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Some consider its fleeting, heady perfume evocative and divinely sensual. Others rate the truffle simply as a gourmet’s delight.   I myself think the truffle’s scent is unmistakeably and un-apologetically carnal, reminding me of the muskiness of an unmade bed after an afternoon of love in the tropics…

On the aphrodisiac scale, it scores alongside oysters, chocolate, rhino horn and bulls’ testicles – reinforced by literary references as to its ability to “make one’s loins smoulder like those of randy lions” (Balzac) and of being “the luxury of wealthy men and their kept women” (Brillat-Savarin).  Couple this with its reputation of having empowered Napoleon to conceive his only legitimate son, and it is not hard to grasp why so many revere this insignificant, ugly, underground mushroom.

a sin…

Such indeed was the truffle’s reputation, that the Catholic Church excluded it from its celebratory feasts, believing it to be the embodiment of lust and evil…

But whatever opinion we may have of this black, knobbly fungus, its reputation almost always precedes our actual experience of it. (I remember hesitating – albeit at the age of 16 and for only ONE second – before having a stab at my first sampling of it.)  Furthermore, whatever claims are made, much of the truffle’s secrets remains shrouded in mystery. So what are the true facts of this ugly fungus and why all the fuss?

Well, truffles can be either black (also known as melanospora) or white (magnata). Other varieties do exist but are not as highly prized. They grow underground, usually close to the roots of certain species of shrub oaks and hazel trees.  Truffle hunters greatly rely on luck to find them and have, for centuries, depended on sows to locate them. Turn a sow loose in a truffle orchard, and she’ll sniff like a bloodhound. And then she’ll dig with manic passion. Why? It all boils down to androstenol – a male pig hormone. Research has shown truffles to contain twice the amount of androstenol that is found in a male pig – hence the sow’s interest.  The fact that boar pheromones are chemically close to human male hormones probably explains why we too find the scent of truffles arousing.

truffle pig

Here I would like to pause and give a thought to the poor frustrated sow. Imagine her trotting through a truffle orchard that seems, to her, positively vibrating with sexy boars – every single one panting for her.  Yet all of these potential lovers are for some inexplicable reason doing their panting underground.  So here she is, driven wild with desire, and so to fulfill her passionate cravings she starts digging. And then?  Not only does all that frantic digging merely lead to a strange, lumpy, splotched mushroom, but then the farmer snatches it away from her!  All she can do is try digging for another potential suitor… I cannot think of a sadder story, can you?

truffle omelette

For most of us truffles are simply a luxurious treat, one that perhaps borders on hedonistic gluttony.  But not many of us can afford them very often. Because of their exorbitant cost, truffles are shaved into very thin slivers or tiny dice, then added to pasta and egg dishes or sprinkled sparingly over risotto, thinly sliced beef and shellfish – its decadent flavour attainable only to those who can afford its price.  For truffles can fetch as much as 2000 euros a kilo at a connoisseurs’ market – a place where an amateur risks being bamboozled into buying heavy, clay-covered or even fake specimens for the same exorbitant price.

RICHERENCHES Truffle Market

It is the end of January and I’m on my way to what is one of France’s largest and most famous of truffle markets – Richerenches, in Haute Provence.  It is a sunny but crisp, cold winter morning when we set out, driving through a landscape that is dotted with immaculately kept vineyards, plantain lined avenues, sandstone farmhouses with pale-blue shutters and leafless vine-covered pergolas.  Here and there patches of land are still covered with the white morning frost and black-bereted men in blue denim can be seen, hands tucked deep into their pockets, inspecting their dormant crops.

truffle market at Richerenches

It is 10 am and at the open-air market, farmers and brokers are poised for business. There is no dealing yet – everyone huddles in small groups, stamping their feet against the cold, measuring each other up from underneath the rims of their caps. There seems a lot of bragging and bluffing and teasing going on but the car boots remain firmly closed. Small-time truffle hunters roam from dealer to dealer, rustling a plastic or paper bag, occasionally allowing someone a furtive glance or a quick sniff at its content. Men with dirt under their fingernails and last night’s garlic on their breath huddle around a shabby old van. Behind them several rows of arching necks are trying to glimpse at the treasures on offer.

