Season[ing]’s Greetings!

I have never, ever been able to resist the spice aisle at the grocery store. I began cooking standing beside my mother when I was very young; from her I learned the basics—to wit, you generally can’t go wrong with salt, pepper, and garlic.

I’ve been cooking for a lot of years now, and while I’m still pretty fond of salt, pepper, and garlic, I’ve always been drawn to spice blends. Like, say, “Greek seasoning,” which has, one discovers, as many iterations as there are Greeks, it seems. Or steak seasoning. Italian seasoning.

One thing I have learned, though, is you just can’t beat fresh. Sure, I’ve been pinching fresh herbs for salads and seasonings off my plants in the backyard for years. But I’ve quit listening to the siren call of the spice aisle at my favorite grocery. You can buy fresher seasonings online.

My awakening came as a result of a wedding gift. A friend gave us a gift pack of six salts and seasoning blends from the Savory Spice Shop, and when I ran out of Black Dust Coffee Spice Rub (fabulous on steak) I ordered more. And … oh my goodness. I fell down the rabbit hole of spice blends. Over successive months, I tried more and more combinations. The main location for the Savory Spices Shop is in Denver (they also have franchse stores all over the country), but their service is fast and efficient, and they always send a little sample of something different when they pack your order. And I love being able to buy in bulk (cheaper) if I really like something.

Salt from the Salt Sisters, spice blends from Savory Spice Company, Lupicia tea … these are a few of my favorite things. 🙂

Here are some of the things I buy from SSS:

  • Vanilla (beans and extract): I haven’t bought “flavoring” (as opposed to extract) in decades but with the advent of essential oils, people are starting to realize that the closer you get to the actual thing, the better off you are. And yes, I’ve splurged on different vanillas. (Tip: When I use a vanilla bean for baking, I save the pod, clip it up into 1-inch pieces, and drop them into my sugar bowl. It seasons the sugar! We don’t put sugar in our tea or coffee but guests often do, and vanilla sugar is a treat.
  • Pepper: Mostly the Four Corners blend in bulk, because my Irish husband has a thing for pepper sauce on steak. I tried the Szechwan peppercorns once and they weren’t for me (I’m not a pepper user, much, and it wasn’t right for pepper sauce) but in Asian recipes it would be yummy.
  • Salt: Fumee de sel was in my original gift, and is quite nice (not as smoky as my other smoked salts, and a little coarser). I enjoy the little differences between sea salt, kosher salt, flaked, fine, coarse, and on and on. I love the crunch, for example, of Maldon sea salt flakes, and was exposed years ago to fleur de sel, which I also keep on hand. (Neither of which I buy from SSS, actually.)
  • Spice blends: The temptation here, of course, is to go crazy, but I would advise you to ease into stocking your spice cabinet. This Santa Maria blend is a wonderful mix that we love on salads and steamed veggies. Pike’s Peak Butcher’s Rub is my all-purpose go-to when I’m not sure where to start. Remember that some blends are salt free (California Citrus Dry Rub has a nice bite to it), so check the ingredient list. When I mentioned SSS on Facebook, a friend recommended I try Park Hill, which I’ve used on pork, and that led me to Barnegat Bay, which I’ve used on pork and chicken. Check the ingredients—you might be surprised. I get a lot of ideas of things to try from the “People also bought …” at the bottom of the page. I always find something interesting that piques my curiosity. And I haven’t even begun to sample the ethnic blends yet.
  • Single spices: This spring I was going to make a simple kale salad that called for a little cayenne—and I didn’t have any. So I decided to start trying single spices, since I loved the freshness of the blends. When my little baggie of finely ground cayenne arrived, I nearly swooned. You can really smell the difference.

So I’m sold. The SSS website does a great job of helping you get just the right thing, if you’re not sure.

I hasten to add that Savory Spice Shop is not the only online purveyor of fresh spices. A friend of mine recently bought some assorted blends and spices from Penzey’s, which he highly recommends. And I also patronize the Salt Sisters, which I discovered when a friend gifted us with a steakhouse seasoning blend and another called Tuscan Farmhouse—both of which we use and enjoy regularly.

