Archive for October, 2009
I have an article in today’s Irish Times Magazine, about the state of Irish food. It was edited down a bit for space and clarity, so I thought I might publish the full version here, complete with links:
In the lead-up to the Dingle Food and Wine Festival, local farmer Colm Murphy pulled up beside me in his aging black pickup and produced a few ears of corn from the back. He wanted to know if I thought the corn was good enough to sell at the festival market, so I duly took them home and cooked them (husk and halve, steam for 20 minutes, slather with Irish butter. Cost, excluding the butter: a caffe americano from our shop, given in thanks). Not only was the corn good, it was so good that time slowed down for a glorious, butter-dripping-down-my-fingers moment of sheer satisfaction. This food was local, fresh, and so bursting with flavour that all seemed right with the world.
Food is a multi-billion euro industry in Ireland, and we are really good at it. Perhaps it’s not as glamourous as other parts of the economy, and perhaps it’s so ubiquitous that we take it for granted. We eat it, and we find it stacked in our shops, cooked in our restaurants, and scattered everywhere in the countryside. It’s hard to think of Ireland without the sheep on the hills and cows on the grass, and it’s hard to remember just how unusual freely-grazing beasts are in developed countries. We also have pigs, chickens, ducks, goats, and beyond them, a sea that still contains a dazzling array of fish. We might complain about the rain, but our mild climate is well suited to most vegetables, fruits, grains, herbs, and even some nuts. We also have wild foods, including chef Kevin Thornton’s favourite ingredient, marsh samphire, which grows sea-sprayed along our coastline (cook for 30 seconds in a hot pan with a bit of olive oil. Cost: a great day out foraging with the family).
Just as important as the abundance, we have a tradition of growing, harvesting, raising, and cultivating food. We like to talk about slow foods, but 50 years ago in Ireland, almost all food would fit that category. We have a burgeoning “grow your own” movement and allotments springing up everywhere. It all seems so new and chic, but it wasn’t so long ago that many of our forebears enjoyed their own vegetables. My father had his plate filled with a seasonal harvest of potatoes, carrots, turnips, onions, spinach, and fresh herbs, all grown in the family haggard or garden plot in Cork (combine all of the above for a winter stew, adding water and vegetable stock, and simmer until cooked. Cost: a few seeds, a bit of weeding, and a beer bath or two to catch slugs. Prayer – optional – “Bless us our Lord, and these Thy gifts, which of Thy bounty, we are about to receive…”)
We can grow food, we can cook it, and we make great products with it. Patisserie Regale’s Paneforte from Urru in Bandon, is a good example (serve thin slices with coffee. Cost: €17 for 12 – 15 portions). Or visit Galway and McCambridge’s for James McGeough’s Connemara Air-Dried Lamb (serve on Irish brown bread with Buílin Blasta’s pineapple and chilli chutney. Cost of the lamb: €4.42 per pack.) Strolling through shops such as Morton’s (try their plum pudding) or Fallon & Byrne (a good source of Bluebell Falls goat’s cheese) lead to discoveries of all sorts – Irish vinegars, cookies, breads, meats, or smoked salmon (Ummera is one of my many favourites – try drizzled with a little lemon. Cost: €13.40/200gm).
It puzzles me that given the abundance and quality of food in Ireland, Irish foods seem to be held in such low esteem here. How else is it possible to explain that, in the height of apple season, our local supermarket currently stocks apples from Germany, Holland, South Africa, Chile, France, New Zealand, and only one option for Irish eating apples? It’s not about the price, since the Irish apples are by no means the most expensive of the lot. Maybe we have grown so accustomed to foods shipped in from abroad that we don’t question it anymore, but can an apple that has spent so much time on lorries and ships taste as good as one plucked fresh from an Irish farm? Unsure? Then head to your local orchard or else to Tipperary, to the Apple Farm, and savour one of Con Traas’ Elstars, which are just coming into season (no recipe needed – just sink your teeth into it. Cost: €7.50/6 kg, which works out at 18 cents each).
How else besides low esteem could we explain how Tesco has pulled so many Irish foods off their shelves and gotten away with it? Even in these straightened times, it’s inconceivable such a move could even be considered in other countries such as Italy or France. Could you imagine telling the French you would no longer stock Brie or telling the Italians that Parma ham would be replaced with a cheaper British alternative? I think not. And yet, we’ve only had one protest, from some very angry potato farmers, who thought Irish roosters deserved a place on Irish shelves (roast one Irish rooster potato, preferably not one thrown in protest – top with sour cream and fresh parsley, cost: €4.99/10kg bag, from O’Connors farm in the Maharees).