dealers…

At 11.30 a frisson ripples through the crowd. After all the strutting and boasting and haggling, it seems a price has been established. Today this is somewhere between 1200 and 1500 euros a kilo. Car boots are opened and the strong, intoxicating truffle scent suddenly pervades the air.  The provocative scent becomes almost too much. One man cooks truffled omelettes on a portable gas cooker, offering small pieces to potential customers.  Buyers dressed in expensive leather jackets stand beside their gleaming BMWs, many with Swiss number plates. They drop their noses into small plastic bags and if they like what they see, they’ll weigh the loot by means of ancient hand-scales and make an offer. Everyone watches intently as wads of crisp Euros are double-checked with much licking of thumbs and glancing over shoulders. Cheques are not accepted and receipts are never issued because truffistes are not eager to participate in that daft government ploy the rest of us call taxation. One vendor has only seven truffles left – he’s been selling large ones – at 300 euros a pop.

By midday, both buyers and sellers look happy. Tomorrow their truffles can be found in the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants across Europe. Or perhaps in the chic Parisian delicatessens of Fauchon and Hediard and at Harrods’s fine foods counter. (The latter do accept cheques of course – only you’ll be paying three times the price). Further along the market stalls a woman takes advantage of people’s bonne humour and sells freshly picked, flowering mimosa branches. Another peddles dried ceps, salty olives and pungent salamis.

furtive

Her neighbour hawks homemade quince preserves to eat with the goats’ cheese that her compatriot sells nextdoor, together with his truffled olive oil. The man beside him has a stack of oak saplings which he promises are mycorhizes or “injected with black truffle spores” for those who fancy ‘growing their own’…

But it’s time to leave the action – a truffled lunch awaits us in Bouchet – in a simple small inn called L’Auberge de la Poste.  It’s warm and cosy inside and we sit down immediately.  No apero is offered for who would want to kill the delicate truffle flavours with an overpowering pastis? Our starter is a buttery potato dish, dotted with slivers of truffle – the ultimate comfort dish to warm the cockles of our tastebuds.  En suite we are served small puff pastries, light as a feather, stuffed with foie gras and generously sprinkled with truffles.  Next is a light fluffy omelette generously studded with truffles and with each meal we drink a different local wine.

truffle pasta

Later that night, we were to eat more truffle scented food in the splendid surroundings of nearby Chateau de Rochegude – think grilled scallops with beurre blanc and grated truffles, truffled artichokes, tender veal with truffles..  But first, after lunch, a visit to a truffle orchard has been planned…

TRUFFLE HUNTING

Nowadays sows have been replaced by more easily-handled dogs. Unlike pigs however, the chiens truffiers do not instinctively sniff out truffles and must be trained for this work.

chien truffier

It is a labour-intensive and unpredictable business and truffle hunters, like good journalists, protect their sources.  For the latter however, watching a truffiste at work can be a dangerous preoccupation – especially if he has a wife. “Ies iet ma ‘ousband you make en photo?” she demanded brusquely, taking a swipe at my camera. I volunteer that I merely take pictures to illustrate my article.

monsieur le truffiste

She snorts and looks accusingly towards her husband who seems quite pleased with the attention, seeing as he has by now draped himself seductively over a leaning tree.   This does not convince her of my innocence, and she attempts a neat rugby tackle.  Monsieur le mari meanwhile relishes in the struggle and continues to make sure that his profile is at all times perfectly angled for my lens – a problem his wife tries to solve by trying another few clever moves.

Richerenches truffle mass

But the worry about others’ marital demeanours need not have kept me awake all night, for it appeared that all had been forgiven the next day – at the Truffle Mass celebrated in honour of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of truffle growers. Comme d’habitude parishioners are asked to donate generously, and as members of the Confrerie du Diamant Noir, in full ceremonial regalia, pass around the collection baskets, large truffles join the banknotes, and once again the evocative scent fills the air.

the collection baskets

I notice Madame La Truffiste who now sports a heavenly smile on her face as she generously contributes a handsome black specimen towards the worthy cause.

Because let’s face it, what after all, would the flutterings of love and marriage be without the truffle?

 

Copyright Petra Carter

 

Recipes

SCRAMBLED EGGS WITH BLACK TRUFFLES

Serves 2.

