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30 December 2008

Everyone's doing it, Part 2

We will be posting our blog of the Men & Women of the Year on New Year's Day, but we thought, given that everyone else is doing it, that you might like our pick of the best discs of 2008.
And, have you noticed how, at the end of the year, there is nowadays little or no consensus on what music, movies or books were “the best”. A very healthy sign of diversity.

Martin Hayes & Denis Cahill: Welcome Here Again (Green Linnet)
How do you follow the manic, extrovert exuberance of “Live in Seattle”. By going manically introvert, as on this amazing record from the great duo. “Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere” writes Junichiro Tanizaki in his essay, “In Praise of Shadows”. Here is that reticence, that atmosphere, brought to Irish music. Simply extraordinary.

Carolin Widman, Denes Varjon: Robert Schumann The Violin Sonatas (ECM)
Incredible duo performances that fizz with an improvisatory dynamic. Schumann's music works best when the performers exhibit a control tempered by a wildness that threatens to tear it all apart, which is just what Widman and Varjon bring to this arch-Romantic music.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson: Lorraine at Emmanuel (Avie)
The orchestra is led by the late Craig Smith, who like Mrs Lieberson passed away too young. Lorraine's voice does for my generation what Maria Callas' voice did for an earlier generation: it haunts you.

Cassandra Wilson: S'loverly (Blue Note)
Twenty years on from her first collection of standards, “Blue Skies”, and we are still listening to that disc. Kind of suspect we will be listening to this beautifully managed collection of standards in twenty years time.

Pierre Laurent-Aimard: Bach, The Art of Fugue (DG)
A great modern pianist goes back through the centuries to find something new to say about Bach's contrapuntal masterpiece.

Garth Knox: D'Amore (ECM)
More duo performances as Knox and Agnes Vesterman range far and wide – from 1605 to 2006 to be precise – through the beautiful tones of the voila d'amore, counterpointed by cello. Exquisite musical truffles.

Toumani Diabaté: Mande Variations (World Circuit)
Not as jaw-droppingly amazing as ‘New Ancient Strings”, but the pulse of the kora as played by Diabaté is profound.

Various Artists: Masters of Tradition (RTE)
You can call us biased, as we were involved with the Masters of Tradition Festival in West Cork for some time, and biased we indeed are. But, just listen to the late Frank Harte and Donal Lunny on “The Lambeg Drummer” and tell us that it doesn't say more about Ireland's politics and passions than anything else you have ever heard.

16 December 2008

One of these animals doesn't belong in Dermot Byrne's smart chicken coop: can you guess which one?
Yes, that is none other than Holly, our one-year-old pup, a Scottie-Shiatzu cross, trying to steal some chicken food, as one-year-olds will.
Mr Byrne's coops are portable, beautifully made products, and very ingenious: a small trap door lowers inside the main frame to allow the birds to climb the stairs at night and keep well away from Mr Fox. Being able to move the house means you can keep the birds on fresh grass, thus giving you lushly orange yolks in your eggs.
If you don't want to spend more than €500 to house your birds, and you want to buy something that is both homemade and handmade, then check out Mr Byrne's website:
These are lovely pieces of work, and maybe the perfect present for the person in your life who is determined to produce more of their own food in 2009.

14 December 2008

Everyone's doing it, so why can't we?

Ah, the annual rash of critic's lists!
A chance to snort with amiable derision at the choices of people you admire – Michael Dwyer and Donald Clarke both choose Paul Thomas Anderson's awful “There Will Be Blood” as the year's best movie! Are they nuts!
Well, just to prove that we are as nutty as all the other hacks, here are our faves from the year almost ended...

I'm Not There, dir. Todd Haynes
Most folk included this in 2007's list but it only made its way down to us in 2008. Cinema was invented so that directors like Haynes could make movies like this. We were mesmerised by every frame.

WALL-E, dir. Andrew Stanton
Scary, beautiful, filled with life and love in a world without life or love. Pixar are the champs.

Be Kind, Rewind, dir. Michel Gondry
Bricolage cinema from the extraordinary Gondry, a man with an imagination like no other. Even managed to redeem Mia Farrow. Well, almost.

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, dir. Guillermo del Toro.
Another director with an utterly exuberant imagination, and a stunning cast. Sheer class.

The Orphange, dir. Juan Antonio Bayona
A protége of del Toro, and a freshman director with absolute control over story and camera. Brilliant, and scary in equal measure.