Don’t get me wrong – I am not one who believes that we should be insular, “patriotic” in our purchases, or only limit ourselves to Irish produce. I’m delighted to have access to foods from abroad, and I love cooking and eating them. It’s just that we have so many great foods here, foods that are truly world class. Ross Lewis of Chapter One has turned me onto organic cold-pressed virgin rapeseed oil from Drumeen Farm in Kilkenny. They have had a fire on the farm, but the oil is still available at Joel Moore’s stall in the Clonmel farmer’s market (drizzle over salad. Cost: €6.50/500ml). I’m also constantly amazed at the quality of our local fish and often so disappointed when I travel. If you’re lucky enough to have a good fishmonger near you, such as Beshoff’s in Howth or Ó Catháin’s in Dingle, one who can suggest the best of the fresh, local catch, you know what I mean.
Or, consider Irish dairy. Not only do we have a huge range of sublime cheeses – cheeses that consistently bring back top awards from international competitions, but we have the best milk and cream in the world. I don’t say that lightly. I have travelled widely and have never tasted better. In fact, we started our ice cream business because my brother and I, raised in the U.S., were in such awe of it (whip 227ml of fresh Irish cream with 1.5 tablespoon Kilbeggan whiskey and 1.5 tablespoon sugar. Serve over chocolate ice cream. Cost, excluding the ice cream: around €2). If you think Irish milk and cream are expensive, don’t mention it to Irish farmers, who are only getting around 20 cent/litre for what should be a national treasure.
Is there better meat than meat produced in Ireland? Could anything from Brazil, Texas or Argentina compare to an Irish prime rib of beef on the bone, dry-aged for 17 days, from Nolan’s of Kilcullan or any of our other excellent butchers (roast 15 minutes to the pound and fifteen minutes over, serve on the pink side with crunchy seasonal garden vegetables & farmyard roosters. Cost of the beef: €12.90/kg). Are there better black or white puddings than those from some of our artisan producers, or are there better sausages? Perhaps the pork scare of last winter brought out a bit more appreciation for our rashers and hams and how we need to protect the quality and increase the pride in our produce. Our meats, done right, are stellar.
But quality doesn’t seem to be enough, at least not here at home. The Irish food industry is in transition, and many of those making, producing and serving our foods are in difficulty. I’m not an economist. I can’t say I have the answers to the big picture. I think about the people I know – food producers dropped from supermarket shelves, farmers who have taken huge loans based on grants that now seem will never be paid, small shopkeepers who wonder if it still makes sense to pass on the products they love to a public increasingly only interested in price, and talented chefs faced with emptying dining rooms. There’s enough worry out there to drive one to drink (a pint or two of the Porterhouse’s highly alcoholic Brainblásta might be just the thing if you feel the same way. Cost: €4.40/pint).
I wouldn’t expect any help from the government. They seem far too obsessed with pushing through NAMA (take all dodgy real estate investments, put in big pot, simmer for 10 years to try to improve palatability. Cost: €54 billion) to pay more than scant attention to both the plight and potential of farmers or food producers. Kate Carmody, an organic farmer in North Kerry, is turning away badly-needed orders from abroad for her Beal cheese because her local banks refuse to consider a loan for expansion (slice her aged, raw milk cheddar and serve with crackers and a glass of white wine. Cost of the cheese: €2 for 100gm). Would NAMA change this? There is nothing in the legislation to address her situation, and the government doesn’t even seem aware that there is an economy outside of their own budgets and the world of construction.
Consumers, pinched by rising taxes and the fear of falling wages and redundancies are cutting back, and food is one of the first targets for saving money, which means there will be food producers, restaurants, and shops that will close down. (If you are on a tight budget, it’s hard to beat an Irish egg, packed with protein and flavour, for a bit of sustenance. Boil, poach, fry, or scramble. Cost: 20-30 cent.) The fact that food prices have been lagging behind inflation (by a percentage point a year since 1982, according to figures supplied by Bord Bia), and that food is a smaller chunk of household income than it ever has been, will be of little comfort to someone struggling to make ends meet.