Salt Sisters has a smaller inventory than SSS, but their customer service is also excellent. Here are some other things I buy from them:

Those of you who know me know I really prefer “real” tea to herbal, so that should tell you something about the tea from Salt Sisters.

Since we’re talking about tea, I’ll just throw in two other tea shops at which I enjoy shopping:

  • Gong Fu in Des Moines, Iowa; highly recommended by one of my authors.
  • Lupicia in Hayward (the San Francisco Bay area). A friend of my son’s went to college in the area, and she exposed me to Lupicia. The teas are packaged in beautiful tins that make lovely gifts.

Finally, no blog post about the things we use to make eating pleasurable in this house would be complete without a discussion of our local olive oil shop. Here we buy infused and pressed olive oils (they’ll sample anything) and balsamic vinegars. We trade recipe ideas (dark chocolate balsamic on vanilla ice cream? oh yeah) with the owners, succumb to their sales, and just can’t imagine a salad without oil and vinegar.

Bon appétit!

The Relative Value of a Bag of Tea

Gerry is upstairs watching a very early morning soccer game and I’m downstairs in the kitchen making a cup of tea.

I’m downstairs making a cup of tea … Exactly. The. Way. I. Like. It. Not weak—but not too strong either. It should look dark and hearty, and the minute it does, I zip that tea bag outta there. This gives me a smile because I remember the surprise of a recent houseguest—a dear friend of ours—when I didn’t save the bag to use a second time.

Oh, I used to do that, when I was a much younger woman. My mother, a child of the Depression, did it, and I am her daughter. I think the Depression is the operative concept there—we were definitely a waste-not-want-not household, and that extended to tea bags. We set it aside in a saucer and used it on the next cup.

I don’t know if they’re actually intended to be used a second time, but that cup of tea never tasted as good, and I gave it up years ago.

There’s a deeper history at play too. When I toured a Georgian house museum in Dublin a decade ago, I learned that the housekeeper (not the homeowner, not the lady of the house) carried a ring of keys fastened to her belt. The silver was locked up, foodstuffs were locked up, anything of value was locked up. The lady of the house, though, carried just one key—the key to the box that had the tea leaves in it! Tea in those days was more valuable than silver. It had to come such a long way.

Anyway, all this progression of thought—from my perfect cup of tea, to my friend’s thriftiness (inherited no doubt from her Depression-era parents), to the relative value of a tea bag in the twenty-first century—gave me a smile this morning. I hope you have a cup by the keyboard as you read this.

Mug by Nicholas Mosse, clematis pattern.

Mug by Nicholas Mosse, clematis pattern.

Let each citizen remember …

voted

Let each citizen remember at the moment he is offering his vote that he is not making a present or a compliment to please an individual—or at least that he ought not to do so; but that he is executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society for which he is accountable to God and his country.
—Samuel Adams, 1781, in the Boston Gazette

 

October Is for Golfers, It Seems

2 October 2015, Friday
We got going earlier this morning, and were in the breakfast dining room by eight o’clock. And it was packed.

In fact, the hotel was booked solid. We expected it to be quiet this time of year—it’s definitely after the tourism season—but apparently Europeans know something about October in Ireland that we don’t know: it’s great golfing weather.

A-ha. The Portmanock Hotel and Golf Links, this beautiful hotel with a gorgeous golf course on the edge of the sea, was positively brimming with Europeans (mostly Germans), men and women, in Ireland to golf. The men in their brightly colored slacks. 🙂 (John said, “Golf clothes are what happens when men dress themselves,” which made me laugh, but then I wondered if the slacks became more colorful in direct proportion to the sobriety of the gentleman’s work clothing. There might be something to that.)

They were very vocal too: women, for example, would greet as they encountered each other walking down the hall, often from several yards away, and continue talking as they passed, their comments getting louder and louder the further apart they were. No concept of using their (ahem) outside voices in the hall of what is essentially the bedroom wing.