1 small truffle

4 eggs

2 tbsp butter

sea salt and freshly milled black pepper

Gently clean the truffle with a soft brush. Peel, then cut into thin, thin slivers. Beat the eggs in a bowl with 1 tbsp water and season. Melt the butter in a saucepan, then add the eggs. Cook the eggs, stirring continuously until softly cooked. Divide between two plates, top with truffle shavings and serve with crusty bread and butter.

RISOTTO WITH BLACK TRUFFLES

Serves 6.

1 large black truffle

2-3 tbsp olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp butter

350g Arborio or risotto rice

1.6 litre hot chicken stock

salt and freshly ground pepper

50g freshly grated or “shaved” Parmesan cheese

Gently clean the truffle with a soft brush. Peel as thinly as you can, then slice (also as thinly as you can). Put into a small bowl, cover with 2-3 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil, cover with clingfilm and set aside.

Carefully ‘sweat’ the onion in oil and butter for 5 minutes or until transparent. Stir in the rice until the grains are coated with oil and butter. Now add a generous ladle of hot stock, and stir with a wooden spoon until the liquid has been absorbed. Add a second ladle and stir again gently until it has been absorbed. Repeat until the stock has been used and the rice is creamy but not dry (about 20 minutes). Remove from the heat, stir in the oil from the truffle and season. Pile into individual deep plates and top with Parmesan and truffle slivers.

CRUSHED TRUFFLE MASH

Here the potatoes are lightly crushed rather than mashed. Wonderful with shellfish or beef. Serves 4

1 large truffle

5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

750g large, ‘old’ potatoes, cut into 3cm cubes

1 clove of garlic, peeled

salt and freshly milled black pepper

Gently clean the truffle with a soft brush then slice as thinly as you can. Put in a small bowl, cover with olive oil and keep in a warm place. Put the potatoes and garlic into a saucepan, add 1 tbsp salt and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat, cover with a lid and simmer for about 15 minutes or until soft. Drain the potatoes and garlic and return to the pan. Add the olive oil from the truffles, salt and pepper to taste, then with a fork gently crush the potatoes and garlic. Now stir in the truffle slivers and serve.

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The Joy of Cooking

bush picnic

My storm-tossed and weather-beaten 1974 edition of the JOY OF COOKING appears shabby and sad beside the new shiny 1999 volume. But tattered and stained as it is, sadness is definitely not a feeling that spring to mind.   Instead it jolts me back to happy times and recalls a hundred ‘premier‘ food occasions: – my first attempt at chilli con carne in my tiny make-shift bush kitchen, the quiches and salads I made for a lingering brunch under our bougainvillea and jasmin-covered pergola…  I remember the banana bread made for our expedition into the Tanzania hinterland, in search of “The Tree Where Man Was Born”…  and my very first scones for that simple but OUT-OF-AFRICA picnic in the Ngong Hills…

lunch in the bush

I was barely 22 and lived in Kenya then. Having just moved in with my boyfriend (a handsome Irish bush pilot who was to become my husband) I decided it was time that I acquired some cookery skills.  The old lady who owned the Nairobi Bookshop persuaded me that the JOY OF COOKING was the only book to consider – it would give me all the knowledge I needed. Its pricetag, 80/- Shillings (about $8 at the time) written in her hand, is still inside the cover.

I devoured that book and took its every word seriously: …“we are confident that after you have used this book steadily for a few

icecream churner

months, paying due attention to our symbols and especially to the “pointers to success”, you will master the skills of a cook…” it stated – the symbols referring to such variables as “altitude” and “outdoor” cooking which, considering that we lived 7000 tropical feet above sea-level and often cooked on campfires, was invaluable advice. With one theatre and two cinemas that changed programmes once a month if you were lucky, Kenya’s expats entertained themselves by throwing parties – no excuse was ever needed. Food and alcohol were cheap and JOY offered an unlimited supply of exciting ideas for meals as well as drinks. We had an ancient wooden ice-cream churner and JOY could always be relied upon for expert advice for rich American ice-creams – not to mention

market

the waffles made with one of those American irons, bought cheaply from a second-hand shop in town, no doubt left behind by some home-bound UN worker. JOY also covered ingredients that were then hardly heard of in Europe but that were widely available and plentiful in East Africa – such as avocados and limes, papayas and sweet potatoes, aubergines and custard apples. One of the ‘specials’ I acquired was an incredibly delicious oyster soup (unchanged in the updated JOY) which called for several pints of chucked oysters as well as a few pints of cream…

