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25 November 2008

La Calza del Cuoco

We are enjoying a rather neat food lover's Xmas present from Carluccio's in Dublin.
La Calza del Cuoco is a beige stocking with a red and white stripe that contains a packet of pasta cut in Xmas tree shapes, a jar of tomato sauce with black olives, and a wooden spoon: lovely. And lots more pretty gift ideas where that came from also.

Char grilling at Avoca

Avoca's Fern House Café in Kilmacanogue, County Wicklow, is now opening for dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. Matt Murphy and Giorgio Ramano are heading up the kitchen, so you can expect the cooking to have solid Avoca senders with washes of Italian accents. What intrigues us about the menus is that the lovely Arctic Char from Sligo produced by Bill Carty appears not just as a main course – with salsa verde, dauphinoise potatoes and sesame green beans – but also as an intriguing starter where it is served as tempura, with coconut, Asian chilli and lime dipping sauce, and a herbed salad. Bill also picked up a Eurotoques award last week, so Cloonacool Arctic char is not just going places, it is going to all the right places.
The rest of the Avoca menu reads beautifully, but not so beautifully, one suspects, as it will eat.
Reservations on 01 274 6990.
Meantime, we await the restaurant where the kitchen decides that Arctic char should be char-grilled: charred char, anyone?

The X-factor

There are many things that make Christmas christmassey.
The things that put the X in Xmas
The kids's school plays.
The smell of cloves in a hot whiskey.
Making the tree with the children.
Driving home from school after the last day of the school year.
And the Terroirs window, in Donnybrook.
Just look at it. Doesn't it give you a warm glow.
And that's even before you get inside.

24 November 2008

The Law of Diversity

The Law of Diversity

From the moment we switch on the radio first thing in the morning, we are enduring a diet of non-stop economics. More accurately, and more importantly for our mental health, we are enduring a diet of non-stop economic woe, which has been building up steam not just for the last twelve months when Northern Rock put the fear of God into Irish savers, but for the last three years, ever since the first fissure lines began to appear in the US sub-prime debacle.
Generally speaking, economics in the media is the business of economics correspondents, who are in turn briefed and influenced by economists, who like to talk in terms of Laws. But, inasmuch as an old Clause-4 socialist like myself can understand the dismal science, I want to propose that everyone have the democratic right to invent their own Law of Economics.
Here is mine: it is the Law of Diversity.
The Law of Diversity proposes that the way to human mental and physical healthfulness and successful economies – and the latter is designed to create the former, not the other way ’round – is to have societies, agricultures and economic structures that are as diverse as is humanly possible. Difference is good, diversity is culture, balance is Zen.
So, applying my Law – it’s always a good idea to give your Law a capital “L”, otherwise you won’t get a Nobel prize for it – how has the Irish government done over the last decade?
Badly.Very badly indeed.
Because it was a cash cow, the Government allowed the building sector to grow to 25% of the economy, when it should never have been a whole lot more than 10%. No balance, no Zen, no sustainability.
At the same time, the Government created a bureaucratised, Soviet-style monster it called the HSE in order to oversee our health and our health services. No diversity there, I’m afraid, so they have broken my Law once again.
In the agricultural sector, where a surplus of Exchequer funds could and should have fostered the management of a diverse and cultured agriculture, the Government has just kept on taking EU subsidies which have made our agriculture intellectually bankrupt over the last 30 years. No new diversity there, then.
The consequences of breaking Laws is all around us. A banking and financial sector lurching from crisis to crisis. A health sector lurching from crisis to crisis. An agricultural sector that runs around the place like a headless chicken.
Ireland Inc., in short, is a bit of a mess. And that is before the HSE tries to cope with the rash of referrals for patients with depression caused by the recession.
How has this happened? Well, to find a solution, we have to dream up another Law, which is the Law of Silver Bullet Thinking.
This Law says that there is one solution to any challenge. The Exchequer needs money? Haul in the Stamp Duty! The nation’s healthfulness is in decline? Create the HSE! Farming is a mess? Ride the Brussels Gravy Train!
Silver Bullet Thinking is endemic amongst politicos, bureaucrats, economists and farmers of a certain age. Recently, for example, the journalist Tyler Brulée wrote of quizzing former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone about London’s over-dependence on the financial sector:
“When I asked him whether the city should be doing more to encourage a more rounded creative community (for example, not just having design studios and headquarters for advertising agencies but also ateliers and light industry to support this sector), I was informed that those days were gone and that he didn’t really see those types of businesses having a place in London”.
Silver Bullet Thinking, par excellence. One solution, which brings in the money, so to hell with the rest. Brulée was proposing the City of Diversity. Livingstone was content with the City of Capital.
And look what has happened to Capital.
It looks grim, doesn’t it? But, despite ourselves and our lemming-like behaviour in this country over the last decade, we are actually a diverse bunch. Humans instinctively cling to the Law of Diversity, so there is always hope. And the monoliths built by Silver Bullet Thinking – EU-subsidised agriculture, the HSE, free market capitalism – are in no way sustainable, so they will eventually crumble and die.
Meantime, our task is to follow the Law of Diversity. I had a particularly lovely example of it just last weekend at the second Savour Kilkenny Festival. In one beautiful room in Castlcomer, you could taste the superlative Cramers Grove ice cream – made by local farmers Nigel and Carol. You could enjoy apple juice made from the prized karmine apple, from Dunedin orchards at Bennettsbridge. Olivia Goodwillie was grilling her unique Lavistown sausages, and Helen Finnegan had her own gold-medal winning farmhouse cheeses from Knockdrinna. Margaret Kirwan had superlative Irish trout from her farm at Goatsbridge, and Thomas Lyng’s Angus beef was chocolate-dark and utterly delicious. The brown soda bread from the Moore family’s Oldtown Bakery was as fine a soda as I have eaten in years.
Diverse foods, from diverse individuals who are united by a natural creativity, and who offer a microcosm of what a diverse culture really means, and what it can achieve for our health, and our society.