But then we discovered they’re all traveling together. Two busloads of them. No matter when we went to the breakfast room, the noise level was very high. If we diners were all discrete small groups—two, three, four people—we would talk amongst ourselves at the table. But these folks were talking between tables too.

For a woman who likes to ease into the morning (me), it was way too loud most of the time, although the people-watching was spectacular. 🙂 October golfing in Ireland! It’s a thing!

We had to take care of a little more business … another drive into Dublin to the dentist to finish up the work, and we had to call and rearrange table seating slightly because Gerry’s cousin was ill and had to cancel at the last minute. We dropped our party favors—small boxes of truffles from Aine Hand Made Chocolates—with our party planner to be set out at the dinner.

My dear Margaret had an influence on another aspect of our party weekend too. You may recall that back in 2012, we had afternoon tea at the Shelbourne, which she had instigated. I knew our American guests might enjoy the experience, and we considered planning another tea party at the Shelbourne. (In retrospect, I’m so glad we didn’t, given the atrocious traffic situation.) But back in June when Gerry and I stayed at the Portmarnock, we learned the hotel also offered an afternoon tea—which we’d sampled and found delightful. Convenient!

HighTeaSo we’d planned a late afternoon tea, put it on our list of options for our October guests, and had several people who were interested. And this was that day. In the Seaview Lounge with that lovely view of the Irish Sea.

We got downstairs early to make sure everything was in order.

It was.

It was.

We had a few last-minute dropouts (these things can’t be helped), so we were eight instead of ten or twelve, but this bunch had lots to talk about, and did. It was … special. Really nice. We all got stuffed. And this was just the beginning of bringing strangers together with a happy outcome.

L–R: Gerry, Laura, Emmet, Pris, Conor, ’Becca, and John. I took the picture!

L–R: Gerry, Laura, Emmet, Pris, Conor, ’Becca, and John. I took the picture!

That was almost more excitement than I could handle, so after the tea party, we retired to our room to relax and rest up—Saturday would be a big day. And lo and behold: Gerry had an email from the embassy that his visa had been delivered to the courier company!

I don’t have a photo of us squealing, or dancing around the room. But we did (insofar as two tired, middle-aged folks on a sugar high can). We immediately adjusted our Saturday plans to drive back into Dublin yet again to pick up the package containing his passport with new visa page, instructions, and sealed information to be presented to the customs officials when we left the country.

We were fast asleep before ten o’clock …

Sightseeing … By Ourselves

Wednesday, 24 June 2015
The beds at the Portmarnock, I’m sorry to report, were pretty hard too. A little less hard than the Doubletree—and at least I’d learned how to deal with it (pillows under my knees, which is what my massage therapist does too). But we loved the room, and never got tired of the view from the tiny balcony.

The breakfast is nice, too, and the dining room overlooks the courtyard garden, which is a lovely thing to wake up to.

Courtyard garden from the breakfast room at the Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links, June 2015.

Courtyard garden from our table in the breakfast room at the Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links, June 2015.

We’d scheduled a meeting with our party planner for late morning, so we decided to drive up to Lusk to see where the wedding would be on Friday. It’s always good to know the parking situation and how long it will take to get there, particularly because Gerry would be filming the event.

Our little Volkswagen Polo. I really enjoyed driving this car.

Our little Volkswagen Polo. I really enjoyed driving this car.

As it turns out, it takes about thirty minutes to get to Lusk from here. On the way up and back, I did some serious thinking about things I’ve learned about driving here in Ireland—tips that I can pass on to my American friends who will be coming. (I’ll put it in a separate post.) One thing we discovered: a dead spot where we lose our GPS for about three or four minutes. Eeek—you can cover a lot of ground in that amount of time.

When you start a journey from Portmarnock, you will spend some time driving the Strand Road.

A view of Lambay Island, June 2015.

A view of Lambay Island, June 2015.

Lambay sits three miles off shore and supports one of the largest seabird colonies in Ireland, as well as other wildlife. (In fact, there is a wallaby population!) The island was purchased in 1904 by Cecil Baring, of the banking industry Barings, and is still owned by the Baring family trust. Though it is privately held, you can tour the island with Skerries Sea Tours.

