A plate of fruit de mer

Miriam’s housekeeper/cook was a second cousin of the O’Mahonys from Kilcrohane and her name was Carmel O’Mahony. She was a couple of years younger than Miriam although it was always assumed that she was the older of the two. From the beginning Miriam called her Mrs O’Mahony.

She moved into the Butter House a year or so after Miriam took up residence in the Cottage. No-one was quite sure as to exactley how the arrangement was made. There was talk of how Miriam forgot how to eat when she moved into the Cottage and the weight that she lost and back in Bantry her family were concerned enough to speak to someone so that a young single woman could be on hand to help and to cook.

Carmel O’Mahony was a short stocky woman with a tight shock of black hair. She was twenty three when she started and she took to the task. She was given a car to make the trip to Bantry for food although just as often she would walk the five miles to Durrus and back especially in summer walking the length of the old road that ran in a straight line a few hundred yards back from the sea.

After a while she came to a rhythm with the job and she was made easy by what she was doing. She limited the trips to Bantry to just once a week in the car. She would come back with bags of food and a block of ice that was kept in a hole in the ground at the back of the Butter House. In between times there were two or three trips to Durrus. She acquired a heavy black bike and she took to using that if she did not have time to walk.

Sometimes Miriam would accompany her on the trips to Bantry and she would go visit her family and they always went to together on the first Friday of the month for the market in Wolfe Tone Square. At first Carmel was unsure on how she should call Miriam and for years she got by with not calling her anything at all. She developed a tone for her voice which drew Miriam’s attention to what she was saying and Miriam would answer or react without noticing the lack of a name. But many years into their time together and when they were alone in the Cottage or Butter House Carmel would call Miriam Minnie and Miriam would call her Carmel.

At home Carmel had learned how to make bread, cook potatoes and fry mackerel in butter. She was anxious to expand her range and so during the summer months she would spend time in the large kitchen of Ahakista House watching the cooks who were brought over from London and picking up how they went about it. It was rare for the same cook to come over with the family their two years running but Carmel became friends with them all and over two or three years she had learned enough .

There was an old Radiation Gas Oven in the Butter House and that came with its own cook book. With the benefit of that and what she picked up in the kitchen in Ahakista House Carmel became a good cook.

She was busiest during the summer when there were guests in the Cottage and she had to hurry through time to make sure they were properly fed. Her rhythm was disrupted during those months and there were more trips to the butchers in Bantry.

Her triumph was a fruit de mer that she created with food from the bay. The visitors that summer had been to Paris and there was much talk of the food that they had eaten there and the great plates of ice laden with sea food. Carmel’s brothers were fishermen and she knew what they took from the bay.

That week she brought two blokes of ice back from Bantry. Her brothers delivered a straw basket of lobsters and crab. The lobsters were a deep dark blue and they were bright and alive so fresh were they out of the bay. She cooked them in a steel pan of boiling sea water and split them open and cracked their claws.  She had her own pot for prawns and she pulled that in and picked up a pan full of winkles from the pools by the beach.

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Once it was all cooked she kept it cool on the one block of ice then chipped away at the other with a hammer and chisel. The broken shards of ice were then piled onto a large blue china plate and the crab, lobsters, prawns and winkles were placed on top. She decorated the whole with pale wisps of seaweed.

The vast plate was then carried across the road and presented to Miriam and her three guests who were sat round the round metal table in the garden. Carmel was applauded by the guests as the plate was put down and she went back to bring over bread and fresh butter.

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