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30 October 2007

The First Savour Kilkenny Festival

The confident culinary chutzpah one expects of Kilkenny was fully in evidence during the Bank Holiday weekend, when the first Savour Kilkenny Festival brought markets, producers, restaurateurs and punters to Ireland's most handsome, Italiante city.
Pride of place goes to Mary Shortis and Chris Wong, who were awarded the first Savour Kilkenny Award. Their shop sells everything you could possibly imagine, not to mention the best street food in Ireland – this was a richly deserved prize.
The Festival wisely embraced everything from Polish and Lebanese cooking – see the post on the wonderful Tabbouleh competition – along with an inspired cheese tasting by Mark Gaffney, luminary chef of the Ormonde Hotel, balsamic vinegars, sushi, kid's cooking, and rugby ledge Mick Galwey getting intimate with a ball of baker's dough. Garret Byrne of Chapter One came back to his home city to cook the gala dinner, and the energy in the town was only mighty. Other local culinary legends, Eugene and Breda McSweeney of Lacken House, were in fit, fine form – Mr McSweeney is on the look out for new challenges, so anyone who needs a great, skilled culinary Mr Fix-It need look no further – and the restaurants pulsed with energy. We would like to see a situation next year, however, where only the produce of local producers is featured on the menus – if you have local artisan cheeses like Lavistown and Knockdrinna, why on earth serve anything else? – but this was a mighty impressive debut, and promises another annual festival for the city that already does festivals better than anywhere else.

Why isn't a great restaurant like Shanahan's in the Bridgestone 100 Best?

Thursday evening in Shanahan's, and the place is leppin'. It's so busy, that there are folk who are even eating downstairs in the bar, and elsewhere there isn't a table to be had. Confident, smart staff negotiate the three floors of the complex, always charming, completely in control.
The little amuse of foie gras is perfect, the trio of Irish salmon is spot on, the scallops are small but excellent, and the meats are pitch perfect – the petite filet, the New York striploin, the fine rib-eye. Side orders are simple as they should be – good mash, good creamed spinach.
So, if it's all this good and this professional, then why isn't Shanahan's top of the Bridgstone pile? If we can agree that a capital city needs big, brassy restaurants such as this – and the demand for tables on a quiet week in October shows that indeed we do – and if we can agree that they do what they do superbly, then how come they ain't critical darlings?
Simply because the nature of a big, brassy restaurant such as this means that there isn't room for any true individuality to shine though, and that is what the Bridgestone Guides are about. We are after the quirky, the maverick, and you can't run a big operation such as Shanahan's in that fashion. We respect what they do at Shanahan's, and even if there are glitches – we were entertaining a visitor from France, and the restaurant had no Irish cheeses!, never even mind the Irish raw milk cheeses we were hoping to introduce to our guest! – you can forgive them because the theatre is so fine. So, a great place for a Big Night Out, and not a place to worry about the prices, and a slick, calm, business-like operation that purrs with energy and pleasure.

29 October 2007


There are many perfectly rendered archetypes in the work of animator Brad Bird – the “human” characteristics conferred on the robot in The Iron Giant, for instance, or Bird's own voiceover of the demented designer Edna Mode in The Incredibles – but Bird trumps even his own high standards with the extraordinary food critic, Anton Ego, in his brilliant movie, “Ratatouille”.
Ego – lovingly and waspishly voiced by Peter O'Toole – is a superlative invention, largely because he is hardly an invention at all. Ego is the declamatory critic who feels that his opinion is the only thing that matters in the world of food. The critic who believes that the world waits on his opinion. The critic who surveys from the plateau of his superior knowledge and his allegedly superior “taste”. Ego is the critic who is barely human, instead being simply a series of aesthetic neuroses.
We have met critics just like Ego, and not just in France: they are living and working in these islands. For them, the restaurant experience is only and ever a matter of Platonic perfection, and it is for them to tell the unwashed masses just what restaurants most closely achieve this perfection.
It says a lot for Bird's confidence that he knows just exactly how to deal with this character, but then Bird shows in Ratatouille that he knows exactly how to deal with the world of the professional restaurant, homing in on every detail from the '61 Latour to the Environmental Health Officer with uncanny accuracy. Bird has to have been a plongeur or a waiter when he was young, because only someone who has sweated in a real kitchen can have this sort of feel for how kitchens are structured, and he clearly knew the sort of professional expertise he needed when setting out the details of the kitchen and the cooking, consulting with luminary chefs such as Guy Savoy and Thomas Keller.
If one can make a criticism of the movie, it is that it is a little over-egged: so much is going on so often that one viewing simply isn't enough. This wealth of detail aside, Ratatouille makes it 3 classics out of 3 movies for Brad Bird. Iron Giants. Superheroes. Rodent Superchefs. I guess eight years working on The Simpsons is going to have some impact on a guy's way of looking at the world.

