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An Irish Chef in France - A Cork Childhood Christmas

Lotaville

Euro-Toques chef Martin Dwyer, is much missed in Ireland since he and his wife Sile sold their eponymous restaurant in Waterford and moved to France. They now live in the Languedoc, where they take guests - and feed them very well.

This month:  A Cork Childhood Christmas

We always went to Lotaville for lunch on Christmas day. Lotaville was my father’s family home, a stately Victorian Villa in Glanmire, overlooking the river Lee about 3 miles outside Cork city.

It was what they call a “Gentleman’s Residence”, in about two or three acres of gardens, including a disused tennis court and large greenhouses where we were allowed to pick the delicious black grapes in September.

The house itself was quite large but without a lot of bedrooms, probably about four or five, but these were huge. It also had a tower built in on one side, a piece of Victorian-Gothic whimsy which could only be scaled inside by a series of ladders, and which the boys were allowed climb after lunch on Christmas day.

The inhabitants of the house were an odd lot to my young eyes. The head of the house (we would always have described a trip there as going to Granny Dwyers) was my Granny.
She was small and round and, as far as I was concerned, permanently cross.

My elder sister remembers someone quite different, someone warm who spoiled her, but, by the time I got to know her life had squeezed most of the joy from her, and, as the seventh child, the best emotion I could expect from her was tolerance.

My grandfather we called Dubs, he and Granny lived totally different lives within this house. As well as having his own bedroom, Dubs had his own drawing room, a large brown masculine room with large windows overlooking the river.

This he shared with various small dogs, of which he was very fond. He was also fond of his grandchildren and I remember always feeling welcome when I entered his room.

Granny’s Drawing Room was at the end of the corridor but also looked over the river. In contrast with Dubs room it was feminine and chintzy with carpet and curtains in pale greens and pinks.
Granny shared this room with another member of the household; Auntie Kat.

Auntie Kat was a classic maiden Aunt, my Granny’s unmarried sister and she was shared between Granny’s household and that of her younger sister at a farm in Mitchelstown. It was always obvious to me, from the way she used to talk about the farm and the family there, that that was her favoured billet. Auntie Kat smoked “like a chimney”, she always had a Woodbine in the corner of her mouth and her cloud of white hair had permanent brown nicotine stain in that place where the smoke ascended.

The other member of the household, and to me much the most interesting, was Lena. Lena was the cook and her kingdom was in the large, dark basement kitchen. Lena was an old retainer and as I remember her quite lame, she got about with some difficulty using a stick. This did not stop her doing all the cooking and ruling over the girls who had been brought in for serving on Christmas day with an iron hand.

She was a kindly lady though and would tolerate us children “under her feet” for short periods. These visits to the kitchen would have to be organised with some skill as it was strictly forbidden to go “annoying Lena” before lunch on Christmas day.

Despite all embargos I can still remember being put by her up on a chair in the kitchen to better see her making the bread sauce for the turkey. I still have a memory of the delicious smell of the milk infusing with an onion studded with cloves, as Lena grated stale bread with which to thicken the sauce.

The lunch itself was not my favourite part of the day. For all Lena’s kindness the food was much better at home. Classic Christmas fare was served, soup, followed by turkey and ham with Lena’s bread sauce and then Christmas Pudding with Brandy Butter.

The younger children were put at a small side table and, under orders to behave well, fed apart from the adults.  I can remember a certain amount of jollity at the large table, and the surprise I felt when granny allowed a paper hat from a cracker to be put on her head.

I presume that Dubs would also have broken out of his part of the house and joined us for lunch, even though I have no memory of him being there.

Dwyer family

I would hate anyone to think that Christmas day was not a happy day for me. It was in fact a day full of magic, the lunch in Granny’s being just a formal and perfectly acceptable hiatus in the middle of a joyous day.

Santa Claus, and his stocking were a great source of joy when my eyes first opened on Christmas morning. I would have lain for hours in the bed, too excited to sleep and knowing that “He” wouldn’t come until I did.

The morning stocking was always filled with cheap toys and sweets and always had a silver wrapped tangerine at the toe. Unlike other households Santa didn’t provide the main Christmas presents for us. This was reserved for the “Christmas Tree”

“The Tree” as we called this time was, without doubt the highlight of Christmas day. After morning mass, for those who were reckoned too young to be allowed up for midnight mass, we had breakfast in the breakfast room which was next to the billiard room.

