Forty shades of green

by mimithorisson

Mr McDonnell’s way

“Happy wife, happy life!” said Mr McDonnell as we drove (incredibly fast) in his Mercedes from Dublin to Limerick on a very grey but green afternoon in late October. It was his way of explaining why he had been prepared, on a Saturday, to drive 3 hours to Dublin airport and then 3 hours back, all the way to Glin castle on the other side of Ireland. It’s not that he’s not a busy man, as owner of a great big cow farm there are things to do, even on Saturdays, but “I’m always happy to help”. And three days later, as he drove us to the airport, albeit a closer one, we had come to understand that his mantra is true of many of the Irish in general. They are happy to help!

I had wanted to visit Ireland for most of my adult life and while it’s close enough to France, and even closer to England, where I lived for many years, I never had a good enough reason – sometimes you need a reason to do things, even things you desperately want to do. It turned out, in the end, that there were two reasons. Mr McDonnell’s wife, Imen, and her partner in crime Cliodhna. They’ve been doing their best for Ireland for years now, drawing attention to their respective home towns, local producers and traditions. Their joint enterprise, the beautifully named “Lens and Larder” is a collection of workshops usually co-hosted by them and people they invite, like Oddur and I, who also live and breathe in the world of food and photos.

The venue was irresistible, a real castle with a rich history and glorious gardens. The promise of days filled with cooking and eating and a historic pub that allegedly serves some of the best Guinness stout in Ireland – and not much else. The last part was enough to convince my husband, that and the fact that they’ve recently discovered in Iceland that their heritage is much less Norwegian than previously thought but considerably more Irish. A genetics company in Iceland, DeCode, has found through extensive studies that the Icelandic nation is comprised of around 80% Norwegian men and as much as 60-70% Celtic women. Maybe not the most romantic statistic, quite a brutal one actually, but it goes a long way to explaining why Icelanders look less like Swedes and more like, well, the Irish.

No sooner had we arrived at Glin castle before I was whisked away from my grand bedroom complete with a four-poster bed, an enormous, carpeted bathroom (incredibly practical when travelling with a 1-year-old) and a welcome bucket of Champagne to the loveliest dinner in the reddest of dining rooms. Our hosts that night were Catherine whose father was the last Knight of Glin and her actor husband Dominic West. We had started with a sloe gin cocktail (which I liked even if I am not a fan of gin) drunk out of teacups which was quite charming and eccentric, but soon moved on to the Bordeaux wine we had brought with us, several vintages of Château Lafon-Rochet – Merci Basile 🙂 – which everybody loved. When it comes to wine, nobody does it better than “us” Bordeaux people. The evening ended with a “professional” game of Charades, led of course by Dominic but by then I was safely tucked away in that four-poster bed, sleeping soundly with baby Lucian while the others moved on to Irish whiskey.

A pub and kitchen garden

Perhaps my favorite part of the entire weekend came the following morning when Catherine, a landscape gardener, took us on a tour of the family gardens, filled with centuries worth of exotic trees which, surprisingly, thrive perfectly well in rainy Ireland. She’s so passionate about her gardens, to which she’s adding and preserving, making it one of the missions of her life like her grandmother before her. Imagine an English/Irish beauty in a fairytale or a children’s book – that’s Catherine. My dearest souvenirs I take from her kitchen gardens. Classically seperated from the rest of the fields, so beautiful and practical at the same time – some of the best leafy greens and herbs I’ve ever had came from that garden and it’s inspired us to plant some new varieties in our own “potager” back home.

The huntsmen (and their children) came out in full uniform to greet us and while there was no actual hunt that day we had a fabulous huntsman lunch, complete with mackerel, ham and hot toddies. In the evening we had a pub dinner, oysters and Irish lamb stew. The music that night was traditional and beautiful but perhaps the most beautiful sentiment from that evening came from the pub’s owner or caretaker Thomas O’Shaughnessy. He inherited the place from his father, a legendary figure, and while it wasn’t particularly his dream to run a pub (he has another full-time job and only opens when he can), he considers himself the caretaker of the place and his duty to preserve it. Later I found this quote from Thomas in an article about the O’Shaughnessy pub : “O’Shaughnessy was the name above the bar when I got it. And it’ll be the name above it when I go. That’s all I can do”. This is an endearing thought to me and I found a lot of encouragement in Ireland – people seem to understand and value their heritage which is paramount in these times of globalisation and consumerism. It isn’t easy to run a small business and a small village. But it can and must be done, and we should all support it.