If there is a bright side to this, it is that Irish restaurants, producers and shops are looking more than ever at ways to improve value, both in terms of quality and cost. Farmers, squeezed by falling prices, are looking for new ways to sell their produce. According to Eddie O’Neil of Teagasc, they have received 30 inquiries in the last week from farmers looking to package their own milk, and farm shops are popping up everywhere. Farmer’s markets are also proliferating and can yield some of the best bargains and most satisfying shopping around. Denis Cotter, of Cafe Paradiso, suggests looking for pumpkins and squash, since they are perfect for the time of year (roast in the oven with a bit of olive oil, cumin, and ginger. Cost: You can probably haggle).
It’s hard for me to see the downward slide of Irish food continuing. In fact, I expect quite the opposite. Food is so interwoven with our society, it is one of the basics of life, and as I’ve said before, we’re really good at it. After years of excess, the basics will become more important than ever, and we will want to enjoy real quality of life. I think of my own baby girl – how everything stops when she is hungry, and how happy she is when feeding (attach baby to the breast. Cost: nothing, except keeping the mother well-fed). Ten years from now, NAMA comes due, and we can only guess where property prices or the economy will be at that point. We do know, however, that we will still be eating. We will need physical nourishment as well as the spiritual nourishment that comes with a great Irish meal enjoyed with loved ones. If food is a blessing, we are doubly blessed.
You can read the on-line version here.
This year, for Halloween, I made these awful looking eyeballs for our shops. They are not hard to do, and they are quite tasty!
If you wish to make them, you will need chocolate moulds, round ice trays, small glass dishes, or anything else you can use to get the half-sphere shape.
If you like the bloody-looking raspberry puree, the recipe is here.
To make the eyeballs, here’s what you do:
200 ml water
200 ml plain yogurt
3 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoon sugar
4 gm agar agar flakes
What to do:
1. Combine the water, yogurt, sugar, and agar agar flakes and let stand for five minutes.
2. Blend with blender or mixing rod.
3. Transfer to a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat.
4. Turn down the heat and simmer for three minutes.
5. Add the lemon juice and blend again.
6. Carefully pour over a blueberry, which you have placed in a mould, using only enough liquid to cover the blueberry.
7. Let stand for about 15 minutes, until the agar agar has started to gel.
8. Push down the blueberry to make sure it’s at the bottom.
9. Allow to set completely.
10. Carefully remove from mould. You might need to slide a knife around the edges to get them out.
11. Decorate with raspberry puree (optional).
This video shows Róisín taking her first bit of solid food – Biodynamic cereal made by Holle. Perhaps for non-parents, it will be of little interest, but for me this first taste reminded me once again of the immense value and joy of food. We take it so for granted, yet something as simple as a bit of ground grain can be an exciting and overwhelming experience…
I’ve been back a few days now, but it’s hard to get Venice out of my mind. Next time, I’m definitely going to stay more than a week! Anyway, for anyone who might be heading that way, and I do suggest it, you have a treat in store. There were so many highlights of the trip, but here are my top ten reasons to go back soon (in no particular order):
1. Al Fontego dei Pescaori. Sottoportego dei Tagiapiera, Cannaregio. Two years ago, this was our favourite restaurant in Venice, and this visit we liked it even more. It’s traditional enough to satisfy Manuela, who is from Venice, and exciting enough to delight me. This time, they had a starter of pesce crudo, or raw fish, and they paired four fish with four fresh fruits. It was astonishingly good. They don’t serve food with a lot of fuss – they just choose the very best ingredients and serve things simply. Culinary heaven, great atmosphere, great wine list, great desserts, and they were extremely welcoming toward our little baby. In fact, the owner said, “There is nothing more important than children, and I’m always happy to cook up whatever a child would like.” Róisín will be weaned by the next trip…
2. Child-friendliness. It’s a bit of a shock just how welcoming the Venetians were toward our baby. From shops to museums to restaurants, they were friendly and accommodating. I don’t know if the same would hold in high season, when people are more under pressure, but we found it a great place to visit with a child. The only caveat is that Venice has a lot of bridges, so there’s lots of carrying the pram over them! We also had a sling, but we did use the pram quite a bit.
3. Traghettos. These are gondola ferries that take you across the Grand Canal in several places. At 50 cent for a gondola ride, what’s not to like?
