A city girl with no thought of a rural life, Imen McDonnell was happily building a career in television production in the US. Love changed her path, though. She married Irish farmer Richard, and found herself making her life as part of a multi generational farm family in rural County Limerick, Ireland.
Ireland was, she found, a place where life was both familiar and strange. To make her way in this new situation she turned to the kitchen, and writing about her adventures in adjusting to Irish farm life.
“I must confess, it took me a long time to get used to rural living,” she writes. Used to catered meals on production shoots and a range of restaurant cuisines available in cities at leisure time, she remarks that she never thought much about the sources of the food she enjoyed. Life on an Irish dairy farm changed that. The nearest supermarket, for one thing, was a forty five minute drive from the farm.
“It became quite clear that I had to teach myself how to cook and grow whole, healthy, interesting foods on our farm. My new family’s pastures were rich with dairy cows, clutches of chickens, heaps of hedgegrows, and superb soil to start a bountiful kitchen garden. As plausible as that notion was, the actual learning and doing seemed daunting an laborious.
“However, I saw how this could be my contribution to the family farm,” McDonnell continues, “carving out my own unique niche, and this notion brought me joy.” She dug in — in more ways than one — taking an organic growing class and tilling a plot for her garden, where she planted heirloom seeds as well as vegetables not often found in Ireland. She began a blog, in part as a creative outlet while she was at home alone with a toddler, in part to connect with other farm women, and in part to help her adjust to the changes life was presenting. She was on her way… although that might not have been immediately apparent to her.
One of the results of all this is The Farmette Cookbook. The subtitle of the book is Recipes and Adventures from My Life on an Irish Farm. It delivers well on both. Imen McDonnell clearly has a lively sense of humor, and, perhaps carrying over skills she honed in her days in television production, she knows how to tell stories through both word and image.
Her audience, McDonnell thinks, will be people in Ireland who’ll chuckle at her struggles and discoveries, and people in America and elsewhere who might be armchair travelers imagining themselves living on a farm in Ireland.
Both audiences will find much to enjoy. The Farmette Cookbook is structured in a dozen chapters, with topics including traditional dairy skills, country kids, potatoes, recipes featuring herbs and flower foraged in the wild, food from the sea, and country suppers. The headnotes for the recipes — and other sections, such as information about those dairy skills, background on Irish faeries, and the story of how McDonnell’s father-in-law set her straight on corned beef and cabbage — are told in an informal, engaging manner.
You’ll find recipes for foods you may know, such as scones, blackcurrant jam, apple cider, and standing rib roast of beef. You might find ideas for dishes that seem somewhat familiar — tea brack, for instance, bangers and mash, a soup flavored with dulse. There are also several recipes in which McDonnell takes inspiration from her late mother-in-law — a potato stuffing for poultry for instance, and Peggy’s Apple Tart –who made her feel welcome and set her an example of how to be at ease in an Irish farm kitchen. Each of these and dozens more are recipes family and time tested by McDonnell on the farm, as are her own creations that take off in new directions. Saint Patrick’s Day Bacon and Cabbage Potstickers, anyone? How about Sweet Farmer Cheese Danish with Elderflower Glaze?
You may keep up with McDonnell at her website farmette.ie. She has, among other things, begun to put on workshops in collaboration with food photographers in a series called Lens and Larder.
Interested in more good stories told through the perspective of the kitchen? You may like to read about the book Country Cooking of Ireland, where chefs from across the island share their recipes and stories, and Sharing Food, Sharing Stories, which features three books sharing recipes and stories from Syria, Spain, and the American midwest.
…and really, I cannot write about Ireland without sharing some of the music with you. To go along as you explore Irish farm cooking, take a listen to the artists mentioned in Ireland in Music: Four Voices.
Photograph of Imen McDonnell courtesy of the author.
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