One Friday, Alice could not get out of bed. Even when the phone kept ringing she could not bring herself to get up and answer it. When her husband Paul arrived home, having picked Brian up from a livid headmaster, she was tucked tightly into the quilt, foetal, wet, weeping. Washing off sweat and tears in the shower she received an epiphany: she could be stronger, better than this, all she needed was focus.
The following morning, she sat with Paul watching Saturday Kitchen on the BBC; the passion of the chefs captured her imagination and she set about cooking with fervent energy. Her take on Piquant Crab and Leek Soup with a Delicate Salad of Sea Truffles was as good as any restaurant, even little Brian ate it. She was hooked. Two busy but very tasty months later, her application for the inaugural series of Irish Masterchef had turned up an invitation to some South Dublin studio, with instructions to bring the ingredients for a main of her choice.
She needed something extraordinary to grab their attention, so she walked endlessly around a host of upmarket delicatessens and epicurean emporia.
“What about some venison, ma’am, right in season? Humanely reared veal? You can’t go wrong with organic fillet steak.” For all the fine meats, what caught her attention was hanging over one counter, freshly skinned, a brace of wild hare. Skinny, red, scrawny, they hung like an open invitation. She thought of Paul, a big man for his steak, and Brian for whom fish fingers and baked beans were a staple diet; then she thought about the big flavours in game, how unsuitable, what a bad idea. Yet, once the notion had planted itself, it would not be shifted. She even had a supplier.
Lightly coat the joints of the hare (paunched and hung, then skinned and jointed) with a tablespoon of plain flour and place in a flame-proof casserole dish.
At a stark pace, I walked the moist fields, evening mists sapping the heat from my bones. It was an ancient trail. My father and my grandfather each had marched this kingdom carrying the same steadfast Lee and Whitney shotgun, open at the breech. Preceding generations had trod also; they had worked for the Lord Palmerstown away in the big house, warding the game that had been the God-given right of the invader, till the Whiteboys had burnt them out and sent them home. The English shilling had afforded my great-grandfather thirty two acres of estate, but all the game now was gone, excepting the hares.
There was a broad copse of bushes and straggling trees, a scraggy, bleak place surrounded by wintry scrub grass. Florry, a brown and spat pointer bitch I had raised from a pup, thrust up her snout. Hidden in the scrub was a hare, slick in the dusky sun, sitting lock still and bold as you like, nose twitching like a fevered slug. Its ears pricked up, head turned one way, the other, then it bolted. All that was exalted and beatific in nature was captured in the sleek splendour of that creature in full panicked flight, forelegs stretching earnestly, hind legs driving with pure energy.
My hands lifted the gun with habitual ease, closing the barrel and cocking the hammers in one sedate motion. I held steady, aiming not at the beast but into its future. My finger caressed the trigger, feeling for the auspicious moment, and a blast ripped the peace of the evening. The buckshot caught the hare, momentum taking it head over heels several times, then it lay still, senseless, paralysed. Florry was on it before it ceased to convulse, carrying it unselfishly back to me.
I lifted it, still quivering in my hand, hot. Was it right for me to take life from this thing, when so much life was torn away from us every day? Should we who survive not cherish the very essence of living, in all creatures, however small? Alas, I had no time for such philosophies. I pulled it up by the hind legs, pulled and twisted the head just so, and all life was extinguished.
Glaring, frosted, inundating light sparkled on kitchen surfaces cleaned with care and bother. Alice chaffed at her recipe book, feeling gloomy. What a fool she had been to think of such nonsense. In the fridge, a rare pile of dead hare awaited. Reluctance gripped her, if she did not start then she could not fail. She read through the details repeatedly, preoccupied.
Her daughter, Claire, fourteen and unbearably beautiful, even in her dull green school uniform, was watching her. On her face was that perpetual vibrant smile that would cut you in two.
‘Where did you get that book, Mum?’ she asked distractedly, as if from across a hasty stream.
