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16 December 2009

New Discoveries

So, who makes the best cupcakes in Kilkenny? Who makes the best black pudding in Tipperary? What oil should you have on the table instead of extra virgin olive oil? Who makes the best salted caramels in Limerick? Which is the hottest restaurant in Leitrim? And which is the hottest restaurant in Longford?

Why is the Barking Dog painfully fashionable? Where can you get a dainty cup of tea in Kenmare? Which Kerry tearooms is a century old? Who is the finest new market baker in County Clare? Where would you find ooooby? In which Westport restaurant do they recite poetry when you are having your dinner? It’s Thursday, you are on Mespil Road in Dublin, so what are the chances of finding a Poulet Bonne Femme?

There is so much exciting new stuff in the Bridgestone Irish Food Guide that we could make up questions like this all day long. It’s been such a treat to discover so much dedicated new talent, and to give the following people our Megabites Awards for 2009.

Restaurant of the Year: Campagne, Kilkenny

Garret Byrne and Brid Hannon hit the ground running in 2008 in Campagne. In 2009 they cranked the perfection parameters so high that the only term anyone uses about Campagne is “flawless”. The level of sheer perfection sees off any other contenders in 2009.

Producer of the Year: Mary McEvoy: A Slice of Heaven, Kilkenny

Mary McEvoy is one of the greatest patissiers in Ireland, and her cupcakes leave everyone else in the cupcake industry that has mushroomed in Ireland in the dust. You want to see and taste perfection? Here it is.

Newcomer of the Year: Nicole Dunphy, Pandora Bell, Limerick

You want to see and taste perfection? here it is, again. Nicole Dunphy's salted caramels and nougats and lollipops are of a standard no one in Ireland has ever achieved, and she has just started her Pandora Bell business, so what awaits us in the future? We can't wait.

New Food Award: Jane Russell & Gubbeen Smokehouse

Ms Russell gets the gong for her brilliant new black pudding. Fingal Ferguson gets the gong for his brilliant new white pudding. Both products are not anything like the style of food from which they have emanated: the Gubbeen white pudding is more porky than any other pudding; the Jane Russell black pudding comes somewhere between a French boudin and an Irish blood pudding but confidently stakes out its own, unique, turf.

Megabites Achievement Award: Jim Ahearne, Kelly's Hotel, Rosslare

35 years in the kitchens of Kelly's Hotel, creating goodness out of local foods: what an achievement, what an example for every other Irish cook the most gifted and genial Mr Ahearne is. And here's the thing: just what has Jim's use of local produce over 35 years meant to the local economy? Happy retirement, Jim!

Megabites County of the Year: Mayo

There has been ferocious competition to see which county is the most improved in the new Food Guide. Longford, perhaps? Roscommon, maybe? These sort of dark horse places are beginning to stand up and offer the sort of cutting edge food producers and cooks they have never enjoyed in the past.

But when push comes to shove, one county edges on other out. Kilkenny's star has never been brighter, its restaurants never better, its food producers never more confident. But in 2009 it's County Mayo that gets the gong. Across the board, from wine guys like Liam Cabot to artisans like Sean Kelly to cooks like Seamus Commons, County Mayo is firing on all cylinders like never before. The West: Awake!

Cookery Books of the Year:

Prannie Rhattigan's Irish seaweed Kitchen (Booklink)

Carmel Somers: Eat Good things Every day (Atrium)

Two books by two determined Irish women that represent a lifetime of learning and discovery, and which gift to you a lifetime of pleasure in the kitchen as you use them to explore the culinary canon. These are two outstanding books, and you need them both in your life.

Megabites 2010 Award: Sheridan's on the Docks

This is the restaurant you are going to hear most about in 2010. Seamus Sheridan and Enda McEvoy are pushing the culinary envelope in Sheridan's, the most exciting restaurant arrival in Galway since Gerry Galvin arrived in the city.
Food Writing Course in Ballymaloe Cookery School

Some of the greatest literature in the world has been written by... food writers.
If you think there is no more to food writing than the recipe 'n' restaurant concoctions of the weekend newspapers, then John McKenna's course at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, on Saturday 27th February, will be a revelation. Discovering the world of superb prose stylists and scholar-cooks such as M.F.K. Fisher, Richard Olney, Patience Gray, Wendell Berry, Diana Henry, Marcella Hazan, Alice Waters and many others shows a world where food occupies a central aspect of our literary culture. Whether your ambition is simply to write a blog, or to write your masterpiece, then knowing the work of these great writers is one of the keys to understanding the artfulness and greatness that lies in writing about food.
But the course is also extremely practical. As publisher of The Bridgestone Guides, Sally McKenna will discuss how to create everything from the simplest blog to the mechanism behind lighting food for photography, or mastering page layout for your own book.

This is only one of a year full of masterful classes in the inimitable Ballymaloe Cookery School. If you are looking for a last minute Christmas present for a friend, then which food lover couldn't be delighted with a day's learning under the tutorship of some of the world's most gifted cooks, including Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamini, or chef Jean Pierre Moulle from Chez Panisse. It's a mark of Ballymaloe's extraordinary standing that Darina can persuade chefs like this to come and demonstrate in Ireland.

Other courses include Home Butchery, Charcuterie and Sausage Making with Philip Dennhart, and a pizza class with the same chef. There are kids classes, foraging classes, and their Sushi made Simple course with Shermin Mustafa, a class we attended this year only to discover Shermin had some wonderful Turkish recipes to share as well as a wealth of sushi knowledge. For details of all the Ballymaloe classes check out

Ninth Edition of the Bridgestone Irish Food Guide

Trends and Paradoxes: the economy contracts, the Bridgestone community grows and grows.