4. Fish market. The fish market in Rialto is not as big as the one in Tokyo, but it has a great buzz and can be the perfect place to pick up a tasty lunch. We rented an apartment, so we could do a bit of cooking, and fish is a natural ingredient in a sea-fareing city. It’s wise to get there early, before the best bits are gone. It’s also a great place for a wander.
5. Venice Biennale. Take an already beautiful city, and then pack it with art, mustic, dance, theatre, and architecture shows – brilliant! If you’re in Venice during the Biennale, there is so much to see. While they have the main expositions in the Giardini and in Arsenale, it’s the shows scattered throughout the town that we found most exciting – on any walk, you can come across the distinctive red sign and dip in to a mansion or monastery for a free culture hit.
6. Fresh fruit and vegetables. Coming from Ireland, the quality of the fruits and vegetables amaze. There’s a huge vegetable and fruit section at the fish market (above) but there’s also stands throughout town. You really can’t go wrong if you stick to the seasonal and local, and there’s lots of it… You will also find the prices extremely reasonable.
7. Osteria Boccadoro. Campo Widman, Cannaregio. We had our last meal here, and it really did impress. When we asked what the chef suggested, he ran into the kitchen and returned with a branzino (kind of sea bass) flopping on a tray. He told us his siesta had been disturbed by the fisherman’s call tipping him off to a good catch, and that we wouldn’t taste a fresher wild fish on our visit. This is a restaurant that has no freezers – everything is fresh and local. They also have a 5 chocolate mousse that is to die for. Just be prepared for the bill, though. It ain’t cheap!
8. Beautiful churches. The architecture in Venice is beautiful and some of the churches are just stunning. You can even catch reasonably-priced classical music concerts in some of them in the evenings (most often Vivaldi, who lived in Venice).
9. No cars. It’s hard to get used to the serene quiet of no car engines. There are boats, but it’s not the same at all. It also means you walk and walk, getting lost in the lanes and alleys, finding hidden treasures, and that really is one of the best parts to a visit to Venice.
10. Prosecco. Stopping into a bar for a pre-dinner snack and glass of prosecco (or a spritz, which came in with the Austrians but has become very traditional) is a true joy and feels very decadent indeed.
Note: Venice is packed with tourists, and like many places the temptation to take advantage is high. However, if you do a bit of advance planning for where you’re going to eat, avoid places with tourist menus, make sure you understand the cost of anything before you buy, don’t have a coffee in St. Mark’s square without expecting to pay through the nose, use cash machines when you need cash, and avoid the summer, you should avoid any unpleasant experiences and have a great time…
Apologies on the silence here, but we’re in Venice for the baptism of baby Róisín (photo above), and I’ve found getting on-line a little difficult.
It’s been a wonderful trip, and it’s been great to meet more of Manuela’s relatives and soak in the wonderful ambience of this incredible city.
I’ve also been lucky to have two of my very best friends join me. What a week!
I’ll post more when I get a chance!
Donal, one of the best Irish food bloggers, is launching his new cookbook next Wednesday, and I’ve taken the liberty of re-posting the invite above from Mercier press. Donal’s invited all of his readers, so I hope he won’t mind that I’ve widened the net a bit. Besides, Mr. Mulley has spread the word a lot further than I can!
I won’t be able to make it, since I’ll be in Venice , but I highly recommend you check out his blog so that you can see why this is a book I’m highly looking forward to getting my hands upon!
So, if you can make it, say hi to Donal from me! If you can’t, buy the book and support an Irish foodie.
One of our special flavours, for the food festival just passed, was dark chocolate ice cream topped with Kilbeggan whiskey cream. It’s a magic combination, with the smoky properties of Kilbeggan well-suited to dark chocolate. There’s a recipe below, and with Christmas coming up, I’m sure you can find many applications for it. It is also, by the way, great in coffee.
Murphys Ice Whiskey Cream
- 227 ml cream
- 1.5 tablespoons Kilbeggan or other full-flavoured Irish whiskey
- 1.5 tablespoons sugar
What to do:
1. Combine the cream and sugar in a mixing bowl.
2. Whip until soft peaks form.
3. Add the whiskey and whip fully.
Note: Different people will have different ideas of how sweet they like it, so you should adjust the sugar according to your own preferences.
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