Bucking the Recession in Fermoy

Excuse me, all you happy Friday lunchtime eaters in Fermoy's Juniper restaurant, but there is a recession going on.
As we speak, Citigroup is going down the tubes. Ireland's banks are worth less than a kid's LEGO set. The credit crunch is now more painful than an Elizabethan torture on the rack.
And you don't care, do you? You have found the secret of Bucking the Recession: give me good food at good prices, and let the recession go hang.
Last Friday, Juniper in Fermoy was packed, with happy people. Abdou Mounir and Daniel O'Leary's handsome restaurant on Kent Street, just off the main strip and running down to the river, was full of happy, discerning people. I was one of them. I was having the pheasant and potato tart with beurre blanc and some lovely shredded, cooked red cabbage. The tart, the sauce and the veg were simply ace: a perfect lunch, in a lovely room.
I want to go back at dinnertime for the oxtail soup with horseradish cream and mini Yorkshire pud, and then some Asian-style duck with bak choi and an orange and five spice jus, or maybe the scallops and crab with linguini, or the monkfish with pea and chorizo risotto.
Juniper is a lovely new discovery, with excellent food at great prices. Recession? Who cares?! Not us.
And we will be back later with more on Fermoy...

Juniper Restaurant, 16 Kent Street, Fermoy, Co Cork 025 31040

Nash 19 Xmas Hampers

Last month we mentioned in passing that one of the best Xmas puddings we know is made by Claire Nash and her team in Cork's superb Nash 19 restaurant.

Now, the good news is that you can buy the Nash 19 puds, and a whole lot more besides, via their hamper service, which is sold online, and through the Nash 19 shop, and via Brown Thomas, Cork.

Whilst there are pre-selected hampers, ranging from the Twelve Days of Christmas at €360 to the Gourmand's Gorgeous Gift at €75, you can also make up your own hamper from anything in the shop. So, let's get a Clodagh McKenna LOVE apron; Benoit Lorge's chocs; David Llewellyn's mighty balsamic vinegar, and a plum pud for you, and one for your Mum, and one for Auntie, and one for your best mate...

Order online @
Telephone 086 1661 614
Buy via BT, Cork, or Nash 19, Princes Street, Cork

Back in Black/Le Tire Bouchon

Well, you must be saying to yourselves, and where have you been all these weeks?...

The answer is that we have just emerged from the annual tunnel that is the writing and finishing of the annual Bridgestone 100 Best Guides, the 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland 2009 and the 100 Best Places to Stay in Ireland 2009.

200 new entries, written from scratch. Some guides just tweak what they wrote last year – or maybe even three or five years ago – but we don't do that. So, you go into the tunnel, and you write 200 new entries, and when they are finished, then you emerge back in to the real world.

And now they are finished, and they will be in the shops just before Xmas. Lots of superb new places, both restaurants and places to stay.

So the blog is back. And let's start with a newcomer: here is Eamon Barrett on Wexford's Le Tire Bouchon, opened a couple of months ago in the centre of Wexford town by Kevin and Arnaud, both formerly of Dunbrody House. Kevin cooks, Arnaud takes care of f-o-h. Take it away Eamon...

Arnaud Clement and Kevin Carley have created a lovey room above The Sky and the Ground on South Main Street, in Wexford: old wooden wine cases make up the bar and there is a nice rustic feel to the place. Service is friendly and effecient, just Arnaud and one good waiter man the floor.

From the starters I could have had poached pear and blue cheese salad, or Black pudding stuffed with Toulouse sausage with a cognac and green peppercorn sauce, or Breast of Pigeon with wilted spinach and a beetroot coulis. In the end I went for pea soup, which had a lovely freshness to it and hadn't been blitzed too smoothly.
Ju, in an attempt to ignore the fact that there is a recession on, ordered pan fried foie gras with toasted brioche and fig chutney. It's a difficult ingredient to work with but they made a good job of it.

For mains I went for supreme of chicken stuffed with a chorizo and lardon farce, and Ju went for lobster with a cognac and butter sauce. In a somewhat unnecessary display, the live lobster is brought to the table and a little speech is given about how the restaurant only uses the freshest ingredients 'and we don't use frozen lobster, unlike some other establishments'. Ohhhkaayyy.

Service is a little slow but anyway the food eventually arrives. The retro content of the menu is carried through to presentation as everything has a very 70's look to it including garnished lemon (as opposed to a lemon garnish, if you follow) on the side of the plate of the lobster, which, having been split down the centre for cooking has been almost reassembled on the plate to form a kind of odd tableau grotesque. Not that it affects the flavour, which is very good.

My own chicken is quite tasty, some of the skin having been left on and the chorizo is a good partner. It comes atop a dollop of mash and then the sides are a little bowl of new potatos and some mixed veg - a bit too al dente but good quality.

We debated dessert but in the end I ordered a chocolate and orange torte. Oranges were a kind of theme actually. One of the starters featured oranges (scallops) and then no less than three of the desserts: A blood orange souffle, my torte, and crepes suzette, flambed at the table. Sadly, the torte was rather poor.

Lovely place, good service and cooking which is good. Total bill for the two of us: 2 x starters, 2 x mains, 1 x dessert, 2 x coffee, 1 x glass of sancerre, 1 x large bottle of still water: €98.50

Kevin: 0879122302