As we were writing the ninth edition of the Bridgestone Irish Food Guide, which arrived in bookshops this week, it became apparent that something curious was happening. The section on County Mayo, for instance, totaled no fewer than 15 pages of entries. We looked back at the 2007 BIFG, and found that County Mayo, back then, totaled 9 pages. A 60% increase in the Bridgestone Community of superlative food specialists. And the same was true most everywhere, which has meant that the new edition is a genuine door-stopper: 624 pages in total, almost 100 pages more than the last time and that edition, the 8th, was 100 pages bigger than its predecessor in 2004.

So, how do we explain the paradox that as the economy shrinks, the BIFG grows? People are spending less, but they are patronising the best restaurants – the Bridgestone restaurants – almost as much as ever. And in the markets, good producers are busier than ever, and happier. So, with doom and gloom all around us, here in the 9th edition of the BIFG are 624 pages of good news all about the good stuff made by the good guys in the food world throughout Ireland.

The 9th edition of the Bridgestone Irish Food Guide costs €15 and you can order it now from

Restaurants sourcing specialist foods from their own doorstep are in a win-win situation with their local artisans, and true provenance is becoming the way in which you establish a USP that no other restaurant can copy or emulate.

One of the great things about writing the 600 plus pages of the Food Guide is discovering just how many Irish foods remain local foods, things that you will only find in a particular town, county or region. We have used a logo – Only in County Clare, for instance, or Only in Ulster – to mark out these foods throughout the book.

• Ultimate Provenance
So, do you know about the foods that are on your doorstep, and only on your doorstep? For restaurateurs, in particular, this is vitally important because one of the undercurrents of the book is a growing trend for only serving foods sourced within a particular radius from the restaurant, and of describing them as such on the menu. This is Ultimate Provenance, doorstep foods, cooked and eaten in situ.

• Middle Calf Island
Taken to its apex, it might mean that you find a way to source something like the animals shown in these splendid photographs by Kevin O’Farrell, of Heir Island. These sheep are reared on Middle Calf Island in the middle of Roaringwater Bay, West Cork, and here they are being rounded up, marked and transported back to the mainland, an ancient practice.

• Think Global, Think Local
You can’t actually buy this lamb commercially, but with pigs being reared on islands in the Fermanagh Lakelands, and with Connemara Hill lamb winning PGI status, and with local pork and poultry production on the increase, getting precise, meaningful provenance on your menu has never been easier. So, let your influences be global, but let your foods be local.

10 December 2009

The Greatest Accidental Chef...

It's not so difficult to describe various people in the food world as “the greatest cook in the history of (choose the country you are writing about)”.

We once described Nick Price, of Nick's Warehouse in Belfast, as “the greatest cook in the history of Northern Ireland”. And we meant it. Others say it should be Paul Rankin, or Michael Deane, or the late Robbie Millar, and whilst we respect the work of these great chefs, Mr Price is the truly important guy, for he was the pioneer.

Being the pioneer makes you the greatest. We could say, for instance, “Myrtle Allen is the greatest cook in the history of Ireland”, and we would be dead right. France? Fernand Point. Spain? Ferran Adria. USA? Alice Waters. UK? George Perry-Smith.

So, Mr Price holds a truly significant place, and it is a joy to see that he has finally gotten around to writing a book about his working life, a book in which he disagrees with our assessment of his work, as one would expect.

“The Accidental Chef: The Nick's Warehouse Cookbook” is friendly, funny, and all about families: Mr Price's own family, the family of staff in the Warehouse, the family of customers who have going coming there for two decades, and indeed those who have been eating Nick's food ever since Daft Eddie's on Sketrick Island, which we remember from all of thirty years ago: I can still see those tables of sparkling fresh salads, such a revelation, and such a culinary revolution, in Northern Ireland in 1979. A chicken salad in particular, I think made with raisins, is still one of those dishes that taught me all about food in one single taste.

What sets Nick Price apart is his sense of humour. This is a funny, self-deprecating book, with delicious cooking. If you like Paul Flynn's writing, then you will love The Accidental Chef. It's human, fallible, and truly cultured, it's beautifully produced and printed, and the dishes are modest and delicious.

One more reason why Mr Price is the greatest cook in the history of Northern Ireland.

The Accidental Chef by Nick Price, Booklink, £20stg.

Cork’s Female Cookery Culture

When it comes to cooking, Cork is the women’s county. Elsewhere in Ireland, professional cookery is a man’s world, but in Cork, ever since Myrtle Allen opened Ballymaloe House a full 45 years ago and began to cook for dinner guests, Cork has been a stronghold of women’s food.
From east to west and in the city, women are not just participants in kitchens: they are the major players, and their work has defined what modern cookery is throughout the county.
Does this gender distinction matter? I think it does, and for a simple reason. Women in working kitchens tend to cook with a different outlook than male chefs. Male chefs want to demonstrate competence and mastery of the art, but women, by and large, just want to feed you.
And women draw on different influences when it comes to cooking. Their influences are likely to be as much domestic as professional. I was struck, for example, listening to Myrtle Allen launching the first cookbook by the chef Carmel Somers, of the celebrated Good Things Café in West Cork, to hear Mrs Allen talk of how, in the pre-penicillin days of diptheria and whooping cough and polio, “my mother always said that good food would keep us healthy, and that was why it was so important to have access to good food”.
That is, fundamentally, a nurturing concept, and what Myrtle Allen has done, in inspiring the generation and a half of Cork female chefs who have come after her, is to legitimize this nurturing as a fundamental part of any food experience. Good food is not just about getting access to someone’s wealth: it is actually about getting access to their health.
When Carmel Somers herself spoke at the book launch, she emphasized this element even more starkly.
“Flippy bread (her name for white sliced loaves) should only ever be a treat. Pizza should only be a treat at Xmas. We have got to feed our children with good food”.
Her book, “Eat Good things Every Day” is a particularly potent and practical manifesto of how to do just that. It is an unusual book, in that it is both practical and polemical: “Microwaves – should be banned, as they ruin food!”. “Butter tastes pure. Margarine tastes horrible and the flavour is never masked in cooking”. “Use-by dates – don’t always trust them”.
If the book is refreshingly unusual in being so iconoclastic, it is refreshing also to see a book that has lots of recipes for cabbage, and rhubarb, and braised peas, and brussels sprouts, and cheap cuts of meat. This is true family food, and I know from the last time I wrote about feeding kids just how big an area of concern this is for so many working families. Ms Somers presents her recipes as weekly plans, following on from a small amount of weekend prep in the kitchen, and a list of necessary ingredients to get you through the week’s cooking without exhausting you with complicated cooking that you simply don’t have time to achieve. It’s a book that accepts that we are human, and that we need to be nurtured, and it get you there in the most practical, and delicious, way.
Forty years separate Myrtle Allen and Carmel Somers, but that gap of time is irrelevant because both have benefited from, and learnt the fundamental lessons of, the Women’s County of Cooking. Chief amongst those lessons is the fact that food is the pivotal social glue of our society, and that is a lesson we need to remember, particularly, as we face into the rituals of Xmas.
If you are already stressed by the prospect of feeding the extended family, remember that food isn’t about extreme skills, and it isn’t about demonstrating superhuman competence. It is about nurturing people’s health, and bringing them together around the table. Remember what Carmel Somers writes about feeding children: “They love trying new things and being involved in the cooking and preparing of the meal, including setting the table, especially if there is a candle to light!”.
So, even if you don’t have the good fortune to live in the Women’s County, absorb the lessons of these wise women, especially at Xmas. Light the candle, and take it from there.

