Choose Your Own Normal

I usually don’t hate it so much when Hannah is right. Was it really just two weeks ago that the car driving in front of her slowed down and threw a heavily pregnant terrier on the road and into our lives? Yep. And after calling to inform me about the newest member to join our crew, her next comment was about the fact that Pixie and her soon-to-be-born puppies would be a great distraction for the girls when the country was on lockdown. So I will begin my four part apology for calling her a “drama queen”, by asking how the hell do you so casually predict the most unprecedented state of play in a generation? Practical mothers. Where would we be without you?

So, she was right and the “new normal” has been changing by the day. Last Monday, I was worried that the band I had put together was slightly under-rehearsed for the belated birthday party I was throwing for myself on Saturday. By Wednesday, the anxiety levels I was feeling for having people gather in my name was making me nauseous. Then the schools closed, Italy went into lockdown with soldiers on the streets, Canadian Parliament was shut down, and it became apparent that maybe my party wasn’t that big of a deal, all things considered. So, I sent out a text informing everyone that the party was off, and was barraged by replies of relief that hard decisions didn’t need to be made.
A few people decided to ignore the directive they were given and came anyway. They knew we weren’t going anywhere. There were ten of us spaced evenly around the library. Everyone had their own glass identifiable by different coloured loom-bands, stolen from my children. There was no physical contact. No one dared cough. And constant trips to the toilets. No, not to do cocaine like in the eighties, but to wash hands. You gotta be on your game at a lockdown party.

But it was brilliant. Songs were sung, stories told and everyone soaked up as much fun and happiness from those around them as they could, until the next time…

Yesterday, we laid off all of our staff and signed on the dole. At least that means that Hannah and I will get a raise. All of these quickly moving facts were unimaginable when we met Pixie two weeks ago. Yet here we are, busily corresponding with guests to confirm cancellations, with suppliers to work out some kind of arrangement amidst all this uncertainty, and trying to find ways to keep us busy in the approaching silence. I must admit, puppies are a brilliant option. Right again Hannah.

Today is St. Patrick’s Day and today’s “normal” saw myself, Hannah and the girls form our own parade on the driveway, brandishing one homemade Irish flag, a tin whistle and a ukulele, playing The Soldier’s Song on repeat. At least it was raining. That was the same as every year.

And so, as the world holds its’ breath and waits for this madness to pass, I’d like to share with you some thoughts my sister sent to our family.
“Be kinder than you think you need to be, mare patient than you think you need to be, and even more cheerful than you think you need to be. Every single person’s under a kind of strain we’ve never experienced before. We need to meet this – and each other – with so much love and as much humour as we can.

Love to you all.

The Sixth Course

In March, the Roundwood team gained an invaluable addition with the arrival of Ted. Ted is a friend of mine from Canada, who possesses a set of skills that have knitted seamlessly into the workings of Roundwood. A chef with 25 years’ experience, an expert on health and safety, a man fond of systems and spread sheets and as it turns out, a damned fine singer.

Upon his arrival, we hit the ground running into our busiest year to date. Slowly but surely, we have been expanding our menus, planting gardens, and improving our overall efficiency. We even have weekly meetings, just like grown-ups.

But our unexpected mutual interest in singing songs has been the most interesting development.
As it turns out our voices blend amazingly, into a delicious harmonic sauce. And so, the endless hours we spend cooped up in the kitchen are regularly interrupted with spontaneous musical interludes.

At one of our weekly meetings, the topic of USP’s, unique selling points, for our business came up. What can we offer guests that is unique to the personalities running Roundwood? Ted offered the fact that, increasingly, elements of the plates that we serve come from our own gardens. A selling point indeed, but not unique to us. I mentioned our menagerie of animals that wander the grounds and welcome our guests. Again, lovely but not unique. Then Hannah piped up with a mad idea. Why not sing for the guests after dinner? Present it as a complimentary sixth course.

Lots of restaurants offer multiple courses, but they are all made of food. I had never heard of a musical course before, so an after dinner song definitely ticked the “unique” box. Whether it would be a selling point remained to be seen.

And so we started. That night after desert had been served, I slung my guitar over my shoulder and Ted and I entered a packed dining room to present our first “sixth course”, to a family celebrating their matriarch’s birthday. The standing ovation and request for another song which followed convinced us we were on to something.

