July was called the "hungry month" in the west of Ireland.
The hedge-rows were full of blossoms, but there was little on the table.
Last year's potatoes were nearly used up and what was left of them were soft and soggy. The new year's potatoes would not be ready until August at the earliest. (Some seaside areas, however, had earlier potatoes).
The milk was flowing well, however. The cow and goat were very efficient machines at turning grass and herbs into a wonderful and tasty set of foods: Cream, butter, drinking milk, curds, cheese perhaps, buttermilk, milk-water (whey and lactose solution left over after extracting other foods from the liquid milk).
Six million peasants, before the famine, (more than halved in number afterwards) lived almost exclusively on potatoes and milk. There were many ways of making tasty meals out of potatoes: boiled in the skin, baked, roasted in butter or fat, sliced and fried, part-boiled and part fried, boiled and mashed, shredded and fried in butter (boxty), shredded and baked (rostie), and so on.
"Boxty" comes from the Irish words "bocht tí," which means "poor person's house." Poor land would not grow wheat, and a poor man could not afford to buy flour. Boxty was made from a mixture of freshly shredded potatoes and cooked potatoes, formed into a cake and slowly fried in butter on the pan. It wasn't bread, but it resembled griddle-bread in appearance and made a tasty meal. Still available and appreciated in the west!
A very special potato dish was reserved for the month of July, i.e., Colcannon (also permitted at Hallowe'en, but then with more mature cabbage or kale).
Colcannon is distinguished from ordinary mashed potatoes (and more particularly from mashed potatoes carelessly made, with excessive moisture retained or over-mashed) called "Stampy." The soft potatoes are firstly hardened up by soaking in cool water overnight. Then they are boioled in their jackets, peeled and lightly mashed, and left under low heat to dry to the correct moisture level. The thinnings from the onion patch (spring onions) and the outer leaves of the young cabbages are picked, chopped, and lightly cooked. Most importantly, a good quantity of cream off the top of the milk is whisked until it is thick ("whipped cream"). The whipped cream and the greens are gently mixed into the potatoes, to make a delicious meal, served hot to the table. Open a crater in the top of the conical pile of potato on your plate, and into the crater drop a good dollop of butter. Delicious!
Pictures taken today by the Royal Canal between Glasnevin and Ashtown: July blossoms.
Did you ever eat Colcannon, made with the thickened cream?
With the greens and scallions mingled like a picture in a dream.
Did you ever make a hole on top to hold the melting flake
Of the clover-flavoured butter that your mother used to make?
Oh you did, I know you did, so did he and so did I.
And the more I think about it, sure, the nearer I'm to cry.
Oh, weren't them the happy days when troubles we knew not,
And your mother made Colcannon in the little skillet pot.
Well did you ever take potato cake or boxty to the school,
Tucked underneath your oxter with your book, your slate and rule?
And when teacher wasn't looking, sure, a fine big bite you'd take,
Of the clover-flavoured buttered sweet potato cake.
Well did you ever go a-courting as the evening sun went down,
And the moon began a-peeping from behind the Hill o' Down?
As you wandered down the boreen where the leprechaun was seen,
And you whispered loving phrases to your little fair Colleen.
Proinnsias - Krunchie As
"Proinnsias" sounds the same as "Krunchie as," except with a P instead of a K. I was christened "Francis Killeen," but adopted the Irish form of this name "Proinnsias Ó Cillín." ("Cillín," which means "treasure," sounds exactly the same as "Killeen"). Some people have difficulty pronouncing "Proinnsias," and some children in my neighbourhood called me "Krunchie," a nickname that stuck.