Irma Rombauer

The original JOY OF COOKING was self-published in 1931 by the recently widowed Irma Rombauer  of Cincinatti, Ohio – it was a compilation of up-to-date culinary information and full-proof recipes that she had collected from friends, neighbours, newspapers and magazines. Irma wrote the book at a time when domestic help was becoming a thing of the past. Women from all walks of life found themselves back in the kitchen and JOY helped to turn home cooking from a chore into a pleasure. It became a kitchen classic in America and made its first appearance on European bookshelves in 1946 – with advice on how to cope with post-war rationing. Marion Rombauer Becker, Irma’s daughter, subsequently updated and revised the book in 1963 and now her son Ethan Becker, Irma’s grandson, has put together this sixth and latest edition – complete with added chapters on contemporary food and nutritional information.

the new look

The symbols and pointers of the first editions have disappeared from the new publication and outdated recipes have made room for new ones that reflect contemporary lifestyles and tastes. But the helpful hand-drawn illustrations are still there and so is the encyclopaedic amount of background information and advice – from recipes for the gluten-sensitive and lactose-intolerant to tips on how to deal with anything from sea-urchins to laying tables. There is more emphasis on freshness, health and convenience in this edition, though tradition has not been forgotten – recipe classics such as Steak and Mushroom Pie or American Chocolate Brownies sit comfortably beside those for Italian Risottos, Indian Sag Paneer and Tuscan Bread and Tomato Soup. The new JOY OF COOKING has been three and a half years in the making and it remains one of the most practical, all-purpose guides on every aspect of cooking.

The book I bought in Nairobi promised me that I would eventually “revel in a sense of new-found freedom” and more importantly, “regain the priceless private joy of living, dining and sharing…” There’s no doubt that the knowledge and confidence I gained through JOY has given me that freedom. And yes, I believe the book helped to cultivate that thrill I get every time I share my table with others. Thinking back, it took me a few years, rather than months, to become a competent cook.  But one thing is for sure: it could not have been done it without JOY.

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A sabbatical in Africa…

A year in Malindi…

beach in malindi

I have been here now for two months – ‘here’ being Malindi, on the east coast of Kenya in East Africa.  Having  completed most of the preparation work (establishing basic communication lines, renting a little tree house and buying a 22-year-old four-wheel-drive) I can now settle down into what the calm and inspirational part of my ‘year out’.  Weather, needless to say, is glorious – despite the sometimes-stifling heat and sticky humidity.  I live an almost sinfully quiet existence…  Getting in touch with my ‘authentic self’ whilst basking in the balmy sea breeze of this tiny and ancient trading port ain’t half bad!

No access to TV, radio or newspapers means I feel at the same time completely shut off and yet strangely ‘protected’.  I guess if there is something I need to know, I will know soon enough

mosque

Meanwhile, and despite living in a Muslim community, I am blissfully unaware of what is happening in the world of angry men (Bush, Sadam, Blair, Bin Laden – who are they?) and devote myself to the serenity of matters more important – like simple living and feeding my soul…

I am reluctant to socialise, despite frequent invitations from (mostly retired) locals, whose boredom spurs them to entertain – if only to see a new face now and then. I try to paint and swim every day, but most of all I love talking with the Africans. Everyone seems so highly educated now compared with the time I lived here 25 years ago. Kenya has the highest literacy rate in Africa and parents’ first priority is to save enough to buy every one of their kids a school uniform – the only requirement to attend school as the country has a free school policy.  All this knowledge has made them more confident and relaxed, whilst showing an insatiable appetite for general knowledge. On the whole (at least here at the coast where food is plentiful) most people seem to make enough money to live comfortably. There is a general feeling of ease and most Africans seem content, displaying when things do go wrong, an acceptance and patience that is equalled only by the wise men from the East.

exotic plant

I have spent the last two months care-taking a house belonging to a friend’s mother who has been holidaying in Europe. It is an impressive house which stands on 2 acres of gardens, which horticulturalist Joan, aged 84, still takes care of herself, albeit with the help of two gardeners. There is an unbelievable array of plant species, each one smelling and looking different from the next – from luscious green shiny leaves oozing with the juices of life, to dark dry mysterious specimens, and from frivolous attention-seekers to soft, voluptuously furry numbers.  Some flowers are subtle or more delicate than the daintiest dandelion seed head, others shockingly vulgar with their long obscenely phallic or their weird bulbous shapes – all set amidst splashes of the most deliciously clashing colours of bright pinks, purples, oranges, yellows and reds.  It’s humbling to see that there is such a variety of species in the world.