A few songs later we thanked our first audience and took our leave of the dining room, but not before infecting them all with the music bug. As we got stuck in to cleaning the kitchen, a full throated version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah burst through the dining room door. And then another song… then another. Our forced musical intervention had changed their evening from a gathering to a celebration. We had uncovered a super-power.

An hour later, as all of the staff sat around a long-cleaned kitchen, it became clear that I would have to end what we had started, so the dining room could be cleaned. I grabbed my guitar and we started into an Everly Brothers number leading the celebrants, pied piper style, to the drawing room where the music continued for the rest of the night.

The next morning over breakfast, the compliments on the night’s entertainment were enough to convince us that the “Sixth Course” would become a mainstay on our nightly menu. When one of the guests pulled Hannah aside to immediately book her 60th birthday, on condition of a repeat performance by Ted and I, we realised that our “unique selling point” had delivered.

The Road Less Travelled

Spend enough time anywhere and it will become normal.  When I first arrived in Ireland from Canada in 1998, I savoured every small, alien detail. The smell of turf, the sideways spray of inoffensive mist, the never-ending hedgerows, the random banter.

Necessarily, the magic fades. Seeing everything as if for the first time would be exhausting.

However, it is nice every now and again to be reminded of it.

People from around the world arrive at our door because they chose Ireland, chose our house, have chosen to drink it all in and I get to be their drinkin’ buddy, so to speak.

Our home is temporarily theirs as they head off on their “Irish Adventure”. When they return I get to hear stories set in my world, told through their eyes and both their eyes and their stories are better than mine.  They often see beauty where I see the ordinary and have great adventures from unlikely beginnings.

An Australian guest returning from a morning jog yesterday told me she had met an old man down the road who had offered to sell her his house.  Wondering how such a casual encounter on the side of the road could lead to his offer, I asked her to describe their conversation, and it went like this:

Old Man:  Who are you?
Guest:  Barbara.
Old Man: Where are you staying?
Barbara: Roundwood House.
Old Man: Do you have a cigarette?
Barbara: No, sorry. I didn’t think to bring them when I came jogging this morning.
Old Man: I have a house for sale down the road.  Do you want to buy a house?
Barbara:  No thank you.  I’m just visiting.
Old Man:  Oh.

That was it. He walked on, she jogged.

To think that if Barbara hadn’t gotten up that morning to seize the day and to welcome all that Ireland had to offer, the opportunity would have been lost and that beautifully surreal conversation would never have taken place.

I’m sure she enjoyed the historic sites that I sent her to and the pubs that I recommended, but you can be sure that by the time you’ve read this, the story about the old man trying to sell her his house is the one she has shared with family and friends at dinner parties and bars back home. Indeed, it is encounters such as these at the side of country roads that do more to excite the imagination of visitors to Ireland than any glossy travel brochure. The brochure shows you the stage, but the experiences are the play. And although I try my best to point visitors towards experiences that I think will enhance their stay, it is often the ones that they stumble upon themselves that stay with them the longest and remind me that there is great stuff everywhere, if you look.

And a graveyard is as good a place as any to start looking.

Two guests arrived late one night, having gotten lost on their way from Sligo. To get their bearings, they pulled over beside a small graveyard in a town just outside of Roscommon. They decided to have a wander around and came upon the epitaph to beat all others. Inscribed on the headstone of a well travelled soldier who died in the 1st World War, were simply four words. “I’ve been everywhere else.”

So, my advice for visitors to these shores; come to Ireland and get lost… You never know what you might find.

Snow Day

Walking  in an Irish winter-land. You should try it. Surreal and beautiful, and not all that common in this country. Coming from Canada, as I do, and seeing the national response to a bit of snow here was theatre for me. The Irish Transport Minister put out a statement claiming that taking to the roads would be a suicide mission. The Taoiseach urged the public not to risk “life and limb” by venturing out. Pat the Baker said there was an unprecedented demand for bread. He wasn’t lying. The shelves were emptied in all the supermarkets, starting with bread but followed closely by milk, and potatoes, as well as most fruits and vegetables. Except pineapples. I’m reliably informed that there were still some pineapples in Tesco’s a few days ago.

On Twitter Emma Ní Chearúil urged everyone to calm down after she went to make toast and her mother yelled, “NO! That’s the storm bread!!”

I suppose to a population not used to such wintry conditions, a bit of hyperbole isn’t misplaced, but I did find it hilarious. But then it started snowing… and snowing… then the wind came, and it started to feel like maybe “Game of Thrones” wasn’t a work of fiction after all. I’m sure I spotted zombies in the tree-line.  Winter is here, in a way most inhabitants on this island have never seen, and I haven’t since I was in a country properly equipped to deal with it.

