About a month ago, an invitation was issued to members of the Irish Food Bloggers assocation to enjoy a tour of the Bramley apple orchards, located at St. Margaret's, Dublin (courtesy of Keelings). The mere suggestion of Bramley cooking apples sucked me into a time vortex (thankfully sans swirly lights and music) back to my childhood and to the time when I received my first introduction to cooking.
My educator was my maternal grandmother, known to me as Ma. She lived about 2 miles from us, on her own in a farmhouse that had never really been modernised. Her sole cooking devices were an open fireplace and an old enamelled gas cooker, which lurked in the back kitchen, clearly playing second fiddle to the fireplace.
When it came to cooking meat and two veg, Ma definitely came from the old-school style of cooking. This could also be more accurately described as the "lash it all into the one pot and boil until grey" style of cooking. I used to be entranced by the fact that she would boil whole onions, which would be served translucent on the plate alongside the poatoes and meat du jour. My fascination however, never extended to actually eating one.
Ma was a serial visiter of funerals and upon receipt of the daily edition of The Cork Examiner, she'd turn straightaway to the Deaths section and mark out her travel itinerary for the next few days. She would then use her pensioners' allowance from Telecom Eireann to deliver the driving orders to my mother. Once I gained my first provisional licence, she quickly realised that she now had two drivers at her disposal. And thus it was that I spent many days driving up narrow winding country backroads in West Cork and Kerry, delivering my grandmother to removals, rosaries and wakes. One of the major (but mainly useless) benefits of this was an in-depth knowledge of church and funeral home locations. I also developed an unnatural ability to predict when I would next encounter a single sheep in the middle of the road.
Sheep detection skills aside, the key benefit of accompanying my death-obsessed grandmother was the fine food presented in the parlours and front rooms. Victoria sponges with fresh cream and home-made jam, snowy white with icing sugar. Fresh warm scones, served with more lashings of the same home-made jam. (I should point out that the foodie word "preserves" would have never been uttered, it was always simply "jam"). And there was always an apple tart. A home-made tart, in the shallow country-style, with golden encrusted seams where the juices had escaped during baking.
I was convinced that my Ma made the finest tart of them all. She would never have held with the modern styles of deep dishes or the addition of cinnamon or other spices. She knew just one way to make an apple tart, but by God, it was a good way. First out would be the mixing bowl with flour, measured by china cup, along with butter, egg & milk. Pastry made, it was used to line the enamel dish, into which she would then layer sliced "cookers", or Bramley apples, a sprinkle of sugar and then the pastry lid. A quick coating of milk and into the oven. Her pastry never rose, and her style was quick and rough, but some magical alchemy happened in that oven. What emerged was heavenly, a transubstantiation, if you will, of the coarse, tart Bramleys into a sweet, fragrant dish.
The shallow old-fashioned apple tart, made with Bramleys will forever remind me of my grandmother. There is nothing else that transports me so quickly back to her kitchen, with its open turf fire and wooden settle. I still sometimes make this style of apple tart when I'm at my parents' house, and best of all, my mother still has the old enamel dish my grandmother used to use. Some things just can't be beaten.
Written in loving memory of Margaret Scriven.