Wednesday, 22 February 2012

My Mam's soda bread

Most Irish mammy's make soda bread and all Irish sons think their mam's is the best. Well my mam's is really good and for the expatriate it has the advantage of not needing buttermilk, which is a hard-to-find ingredient in Montreal. It's also got an interesting texture with a bit of "bite" as it contains oat flakes.

This week I passed the venerable recipe on to my 10-year-old son and he baked a beautiful bread for the "semaine des saveurs" at school. Here it is.

Preheat the over to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The oven should be well warmed up before putting the bread in so do this first.

Mix the following dry ingredients together in a large bowl:
  • 8 ounces of plain flour
  • 8 ounces of self-raising flour
  • 6 ounces of oat flakes
  • a flat teaspoon of baking soda
  • a heaped teaspoon of baking powder
  • a pinch of salt

In another bowl, mix the following liquid ingredients:
  • 1 beaten egg
  • 4 tablespoons of natural yoghurt
  • 3/4 of a pint of milk
  • a heaped tablespoon of honey

Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and pour the liquid mixture into it. Mix quickly with a large fork - it'll be sticky and look a bit raggy. Tip out onto a lightly floured surface and work by hand for no more than half a minute - don't knead like a yeast bread. Shape it into a circle around 8 inches in diameter, make a cross on the top with a sharp knife and place it in a greased 9 inch diameter (or larger) cake tin. Put it in the oven for 45 minutes.

When it's done it has a lovely mocha colour, like this:

That's it. Great for breakfast with butter and jam, or for lunch with smoked salmon.

There's a very good video here that shows this process; the woman looks like she really knows what she's doing but my mam's recipe is better!

Sunday, 19 February 2012

In praise of (the) public service?

I've done my fair share of bashing of the civil service in Ireland - God knows, it's an easy target - but reading Tony Judt reminds me that the goal  must be to improve public service, not replace it.
"If public goods - public services, public spaces, public facilities - are devalued, diminished in the eyes of citizens and replaced by private services available against cash, then we lose the sense that common interests and common needs ought to trump private preferences and individual advantage. And once we cease to value the public over the private, surely we shall come in time to have difficulty seeing just why we should value law (the public good par excellence) over force." 
from "Ill Fares The Land"  by Tony Judt

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Cosying up to China

Every country in the world wants to do more business with China - Chinese officials must be deluged in invitations and requests for meetings. The Irish and Canadian governments have been cosying up to the Chinese in recent days: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been on an official visit to China, whereas the Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping is currently in Ireland.

In Canada there's been a public debate about whether the government should soften its previously quite firm stance on human rights for the sake of generating trade and investment. I'm not much of a fan of the Harper government, but I think its principled approach to China has been correct. But now there's the scent of Realpolitik in the air, with the worry that China will go elsewhere for its resources. So as outlined recently in the Globe and Mail, Harper and his government will continue to raise the issue of human rights, but without upsetting the Chinese in public. 

Will that "softly, softly" approach achieve anything? Not in the short term, obviously, but it seems to me a valid long-term strategy to nudge, annoy and cajole China to a different position. Of course, Canada is in a reasonably strong position given its resilient economy and abundant natural resources that are much coveted by China. Ireland has only a begging bowl and is simply trying to find any source of investment to revive its economy. From such a position of weakness its hard to believe that Irish politicians will allow human rights to get in the way of a few yuan, sadly.

Ireland's position wasn't always so feeble. Back in the early 2000's, China was extremely interested in Ireland's economic success (as it seemed then) and in particular in its software industry. I established an R&D centre in Beijing for my employer, the leading Irish software company of the day, and in China I was presented to the Mayor of that huge city. When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Ireland in 2004 he visited our office and I met him for a short chat. Did I raise the question of human rights, you ask? Well did I heck.

Larry Lumsden meets the Chinese President Wen Jiabao

H.E. Mr. Wen Jiabao, Premier of the State Council of the
People's Republic of China, meets Larry Lumsden, the
BigLooLaa, in May 2004. His delightful interpreter seems
quite amused. 
I did think about it beforehand - and I chickened out. I cracked a small joke with the premier and his interpreter, chatted about the contrasts in organizing software development in our respective countries, and said precisely nothing about Tibet or the Tienanmen Square protests. My employer would have been shocked had I done otherwise of course, but other than the intimidation factor of meeting His Excellency and a desire to be courteous I've no good excuse for why I didn't take the opportunity to make a quiet point to the little man in front of me. So much for my principles, sadly, but what will Taoiseach Enda Kenny do this week? What would you do?