Iron Man, dir. Jon Favreau
How has Robert Downey Jr, managed it? All those drugs, all that jail time, and he comes out the coolest guy on the block. Even managed to redeem Gwyneth Paltrow. Really.

Sweeney Todd, dir Tim Burton
Sondheim, Burton and Depp? Mr Cool, Mr Cool and Mr Cool. How could it fail? It didn't. And Mrs Tim Burton was genuinely brilliant.

The Dark Knight, dir. Christopher Nolan
Nolan deserves all the money just for daring to make a Hollywood movie that is so unrelentingly dark. The storyline was confusing, but the emotional heart of the movie was direct and unflinching.

06 December 2008

The genius of Cheesemaking, Part 1: 25 years of CAIS

25 Years of Cais: Speech at Cashel, November 2008

It is such a privilige to be asked to say something to mark 25 years of CAIS.
For almost 20 years of those 25 years, my wife and I have been writing about cheesemakers, writing about those who have succeeded, and who today enjoy what we might call luxury brand status, but also writing about others who endeavouerd but who, for a host of reasons, have not survived:

I can still recall Maam Valley Cheese being made on the stovetop in a farmhouse in Connemara, I remember in Kerry visiting “the bicycling Germans” with the Israeli recipe for soft goat’s cheese preserved in olive oil, and who lived in a house with a grass roof.
I remember St Martin cheese from County Clare made by Eileen O’Brien, and of course one members the amazing Martin Guillemot and Ann Marie Jamand of Maucnaclea Cheeses in Cork market. And who can forget Monica Murphy’s pioneering Cheeseboard shop, in Dublin, years ahead of its time.
Ireland’s farmhouse cheese economy stretches from those who are the veterans at this stage,those who created Cais back in 1983 – Gubbeen, Milleens, Durrus, Carrigbyrne, Glen-o-Sheen, Coolea, Ryefield – all the way to the newcomers like Knockdrinna, Mossfield, Glebe Brethan. Some cheese businesses are relatively large in scale, and some are tiny: one of the best West Cork goats milk cheeses – Carriag Goat’s Cheese – can be bought in only 2 wholefood shops in West Cork

I start from the point from at which, I believe, that you started: milk is a magic liquid.
It is the source of life, as Pierre Boissard notes in his history of Camembert, He writes: ”It is highly complex and recalcitrant substance”. Right from the baby’s first suckle to the pleasure of a mature piece of blue cheese or an oozing semi-soft washed rind cheese, enjoyed with a glass of wine, in our maturity, milk sustains us. As Peter Ward, one of the many great retail champions of cheesemaking, said in 2002: “Milk is in our blood!”

But if milk is a magic liquid, then it follows that cheesemakers, those who work closest of all with milk, those who understand it better than anyone else, those who understand that milk is a changeling, a shape-shifter – that milk is not just a living thing, but almost a living teenager thing – are not simply its handmaidens. They are much more, they are its Magicians.

Magic = genius with geography
What is magic? it is genius allied to geography. It is where and when the cheesemaker realises the cheese that wants to be made, and then seizes and adapts the milk and the micro flora, recognising the place that is at the heart of every cheese.
Myrtle Allen in her Ballymaloe Cookbook quotes a local buttermaker who, when told tht the quality ofbutter he was sending over was excellent, replied that: “the milk from that field always made good butter“.
Not the milk from the county, or the cow, but the milk from “that field”.
The great Italian writer Italo Calvino put it this way in his novel Mr Palomar:
“Behind every cheese there is a different pasture of a different green under a different sky”

The Person
Magic happens when Creativity collides with stubbornness: every cheese is different, not just because of Place, but because of the Person: taste the cheese and you meet the cheesemaker, for every cheese is the mirror of its maker. Meet Irish cheesemakers and you also meet people with that greatest human virtue: stubbornness. Bolshie people!

The Place meets the Person who can make the cheese, and they bring to the process the Passion, to create a unique product.
When we write about cheese in our books, we use terms like soulful, agrestic, complex, passionate, articulate, multi-layered. People might argue that these are not terms appropriate to a foodstuff. and I agree: for these are terms applicable to a unique thing, a unique product, they are the terms we might use when talking about a work of art. And every farmhouse cheese is a work of Art.

But before we deal with the Art of Cheese, let us dwell for a moment on one key element that creates that Art, and which has been a major factor in the history of CAIS and its members: The Struggle.