In the end we didn’t see much of Ireland, just a glimpse and a rosy, curated one at that. But we saw enough to want to come back very soon and one thing stands out above all – the green isle is truly green. Everything is so (in local speak) bloody green. I think I remember correctly that Imen’s husband told us Johnny Cash wrote his song “forty shades of green” as he was taking off in a plane and flying over Ireland. No wonder, that’s the impression you get, so so green and moist and inviting. Only thing is though, the shades are more like a million.

Johnny Cash’s song is beautifully written, here are the lyrics:

I close my eyes and picture
The emerald of the sea
From the fishing boats at Dingle
To the shores of Donadea

I miss the river Shannon
And the folks at Skibbereen
The moorlands and the meddle
With their forty shades of green

But most of all I miss a girl
In Tipperary town
And most of all I miss her lips
As soft as eiderdown

Again I want to see and do
The things we’ve done and seen
Where the breeze is sweet as Shalimar
And there’s forty shades of green

Green, green, forty shades of green

I wish that I could spend an hour
At Dublin’s churching surf
I’d love to watch the farmers
Drain the bogs and spade the turf

To see again the thatching
Of the straw the women glean
I’d walk from Cork to Larne to see
The forty shades of green

But most of all I miss a girl …

The ballad of Sam and Niamh

Two people who I haven’t mentioned yet but had a great, positive if gently quiet influence on our days in Ireland were Sam and Niamh. They live across the great river Shannon in county Clare but had come across for a few days to help out with Imen and Cliodhna’s workshop. They made us the best breakfasts, lunches and dinners, cocktails and hot toddies but most of all they were just lovely. He’s a real renaissance man, good with his hands as they say and she works wonders in the kitchen. I’m hoping to lure them over one day to teach us a trick or two (my husband could use a tip or two when it comes to gardening and carpentry) but as they’re expecting a baby that will probably have to wait. One of my favorite things they made was a crab salad served on a fresh endive – I might add that recipe to this post later on – but for now, here is their recipe for the traditional Irish soda bread that I couldn’t get enough of during my stay at Glin castle.

Traditional Soda Bread Recipe (see last picture in post)

Makes 1 loaf

Total time to make: 55 minutes


225 g/ 1 3/4 cupswhole wheat (wholemeal) flour
225 g/ 1 3/4 cups all-purpose (plain) flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
50 g/ 3 tablespoons/ mixed seeds, such as sesame, pumpkin, or sunflower, or golden flax seeds (linseeds) (optional)
25 g/ 2 tablespoons butter, softened (optional)
1 egg
375–400 ml/ 1 2/3 cups buttermilk or soured milk

Preheat the oven 180C/ 350F

Mix dry together and then rub in butter and add wet all in one, knead as little as possible. Sprinkle with seeds or oats on top and slit with a serrated knife down the middle. Just like a cake get it into the tin and in the oven ASAP

Bake at 180C/ 350F for 45 mins.

Stick in a pin in the middle and if it comes out clean, it’s done.

Cool on rack before serving.

Onwards and upwards

Those who are interested in finding out more about what Imen and Cliodhna (or Climen as my husband likes to call them) can go to their site lens & larder. They are always plotting something and might even lure us back to Ireland in the spring – which is very tempting, we’ll see 🙂

On another note, it’s worth mentioning that Glin castle, which has had many lives – one as a hotel – is potentially up for event letting, meaning that if you’re interested to head to Ireland with a sizeable group and play castle for a few days, then that’s utterly possible. It’s a dream I might add.

And finally, regarding our own workshops here in Médoc (and elsewhere) since we announced last summer we’ve had an overwhelming response and most touchingly over 100 requests from people who want to or are at least considering returning. Many workshops are completely full but some have a little leverage (sometimes people change their plans etc) – so if you’re interested don’t hesitate to write and we’ll see what we can do.