I start the day the usual way: getting bread together so that by the time everyone is hungry it might actually be ready. It takes ages. In normal times you can buy fast action dried yeast. The whole thing is easy – in fact, it’s pretty fast action. Out comes bread machine bucket. In goes 350ml water. In goes a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of sugar. On top goes 500g strong white flour. A heap of unmeasured dried yeast. Dough programme. Bang. Voila. Job done. 1hr 26 mins later turn it out, whack into 10 rolls, watch it rise, coo over it with son Paddy (18) occasionally, as he has the bread-making bug, as does my dad, also Paddy. But since The Emergency you can’t get fast action dried yeast, so I have been reconstituting regular dried yeast, which requires a lot more faffing about, with jugs of water that aren’t too cold (makes the yeast sulk) and aren’t too hot (makes the yeast die of a heart attack), with the right amount of sugar and so on and so on. A week or so ago I noticed the level of yeast in the tin was dropping, and of course you can’t buy that online either at the moment, so I took the plunge…I bought a sourdough starter online. I got it from Kefir Grains, who do all kinds of crazy stuff in their kitchen, bag up the results and send it hither and thither. Mine arrived a day or two later and of course it had to be quarantined for 24 hours, and then I couldn’t be bothered opening it, so by the time I got to looking at the packet of my two starters after a very nice dinner one evening (rye and strong white) I saw a big notice on the packs saying “Activate Immediately!” Nothing else. I had no idea what that meant and it wasn’t written anywhere so I wrote a slightly drunken email to Kefir Grains (really sorry about that, I know it’s very clearly written on your website) imploring them to tell me what I had to do. “Check the website,” said my husband Marcel, and within a few minutes I had fed the starter with flour and water. Now it’s a few days later and the starters are making bubbles in their respective jars and smell good, so it’s time to use them. I have no idea how much to use, so I bang it into the bread bucket with other usual bread making stuff and hope for the best. And look at it! It rose in the oven like a sphinx from the ashes. Golden and tall and more than three times the size it was when it came out of the bread machine. I cannot put into words how happy this makes me, and so sketch it I must. It has a crunchy crust and goes rather well with a gin and tonic…which is my way of saying that it arrived rather later to come out of the oven than lunchtime. Kneading, proving, baking, cooling…making bread takes up pretty much most of quarantine time. Even when the bread machine does all the hard work.
I hear a clip on the Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk FM. It seems that in the Czech Republic it’s now mandatory for everyone to wear a mask in public. In three days the country rallied and produced enough masks for 10 million people. Every premises imaginable was turned into a sewing room. No health worker did without one, as they were all home-made. They believed in the power of a mask: “I protect you, and you protect me.” The proof is in the pudding: the Czech Republic had 31 deaths IN TOTAL to Covid at the time they made the little video clip, whereas their near neighbour Holland had hundreds of deaths each day. That’s all the evidence you need: anyone knows, or should know, that when you do an experiment you change just one factor to see what difference it makes. They are doing all the things everyone else is doing, other than the masks being compulsory – social distancing, hand washing etc. I hate people who say “think about it!” but think about it – “I protect you and you protect me.” Even if you are not protected from the virus entering your body by wearing a mask, you might protect someone else, who in turn is protecting you if they are wearing one. Very simple. How long will it take before the western governments make it mandatory? Or are all those millions of folk in the Far East all wrong? Is there a teeny chance we’re trying to reinvent the wheel?
While I wait for the bread to rise, I take a spin around the block, making sure that I am no further than 2km from home. I see these beauties on the roadside. Primroses always remind me of my home on the side of a Co. Wicklow mountain as a child. My amazing parents bought a clearing with a steep incline and built a very 1970s mountain home, complete with one of those brick fireplaces sticking out into a split-level living-room with forest out the huge picture windows, into which field of vision would occasionally stray a deer. Looking out of the window up to the right was the mountain and dense, looming forest, looking left down the mountain was an overgrown bank that led to a pristine, peaty river from which all our water came, fed from the highest waterfall in Ireland or Britain, just a few hundred metres from us. As a little girl I roamed freely on the steeply sloping bank with my brothers and sisters – there were many – but I was really in a world of my own. We were completely free all day long, every day. The bank was covered in fallen trees, and was always a reddish brown in spring, covered as it was in last year’s bracken. Scattered across it were hundreds and hundreds of bunches of pale yellow primroses, like an invasion of tiny and very pretty spaceships. When I was little, I had this ambition to pick a giant bunch of primroses, that would fill an entire armload, and tie them with a ribbon and give them to my mother. I didn’t manage to pick more than a few but I knew that one day I would get enough for an enormous bouquet. It never happened: I grew up instead. I think I might venture out with my sketchbook one of these fine days and paint a primrose just for my lovely mother.
It’s Zoom time. My adorable kids are all lined up and ready to go. I’m getting better at this thing and so are they. Now I know how to mute the kids when I need silence, but they’re brilliant and usually remember to do it themselves. The class is fun. I get the kids to draw cute animals and they choose what kind of faces to draw on them. They think they’re just drawing cute stuff but they are learning the power of eyebrows and ways to adjust an expression. And always how to get better with watercolour. I do a second class an hour later: this time they’re drawing those huge manga eyes. I ask the kids questions that are unrelated to art – they like to be quizzed. The ones who get the answers back first get to choose the colours we’re going to paint the eyes. Twin girls answer correctly at the same time, on different (brand new) phones, so they each get to choose a colour for a pair of eyes. One is purple and blue, the other yellow and green. Great girls. All great kids. This week, two brothers have made a chocolate cake for their parents’ wedding anniversary, which is today. Into the kitchen goes the camera and they proudly show everyone the cake, which is cut into the shape of a heart. All the other kids contribute their opinions, on chocolate cake and on buttercream icing, which is going on top. This is by way of trying to describe how perfectly wonderful these kids are. I am feeling confident enough with Zoom to offer classes to my lovely followers. Feel free to express enthusiasm in the comments below! I can’t promise cake though…
I am so excited about the success of my sourdough starter that I phone up my dad Paddy and tell him I am buying him some. He is a creature of habit – and at 85 he likes his routine very much indeed – but he is enthusiastic about it and I guess he’ll try anything to keep boredom at bay in the home which he cannot leave. The poor sourdough starter will be hungry by the time it gets to him, but at least I will be on hand to tell him how to feed it, and no one will be sent slightly drunken messages.