When I was a young boy, we travelled as a family each year to stay with an old friend of my mother's (who I knew as Uncle Gen) who lived in an old farmhouse outside Ramsey on the Isle of Man.
I fell in love with that magical island from the moment I first saw it seemingly rise out of the Irish Sea before my eyes as I stood on the bow of the ferry from Liverpool, before we were "piped-in" to Douglas Harbour by a lone bagpiper somewhere in the hills above the capital of the island. Everything seemed so different on the island - the cats had no tails; the local folklore spoke of fairies and witches; celtic crosses abounded; and the hilly countryside and beautiful glens enchanted me.
Uncle Gen was a very special elderly man. Extremely kind and generous, and a wonderful friend to me, I grew to love him dearly. Although approaching 70 years of age, Uncle Gen was extremely fit, and would think nothing of hiking for five miles or more to help my brother and me find the best trout fishing spots in the glens, or vigorously digging for lugworms to use as bait for our hand-held fishing lines at the end of Ramsey pier. While a devout Christian, he was also an extremely practical man. He taught me how to gut fish quickly and effectively - a skill that I was able to demonstrate to Meg when we caught a couple of trout during our nostalgic trip back to the Isle of Man a few years ago. A keen fruit and vegetable gardener, Uncle Gen would also protect his produce from the numerous greedy rabbits and pigeons by shooting them through his letterbox (to help keep his aim steady) which was propped open with a fisherman's stick). He would then feast on the rabbit or pigeon with his home-grown vegetables, while being careful to avoid any pieces of metal shot in the meat! And my brother and I would have a regular supply of supposedly "lucky" rabbit foot charms, although I doubt the poor bunny would have thought there was much good fortune involved.
Uncle Gen was also an excellent cook, and on one rainy afternoon, he taught me how to make the best shortbreads in the world. That afternoon, he also taught me that certain recipes could be extremely hard work.
I had not made shortbreads for years, but my 13-year old daughter had obviously heard from her mother that I could bake a mean shortbread, as she asked me to make a batch during her visit a couple of weeks ago. Here is the recipe but before taking this on, please remember that I did say it was hard work
14 oz plain flour
2 oz cornflour
8 oz butter
4 oz caster sugar
Beat the butter until soft.
Sift and add the other ingredients.
Knead well until the mixture forms a dough.
Roll out the dough to around half an inch thick.
Cut into pieces. (I choose rectangular "fingers" and use a skewer to make domino-like marks on them.)
Bake at 325 F for 40 minutes.
Cool on a baking tray (and sprinkle sugar on the biscuits if you wish).
That sounds simple, but kneading this dry mixture into a dough is extremely arduous, as it is essential that you add no liquid. Look at the above photo of the rolled dough, and you will get an idea of how dry the dough is - and how difficult it is therefore to bring it together.
But the rewards for the hard work are high. Not only did my daughter love the shortbreads, but our two-year old son also couldn't get enough of them. Even while his mouth was completely full of one crumbly biscuit melting in his mouth, he was demanding another!