Joan’s gardens also harbour shaded areas for vegetables and herbs, potting sheds and a number of secret paths under and around enormous baobab trees. In amongst all this abundance, there is a large swimming pool, and the house itself is on two floors with large verandas on both levels. From up here I have a birdseye view of all this beauty and am at eye level with the many bird species that flutter between the trees. But amongst the undergrowth lives another world of creatures, scuffling about doing their daily business: hedgehogs and lizards and newts and frogs and dormice with soft fluffy tails and colourful beetles and many species of ants and praying mantises. It can be a cruel world among those insects, where the winner always wins and the looser always loses. And yet it seems like paradise from up here…

beach

Literally two minutes (walk – not drive!) from this paradise is a deserted and sparkling white sandy beach, scattered with palmtrees and edged, in places, by tall neem trees (the ‘magic trees which are said to cure or ward-off 60 diseases). At high tide, there are deep rockpools in the sea, making it a comfortable place for swimming and snorkling. Needless to say, the sound of the pounding surf of the Indian Ocean is ever-present.

Just this week, I have moved into my very own rented treehouse – a mere two minutes away from a pristine beach and a place where the traditional fishermen repair their nets and sails and where they rest beside their hollowed-out tree-trunk ngalao‘s. They sometimes take me out to the reef where they fish for lobster and crab.

ngalao's

And occasionally, in the distance, I spot a romantic ancient Arab dhow – one of those elegant, century old, hand-carved wooden ships, with their hand-sewn, patched-up Egyptian cotton sails.

My treehouse is rather primitive but it does have electricity (in between the frequent daily powercuts).  The house also has a rudimentary bathroom, a tiny but well-equipped kitchen which has a large fridge (which equally functions as cupboard to protect dried foods from its many potential predators) and a basic stove. There is no glass in the little windows and there are no curtains…

treehouse

Every room contains treasured possessions from a by-gone era, at least 3 generations – not valuable in money-terms, but beautiful special things, in a sacred sort of way. Though often chipped or cracked, I never tire of revelling at the beautiful crockery and dishes, of gently touching the old books and art on the walls, of caressing the furniture and fabrics – old and worn as they are, and faded by the harsh African sun. It’s a complete mishmash of all sorts – and a secret glimpse into another world.

Like most of the houses here, my treehouse is built entirely from locally grown materials, with walls framed by mangrove, mango or sisal poles that are filled in with hand-cut coral ‘bricks’ and then white-washed.

tree house

Roofs are made with makuti (palmleaves) and inside, some of these ceilings are lined with painted hessian to protect against snakes which could sometimes accidentally fall out of the makuti. At the top of the house, in amongst the tree branches, there is one more beautiful room, with a simple wooden floor, sensually matured with years of weekly wax polishing, and evocative Arabic hand-carved furniture with cushions in colourful local fabrics. This room also has a palmleaf roof but this time it is open at the sides, making it a delightfully cool and breezy place to sleep on a hot night.

kikois for sale on the beach

The garden is a maze of little jungle-like paths interspersed with pretty seating areas, birdbaths and follies made out of locally found materials, and plenty of places for quiet contemplation or a cooling drink in the dapple-shade of the tall neem trees. Incidentally, my treehouse is the only house (of some 20 I have viewed in the last few weeks) that is not surrounded by grills, fences or gates. I have little of value so why would I imprison myself? There are two patios on either side of the house, depending on where the sun (or rather shade) is at the time of the day, with rustic furniture made from driftwood and scattered with more cushions covered in brightly patterned locally dyed fabrics. Here I can have breakfast, lunch and dinner out in the open, or sit by candle light and under the stars.