Another view of Strand Road and the sea. Someone lives in that old bit of a castle wall there on the right.

Another view of Strand Road and the sea. Someone lives in that old bit of a castle wall there on the right.

Came back to the hotel to meet with the party-planner—we finalized the meals, saw the room where the party will be, discussed all the details, got our marching orders (things we still had to decide upon). One thing that came out of the meeting: on our invitations we’d scheduled the pre-dinner cocktail party in the Jameson Bar for 5pm, but we are moving it forward to 4:30pm. Reminders have been emailed.

I’d scheduled a treatment in the spa from Dublin, so after our meeting I made my way downstairs to the Oceana Spa for my “foot massage.” I was desperate for some relief from the swelling and pain—and it did help. In all honesty it was more about the goop and the relaxation—in the thirty-minute treatment, only about ten of them were hands-on—but I was impressed by the quality of the massage (and you know I’m picky).

So I returned to the room with a new spring in my step and hope in my heart. 🙂 Poor Gerry had been trying to nap (he’s not a great sleeper, suffering from insomnia quite a bit), but it still wasn’t happening, so we went out for another drive (and found that dead spot again, coming and going).

We decided to find our way to the Monasterboice monastic site—I wanted Gerry to see it. My friend Margaret Lambert and I visited this place in September 2012 and were charmed by it. We’d gone from Brú na Bóinne to Mellifont Abbey to Monasterboice that day—all were part of the same monastic settlement at one time, which we’d heard on the tour at Brú na Bóinne, and thus decided to see, spur-of-the-momentish. Margaret and I arrived at Monasterboice in the very late afternoon, almost dusk, after being very lost; it’s out in the country on a single-lane road.

See that fragment of a tower? That’s Monasterboice in the distance. I recognized it immediately.

See that fragment of a tower? That’s Monasterboice in the distance. I recognized it immediately.

That day in 2012, Margaret and I had the place to ourselves, and we just meandered and talked quietly. It was, I don’t mind saying, magic, and you all know how I am about finding the magic. (Or, I should say, letting it find you.) Today, Gerry Hampson and I did not have the place to ourselves—it’s the tourist season in Ireland, and boy, can you tell—but we strolled around and invoked the name of our dear friend Margaret, who died earlier this year. It was not the first time her name has been mentioned on this trip.

Aha—here’s that round tower! Monasterboice, June 2015.

Aha—here’s that round tower! Monasterboice, June 2015.

In the foreground, much newer gravesites, but you can see remains of the church, the tower, and at the rear, one of the historic crosses.

In the foreground, much newer gravesites, but you can see remains of the church, the tower, and at the rear, one of the historic crosses.

Founded in the late fifth century by St. Buite, Monasterboice (Mainistir Bhuithe—the monastery of Buite) was an early Christian settlement before it was co-opted by the Cistercians.

All that’s left there now is the round tower, a bit of two churches, and the cemetery (the wall that surrounds it is much later—1870s), which has three fifth-century Celtic-era crosses in it. This article has a lot of information and photos of the historic crosses (this has even more); we were not able to get close once that stinkin’ tour bus arrived.

The wall that surrounds it is newer than the site of the graves and church.

The wall that surrounds it is newer than the site of the graves and church.

When you have a fairly finite area, you slow down and start looking at everything. (And one of these days I will see everything at Monasterboice. The first time Margaret and I were stopped by the setting sun; this time Gerry and I were interrupted by a tour bus.) Still, I was fascinated by the gravestone art.

This is the Sacred Heart, of course, which arose in the Middle Ages as a facet of Catholic mysticism. Wikipedia says: "The Sacred Heart is often depicted in Christian art as a flaming heart shining with divine light, pierced by the lance-wound, encircled by the crown of thorns, surmounted by a cross, and bleeding."

This is the Sacred Heart, of course, which arose in the Middle Ages as a facet of Catholic mysticism. Wikipedia says: “The Sacred Heart is often depicted in Christian art as a flaming heart shining with divine light, pierced by the lance-wound, encircled by the crown of thorns, surmounted by a cross, and bleeding.”

