Kristina had baked a potato pancake which she divided among husband, children, and brother-in-law; as yet she would not open the butter tub.
The Emigrants, Vilhelm Moberg
Like many Australians, one must draw lines over oceans and continents to trace my ancestry. If you look a couple of generations back, our 'Australian' family is made up of a collection of different European strands. Somewhere along each strand, sometime in the past two hundred years, there's a person (or people) who made the decision to start a new life on the other side of the world. I made a journey in the opposite direction, from Brisbane to London, in 2009. When compared with the experiences of my ancestors - escape from famine, six month long sea voyages, forced transportation and imprisonment for petty crimes - my 24-hour journey seems positively luxurious.
I have vivid memories of looking up at my mum, stepdad and sister, standing stoically at the top of the escalators in Brisbane International, as I shuffled through the Customs queue below. I finally lost sight of them as I pushed my passport across. A day later, I sat in Kensington Gardens, under the statue of Peter Pan I remember from my childhood (or maybe Hook - I've never quite worked out which), on the phone with my mum. I was desperate for reassurance that I hadn't made a foolish decision. We've texted, emailed, Skyped and spoken on the phone countless times since. Technology truly is amazing, shrinking this enormous world down to a somewhat more manageable size. Even my mum and dad's time here in the 80s - letters home and the occasional expensive telephone call - seem like a different world.
What I find most extraordinary and captivating in The Emigrants is the same thing always astounds me when considering the lives of my ancestors. To secure passage on a ship to the 'New World', for a mere whispered promise of a better life, takes courage I can not fathom. Far from my experience - a couple of friends in England, my parents' experience here and endless online research to guide me - my (many times) great grandmother stepped onto a boat in Ireland as a teenager. She was leaving behind the potato famine that had killed most of her family, for an unknowable life in Australia. I now have family in many corners of the country. We're living evidence of her bravery, strength in imagining a different life for herself and, of course (less romantically), the complete lack of options she was faced with. At my most homesick moments, wondering why on Earth I have settled so far from the family I adore, I find myself thinking of her, and other members of my family, all around the world. And I realise that this is what we do.
Kristina's potato pancake, baked, sliced and shared with family, was a revelation to me. The basic batter is the same as one you'd pour straight into a frying pan when making the type of pancakes I am more familiar with. The addition of grated potato bulks the dish out, providing an ideal vessel for bacon, lingonberry jam and good, salted butter. The pancake itself is, as my friend Anna labelled it, reassuringly bland; comforting in a way that only a potato is capable of. A taste of home, served just as Karl Oskar and his family prepare to leave it.
150g plain flour
300ml whole milk
625g (peeled weight) starchy potatoes
Butter, for greasing
Serve with some of the following on the table:
Cucumber pickle (a variation on the one from this recipe, with juniper berries instead of coriander seeds, is a winner)
Heatproof baking dish
1. Preheat the oven to 225C. Tip the flour into the bowl, add the salt, and make a well in the centre. Crack in the eggs, add a little milk and start to whisk from the centre, bringing the flour in slowly. Continue to add the milk as you whisk in more of the flour.
2. Once you have added all of the milk, grate in the potato. Fold this into the batter so that it is evenly distributed.
3. Grease the oven dish, and pour the batter in. Bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes, until the pancake is puffed in the middle and golden brown. It will deflate a bit once you bring it out of the oven. Cool slightly, then slice and serve. Leftovers are really good cold too, so do make sure you over-cater.