The house ‘comes with’ a loyal old servant called Baya who wears sophisticated horn-rimmed glasses that make him look like an old, learned professor. He is a quiet, sensitive man who takes care of me like I am his own daughter, and often goes around chuckling at my insanity of painting still  lives of fruit and vegetables! His passion is polishing copper and brass and when I paint under the neemtrees, he likes to sit beside me in total silence for hours – occasionally glancing over my work and nodding in quiet approval. I like his companionship very much. Our gurus tell us to concentrate on the present, to live in the now and to take pride in every little chore. We work hard to achieve this state of peace but to the African it comes naturally. Everything Baya does is done with his full attention and infinite care – not only without complaint, but with total dedication and pride. I can learn much from him. The idea of ‘employing a servant’ may repulse some of us, but it’s worth pointing out that most Africans consider that giving employment is possibly white-man’s only useful purpose in Africa today…

mosquito nets upstairs in the treehouse

Whilst there is no luxury in my little house (if you don’t call having your laundry washed and ironed luxurious) it is a very magical place. The chicken wire in the windows is to stop the monkeys or monitor lizards from entering. There are no smart, shiny surfaces or gleaming taps. My toast is made on an old wire rack over an open flame, my clothes cupboard consists of a wooden pole behind a cotton curtain, my shower water is heated by the sun and my lighting comes mostly from paraffin. But there is nothing lacking. Semi-transparent mosquito nets romantically waft in the breeze, blooming gardenias perfume the air, twittering birds provide the background music and there is total and utter peace. Things cannot get more idyllic.

malindi market

And yes, the milk goes off if you leave it out for 10 minutes, and the roads are full of potholes (sometimes the size of one’s car), you can never count on electricity, the network is mostly down and the shops often run out of things. But you CAN get live prawns the size of a baby’s arm everyday an hour after they were caught, a bucket of crabs or clams costs a few pennies, and the most famous halwa in the world, made with fragrant cardamom and pistachios, is made right here in Malindi and exported all over the world. And there are sunsets to make you cry with the beauty of it all. Life is good here. If it weren’t for that giant monkey that keeps me awake at night by ripping at my delicately knotted makuti roof. But sweet old Baya has promised to catapult it away tonight. No doubt the darling man will stay up all night, squatting on the patio of his little house, ready to pounce. Whatever it takes to please or protect me. No use me saying otherwise. He considers it his job. And his pleasure.

colobus monkey

My senses too are acutely alive here – almost exaggerated. Smells for instance: I can smell approaching rain half an hour before it arrives. And I can smell when the tide is in or out without looking at the sea. Everything has a smell – familiar ones, like corn being roasted over charcoal at the roadside stalls, or the smell of dust or freshly sawn wood at a carpenter’s shed. The sweet smells of wild frangipani flowers or fragrant ripe mangos or melons, acrid smells of melting rubber or a roaming goat, the pungency of dried spices and worn leather… And then there are the sounds, of a million different birds – whooping, cawing, singing,

fluttering, the buzzing of an insect, the cackle of hens that run around freely everywhere, the excited chatter of Muslim women dressed in their black bui buis, children laughing and playing in the cool of the evening with toys made of old empty food cans and sticks or running up a palm tree for the precious milk in a green coconut. I love the wonderfully spiritually soothing, monotonous Muslim chanting blasted from garishly decorated mosques six times a day. The wise old men in squeaky clean kikois and prayer-hats, leaning on walkingsticks, on their way  to evening prayer. And I adore their gentle Swahili greetings – the way they lightly touch their foreheads and hearts. Shikamoo Mzee. Salaam maleikum. Maleikum salaam.

Everything is special and precious. Right now, as I’m sitting here typing on the veranda, there is a flowering orange-red ‘flaming’ Thika tree beside me that is alive with dozens of chattering sunbirds in all the stunning colours of the rainbow. Last night, coming back from my evening swim, I met a hedgehog trundling through the garden and when I had my supper on the veranda, I heard, amongst the racket of nocturnal frogs and crickets, two little bushbabies calling each other in the trees.