Another, more recent representation of the Sacred Heart, surrounded (clockwise) by a lily, ivy, grape leaf, and I have no idea (a daisy?). I believe this is from the Victorian era; they were big on plant symbolism.

Another, more recent representation of the Sacred Heart, surrounded (clockwise) by a lily, ivy, grape leaf, and I have no idea (a daisy?). I believe this is from the Victorian era; they were big on plant symbolism.

While I was researching for this post, I came across several interesting articles for those who might want to know more. This one is about the old crosses; this one from the Irish Times is lovely.

Here’s a stone that’s more than 200 years old: Christy Kirwan died at Brownstown in 1807. At the top a Christogram—IHS—flanked by angels. I’m not sure if the bird below is meant to be a dove; it looks like a sea bird.

Here’s a humble stone that’s more than 200 years old: Christy Kirwan died at Brownstown in 1807. At the top a Christogram—IHS—flanked by angels. I’m not sure if the bird below is meant to be a dove; it looks like a sea bird.

I have no idea about this one: armor, a shield with three crosses, a disembodied hand holding a dagger? The plant … I have no idea. Is it a stylized lily?

I have no idea about this one: armor, a shield with three crosses, a disembodied hand holding a dagger? The plant … I have no idea. Is it a stylized lily?

The North Cross is the plainest of the ancient crosses here, and, in fact, it is in pieces, all of which are enclosed in an iron fence (probably from Victorian times).

This is about all that survives of the North Cross. This is the eastern face (a medallion); the reverse is a simple crucifixion. In its day it was probably painted.

This is about all that survives of the North Cross. This is the eastern face (a medallion); the reverse is a simple crucifixion. In its day it was probably painted.

This old stone was impossible to read, but you can make out Christ on the cross, two tilted angels … and a skull and crossbones. This is a memento mori—a symbolic reminder that we all will die.

This old stone was impossible to read, but you can make out Christ on the cross, two tilted angels … and a skull and crossbones. This is a memento mori—a symbolic reminder that we all will die.

And then … before we were finished … a huge tour bus arrived and vomited out enough tourists to cover every inch of the place. Ambience was ruined. We weren’t done seeing, yet, but it became impossible to get close enough to see or to take photos without a half-dozen people in them. I have a tendency work my way around the edges of things, looking at the things that most people skip in their haste to get to the One Big Thing they are meant to see—the important thing, the oldest thing, or whatever. Which means I didn’t take photos or even get within thirty feet of the other two very old crosses or the churches.

We departed, disappointed.

 On this road, you would not be able to pass by this bus in another car; you would have to pull over and let it pass. I know this because I have driven on this tiny piece of seemingly unnamed road now in both directions. It’s a one-laner.

On this road, you would not be able to pass by this bus in another car; you would have to pull over and let it pass. I know this because I have driven on this tiny piece of seemingly unnamed road now in both directions. It’s a one-laner.

On our way to Monasterboice we’d seen several roadside vendors selling fruit and produce (mostly strawberries). Since strawberry season was long gone in Tennessee, the temptation proved too much for me—we stopped and I bought a couple pints. We’d get cream—or ice cream!—when we got back to Portnarnock.

After we had the strawberries, we hopped on the M1 to get south a little more quickly, and I was delighted to find myself driving over the Mary McAleese (Boyne Valley) Bridge. There was no place to pull over and we were in the middle of rush-hour traffic, so I’ve borrowed a photo from the engineering firm that designed the bridge.

Isn’t it gorgeous? I borrowed this from the website of ROD Consulting Engineers © 2013.

Isn’t it gorgeous? I borrowed this from the website of ROD Consulting Engineers © 2013.

We arrived back at the hotel at a quarter to five and were distracted … er, reminded that we wanted to try afternoon tea at some point while we were here.