Schools and universities have closed across the country. Motorways shut down. Flights cancelled. The road to our house is impassable, resulting in the cancellation of all of our bookings. Ireland has stopped and so have we. And until life as normal resumes, we have been doing what I hope everyone has: venturing out into the blinding beauty that has visited us. If you can’t beat it, join it. It is truly magical.

Our girls have been making snow angels, in their nice, warm aran sweaters tobogganing down any vertical slope they can find and getting oh so close to making the greatest snowwoman of all time, just to have the victory snatched from them by the burning pain in their feet and hands, courtesy of the snow finding its way into their boots and mittens. A flashback to my youth that I never thought my kids would provide me with at Roundwood.

So, here we are. Frozen in, with nothing but time and gloves on our hands. We’ll get that snowwoman built, find the fastest hill and learn to live with frozen feet until it all melts away.

And although it will make paying our bills a little more difficult if that doesn’t happen soon, I think I’m ok with it. We have a wine cellar.

I shouldn’t have laughed Ireland.

Swear Jar

There is a certain amount of inevitable overlap between home life and business when you run your home as a business. Therefore you need to be conscious of what parts of your private life you share with the world, and in some cases, you need to adjust behaviour accordingly. For example, Hannah and I have become experts at having full-blown arguments using only our eyes; and we had to completely cancel “Naked Tuesdays”. Other than a few small adjustments however, we have learned how to wear our home comfortably, and share it’s warmth with anyone who finds themselves in it.

Besides cooking, my life revolves around my Hannah, my kids and my music, all of whom I try to serve with equal dedication. When we first got to Roundwood, I thought that keeping some of these elements separate from the guests would be part of the gig . Little did I know how much they would be able to bounce off each other and live together in harmony. Gone are the days when children should only be briefly seen and not heard. More than a few times, when looking for the kids to get them started on homework or piano, have I found them in the drawing room, filling in the guests on who their best friends are, how nice their teachers are, and the joys of Absynian long haired guinea pigs.

The kids are a layer of overlap that stretch between the guests and the kitchen. in the evening when they’re not informing the company on the current state of childhood, they’re doing their homework in the dining room, within earshot of the kitchen, and although a professional kitchen shared with your family has different standards than most. . . there’s still a lot of swearing. To understand, try splashing burning oil on your arm and say the first word that comes to your mind.

I didn’t realize how much swearing was being done, nor how much I burned myself, until the introduction of the swear jar. It was a physical manifestation of my children’s influence on the workplace. With every bad word I utter, a chorus of “swear-jar” wafts into the kitchen from the dining room, and I’m ok with that. I get to keep being myself and the girls are learning how to work the system. It’s a very full swear jar.

Then there is the music. In the early days, I’d try to sneak away from the kitchen in between jobs, to a quiet corner somewhere to knock out a few tunes. As we steadily got busier, my quiet corners became more scarce, the workload increased, and subsequently less tunes were knocked out. The only fix I could see was keeping a guitar in the kitchen and playing anytime I had five minutes. It’s amazing how many extra five minutes you can find in a day if you try.

This slowly bled into the drawing room for parties, and into the dining room as the “musical sixth course” that we sometimes offer. Musical-me is also quite handy when the “happy birthday song” is required. I knock that one out of the park.

My experience with the music that has passed through this house has been amazing. From jamming “who has seen the wind” with Donovan. Or singing the acoustic version of the newlyweds favourite song in the dining room after the speeches. Or being able to redirect the flow of after dinner conversation from the horrors of American politics to a special sort of harmony that could only have been achieved with the perfect entanglement of my life and Roundwood’s. Fuck me, I love it here. . . Swear jar!

Kitchen Notes: Butter Tarts

When I took over the cheffing duties at Roundwood I was entirely new to the game. I didn't arrive with a bag of tricks, so I had to learn some quickly. After acquiring a few and building the confidence to experiment, I thought it would be fitting to put a Canadian twist on the food we were making here. But an inventory of my childhood culinary experiences left slim pickings for inspiration. Cuisine in Canada in the 70's and 80's moved in very questionable directions. This was a time and place that would suspend ham in jello and call it a salad.

