs that it’s possible to feast like the French, without breaking the bank or spending all day in the kitchen. A sterling example of how her recipes reflect the way real French families eat today is this Pork and White Bean Cassoulet Ce Soir, an any night stove-top take on cassoulet, the famous southwestern-France stew of white beans simmered with sausage, pork, and duck confit. While not the three-day extravaganza of a true cassoulet, this version is nevertheless a perfect expression of the book’s everyday spirit. I tried it this weekend so I can promise you it offers a good helping of the warmth and comfort that cassoulet brings – easily done in just a day.  With a crusty loaf of bread and a spicy bottle of Gigondas, it proved the perfect foil to the coming threat of snow.

2 cups dried Great Northern beans, rinsed and picked over

8 cups water

2 to 2 1/2 pounds bone-in country-style pork ribs, cut in half crosswise

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped (about 3/4 cup)

1 small onion, chopped (about 1/2 cup)

3 large garlic cloves, minced

1/2 teaspoon dried herbes de Provence, crushed

1/2 cup dry sherry

3 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained

12 ounces sweet Italian sausage links, cut crosswise into six pieces

1. Soak the beans in the water overnight; drain and set aside. (Or, place the beans and the water in a large Dutch oven. Bring to a boil and boil for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand for 1 hour. Drain and set aside.)

2. Season the ribs with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large Dutch oven. Add the ribs and cook, turning occasionally, until brown on all sides, 8 to 10 minutes Transfer to a plate. Cook the bacon in the pan until crisp. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to paper towels to drain.

3. Drain off all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan. Add the bell pepper and onion and cook, stirring, until tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and herbes de Provence and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

4. Remove the pan from the heat. Add the sherry and return the pan to the heat. Bring to a boil and boil, stirring to loosen any browned bits from the bottom of the pan, until the sherry is reduced by half, about 1 minute. Add the beans, bacon, chicken broth, and drained tomatoes to the Dutch oven; top with the ribs. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover tightly, and simmer for about 1 hour (the ribs will not quite be done at this point).

5. After the ribs have cooked for about 45 minutes, heat the remaining 2 teaspoons oil in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the sausage pieces, turning as needed to brown evenly, for about 5 minutes (the sausage will not be cooked through at this point).

6. After the ribs have cooked for 1 hour, add the sausage pieces to the Dutch oven, pushing them down into the stew so that they are submerged. Bring back to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer until the sausage is cooked through, the ribs are nearly tender, and the beans are tender, about 15 minutes more.

7. Uncover the pot and increase the heat so that the stew comes to an active simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is reduced, the ribs are tender, and the stew has thickened, 10 to 15 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

8. Serve in wide, shallow bowls, with a piece of sausage, a piece of pork, and plenty of beans in each bowl.

 

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butchery is back

In a time when many Americans yearn to know the origins of their food, meat education has become a hot topic. As has whole-animal cooking, at-home butchery, and other trendy meat techniques. The current DIY spirit has inspired more home cooks to branch out, turning casual carnivores into informed authorities.

In The Art of Beef Cutting: A Meat Professional’s Guide to Butchering and Merchandising, Kari Underly, a third-generation butcher, reaches out to this new generation of serious home chefs, covering all the fundamentals of butchery, with photos of every cut, step-by-step instructions on technique, and the best beef-cutting tools as well as cooking methods. Her book starts big – at the carcass level – and walks the reader through parts of the animal and individual cuts: from primals and subprimals, all the way down to ground beef. In a word, she is the go-to expert for all things meat.

Whether you’re a connoisseur or simply a curious at-home chef, Underly’s book makes for fascinating – if somewhat niche – reading. But if butchery doesn’t exactly scream out to you as proper bedside reading, here is a clip of a recent crash course Underly gave viewers on the Today show.

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appropriately themed reading matter

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rick steves: virtual tour guide

For the past few years, Rick Steves’ Audio Walking Tours of Europe have been a big hit on iTunes, racking up more than 4 million downloads. And podcasts of his Travel with Rick Steves radio show have reached an even wider audience online than the one broadcast over the airwaves. Rick Steves’ Audio Europe, a smart new app designed for iPhone, iPad, or Android, organizes all of this free content so you can easily access information that relates to your individual travel plans. Unlike most travel apps on the market, it also works offline. So once you’ve downloaded a selection of files, they’re saved on the device and an internet connection is no longer needed – saving you the cost of pricey European data charges or the hassle of finding a good WiFi connection. Handy PDF maps that complement the app’s audio tours can be also viewed on the device or printed from a computer beforehand.

At the heart of the app is Steves’ series of 25 self-guided audio tours through some of Europe’s most important museums, sights and historic walks, plus 200 tracks of travel tips and cultural insights from his radio shows. The simple and intuitive interface is unique because you can download and play not only audio files but also guided audio tours segmented by chapters with photos. It all sinks in more deeply and fluidly with Rick’s voice keeping your eyes focused on the surrounding sights, too, instead of buried in the crook of a guidebook. Best of all, it comes in the trustworthy voice of everyone’s favorite public television travel geek.  And it’s free.

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