‘This old thing? Your Dad gave it to me, oh, many years ago. It’s hand written, you know, by some house maid. Very old thingummy.’
‘Must be worth a fortune.’
‘Yes, I suppose, though… I always wanted to use it. I can’t really explain it, like, this is a piece of his love, so I should use it and touch it and not wrap it up.’
‘Oh, listen to me, I sound like some chick-lit heroine.’
Claire laughed, crystal and warm. Soft draughts of gaiety escaped her and wrapped Alice in easy contentment. She wanted to wind the clock back to those blissful climes, and so clutched to the recipe, however unsuitable, as if it might form an implicit time machine. Now, she must seize the moment.
Taking a bundle of old newspaper tied with twine, Alice unwrapped it and found herself staring at the livid carcasses of three hares. There was a deep odour of game, rich yet rotten. A sudden cold hand of doubt massaged her heart. Facing butchery had seemed primal, almost a brutal honesty. Principles were fine until faced with headless flayed corpses.
‘Oh, Claire, how can I do this?’
‘Course you can, Mum, all you’ve been through and you can’t chop up a bit of meat?’ The girl’s laughter again thawed her.
‘Right then, I guess these are paunched and hung, whatever that means. No points for working out they’re skinned. Just got to figure out how to joint the damn things.’
She took one and cut through the meat around the back leg, what she imagined might be the haunch, then tried to pull the leg back but there was no give. She had a brand new boning knife from Ikea, sharp enough to cut silence. It took three or four slashes, blade hacking at flesh like some incompetent doctor in a botched operation, before she found the joint and pulled the leg back. A couple more nicks and she was able to pull the leg free. It then took all her strength, leaning on the blade, to sever the paw. Relieved to have made it through the ordeal she dumped the joint into the bowl of flour.
‘Ah well, only another eleven joints to go.’
Add 4 rashers and a large onion, chopped, the zest of a whole lemon, a bouquet garni, 6 cloves of garlic and 1 tsp ground Allspice. Cover with water, bring slowly to the boil.
Bubbles of steam fought each other on the turbulent surface of the red liquid. Is that too fast, she wondered, should I turn down the heat? It had taken so long to bring the liquid up to temperature, but then again she could not afford to ruin the broth. How fast was slow anyway? So many of these recipes used terms that only made sense if you already knew what the results should be. Cook the pasta till it’s al dente, grill the fish until it feels cooked to the touch, season to taste.
The calendar had the date at the studio highlighted in red, the passing days crossed off, the time shrinking fast. Oh, God! She had assumed it would be months after she applied, if she was called at all, before she would have to go and cook for the Masterchef judges. Less than a week now, what if this didn’t work? Was there time to come up with another dish?
‘What have I got myself into, Claire?’
‘It’s cooking, Mum, not rocket science.’
‘Oh, you,’ she smiled despite her misgivings. ‘But I’ve no idea if I can do this, I mean, it’s next week. Eight days. This is the first time I’ve tried anything as grand as this, and, you know, if your uncle Johnny doesn’t manage to catch any more hares before the big day I might not get another chance. And, oh God, who cooks hare?’
‘You do, Mum. And they’ll love you for it.’
‘You have such a happy outlook. I wish I could bottle you up and sell you.’
‘Ha, you’d never get the stopper on. Anyway, I haven’t seen you so happy in a long while, since you started cooking.’
‘You’re right, cooking’s good. Good for the soul. Maybe you should think about being a chef.’
‘I thought you wanted me to be a doctor?’
‘Well, doctor, chef, whatever.’
‘It’s all blood and guts either way, right?’ They laughed together.