Then I remembered the Mennonite Farmer Markets in St. Jacobs. I wish I could say that I was drawn to the fruit and vegetables spilling out of baskets on endless rows of tables, but my love of fresh, hand-picked produce would take a few decades to grow. Little-kid-me made a bee-line for the homemade baked goods, specifically the butter tarts.

What is a butter tart, you ask?  According to Wikipedia, "A butter tart is a type of small pastry tart highly regarded in Canadian cuisine and considered one of Canada's quintessential treats. The sweet tart consists of butter, sugar, syrup, and egg filled into a flaky pastry and baked until the filling is semi-solid with a crunchy top." Well described Wikipedia.

Happy that I had come up with a uniquely Canadian offering, I just had to figure out a way of jazzing it up a bit. Delicious as butter tarts are, they certainly don't qualify as fancy desserts and if I was going to introduce Ireland to one of Canada's national treasures, I wanted it to be wearing its Sunday best.

So, why not make it into a tart? With a chocolate crust. As far as I can tell, chocolate never made anything worse. Add a few dried cranberries and toasted cashew nuts, and presto. Ireland, I give you fancy chocolate crusted butter tart. Recipe below.

Chocolate Crusted Caramel Tart with Cranberries & Cashew Nuts

plain flour (sifted)        450 g
cocoa powder (sifted)        50 g
icing sugar (sifted)        100 g
salted butter (cold)        250 g
eggs            2

Combine dry ingredients in the food processor. Cut butter into workable cubes, and slowly add to mixture. After all butter is incorporated, add eggs and mix until the dough is formed. This is the finished product, no kneading, resting, or proofing is required. Refrigerate for a couple hours before working.

Roll out dough to ¼” thick. Press into a 2” deep, spring form pan. Dough is somewhat malleable and can be cut and reformed into pie pans if being uncooperative. Blind bake for 15-20 min at 180º C, or until top edges of crust begin to brown. Cool.

Filling
brown sugar        1½ cups
melted butter        ¼ cup
eggs (medium)        3
vanilla paste        1 tsp
AP flour            1 tbsp
whiskey            to taste

Sprinkle craisins (dried cranberries or raisins) and toasted cashews (or any nut) into the cooled pie shells. Pour in filling mixture. Should fill shell completely. Bake for 25-30 min at 180º rotating pie half way through the cooking process to ensure even baking. Let cool before serving.

Notes from the Kitchen… Time to move on…

The new oven weighs roughly a million pounds. It’s two ovens, actually, one stacked on top of the other and combined they’re nearly fourteen feet tall. Obviously from the warrior cast of some kind of oven people that until recently I never even knew existed. It has a probe on the inside that shows the internal temperature of the meat you're cooking, on a digital display, as you’re cooking it. It has 14 different heat and fan settings including a pyrolysis function that allows you to heat it up to nearly a thousand degrees, and turn any residual oven grime into ash.

It took three large men (and myself) a couple hours and some very careful manoeuvring to get it into the kitchen, and another 24 hours of experimentation before I got comfortable enough to cook anything in it for guests.

I remember watching an interview with Jack White once. He was sitting in his giant room of guitars, and naturally the interviewer asked him which one was his favourite. He picked up a shitty little banger off the wall and started playing it, explaining how he bought it at Walmart before he was rich and famous, but that he still played it all the time because it kept him honest. Because he really had try to make it sound good.

That’s kind of how I felt about my old oven, even though it was held together with a bungee cord for the last three years. The racks were held in place with mismatched bolts, and the lights no longer worked thanks to a brownie mixture accident that made the kitchen smell like chocolate for months every time I turned it on. It was a disaster, but my disaster, and I knew how to navigate it. It made me feel like the underdog, who everyone is supposed to root for. More than once, guests have come into the kitchen and marveled at the fact that their meal was prepared in. . . that thing.

Getting a new oven was long overdue, and as much as it scared me at first having to learn a bunch of new tricks, it’s now clear to me that if anything in your life is held together with bungee chords and hope, it’s time to move on.

Kitchen Notes… Wild Mushroom Soup

Wild Mushrooms 250g
Dried Mushrooms 250g
White Onion 1
Garlic 1 Bulb
White Wine 250ml
Water 500ml
Cream 500ml
Rosemary
Sage
Thyme
Salt
Coarse Black Pepper
Lemon Juice

I’m going to let you in on a little secret soup method that they (probably) don’t teach you in culinary school. It’s called the chuck-everything-in-a-pot-and-cook-it-til-it’s-done method. Puréed soups lend themselves extremely well to this style of cooking. Now if you think you can make this soup taste better by carefully caramelizing this, or simmering that, you go right ahead. I’ll be having a drink by the fire while you’re busy fawning over the soup.