“Eat Good Things Every Day”, by Carmel Somers, is published by Atrium:

Ear to the (Community Supported) Ground

If you are interested in the noble idea of CSA – Community Supported Agriculture – then this evening's Ear to the Ground look at a CSA scheme in West Cork, and talks to John McKenna of the Bridgestone parish.
What, McKenna is a CSA farmer?
Well, no, but the sarpo miras he is feeding to his family – especially to Sam and PJ: just how much mashed potato can an adolescent boy eat? ! – were grown by the CSA scheme which McKenna signed up to.
The very sharp Ella McSweeney presents the story, 7pm RTE 1.

09 December 2009

The Bridgestone Editors

The 9th edition of the Bridgestone Irish Food Guide is making its way into the shops as I write, even though the official launch is not until right smack at the start of the New Year.
We think we are happy with it: at 100 pages longer than the 2007 edition it certainly contains a massive amount of new information and new entries, and we have tried to keep the design simple, with the entries punctuated by some of the brilliant Aoife Wasser's line illustrations.
Mention of Ms Wasser gives me the chance to offer thanks to our team of editors, without whom etc etc. Actually, to write a book of 624 pages in 6-8 months without a team of hardworking editors would be completely impossible, so it simply would not exist without them.
As I get older I want to echo in my work the remark made by the composer John Cage: I want there to be less of ME in my music, said Cage, and I similarly want there to be less of ME in the Bridgestone Guides. So, the critical input of the editors, rather than my writing and opinions, is the new backbone of this big new book, and I believe that I have the finest team of critics in the country.
So, who are the Bridgestone editors? They are:

Caroline Byrne, Dublin

Leslie Williams, Dublin

Orla Broderick, Dublin

Valerie O'Connor, Limerick

Sabrina Conneely, Galway

Claire Goodwillie, Kilkenny

Eamon Barrett, Waterford

Jakki Owens, Belfast

Of course, any mistakes are my fault alone, for these guys and girls simply don't make mistakes. But thanks for all your hard work, guys, and forgive me for those impossible deadlines and arcane requests

Elizabeth Field also helped out, and Dublin girl in New York Aoife Wasser made our illustrations. Back home, Sally, Eve and Judith made the book.

08 December 2009

At the movies for a decade...

Last time we promised to advert to Donald Clarke's Irish Times list of the best movies of the decade, but taking a look at Richard Brody's 10 Best list in The New Yorker (, I realised that where lists used to have value a couple of decades ago because they showed convergence regarding what movies really mattered to the critical canon, that no longer happens anymore.
The only movie I have seen of Brody's list is the shockingly bad “Knocked Up” (sorry that I have so far missed Wes Anderson's “The Darjeeling Limited”: I love Anderson's work) but the simple fact that it is on the list gives me much pause for thought. Otherwise, Brody's list is completely unknown to me, a rather good thing, except for Knocked Up.
The huge response to Donald Clarke's list in the 'Times shows how much people love lists, and love disagreeing about them, something I note my children also love despite their youth.
But the astounding disparity between Clarke and Brody's list has to give anyone pause for thought, so rather than doing lists, let's move sideways, and do this:

Studio of the Decade: Pixar. Ending the decade with Wall-E and UP is a sign of utter confidence such as no other studio can exhibit. My favourite, mind you, remains The Incredibles, but any movie that could make me weep as much as UP is a killer.

Director of the Decade: Guillermo del Toro: any fat Mexican guy who can swing between Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth is truly gifted. A wizard.

Writer of the Decade: Charlie Kaufman: Kaufman knows what it is like to be a performer – the fear; the projection; the loneliness – and he writes it better that anyone else. Adaptation took a lousy book and turned it into a masterpiece.

Thriller of the Decade: The Bourne Trilogy. How anyone can watch a Bond movie after Bourne is beyond me. Lean, relentless masterpieces that understand tension and release better than any movie since “Terminator”.

Surprise of the Decade: Lost in Translation. How did Sophia Coppola ever get the nerve to go anywhere near to a camera again after the disaster that was “Godfather 3”? But thank heavens she did, for only a woman would have had the nous to show us Scarlett Johansson's bum in such an unflattering way, and also manage to coach such a stoic performance from beloved Bill Murray. Utter enchantment, which is what movies are supposed to be about.