Feeding my soul alright. By the bucket-load… To overflowing…

By Petra Carter, http://www.petracarter.com
Malindi 2003

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Selling Mountpleasant

This is a copy of an article I wrote for the Irish Times in 2005, just before selling our beautiful Georgian home in Dublin’s Mountpleasant Square. And just before I moved to the South of France to run a cookery school…

Our home in Mountpleasant Square, Dublin

Selling up on the square after all these years – Irish Times, 24 March 2005

It was spring 1979, and we had returned to Dublin after some years in East Africa. Hard to imagine now, but Ireland was going through an unprecedented property boom, and there was that same feverish sense of urgency to “get onto the property ladder” as there is today.

Our first son was born two months later and, while renting a flat in Ranelagh, we set about looking for a house to buy. I wanted to stay in D6.   Having stumbled across Mountpleasant Square by accident, its uniqueness, secrecy and oodles of (then dilapidated) charm, had me hooked.

Friends told my (Irish) husband that I was crazy and reckoned that, as a blow-in, how could I possibly know about the importance of location, location? “It’s flatland at its worst,” they said. “The pits,” others added. “And besides, there are those tenement buildings right next door!”

It wasn’t to be anyway. Our life’s savings amounted to £4,000. We made offers on various small Georgian houses but, even with a large mortgage, were outbid each time.

Country properties were more desirable then – everyone wanted to get out of Dublin and, as he was a pilot and had to commute to the airport, so did John.   Thus we lived in Co Meath for a few years, but I didn’t forget Mountpleasant.

So when the opportunity presented itself to buy a small restaurant and move back to Dublin, I jumped at the chance of looking again at Ranelagh. We viewed an endless stream of houses and again we lost as many as we bid for.   Frustratingly, every house we liked was again some £4,000 above budget – a huge sum at that time. And then, there it was – number 27 in my “dream square” on the market…

We loved the house of course. A 75ft south-west facing garden not only meant a sunny playground for the boys, but more importantly, evening sun on the patio for relaxed meals after work.    Rear access to Mountpleasant Avenue with two shops right beside meant we’d never again have to run out of milk or bread.

And there was the sports element: the tennis club with its 11 outdoor all-weather courts and its squash/badminton hall, and the Leinster Cricket Club at the back of the house would not only provide us with interest and exercise, but hopefully entice our sons into sports at an early age – as it did. We were surrounded by the best schools and colleges, and whilst Ranelagh now boasts well over 30 fabulous neighbourhood restaurants, in those days the village offered an amazing array of specialist shops. Remember McCambridges delicatessen, with its rows of fragrant spice jars?  The all-knowing and all-selling Murphy’s hardware? And the colourful Keegans greengrocers and fishmongers?

Needless to say we were seduced. But of course the house was again over-budget. The restaurant deal fell through, yet we chose to take the plunge and make the potentially dangerous decision to borrow the extra money – NOT to buy carpets or curtains or furniture . . . in those days you would do without, until you could afford them.    John was a freelance pilot in a pre aviation-boom era and he had already been made redundant once, when AVAIR went bust in 1984.  Moreover, mortgage rates were a whopping 17.5 per cent!

We had sleepless nights for five years – in case we couldn’t pay our mortgage and would lose the house. But we survived these economically uncertain times.

Over the years we restored more than we renovated, as we love the charm of truly original Georgian houses with their elegant tall windows that allow the light to flood in, the exquisitely crafted details, the quality of the materials and the pure, perfect beauty of it all.

There is an active residents’ association that cares enough to have established a well-planned regeneration scheme for the square.    As residents, we may think we own these valuable houses but in fact we’re only tenants in a historical square that must be preserved for the future – a romantic view but it has been wonderful to be able to nurture the seeds of appreciation and respect for history and beauty in our sons (one of whom chose architecture as his profession).   A copy of Susan Roundtree’s 1991 Master thesis on urban and building conservation, which is entirely devoted to Mountpleasant Square, is a fascinating source of information and should stay in the house.

Now, with both our boys educated, we can afford to make changes. And plans. We can sell and buy a smaller house in Dublin, then spread our wings and follow our dreams.  We could go trekking through Africa, or backpacking in India.  I could run a cookery school in the south of France and paint for pleasure. John could fly his glider around the Irish skies. It is all possible. Thanks to the (at the time truly frightening) risk we were prepared to take – way back then…

Address: 27 Mountpleasant Square, Ranelagh, Dublin 6  -  Details: restored three-bed Georgian with original details, attic room and a potential mews site.     Auction date: April 21st 2005

© 2005 The Irish Times

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