All you need to do to make this delicious soup is follow these three simple directions:

1. Combine everything except the lemon, salt and pepper in a pot. Bring it up to temperature without letting it boil over, and simmer gently for 15-20 minutes, or until the dried mushrooms have softened and the cream has had time to reduce a little.

2. Pureé with a hand blender. If you don’t have a hand blender you should reconsider attempting this soup, but a regular blender will work too. Also, you may want to put it through a medium-gauge sieve before serving to give it a more refined consistency.

3. Finish with fresh lemon, salt & pepper to taste, and if you really want to add some wow factor, drizzle a little truffle oil into each bowl just as it’s being served.

Notes from the Kitchen… Basket Case

​​I think there's something great about eating the thing that your food comes in. A crunchy foil​ ​housing a gooey centre. Gooey things can be delicious but they’re, well. . . gooey. So in the kitchen, I’m always on the lookout for new flavour delivery vehicles. A cool looking, crispy and compact way to present the goo to varying numbers of guests, with various dietary requirements. This can be a tricky manoeuvre, especially, for the first course. It’s always a little more intricate, and it sets the stage for the meal. Working from a set menu, you want to be sure you get everyone's attention right away.

We all know that gluten is particularly troublesome these days, and cooking without it can be ​... ​challenging. Please don't get me wrong. Gluten intolerance is a curse, and not just for the chef. My taste​​buds ache for people who can't eat pancakes. Genetically modified wheat strains are wrecking us and our stomachs. But for the record, when I've custom made a gluten free menu for someone who eats pancakes for breakfast, it increases my intolerance.

Enter the potato basket. Imagine something between and potato chip (crisp) and a french fry (chip) strong enough to hold your soup, but tasty enough that you could eat a bag of them. Now fill it with just about anything you like. It’s perfect.

It took an incredible amount of experimenting to get them right, but it was worth all the smashed muffin tins, and now, when I’m serving a large number of guests, I have a uniform delivery vehicle that can be customised to even the most specific of dietary requirements​... ​unless of course you're allergic to potatoes.

The Beginning…

There was a time in my life when it would have been unimaginable to me that I would be writing a piece about life in the country with any personal insight.  I was a city boy, raised in Canada, and spent years touring from city to city playing music with various bands. I was aware of the country, and drove through it often on my way to the next gig. But I wouldn't have known what to do with myself if I was ever left there for an extended period of time. That was then.

The short story of how I got here is that I spent my first 28 years in Canada, moved to Ireland to study for a year, met my darling wife Hannah (saw her house) and fell instantly in love.  The opportunity arose to change my career path as a musician, when her parents decided to retire. They had been running Roundwood House as a country guest house since Hannah was five years old, and handed the reigns to Hannah and I in the summer of 2008.

There is an adjustment period though; trading city life for country life. Out here, life is work. Paddy the musician, didn't understand what life was going to be like living in the shticks, but Paddy the chef wonders how many songs I would have written if I'd had the work ethic then that I've had to adopt living here. The city kid's natural instinct when anything goes wrong is to call the experts. If you live in an apartment and your toilet backs up, you call the landlord and ask him to send a plumber, and as if by magic, when he leaves, your toilet flushes again. But this is not the case when you're the landlord, the plumber, the electrician, the list goes on. You're expected to be able to deal with small maintenance issues. So you try it yourself, break it a little more, then call the expert.

The city also gives you a certain immunity to noise. It took me a long time to get used to the silence here. Living in a city provides you with a sub-conscious soundtrack to the sound of humans. Most of it is filtered out and disregarded.  Car alarms and sirens. Laughter, jackhammers, and kids. Any one of these sounds now however, would wake me in an instant.  I have become an expert in every unnatural sound in the country, and any time I hear one, I will immediately try to determine where it's coming from and why it is being made. You could say I've traded filters. I no longer respond to creaks in the middle of the night, or the ungodly sound of a vixen in heat, which would make any city dweller with a sense of self preservation hide under the sheets. But a car door closing in the night will have me down the stairs and outside before I've even woken up, and you don't need an alarm clock when the birds are telling you that there's work to be done. This new life couldn't be more different than my old one. I've traded noise for silence, anonymous for personal, and I've made life my job… I wouldn't trade it back for anything. It's a good life.