03 December 2009

Not Getting It...

Back on Tuesday, The Irish Times reckoned it was the best disc of the last ten years.
So we went to see what the guys at Pitchfork reckoned, and they said it was the second best disc of the last decade.
So, we put on the copy of “Funeral” by Arcade Fire that a friend burnt for us a few years back and we listened once again.
And we don't get it. We just don't get it.
I mean, the fact that Pitchfork put Daft Punk's ‘Discovery” at No.3: we get that. Fleet Foxes? We get that (though not initially, it should be said). Elbow? Yeah, well John McKenna likes it, anyway. He also likes “Free All Angels” by Ash, and so does everyone else.
But Arcade Fire?
What's to like? Sure, it's ardent. But Youth Defence are ardent. Richard Bruton is ardent. Ardent isn't enough.
And when the girl in the band sings the last song and can't get anywhere near the tune, we want to scream.
Are we just too old? Well, our mate Tony Clayton-Lea was one of the Irish Times guys who selected Arcade Fire, and he's the same vintage, just about.
We just don't get it...
More tomorrow on what we think about Donald Clarke's best movies of the decade. “There Will Be Blood”? Hmmm...
It all passes the time as we anxiously await the return from the printer of the new Bridgestone Irish Food Guide...

27 November 2009

Corner Boys...

So, here are Ian and Peter, and Ian and Peter are the guys in Dublin who everyone seems to be talking about.
They have opened up The Exchequer and Leslie Williams likes what they are doing: “Had a very fine Venison pie with beetroot salad last night in the Exchequer on Exchequer Sreet. (on the corner of Dame Lane). Pie was whole with pastry all round with well cooked meat - clearly stewed first before being put in the pie. Mushrooms were a mix of regular and wild (from dried) but tasted good and mushroomy. Beetroot was young fresh sweet baby beetroots with a mix of leaves including of course beet leaves. We also had very good crispy chips with mayonnaise. Beers on tap include Urquell and College Green Belfast Blonde and lots of funky bottled beers. Staff very friendly and good other stuff on the menu sounded good such as calf liver and deep fried ling and chips”.
Caroline Byrne, meantime, writes: “Very excited about this place - this is what the pub should be: creative, great food and drink, Irish, sustainable, great value.... Let's hope the location doesn't kill them! The bar's doing great at weekends, they're just what we need - and it's two young guys too. Another gem for Dublin during the recession!!”
So, meet a Belfast Blonde with a deep fried ling at The Exchequer.

26 November 2009

Eurotoque Awards

So many awards are given annually in every sector of society – especially the world of food and drink – that many have become all but worthless. But one gong is truly worth having, and that is the annual Eurotoque awards to specialist food producers.
This year, the Eurotoque guys got it right once again, presenting awards to Con Trass's The Apple Farm, Kitty Colchester's Happy Heart Oil, Jorg Muller's Solaris Botanicals and, a brilliant and brand new arrival, Martin and Noreen Conroy's Woodside Farm, who produce superb pork products. There was also a special award for Connemara Hill lamb, which has been awarded PGI status.
Cyril Byrne's pic shows Minister Trevor Sargent with Prea Munian from Solaris, Con Traas and Kitty Colchester. Pity the Conroys couldn't make it, but shouldn't they have had a Connemara Hill lamb is the shot somewhere? Maybe next year.
You will, of course, be able to read more about all the winners, all of whom feature in the new Bridgestone Irish Food Guide, when it hits the shops in a couple of weeks time.


Fintan O'Toole: Ship of Fools (Faber & Faber)

“Ship of Fools” is a polemic, and a good one. You could read it from cover to cover in one sitting, and you will emerge suffused with righteous anger, and disappointment.
The anger is on account of the persistent stupidity of the political class, and the persistent greed and perfidy of the bourgeois and banking class in Ireland.
The disappointment is that we have let unacceptable behaviour derail our economy once again, and once again a future generation will pay for the present generation's naivete and lack of simple decency.
O'Toole traces the stupidity and the perfidy right back to Charlie Haughey and Guinness & Mahon bank, and the DIRT scams of the banks back in the 1980's. He paints a picture of a governing party – Fianna Fail – which is so wrapped up in its own code of omerta that it doesn't know which way is right, and which way might be left, or even just wrong. Next time you wonder if Brian Lenihan is the man for the job, remember that this is the man who spoke at the funeral of Charles Haughey, the man who stole money donated to pay for his father's liver transplant operation.
O'Toole is not just angry, he is also funny, and superb at puncturing the inflated egos of politicos, bankers and builders.
But, whilst all this is fine and good, there is one major question that arises. It is clear from this book that Fintan O'Toole actually seems to know all about ... Coronation Street! Quite how Ireland's leading public intellectual has time to worry about Ken and Deirdre (if both those characters are dead or written out, forgive us: we are out of our depth here) we just don't know. But there is something fine and clever and appropriate about being able to discuss the strange case of Bertie Ahern in the context of two soap characters.

25 November 2009

Rua Xmas

As you will soon be able to read in the new Bridgestone Irish Food Guide, the McMahon family of Castlebar are building quite a food empire in the town, an empire that has taken a mighty step forward with the opening of RUA, the splendiferous deli and café overseen by Aran McMahon.
You don't need an excuse to visit the shop – you are a person of discrimination, after all – but if you do, then please note that Aran has lined up some special visitors and exhibitors over the coming weeks, including Graham Roberts of the Connemara Smokehouse, and Enrico Fantasia of the brilliant Grape Circus.
RUA also have an amazing range of hampers which have exactly what a discriminating person like you requires, including a “Best of the West” hamper. Get all the gen at:

24 November 2009


Alina Ibragimova: Bach; Sonatas & Partitas (Hyperion)
Sheer wonderment at how a woman in her early 20's can play Bach like this is the only critical response. Beyond belief, beyond time.