05 October 2007


October provokes the most extreme reactions. “There was a splendid, majestic plenitude about the sunlight which burned all day, and then seemed to switch itself off abruptly in the early evening, when all at once the air became very cold, and dusk fell quickly. The sun had a special warmth which you never felt in summer and which never came again in winter... The land was at rest”.
That is Pierre Koffmann, writing a rhapsody for autumn in his great book “Memories of Gascony”. But others see Octobery things quite differently: “October, not April, is the cruelest month for me”, writes Hugo Arnold in Food & Wine Magazine this month.
For others, the stalking weather of this time of the year seems to bring a mixture of tension and relief, a foreboding brilliantly captured by Robbie Robertson in The Band's classic song, “King Harvest Has Surely Come”:

The smell of the leaves,
from the magnolia trees in the meadow,
King Harvest has surely come.

But the way in which Levon Helm sings the chorus of the song leaves us in no doubt that the narrator should have a left a question mark after that last line: “King Harvest has surely come?”.

Up in Limerick last week I met up again with Colette O'Farrell, luminary creator of the Nature's Bounty preserves, some of the best artisan foods we have come across in recent times. Ms O'Farrell was planning to spend the weekend picking Shepherd's Plums, a wild, late-ripening variety, so named because they were there to be eaten by the shepherds after they had returned with their flocks to the fields. The image of Ms O'Farrell, plucking the autumn fruit and then bottling it's bounty, seems to me to sum up just what October offers, the last chance to store up sunshine, to catch Pierre Koffmann's “majestic plenitude”, and ”splendid warmth”, to sustain us through the winter.

Over the next short while we're going to explore some ideas on harvest. If you have any harvest experiences or opinions, please share them.

04 October 2007

The Joy Of Eating

In her fine book, “Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy”, the historian Barbara Ehrenreich notes that “suffering remains the almost exclusive preoccupation of professional psychology. Journals in the field have published forty-five thousand articles in the last thirty years on depression, but only four hundred on joy”.

As it is with psychology, so it is with food and eating, in forkfuls. The quickest online search will throw up two and a quarter million stories about food and health scares, but we don’t need to go online to know that: we need only listen to the news or open a newspaper.

We endure a daily bombardment of information from the health, safety and scientific lobbies that collectively paint the simple acts of cooking, eating and drinking as fraught adventures, latent with every imaginable threat, potent with risk. “What doesn’t make you fat will kill you in the end” often seems the only way to summarise this era’s collective hysteria over food scares, food fads and food follies. From the fat content of your breakfast roll all the way to the sulfites in your Cabernet Sauvignon, the only tenable aphorism for our modern food culture seems to be: caveat emptor – buyer beware.

Sensible people, of course, steer clear of the forty-five thousand articles, or the two and a quarter million stories, that tell us what not to do, and head straight for the four hundred sources that tell us where and how to find culinary joy. But the onslaught of bad food news creates a problem, in particular, for our children.

“What shall we tell the children”? is the first issue, especially when your teenage Conor and Sarah announce that they aren’t eating any more chicken-tofu-beef-carrots-sausages-salad leaves-eggs on account of the latest news about GMOs-avian flu-pesticide residue levels-FMD or whatever it may be that has risen to the surface of contemporary concerns, and which has sparked into protest their natural fretfulness. You can try to be rational and reasonable and balanced and well-informed, but convincing that stubborn teenage mind that the sausages are safe and eggs are salmonella-free is no easy task. Children get informed by the media first, and by their parents second.

But a bigger issue for our children is, surely, the steady erosion of the concept of joy that should, rightfully, be derived from cooking and eating.

Fifteen years ago, the great chef-intellectual of the Irish kitchen, Gerry Galvin, wrote that “Children should be nurtured to inventive eating from an early age. We should teach them to eat as we teach them to read or play music. It requires patience, perseverance and love”.

Today, it would appear we nurture them to worry about food from an early age. Where do we hear the voices telling children that understanding and enjoying food, and being able to cook with it in an inventive way, is one of the primary creative functions of any human being? Books are on the curriculum big time, and playing music is the bee’s knees for any child, but who informs them that cooking is the best and most immediate means of self-expression open to any individual, and that preparing and sharing food is the cornerstone of any concept of community?

Food educates us in every skill and discipline – trade, economics, sensory appreciation, the visual arts, judgement, and it is freighted with mathematical and scientific enquiry: if you are prone to say that “Cooking isn’t rocket science”, then can I suggest you go and make a cheese soufflĂ©, and have your mind changed in the process. Cooking is both art, and science, but the problem is simply that we teach the science, but not the art.

The onslaught of scares, and the yawning lack of common sense, has meant a devaluation of the culture of food, creating a widespread sense of suspicion amongst young people, and suspicion is the enemy of joy and pleasure. For a previous generation, the problems that were taking us to hell in a handcart were The Bomb, and Sex. Substitute Global Warming and Food, and you have today’s scary monsters.

If common sense was more common, then our children would see the stream of food scares as the disconnected junk science so much of it is. We need to teach our kids to eat, as Gerry Galvin said, and in teaching them to give them the confidence to edit and understand the scares, and consequently to enjoy the creativity of cooking, and the joy of the table.