Well, you can hardly miss it, there by the front door in between you and the elevator. :)

Well, you can hardly miss it, there by the front door in between you and the elevator. 🙂

Margaret and I, along with the Hampson ladies and my sister and niece, had had a very fancy high tea at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin’s city centre back in 2012—and I was thinking of organizing something like it for our celebration this fall. Then Gerry told me that his nieces had taken their Nana (Bridie) out to the Portmarnock for tea. Oh, reeeeally? I’d said.

But they stop serving afternoon tea in the Seaview Lounge at five o’clock, and now it was ten minutes before the magic hour. We lingered in the doorway, and a young server laughed when we wondered if it was too late. “Of course not!” he said, and seated us by the window. Soon we were presented with two pots of tea (green for Mr. Hampson, black for his wife) and a tiered tray of sandwiches and baked goods. When they brought it out I knew we’d never eat it all (we took a full plate back to the room for later) but we made a valiant attempt.

Afternoon tea in the Seaview Lounge.

Afternoon tea in the Seaview Lounge.

We sat there for fifty minutes, counting planes on their final approach for landing and Dublin International Airport (there were about seventeen or so of them—one every five minutes), and making a list of what to do tomorrow. Comparison to afternoon tea at the Shelbourne in downtown Dublin? A little less pomp and circumstance, but just as delicious and significantly less expensive. And the view of the sea was spectacular. We’ve already reserved a group table for Friday afternoon before our party on Saturday. 🙂

Travel Essentials

I get a big kick out of Catherine Howard, the delightful Irish gal who writes (and presents workshops) about the publishing industry at her blog Catherine, Caffeinated.

“For the next two weeks I’ll be out of the country on Proper Holidays,” she announced recently.

Proper Holidays, if you’re not familiar with this term I just made up, is when you take a holiday (vacation, American friends) and while you’re there, you actually take a holiday. You don’t read your blog comments. You let the e-mails build up. You avoid any work-related social media. And as a consequence of this, you actually manage to relax.

I knew immediately what she was talking about, because I haven’t taken a Proper Holiday in years, although I do dream about it on occasion. And I’m not talking about checking email; I’m talking about taking actual work—editing—that needs to be done.

But I want to draw your attention to this post, because it’s fun and has some very useful travel advice. That is, the five things Catherine is sure to pack when she gets ready to travel:

1. A Kindle (and some books)
2. One-cup coffee filter
3. The bag within a bag
4. Zip-lock bags
5. Bubble wrap
6. Laptop

More than one friend of mine has watched me tell a waiter I’ll do without rather than make a cup of tea with their cheap, off-brand (or worse: herbal) teabags, so the only thing I would add to this list is a few teabags. Don’t, as they say, leave home without them.

There’s some good information here! (And, if you really want a definitive packing list, check out this one from the folks at Evernote.)

P1030880

A Cup of Brown Joy

My father drank coffee, my mother always, always drank tea. Back then, coffee was a drink for (ahem) adults—Starbucks was just a gleam in its founders’ eyes; you just didn’t see teenagers carrying around cups of coffee. So when I was in my early twenties, I took it up. Coffee.

Some years ago, though, I was advised to give up coffee for health reasons. (I still have coffee every once in a great while, for a treat.) Tea was OK, though. And by then I was seeing the Irishman, so I made the switch and never looked back.

Since then there’s been quite a renaissance in tea consumption in the United States. So it’s astonishing to me when I sit down in a restaurant, order tea, and am brought a huge box of … herbal teas. There might be some Earl Grey. But Earl Grey is a very distinctive flavor; it’s OK, but I have to be in the mood. For me, Early Grey ≠ tea. And herbal tea … well, that’s just flavored hot water.

No, I want a Cup of Brown Joy. If you’re a tea drinker, that pretty much describes it, yes? I can’t take credit for that line; that goes to Professor Elemental, he of this delightful video.

How do you take your tea? I like mine black. When I’m working I’ll make a whole pot, slip a cozy over it, and have several nice, hot cuppas.

“So when times are hard and life is rough
You can stick the kettle on and find me a cup”

Breakfast: banana, scone, bacon … and a cup of brown joy. :)

Breakfast: banana, scone, bacon … and a cup of brown joy. 🙂