John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman (Impulse!)
A date from 1963, half a dozen sings from the tenor player and the husky baritone, and pure gorgeous for every second of its too-short duration.

Kurt Elling: Dedicated To You (Concord)
The greatest living singer takes on Coltrane and Hartman in this act of homage, part of the American Songbook series, with Ernie Watts brave enough to play at being Coltrane. Elling is a star, and a truly magnificent performer.

Bruce Springsteen: Live in Dublin (Columbia)
With his Sessions Band, and what a blast from 2006. The horn playing, in particular, is stupendous, referencing every American style from New Orleans onwards. Wild.


Carmel Somers: Eat Good Things Every Day (Atrium)
No question that this is the best cookery book of the year. Polemical, passionate, and beautifully photographed by John Carey, and the food eats beautifully.

Wing & Scott: The Bread Builders (Chelsea Green)
Daniel Wing and Alan Scott's beautiful book is subtitled; Hearth Loaves & Masonry Ovens. Boy does this make you want to have your own simple, bread-baking oven in the backyard.

19 November 2009

An Empty Vessel

We are afraid of hunger, even though few of us have any experience of it whatsoever.
“The stomach contractions we experience at midday or in the evenings, often quite painful ones, which signal mealtimes and which we call ’hunger’, are strictly speaking nothing of the kind’ writes Margaret Visser, in her book, “The Rituals of Dinner”.
Well Margaret, if my tummy is rumbling and I haven’t eaten anything for several hours, and that isn’t hunger, then what is that rumbling and what are those pangs?
“They are the result of habits and bodily rhythms only, and they result from a culturally induced custom of eating regular meals”, says Mrs Visser.
Well, that isn’t very reassuring, but it is almost certainly right: who hasn’t been on holiday in Spain and wished that dinner would be served – now – rather than having to wait until 10pm or 11pm, the time when the locals finally deign to start enjoying some food.
But if Margaret Visser reckons that this sort of hunger isn’t real, what I would like to propose is that we start to look for ways in which to make ourselves truly hungry.
And do you know what? It isn’t easy to do.
Let’s say, for instance, that to take your mind off those faux hunger pangs, you decide to do a little shopping. So, you head for the Dundrum Shopping Centre. And what will you find there?
No fewer than 32 different places to eat are trading in this temple of consumerism, designed to exploit your footfall, and to make you feel that having something sublime – Indian food at Ananda, let’s say, or the First Floor at Harvey Nick’s – or something fast – McDonald’s or KFC – is what you really need right now. Modern living often seems to be a challenging, if not impossible, navigation through and around places that want to sell us food. Urban living is a waltz around calorie consumption.
But why would you want to let yourself get hungry. Who needs it? And what possible good does it do?
I would suggest there are two main reasons why letting yourself get hungry – truly hungry, properly hungry – is actually very good for you.
The first is that hunger triggers the appetite, and the better your appetite, the better you enjoy what you will eat and drink. Appetite is a beautiful, mysterious thing, but we all know exactly what it is, and we all know how pleasurable it is to satisfy a true appetite. “Hunger is the best sauce” is one of the oldest clichés in the book, and one of the truest. Food eaten when our appetite is at a peak is food we can remember with vivid clarity, and is not just another trip to the trough.
Practitioners of tai chi and chi-gung offer some of the best reasons for letting yourself get hungry. Daniel Reid, in “The Complete Guide to Chi-Gung” writes that “leaving the stomach completely empty, as in the period of abstinence practiced by chi-gung adepts, is by far the best way to detoxify the system, purify the blood and alkalize the tissues and bodily fluids. Eat only when you feel hungry, but do not eat only to fill an empty stomach. From the viewpoint of chi-gung practice, an empty stomach is far more useful for energy work than a full one”.
What an interesting idea, that an empty stomach is more useful than a full one. It’s an idea, of course, that runs counter to what we are today told is normal, or even healthy.
But it isn’t so long ago that we actually took a different view, and that we venerated creating true hunger in ourselves. Today, however, fasting has been shoe-horned into the more esoteric Catholic practices – pilgrimages involving self-denial at places like Lough Derg, for instance – and into an essential rite of passage for idealistic students who want to raise funds for worthy causes.
Both of these things – mortifying the flesh, and supporting good causes – are worthy, but the other worthy thing for participants is actually the healthfulness of letting yourself get really, truly, properly hungry, of building a true, natural appetite, and then satisfying it carefully and deliberately.
So, don’t be afraid of hunger. The cultural memory of the famine may have conditioned us to want to be surrounded by plenty, to have full cupboards and deep-freezes, to have reserves and sufficient unto more than the day. But just as our health depends on eating well, it can also depend on not eating, it can be helped by abstaining from grazing, from feeling that we should be consuming something, no matter what time of day it is or where we are.
It may come as a surprise to many younger people, but there was a time when it was considered extremely bad manners to eat something whilst walking on the street. And there was a time when shopping was about purchasing things you needed, not just interspersing gazing and snacking with visiting different shops. “We turn clay to make a vessel/But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends”, says the I Ching. Let yourself be an empty vessel.

18 November 2009

Feeding the little ones...

