I’ve always been making things, for as long as I can remember; and I still can’t sit quiet!
At home, Mum would have been into knitting and embroidery, and in national school we had a fantastic teacher and on a Friday afternoon the books were left down and we did crafts. My grandfather taught me how to put handles on shovels and all sorts of things.
Even walking behind the cows when I would be bringing them in in the evenings, I’d bring a penknife and take a bit of a stick and whittle it on my way.
I grew up on a mixed farm in Longford, but today I live in south Cavan, near Virginia. My husband Alan has suckler cows, but we also have some pedigree Angus and Hereford and a small flock of rare-breed Roscommon sheep.
I worked for An Post for 25 years, but would have been teaching crafts as well, and after taking a severance package, I set up Crafts of Ireland to demonstrate and teach traditional skills and crafts to people of all ages.
A lot of the wool-based classes are very popular – the needle felting especially- and we use the wool from our sheep.
Discovering old recipes
When lockdown started in March 2020, obviously I had to close the business. I had been doing a lot of baking because I was doing afternoon teas with the workshops, so I had a chat with Alan one day and I said if I did some live videos, it might help people that were isolating.
So I started off doing cookery demos on Facebook and through that, I started to discover older recipes.
I thought it would be something lovely to do in the future; collect old handwritten family recipes, bake them and share them, with a little bit about the person who used the recipe.
So this January, when the COVID-19 numbers were very high again, I started this project.
When I explained to my followers on social media what I wanted to do, people started sending me photos of their recipes. I recreate it as near as possible to the original – most times it’s as exactly – and then I share a photograph of what I have baked.
Tried and tested
My mother-in-law attended secondary school in Gilson school in Oldcastle for two years and she has given me a lend of the copy with the handwritten recipes that would have been dictated to them in the classroom, like rock buns, tea-time scones and even stuffed sheep’s heart!
I also have my mother’s handwritten recipes. She started a book with recipes in 1971, just before she got married, and one that I remember as a child that she would make for special occasions was for apple cheesecakes. But there’s no cheese in them: they are pastry with stewed apple mixed with egg yolk and topped with meringue. I’ve made drop scones and queen of puddings, but one of the most popular ones so far has been for Jamaican ginger cake, because everyone remembers going to Granny’s and getting a slice of ginger cake.
I suppose part of the reason why the recipes are so popular is because of the simplicity. There’s no complicated ingredients in them, the methods are quite simple; and they always work, because they are so tried and tested and handed down that they are almost fool-proof!
Possibly the most interesting one – for me anyway, because I’m from Longford – was a recipe from the late 1800s that belonged to Elizabeth Mullen.
Her husband William Maxwell started off as a cobbler, but they purchased the Greville Arms in Granard and in the 1901 census, they were both shown to be hotel proprietors.
Unfortunately William died in 1903 and the hotel was sold and the Kiernans then bought it. In 1917, a young gentleman named Michael Collins visited the hotel and met Kitty Kiernan; the beginning of a very famous love story!
The recipe is for Irish soda bread, but the interesting thing about it is that it actually contained oatmeal flour, which wouldn’t be that common now. So for it I substituted porridge and blended it into flour.
There is a social history aspect to a lot of the old recipes. For instance, in times of shortages, the ingredients that were used; there’s a cake with vinegar in it rather than eggs.
But a lot of old recipes were lost because people didn’t weigh or measure what they put into them. They just guessed – one of my grandmothers used to use a broken side plate to measure for her brown bread!
With the easing of restrictions, we’ve been opening slowly and there is more of an interest in bookings going forward.
We are putting in a full kitchen, so we’ll be able to do a lot more food-orientated workshops; but I hope to keep collecting the recipes until I get enough so that I can compile them in some format – maybe a book or an e-book – so that people can access them. That way, they can be kept for future generations.
For further information about Sandra’s project, follow Crafts of Ireland on Facebook and Instagram.