The Struggle
Scientists don’t understand milk, and they don’t understand cheese. As Pierre Boisard writes: “milk has always fascinated and irritated scientists... for scientists nothing was more baffling and unscientific than the skill of the cheesemakers, who managed to produce savoury cheeses without knowing anything at all about microbiology”

And this is the field on which the struggle takes place: Art versus Science.
The art is created by the lonely cheesemaker in a tiny room somewhere in rural Ireland. And the science is a government-funded bureacratic monolith that has all the subtlety of a Salem witch trial. Science argues against art, and labels it superstition, simply because it can’t understand what is going on.
Cheesemaking depends on all that ephemera that makes art: chance, inspiration, volatility, reflex, experience, culture, deep-knowingness.
What does science value: certainty; standardisation; technology, hyper-hygienism. The scientist, to echo a famous remark that is often attributed to Garret Fitzgerald, says: “That is all fine is practice, but how does it work in theory?”.

The struggle between bureaucratised science and the art of cheesemaking, between people with permanent and pensionable jobs and individual artisan cheesemakers, has been a bruising one. It has often seemed, to borrow the old expression, that they were using a wheel to crush a butterfly.
But, of course, the butterfly has not been crushed. The creativity that engenders every new cheese, and that keeps cheesemakers at the curd every day, day in and day out, has not been broken,
The greatest feat that cheesemakers have achieved is in creating and perfecting their cheeses. But perhaps the greatest victory won by CAIS members has been to withstand the dull, deathly standardisation that bureacucratic science would love to impose on Irish cheesemaking. The victory is yours.

The Art of Cheese.
Finally, let us ask: What is art? It is the process of transformation, it is the process by which daily work creates something that enjoys precious value. And no act of transformation is greater than the artisan work involved in collaborating with and mastering the volatility and volubility of milk.
Every day, the template with which the cheesemaker works is different. The sculptor doesn’t have to work with lava, the painter’s canvas is secure, the writer’s pencil can be sharpened. But the cheesemaker has no such certainty. Everything is up for grabs, and it is this ability to wrest the essence of the cheese from this ephemera that certifies just what extraordinary art it is that the cheesemaker dabbles in.
This ability comes, I think, from their sincere belief in what they create. As Norman Steele said to me years ago” “You must believe in the food. It simply will not work for a small business if you do not believe in it as a high quality food that will win respect”

But CAIS members have taken this artistic creativity even further, for they create their art, every day, as artisans.
Irish farmhouse cheeses are the mirror image of the people who make them. The art is not abstract. Instead, it is intensely personal, so much more so when you consider that virtually everyone begins from the same point, with the same materials.
Seamus Sheridan tells the story of customers at Slow Food who taste Irish cheeses and decide that they love Cheese X the best. “Can you give us that from, say, thirty suppliers?” they ask. “But there is only one producer”, explains Seamus.
And so, every cheese is different, every cheese is unique, every cheese is, as Peter Ward says, “minded” or as the Italians might say, the cheeses are “curated”. The cheesemakers are inventors, and curators, and thus artisans, of their cheeses.

I want to finish this little journey through 25 years of Art and Magic with what I think are some of the most profound observations on artisanship, from Lori di Mori’s beautiful book, “Beaneaetsr and Bread Soup”.
Artisans, she writes, “are as alike as they are different, and they share some essential qualities:

a kind of personal integrity that can be confused with eccentricity: ‘however strange it may seem to you, this is the way I do things’

Pride without arrogance: a sincere belief in the excellence of their work

Humility and steadfastness; the ability to light the wood stove, milk the ewes,. coax h bees out of their hives – quietly, without pretense – year after year.

The belief that their work is not a means to something else, but one of the ways to give meaning to their lives

Genius: the brilliance that comes to those driven by their personal vision rather than by a desire for success, money or fame

Generosity: they have no secrets. If you appreciate what they do, they’ll tell you everything they know... and usually set a place for you at their table..

I want to thank you for all the cheesemakers’ tables I have been lucky to share over twenty years as a writer on Ireland’s food culture.
Above all, I want to thank you for having, over 25 years, graced so many Irish and international tables with your cheeses, and having thereby brought to those places of cooking and sharing and enjoying the great fruits of your individual – and of CAIS’s collective – genius.