Six o’clock on Saturday evening, and the McKenna kids are sitting at the dinner table, so tired that they cannot even talk to one another. It’s the end of another long week, with five days of school complemented by swimming lessons, drama classes, sailing lessons, hanging out, you name it.
This is the time for comfort food. So tonight I have made Italian potato pie, a typically elegant Italian solution where left-over bits of meat, left-over bits of sausage and chopped-up ends of salami are dressed up in a blanket of mash, with lots of grated cheeses, a couple of eggs, and breadcrumbs on the outside.
Grate in plenty of nutmeg, mix it all together, dot the breadcrumbs and slices of butter on top, then bake it in a moderate oven for half an hour. I give it to the kids, with some cooked batons of carrot mixed with baby sweetcorn, and within five minutes, the conversation is firing on all cylinders, the tired bodies and minds are full-on. Kids embrace this sort of food – cheap, tender, soulful, warming – as they embrace a hug. It not only sustains them, it does something else: it restores them.
Comfort food is the great healer. When we are low, it can bring us back from the brink, and it does so by providing tactile comfort, like a big blanket of warmth. Look at how much we like those other elegant solutions to left-over foods – shepherd’s pie and cottage pie – for instance. We know that beneath that helmet of mash, there is the tactile delight of minced beef in a rich tomato sauce, or diced, cut-up roast lamb mixed with carrots and peas.
When I need to fall back on comfort food for the family, the solution seems usually to rest with a blanket of spuds, or else a blanket of béchamel sauce, that simple flour, butter and milk sauce.
One of my children’s favourite things to eat, for instance, is called “Sausage Boats”. You make your mash, and you fry some good sausages. Then, you cut the sausages down the middle so that they open up – don’t cut all the way through – and you pile a pillow of mash into each sausage boat. Flash them under the grill for a few minutes so that the spud crisps and colours (this bit is optional), then with a cocktail stick and a piece of carrot or tomato, you decorate them with a sail (this bit is not optional, so get the kids to do it themselves).
Suddenly, spuds and mash has a whole new lustre, and rather than being the most clichéd of children’s dinners, it is a new adventure in flavour. But you, wise parent, know that it is no more than sausages and mash.
With bechamel, you can be even more laid back. Take Corn Cheese, for instance. What is it? A béchamel sauce simply has lots of grated cheeses stirred into it, again using up odds and ends and rinds. Then you drain a can of sweetcorn, stir it into the béchamel, put it into a baking dish and give it twenty minutes in the oven. I promise you that they will lick the dish clean.
The béchamel comes to the rescue also with left-over roast chicken, in a chicken gratin. You pile your sliced pieces of chicken into a dish, and pour plenty of béchamel over to coat the lot. Grate on some cheese – Parmesan is best – and shove it into the oven. Twenty minutes later you have a slightly burnt top – that’s the gratin bit – and underneath you have chicken transformed into a comfort zone that children go crazy for. You can also give them a blast of iron by adding cooked florets of broccoli to the chicken.
But if the Italians know how to make spuds into a restorative dish in the form of potato pie, they are also the masters of the most restoring comfort food: polenta, or maize meal.
I always enjoyed polenta, but never cooked it for my kids because I had always believed that making polenta involved stirring the corn meal in water for an hour - this is what virtually all recipes will tell you.
But then I discovered a fool-proof way to make polenta that doesn’t involve any stirring, and which involves almost no work. You butter a casserole dish, then tip in one cup of polenta. Pour in 4 or 5 cups of water, throw in a big piece of butter and a big pinch of salt, and bake for an hour at 180C. Your polenta will spoon out of the dish like molten sunshine, and you only need a few meatballs, or some minced beef in tomato sauce, or just a few sausages, and your kids will be brought back from the brink of exhaustion, and restored, and ready to do it all over again.

The News...

Ponaire, Tommy and Jennifer Ryan's splendid coffee company, is expanding into cyberspace. Find them at, and click on shop. See them also at the brilliant No1 Pery Square Xmas Market on Sunday...

On Thursday 26th Darina Allen will be signing copies of her new book at Nash 19 in Cork. Mulled wine will be waiting for you, and Claire and her team will be rolling out the Xmas hampers, with their superb plum puddings. It kicks off at 10.45am...

Speaking of hampers, the brilliant Gubbeen team from Schull in West Cork are offering a hamper range this year, with prices from €25 to €75. Delievry is €10 if you can't pick one up at the Schull, Bantry, Skibbereen and Mahon Point markets. Contact Giana:

Peter Ward's Xmas puddings from Nenagh's Country Choice are the stuff of legend. But what about a cooked dry-cured Tipperary ham, cooked for you by Country Choice and delivered by courier before Xmas. Now you're talking... (

Finally, a lovely idea from Florry Smye of The Scullery, also in Nenagh: little individual, hand-made plum puddings. “Eat me hot, love me cold, eat me now” it says on the box. Ours are already all gone...

17 November 2009

The Perfect Cure

The Perfect Cure

Swine flu has garnered one so-far-unremarked achievement: we now know just how medieval citizens, living in walled towns, felt when the barbarians were at the gate.
The fear. The uncertainty. The dread. The waiting.
Just like our medieval counterparts, we wait for a solution, a saviour to come riding over the hill to rescue us. Vaccine? Tami flu? The correct way to blow your nose when in public? Hand-washing? Drinking a bottle of brandy?
Actually, the bottle of brandy idea isn’t entirely a joke, as I read about its curative properties many years ago, in a piece called “How To Cure a Cold”:

“One tall silk hat, one four poster bed, one bottle of brandy. To be taken as follows: put the tall silk hat on the right-hand post at the foot of the bed, lie down and arrange yourself comfortably, drink the brandy, and when you see a tall silk hat on both the right and left bedposts you are cured’.

