Cormac MacConnell: He’s a savage for bacon and cabbage

We steamed out across the Devil’s Acre one August Bank Holiday weekend, about 25 years ago, to Tory Island, away far off the Donegal coast. And the sun never stopped shining that day.

There were two of us, reporters worn down to the bone from covering the Troubles in Belfast and Derry, for weeks on end without rest.

When we got relieved at last, we headed for rest and recuperation on Tory.

There are two memories I have still powerfully with me from that brief island holiday.

One is of sleeping solidly for two days on a feather tick, in a glorious bedroom overlooking the pier, only getting up to go to the bathroom. The pure joy of sleeping soundly without the sound of gunfire and explosions and anger rattling the window-panes.

No stories to be filed the following morning. Relaxation and ease.

And the second equally pungent memory is of the first dinner that the gentle woman of the house put in front of me on the oilskin tablecloth in the front room, when hunger finally made itself felt. She put in front of me, on a huge white delph plate, a mighty feed of bacon and cabbage and floury spuds bursting out of their waistcoats, beside a saucer of fresh English mustard, and a pint glass of cold milk.

I will never ever forget the unique taste of that healing meal.

In my working life, I have covered State banquets in Dublin and elsewhere, and feasted on the upmarket fare and chateau wines served on such occasions, even at the press tables in the corner. Elsewhere, in the line of duty, I have also dined well on many occasions across a wide range of cuisines. But I have never ever tasted anything as elementally nourishing and satisfying as that dinner on Tory Island all those years ago.

I did a bit of research this week, and was pleased to discover that I am not alone in my love for a plate of bacon and cabbage and spuds.

All the men I talked to agreed that, every now and again, a powerful hunger for the traditional countryman’s dinner seized them and, when that occurred, no other dinner would suffice.

Intriguingly, we were also all agreed that collar bacon tastes better than (the more expensive) ham cuts with the cabbage, maybe because of the more fatty flavour. And the majority of us preferred to avoid the white sauce so often served with the meal. But the English mustard was a must for all. The pure truth yet again.

It can be difficult enough nowadays to access the old dish which was the stable of our forefathers, if you seek it in many restaurants. Is it not posh enough for the modern masses?

I know that my father’s farm family killed two fat pigs every autumn, and had bacon and cabbage about every day of the week back in the old days. As a child visiting his home house, I can recall seeing flitches of bacon hanging from the hooks on the roof. And they were common for years later too.

I suppose the health and safety inspectors would raise holy murder over that today.

I enjoy bacon and cabbage nowadays — at least once or twice every ten days — and always think back fondly to Tory Island as I reach for the knife and fork.

Turn on any TV channel, any morning when drinking your tea or coffee and, inside ten minutes, the presenters will lead you into their TV kitchen set where, invariably, chefs are drizzling bloody olive oil over all manner of strange meats and vegetables that have more food miles behind them than a 1976 Morris Minor.

You will never ever see a good solid nourishing plate of spuds on the table, or anything at all that looks like either bacon or cabbage. It’s all roulades and pastas and curries and paninis and yokes I don’t know the names of, and anyway would not touch with a 40-foot pole, even if I was starving.

We were born and bred to thrive and survive on spuds and bacon and cabbage.

On the international culinary scene, it seems that we are represented only by Irish Stew. Depending on the cook, this is a fair enough meal, but it is nowhere near as fundamentally nourishing and tasty as what was laid before me as a salve and salvation that afternoon on Tory Island long ago.

As I write, the powerful hunger strikes me again, and I already know what I will be having for dinner this evening.You could do a lot worse too...


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