Cover the dish and casserole in the oven for 2 – 2½ hours or until the hare is tender
Paunched, she had said. The hares must be paunched, hung and skinned. My hands knew the sacred ritual well enough, and as I watched them work, disembodied, it seemed I was a young boy gazing at my father’s easy mastery. The sacrificial blade, a stubby gutting knife. They held the lifeless bundle by the hind legs. Pinching the blade so that only a short length of edge protruded, they carefully cut through the warm and bloodied flesh from between the legs right up to the breast bone, not cutting deep for fear of piercing the innards. Using the knife point, those expert hands eased the skin back from the body leaving the flesh of the belly exposed. With one deft sweep they slit this membrane to the guts.
With the back legs still in one hand, the other grasped the front legs and twisted the back into a u-shape. A neat flick and the creature was eviscerated, the bloodied innards emerging neatly and landing in the tupperware with a wet slurp. A last nick of the blade, into the diaphragm at the edge of the ribs, and a thin stream of dark blood gushed into the tub, steam rising from it like the soul departing.
Blood, flesh, bone and sinew, rough ingredients of life now discriminated in death, destroyed by my own hands.
For the forcemeat balls, mix breadcrumbs, chopped suet, parsley, thyme leaves, lemon zest and two rashers of streaky bacon together lightly in a bowl. Stir in some seasoning and enough beaten egg to bind, then gently shape the mixture into balls about the size of walnuts. Lay on top of the casserole for the last half hour of cooking.
She pulled the loose fluid mishmash together with her hands, eggy mulch sludging out between fingers. Forcemeat! The very sound of it was intimidating, suggesting… Well, whatever it suggested she had been relieved to read that it was nothing more dangerous than a stuffing.
‘The boys should be home soon.’
‘Yes,’ said Claire. ‘And they’ll be hungry. Mind you, they’re always hungry.’
‘Well they can be hungry all they like, this won’t be done till its done.’
‘I suppose they’ll just put the footie on the telly and not lift their heads till you put food in front of them.’
‘You’re probably right. Unless we get a miracle and your Dad decides to help me. Or, even more unlikely, wants to spend some time with me.’
‘Oh, Mum, you know he does.’
‘Sometimes I wonder at him. A day can go by and he wouldn’t talk to me.’
‘You can talk to him though…’
‘Maybe. It’s just, I don’t know, it seems to get harder each time, and I’m not sure he has the energy to go on. I need all the energy for him and the cooking, both. I don’t know if I can keep it up.’
‘Don’t say that, Mum. Don’t make me sad.’
Alice looked at Claire’s face, still crooked in her special smile. No, she did not want to make her daughter sad. She began to form her forcemeat, trying to recall what size a walnut was.
Once cooked, remove the hare and forcemeat. Keep the onions and rashers then strain the cooking juices.
The oven blasted heat and heady aroma played with her anxiety, a tight symphony of the heart. The boys would not like it, their tastes were simple, grounded. Yet without their affirmation, could she continue? She raised the cast iron lid. Was it overdone? Rich and dark, gamy, powerful. Unctuous! The meat lifted clear, soft and succulent but not falling off the bone. So far so good.
The door burst open with an explosion of park dirt and boy noise.
‘Euugh! That smells off. Is it off?’ Paul’s tone was flippant but the words were cutting, her courage, like a vulnerable child, cut down. She gave him a cheesy grin as if it did not matter, but it did.
‘Oh, come on,’ he said. ‘Cheer up. It’s a long time since Ross.’
‘Cheer up, yeah, you’re right. I’ll just cheer up.’
‘Don’t… Oh!’ His brow was creased, hands clenched. ‘Look, I love you, I’m here for you. The Man U game is on, you need anything, just shout.’
Brian and Paul headed for the TV.
‘Just cheer up, he says!’
‘He’s right you know.’
‘Now don’t you start taking his side.’
‘It’s not sides, Mum.’
In a saucepan, melt an ounce of butter and stir in a tablespoon of flour.
The hares had needed to hang. To rot, she used to say, back in the days when our dad would take me out on the hunt and she had would stay behind sulking, then turn up her nose at anything that did not come wrapped in plastic from a supermarket. Ironic that it was she now who was requesting this. I was delighted to see the spritz back in her step, though nervous too: should I really be bringing her half rotted corpses and buckets of blood?