Voila! They don’t make many cures like this old French cure anymore, but as the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher noted in her book “A Cordiall Water”, a collection of recipes designed to cure the ills of men and beasts, “This may be a somewhat Gallic exaggeration, but it is based on sound sense…”
It might make sound sense to a binging teenager, but the rest of us would more likely be killed than cured by MFK’s boozy solution. But if swine flu is going to simply make an awful lot of us feel pretty awful, how can what we eat help us back to health?
Before modern medicine, we looked first and foremost to the curative power of certain foods, and maybe it’s something that today we neglect at our peril.
“For thousands of years it has been well known that food substances, especially plants like mint, turmeric, garlic, onion, lemon and ginger are highly effective as medicines”, writes Dr Stephen Fulder in his book, “Ginger: The Ultimate Home Remedy”. Dr Fulder’s recipe for “Ginger Tea for Fevers and Colds” couldn’t be simpler:
“Grate a small piece of fresh ginger of about one gram (about the size of half a sugar cube) into a glass. Add lemon juice from about half a lemon, fill with hot water and add a little honey to sweeten”.
This encourages sweating and brings out low grade fevers and colds, writes Dr Fulder. The recipe puts me in mind of my own first-resort drink whenever anyone in the house is feeling low. “Stina’s Healing Tea” is a recipe I found in a book by the American writer Viana la Place:

1 sprig each sage, basil, marjoram and spearmint
1 thin slice lemon
1 cup spring water
half teaspoon honey
2 teaspoons brandy

Simmer together herbs, lemon and water for 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in honey, cover, and let steep for 5 minutes. Stir in brandy and drink.

Certain foods attract many champions on account of their healthful qualities and curative powers, their ability to keep us well and to bring us back from a period of ill-health.
In “The Sprouters Handbook”, for example, Edward Cairney writes that “Sprouts are truly a superfood in a league of their own”, and he goes on to point out that “if the early seafarers had known about sprouts, they would not have suffered from scurvy… sprouts have such a complete nutritional profile as to allow us to live on them and nothing else”.
Well, that may be so, but it doesn’t sound like the ideal lifestyle choice. But Cairney isn’t talking about Brussels sprouts, of course, but about the process of sprouting pulses, nuts and grains – such as alfalfa, chick peas, lentils, oats and so on – by soaking the seeds in water, then draining and letting them sprout. The enzymes we then access through the sprouts “play vital roles in everything from eliminating toxins to acting as crack frontline troops in our immune systems”.
I like sprouts – and buy them in farmer’s markets where they are often available – but my favourite cure is one of the most ancient of all. An old Provençal saying is: “Aïgo boulido sauova la vida. Boiled water saves your life”.

Boiled Water
1 litre water
12-15 garlic cloves
1-2 bay leaves
1-2 sprigs sage
5 tabs olive oil
slices of dry bread
grated cheese (Parmesan, or Gabriel or Desmond)

In a saucepan, salt the water, add the garlic, and bring to the boil. After 10 minutes, add the bay, sage and a dash of oil. Let cook for a few minutes more, then take the pan off the heat, cover, and allow the soup to stand for about 10 minutes. Strain. Put the bread slices into a warmed soup bowl, cover with grated cheese, sprinkle with the remaining oil, and pour over the strained infusion”.

I feel better already.

John McKenna

The Blog Returns

“What's happened to your blog?” writes a friend.
Well, you are looking at what happened to the blog. The new Bridgestone Irish Food Guide, the 9th edition, is 624 pages long, a full 100 pages more than the 2007 book, which was 100 pages more than the 2003 book.
624 pages of the good stuff, coming your way just before Xmas, and more on this in the future

14 August 2009

The Blackboard Bistro, Dublin

Jean and Pierre are doing all the right things in Dublin's little Blackboard Bistro.
Caroline Byrne admires the cooking and the value.

I went here last Thursday for my weekly early bird with my brother and I was very pleasantly surprised by this little place. Even my brother said it was his favourite of all the French places I’ve brought him too, and that’s really saying something coming from him!
It has the kind of cosy, little-French-bistro-atmosphere that would happily accommodate a couple on a special night out – of which there were a few – but also the right tempo for a group of friends catching up over dinner – also present the night I dined.

The food reminds me of what I ate when I travelled in France during college years – simple, inexpensive but really good. Think tabouleh, risotto, butter beans and Mediterranean/Provençal flavours that you find everywhere from Nice to Nancy. Although it offers French classics, such as French onion soup and pan-fried pigeon, it serves a lot of Mediterranean or north African inspired food, which is indicative of its Mediterranean influences and the wide mix of cultures and cuisines that exist in France. From the a la carte, mains range from E16 to E28 and the starters are between E7 and E12. There’s great value to be found on the early bird, which offers two courses for E20, and they also have a value menu for lunch.

Given the value and the perfectly interesting selection on the early bird we both chose from there. Creamy smoked bacon and leek risotto was scrumptious and just the right side of al dente – although we both noted that the portion could have done with being a little bit more generous. And the “baby lasagne” was cheesy and light, with a single sheet of pasta (not fresh) and a tasty meat sauce underneath. It did exactly what it said on the tin, although many have failed to where this dish is concerned, especially at the less expensive end!

For mains, Adrian’s beef burger (cooked well done because the establishment doesn’t do medium) was served atop a mound of mash and crowned with onions in a red wine sauce, with a fried egg on top. I had fat strips of perfectly chargrilled chicken fillet on couscous with grilled vegetables and a light sun-dried tomato pesto, finished with torn fresh basil.
As with the starters, our plates were taken away spotless, which says it all. Everything was tasty, well cooked, well presented and we felt we’d had a very nice experience, yet again, for great value.

Including one dessert of passion fruit sorbet with macerated red berries, and one glass of aligote (chosen from a concise but good selection of wines all by the glass or bottle) the bill came to E47. I don’t know whether I’m looking for the best ‘value for money’ place or the best French, or both, but I think I keep getting closer all the time.