John McKenna

The Genius of Cheesemaking, part 2

There are many delicious questions to be answered when it comes to the Xmas dinner table.
This year, will we get the smoked salmon from the Burren Smokehouse, or the Connemara Smokehouse? The turkey from Gary Crocker’s farm in Wicklow? The pud from Nash 19 in Cork, or from Country Choice in Nenagh?
But maybe the toughest question is: what cheeses do we want on the Xmas cheeseboard this year?
What makes the question rather difficult to answer is that we are, fortunately, spoilt for choice. If you want a piece of blue cheese as part of your selection, then you might opt for the classic Cashel Blue from Tipperary, making sure you get one that has been aged for about ten weeks, when cashel is at its peak of tasty maturity.
But, if you like something a little more piquant, then you could go for Cashel’s near-neighbour, Crozier Blue, made using ewe’s milk. But the Tipperary duo aren’t the end of you choices, for there is also the superb Bellingham Blue, from County Louth, made by Peter Thomas using unpasteurised milk, a farmhouse cheese that in the opinion of many food lovers, knocks spots off the classic Stilton.
And in whatever way you want to compose your Xmas cheese selection, there are splendid choices to be enjoyed across the entire taste spectrum. You fancy some washed-rind cheese? What about the classic Milleens, made by Quinlan Steele down in deepest West Cork, a second-generation cheesemaker who has succeeded his parents as producer of the cheese that, more than thirty years ago, began the quiet revolution that has gifted us with some many diverse, idiosyncratic and world-class cheeses.
For there is something rather magical, and utterly unique, about the cheeses that are made on farms throughout Ireland.
Take, for instance, the cheeses made by my own local cheesemaker, Jeffa Gill of Durrus Cheese.
Ms Gill began to make the cheese that became Durrus almost thirty years ago, experimenting with the milk from her couple of cows on the stovetop in her farmhouse, up the hill of Coomkeen. Thirty years on, and that slice of Durrus you cut at the Xmas table will have been made by Jeffa, who today uses milk bought from a couple of local farmers. Every morning she heats the milk, creates the curd, then forms the cheese, then sets them on the shelves to mature.
It is a uniquely bespoke food, for where else would you be able to enjoy a food that is still made by the person who invented the cheese, a cheese that is unlike any other made anywhere in the world?
Cheesemakers have a saying for this sort of magic. The cheese they finally invent, after all the trials and the botched efforts and the failed experiments, is, they say, “the cheese that wanted to be made”. In other words, they must marry the individual qualities of the milk they work with to the precise micro-flora of the place where they make it.
With most of the cheeses produced in the world, this sort of intense specificity never happens. If you are a farmer milking a herd in Italy where the milk is destined to make Parmesan cheese – Parmigiano Reggiano – then your milk will be subsumed with the milk of thousands of other farmers to make a cheese that is produced according to rigid guidelines and laws.
Most Parmesan is of superb quality, but it is a regimented quality, a cheese that must sing from the same hymn sheet as every other Parmesan.
But Irish cheeses, in comparison, are riffing on the melody of the hymn sheet, they are improvising on it every day, like jazz musicians tearing a melody apart only to recreate it in their own image.
The interesting thing is that this free-form, idiosyncratic and individualistic food creation now has a distinguished history. CAIS, the Irish association of farmhouse cheesemakers, recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary.
Of its seven founding members, five cheeses are still today made by the people who invented them: Coolea from North Cork; Carrigbyrne from Wexford; and the mighty trinity of West Cork washed-rind cheeses, Milleens, Durrus and Gubbeen. Every day, the cheesemakers make the cheese, they mature it, they mind it.
Their work is a precious gift to our table at any time of the year, for every cheese is, in fact, a piece of fine art, every cheese is a unique expression of a person, a place, and a passion to make beautiful food.

02 December 2008

Eating Polish in Dublin

Caroline Byrne unearths a Polish gem with true home-style cooking in Dublin.