They had been hanging in the woodshed for a week, and had that rank odour to them that was just on the border where posh meets putrid. I took them down and sharpened up the callow knife with my iron, taking time to put a good edge on it. The first cut is through the skin on the base of each leg, then along the inside of the hind legs, then finally the tail. There is a brutal art to skinning, knowing the right weight to pull at the hide so that it prised away from the legs without tearing. Tug, heave, twist, as I am tearing the pelt away from the hind legs to towards the head, the stench is atrocious. Finally, with its skin pulled over its head like a night gown, the creature’s eyes are blind to the coup de grace. I lean all my weight on the knife and decapitate it. Now it is just meat.
I had given her four ready for the first batch, another half dozen hanging, and I would be out again hunting once the sun was kissing the landscape. I said a small prayer as I took the next carcass down.
Gradually add the cooking liquid, stirring continuously.
Lumps, oh God there was lumps in her roux! Time for the liquidizer?
‘Do you remember our “mock soup?”‘ asked Claire. ‘We made it with sand and sea water.’
‘What?’ There was a pounding in Alice’s head, fierce pressure. What was the girl on about? No, she knew. ‘That day at Ross strand? The sun was glorious and…’
‘And we played sand castles…’
‘And you made a sand zombie, with seaweed for hair. Fantastic.’ A superb, yes, a horrific image with sticks and seashells, driftwood for a gravestone.
‘I buried you,’ said Claire quietly, drifting.
‘Up to the neck, I could hardly breathe.’
‘I would only let you up if you promised…’
‘…To take you to Disneyland! You little vixen. You knew I was weak for you, you could have asked for anything.’
And then. Hell and thunder, why wouldn’t these lumps break up under the battering of her whisk. The blood had come; gallons of it, the beach towels could not staunch it. Children stood with ice creams watching till the ambulance came.
Stir in the blood of the hares and add a good tawney port to taste, season if necessary.
She poured the thick, dark blood from the tupperware into the dish. “Add port to taste.” To taste, to taste… To kill the bitterness, the salty tang, the overwhelming parch of blood, season the soul with port. What a stupid idea to pick a dish like this. Every part of it, flesh, blood, bone, brought back an image. The wound, so wide, why so God damned wide? Left open for the autopsy. Skin pulled back. Copper saucepan. The gurney, stainless steel, sterile. Thick red sauce bubbling. Blood pooling. Red flesh. Pale skin. The smell of port. The smell of hospitals.
Pour the sauce over the hare and serve with the forcemeat.
I turned up for the judgement of the Jugged Hare with four more dead beasts swathed in newspaper. Paul answered, his eyes heavy.
‘How is she?’ I asked.
‘Ah, up and down, you know.’
‘She seems to be taking to the cooking.’
‘Aye, well, the best I’ve seen her since… I just hope she doesn’t burn out on it. What if this Masterchef thing falls flat.’
Brian came thundering out of the living room and leapt on me to hug me. At least there was one member of this family that would rise unscathed from the tragedy.
I found her in tears in the kitchen, seasoning the stew with her sadness. I went to hug her, but we had never been easy with intimacy. I tried to hide the bundle of newspaper, fearing it might upset her more, but she grabbed at them.
‘Ah, you’re a star, Johnny. I need another couple of goes at this. And you’ll have a bunch ready on the day.’
‘You know it, sis. Smells great, you’re a dead cert.’
‘Oh, go, you’re just saying that.’
As she dried her tears, she started chatting to me, a rambling, easy patter, free of the woeful grief I had come to expect.
‘We’ll eat now,’ she said, picking up a great big pot of dark, rich, succulent stew. ‘Goodnight, beautiful.’
I was taken aback for a moment as she walked out of the kitchen, then I noticed the photograph of Claire over the sink.
‘Goodnight, Claire,’ I added, then followed the delicious aroma into the dining room.