When it's just a chicken's arse

Herbs are brilliant, a marketing man's dream; chuck a few herbs in, call 'em 'natural', and you can flog anything, from shampoo to cures for arthritis. And herbs always remind me of my Auntie Mamie.

My Auntie Mamie was a big country woman. She was a farmer's daughter, she married a farmer, she spent her whole life milking cows, feeding pigs, growing vegetables, spreading manure (you can never have too much manure, she once told me) and smuggling petrol and cigarettes.

We were a tactile family, and when she hugged you to her ample bosom both oxygen and light would be temporarily blocked out.

What she couldn't tell you about the earth didn't matter. She could identify every bird by its song, every creature by its footprint, every man by his bicycle. But it was no romantic idyll; the farm demanded hard and endless back-breaking graft, and her hands were stained with blood.

I'm probably the last generation to remember what it was like to kill what you eat. Every year there were a few days set aside for the slaughtering, and these days were very different from the others. The hay-making and potato-picking were sun-filled days of laughter, lemonade and ham sandwiches big enough to choke a horse and apple pies with pastry so thick you could have made shoes out of it, but on slaughtering days there was no laughter and no high spirits. They were sombre days; we paid our tribute to these creatures that we had raised and fed and cared for by being sober and respectful. There was no room for sentimentality; killing them as quietly and efficiently as possible was part of the unwritten contract.

My Auntie was no Sunday magazine feature invention. She was a real countrywoman, with soil between her toes and underneath her nails (permanently). She had no affected nostalgia for the good old days, and as soon as she could afford it she demolished her picturesque little thatched cottage and replaced it with a new bungalow, complete with aluminium windows.

And when she or any member of her extended family (which ran into hundreds) was sick, she didn't go to the local wise woman, to the faith healer, to the new age shaman, to the kaftan-wearing herbalist; she knew them for the blood-sucking charlatans they were, and such middle-class conceits had no meaning for her.

Instead she would go to her doctor; the only use she ever had for herbs, she said, was sticking them up a chicken's arse to improve its taste.

- Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh.

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