Gospoda Polska Polish restaurant
15 Capel Street,
Dublin 1
T: 01 8749394

On my first visit to this quaint little Polish restaurant on Capel Street, I knew that this was going to become one of favourite restaurants in Dublin full stop.
The waitress who served us all evening was charming and great fun, and seeing our enthusiasm was very happy to elaborate on all the dishes we ordered. While I knew how much I had enjoyed the experience, I also knew that my knowledge of Polish restaurants was limited to this one occasion. So I decided to return with a gang of friends, half Polish and half Irish, so we could make a proper decision about Gospoda Polska.
The girls (Polish) both decided on the borsch (barszcz) – a traditional Polish broth made from beetroot and either beef or chicken stock – with a mushroom and cabbage patty (EUR*6.50). I also had the borsch, except with cabbage ravioli (EUR*6.50), sort of like a Polish version of tortellini al brodo. This is a delicious, warming dish that would make a perfect lunch or light meal on a cold day, and I was delighted when both girls declared it to be terrific and just like from home.
Other starters included the beef tartare with mushrooms, onions and sour cucumber, served with a raw egg yolk and a shot of vodka (EUR*11.90) and Polish dumplings filled with cheese, potatoes and fried onions (EUR*9.90), which were very tasty.
Moving on to the mains, the Polish girls, being dainty, decided to opt for starter portions of dumplings, of which there were a variety including cabbage, mushroom and fired onion, and even strawberries and sweet cream (EUR*9.90). True to my Irish roots however, I like a good feed, and order the pork knuckle in horseradish sauce with chips and sour cabbage (EUR*15.90).
My meal evoked the most envy I believe, and rightly so. The meat was falling of the bone and the sour cabbage and horseradish sauce offer a perfect counterbalance to the overall richness. It was absolutely yum.
So too was the Chef’s Cutlet – a grilled pork chop finished off in the oven with tomatoes, onions, garlic sauce and cheese, served with fried baby potatoes (EUR*13.90) – the half a baked duck in cranberry and strawberry sauce with dauphin potatoes (EUR*19.90), and the very traditional Polish pork cutlet (breaded and fried), served with whole, fried potatoes and cucumber salad (EUR*12.90), which our Polish friends told us was very typical of a Sunday lunch dish in Poland.
Overall, the meal was great fun, especially passing around the dishes and talking about the food. Nobody could fault their meal, every bit was delicious, and I was delighted to hear that this was not the fare eaten in restaurants in Poland, but at home. One girl remarked that her experience of Polish eateries in Dublin so far, which is limited and mostly always with the dual function of a pub, had led her not to expect much from Gospoda Polska, but having come here she would definitely be back – especially for the barszcz!
All of us bar one went for one of the homely but yummy desserts, including a cup of fresh fruit with ice cream, cream and streawberry sauce; apple cake and vanilla ice cream; or a more traditional sweet pancake with cottage cheese, whipped cream and sugar (EUR*6.50).
From a general perspective, Gospoda Polska is a very warm, friendly restaurant that will accommodate a large group or satisfy a lone diner simply looking for a bowl of borsch. The portions were generous and the value is fantastic for what you get – good hearty, authentic Polish home-cooking.
Our meal for six, including drinks, came to just over EUR*190. This is a super little restaurant and hopefully it will be around for a long time to come.

Open Monday to Thursday: 12 noon – 11pm, Friday and Saturday: 12 noon – 11.30pm, and Sunday: 12.30pm – 11pm
Booking not necessary
Does not accept credit cards

01 December 2008

Our Playlist

Well, you didn't ask. But, had you asked, we would have said: well, this is our playlist at this present moment...

Dusty in Memphis, Dusty Springfield (Philips)

d'Amore, Garth Knox (ECM)

Playground, Manu Katche (ECM)

Masters of Tradition, Various artists (RTE Lyric fm)

Lorraine at Emmanuel, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (Avie)

Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, Foo Fighters (RCA)

Legend, Townes van Zandt (Charly)

And, what we would add to this list, if we knew how to get our hands on it, would be a Peadar O'Riada cd called, we think, 10 Minutes to the Millenium. We heard a track on John Kelly's programme and it blew us away. If you know where we might find it, we would be most grateful...

Gubbeen White Pudding

Friday morning, Bantry market, and Sebastian at the Gubbeen stall has something new – these guys always have something new! But here are some Gubbeen savoury puddings, both a black and a white pudding. So, we ask for a piece of white pud, which is shaped in the small horse-shoe shapes we love, but which are becoming less common these days.
Sunday morning,and the pud is cooked, and served with some scrambled eggs. Reader, it is to die for: quite a dense texture, and not at all crumbly, packed tight into the casing. But what is amazing is the hammy-ness of the flavour: has it been cooked in a ham stock when it was being poached?
We do not know, and as much as we need to know is that this is the most distinctive new pudding we have tried in ages, and we kicked ourselves because we hadn't bought a piece of black pudding also, something we shall rectify at the next Friday market. Look out for the puddings at the Gubbeen market stalls throughout Cork, and contact them at the smokehouse for details of any other retailers.