The billiard room was the biggest room in the house, large enough for a billiard table but as yet not holding one. There was no decorating done to this room until after the younger children had gone to bed on Christmas eve.

Then it was transformed. The tree was put in the middle of the room, decorated with lights and the shiny glass balls which rested for the rest of the year in the attic in boxes. But it was what was under the tree was what made the magic of this moment. Here were piled all our presents. This was what “The Tree” was all about.

There was a large amount of ceremony attached. We all had to line up in age at the door to the billiard room. This was the one time of the year when the youngest took precedence. Then once we got into the room itself we had to join hands and dance around the tree singing “Here we go round the mulberry bush” This does sound just a little twee today but I promise you that in the fifties there was no embarrassment whatsoever.

Again tradition dictated that you were not allowed pick or open one of your own presents. Anything with “To Martin” on it, no matter how tempting had to be passed by and one picked out one for George or Valerie.

Eventually you ended up with a sizeable pile of presents in the corner and then there was the excitement of unwrapping and glorying in your new found wealth. I never remember being disappointed. Then it was off to Granny’s for lunch.

When we came back from Granny’s we would find the Billiard room again completely transformed, this time for Christmas Dinner. The tree would be re-erected in the bow window in the corner and the floor covered with trestle tables covered with white linen.

To my childish eyes it seemed that these tables were set for hundreds of people but I now suppose that it couldn’t have been more than forty or so. These would have been members of my mother’s large family, and my mother and father’s equally large circle of friends. There would be various extra staff recruited for the night so, for us children, it was difficult to decide where the most fun was going on, in the billiard room or in the kitchen.

In direct contrast to the staid and old fashioned lunch the dinner was a bit of a bacchanalia. In addition to the turkey a roast ham would be served and my Mothers speciality - called Soufflé Surprise - was always served along with the Christmas Pudding; this dessert, which was really a version of Baked Alaska, was always recognised as the star turn of the evening.

I can remember that we were allowed smoke cigarettes on the night, yes us 8 to 10 year olds were allowed to puff away - this was long before cigarettes were recognised as bad for health.
I can also remember that much drink was consumed by my various uncles.

I have a distinct memory of someone’s paper hat being ignited and then the flames quenched by another uncle with a soda water siphon. In the meantime there would have also been much hilarity and drink consumed in the kitchen, I can remember a steady stream of uncles and aunts arriving in with bottles to make sure that the “staff” were able to celebrate as well.

Stephens’s day was “The Wran” and we would be allowed dress up in rags and sing outside our neighbours’ houses, passing others up to the same tricks on the way.

“The Wran the Wran
The king of all Birds
St Stephens day
Was caught in the furze
Up with the kettle
And down with the pot
Give us our answer and let us begone”
“Knock at the knocker ring at the bell,
Give us a copper for singing so well”
“God bless the mistress of this house
A golden chain around her neck
And be she sick or be she sore
The lord have mercy all the more”

And we would be given lots of coppers and this money, unlike the money we would have collected for carol singing the week before, was for ourselves and so, once we were finished we would divide the spoils and head off to Mr. Sullivan’s shop on the Lower Glanmire Road for a gorge of sweets.

As you can see it was easy enough to put up with lunch in Lotaville knowing what other treats Christmas had in store for us.

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Martin & Sile DwyerMartin Dwyer started cooking professionally over 40 years ago in the legendary “Snaffles Restaurant” in Dublin. After a time in a Relais Chateau in Anjou and in “The Wife of Bath” in Kent he opened his own much acclaimed restaurant, “Dwyers”, in Waterford in 1989. In 2004 he sold this and moved south to France where he and his wife Síle bought and restored an old presbytery in a village in the Languedoc. They now run Le Presbytère as a French style Chambre d’Hôte. Martin however is far too passionate about food to give up cooking so they now enjoy serving dinner to their customers on the terrace of Le Presbytère on warm summer evenings. Martin runs occasional cookery courses in Le Presbytère and Síle’s brother Colm does week long Nature Strolls discovering the Flora and Fauna of the Languedoc. 

Le Presbytère can be seen at: www.lepresbytere.net
email: martin@lepresbytere.net

Twitter: www.twitter.com/DwyerThezan

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