The Blackboard Bistro
The Basement,
4 Clare Street,
Dublin 2

T: 01 6766839
Tue - Fri (lunch and dinner) Saturday for dinner only and closed Sunday and Monday

The Irish Times, August 2009

New Age Ageing

On a crisp Saturday morning, my wife, my sister and I joined our friends Harro and Gisi on their 1895 boat, the Grainne, in Ahakista pier for a spot of mackerel fishing.
Harro and Gisi are the sort of confident boatpeople who are expert at looking after those whose sealegs are not so well established.
“Hold on here”. “Give me your hand and step down onto this”. They also had the mackerel lines all ready, and the picnic was prepared and the rosé wine cooled. After we started hauling in the fish, Harro showed us his filleting and gutting technique, whilst scores of seagulls clamoured all around the Grainne hoping for the fish guts.
Fourteen mackerel and three pollock later, and we were back in Ahakista with Harro and Gisi helping us off the boat, looking after us as if we were keen, but slightly infirm, pensioners.
Of course, we aren’t pensioners, but Harro and Gisi are. Hale and hearty, and happily in their 70’s, they ooze health and wellbeing. Maybe it’s all that fresh fish.
Next day, I sat down to waste a few hours whilst Tom Watson, his face a strange mixture of grimace-meets-bemusement, came within a ten foot putt of pulling off what would have been the most astonishing victory by any sportsman in a blue riband sporting event. At 59 years of age, Watson was, until the very end, stable where younger men were erratic, calm where the youngsters were equivocal. He didn’t win, and it’s a genuine shame that he didn’t.
And then on Wednesday we took the train to Dublin to see Leonard Cohen. Like everyone else who missed his 2008 Kilmainham gigs, we have grown tired of the stories about those “spiritual” events, and so had to see for ourselves what Lenny was up to.
Well, what Lenny is up to is simple. He is, typically, writing his own life script in his own hand with his own melody and rhythm accompanying him as he goes along. Aged close to 75, Cohen sang every word with a passionate conviction that was bewitching. At the interval, and before he came back for the five encores he and his band played, he bounced and danced offstage like a kid.
Whilst singing, he hunkered down in the sort of knee bends that one associates with the late James Brown, not the Canadian bard of melancholia. His focus, his concentration, his stamina and his communication with the audience were so remarkable that you had to conclude that, in the middle of his eighth decade, Leonard Cohen is actually in his prime.
Just think of what a new paradigm that is: in your prime at 75. Your 70’s may not be socialist, but they will be social.
And just think what these examples mean for our society, where the demographic of the country is changing rapidly, and where we are expecting a smaller working population to support a growing ageing population.
That demographic will bankrupt the country and overwhelm our health services, unless our 70 year olds can skipper boats and catch fish like Harro and Gisi, play golf at the competitive level of Tom Watson, or sing and dance like Leonard Cohen.
And the way to do this, I suggest, is through the Healthy Eating Pension Plan.
Like any pension plan, the HEPP (for hepp cats, see?) works best when you start it young. Like any pension plan, it’s about prudence, and recognizing what you need for when you get older.
With each meal, you are putting aside a little for that rainy day, by eating fresh oily fish, by eating food rather than foodstuffs, by eating lots of green plants, by staying away from heavily processed foods in favour of fresh, naturally-grown, local foods.
So ask yourself what part of your meal is working to avoid the illnesses of ageing. Are there good dairy products to ward off osteoporosis? Are you drinking some red wine to keep the arteries lean? Are the foods you eat fuelling your health, and building up reserves that you can dip into when you are just about to beat your grandchildren at a game of tennis? Are you walking and golfing and sailing so that arthritis is kept at bay, and so that your weight is optimal?
Or are your mealtimes doing the opposite?
Is your weight going to be a problem as you age? Will you be worried every time you walk down stairs, or step onto a boat, that you are going to slip and bust a hip because your bones are brittle? Are the arteries lean, or unclean?
With a good HEPP supporting you as you age, you too can peak at 75 years of age. You too can be as cool as Leonard, or Tom, or Harro and Gisi.
We think of pensions as involving nothing more than money, and the investment of money. But it is our health that is our wealth, remember, so make sure you have invested well, and are wealthy in the way that really counts. That way, you will have reserves for when you really need them, for when you hit your real peak.
Otherwise, you just won’t manage that fifth encore.

30 July 2009

Sarah Carey: Not Even Wrong

The new crew of columnists on The Irish Times reflect well on the choices of editor Geraldine Kennedy.
Whilst our fave is the punky Ph.D, Elaine Byrne, on Tuesdays – don't start a fight with that girl! – Tony Kinsella on Mondays and John Gibbins on Thursdays both qualify as essential reading, their efforts intellectually crisp and cogent.
Wednesday's columnist Sarah Carey is, perhaps, the most fascinating of them all. Unlike her fellow columnists, she is both more personal in her approach, and therefore unafraid to write something that is personally felt, and deeply wrong.
Yesterday's column, on July 29th, by Ms Carey is one of those columns that is clearly deeply felt, and not even wrong, it is so wrong.
Sarah argues that Irish farms are economically unsustainable, due to the work in previous generations of The Land Commission, which bought up big farms and broke them up into small farms. She makes many good points – Irish farmland is rarely traded; Irish farmers are too old yet will not vacate the land; Irish farms produce a paltry income – but her solution is a classic example of wrong thinking.
We need “one last intervention“ to save Irish agriculture, she argues. Where the Land Commission once compelled big farmers to sell their land, we now need a Commission to “force small ones to sell it back”. Small farms, she suggests, are “killing the business of Irish agriculture˘ The 55,000 Irish farms under 50 acres are not viable. “Big farms are the only way the massive subsidisation of agriculture can be reduced”.
The problem with this argument – and it is one made by many with an economic frame of mind – is that it ignores agriCULTURE in favour of agriBUSINESS. The best food in Ireland is not produced on “big” farms: it is produced on small farms, by farmers who practice the culture of agriculture, first and foremost, most often expressed through their following organic or bio-dynamic practices.
As a result of this, they also earn a good living, they enjoy the respect of the people who buy their food, and they are a content and happy bunch. Certainly the very many I know who work this way seem pretty happy with their lot.
What would happen, for instance, if the French Agriculture Ministry announced tomorrow that small farms in Bordeaux and Burgundy were “killing the business of French viticulture”, and in order to increase efficiency, thousands of small chateaux would be subsumed by large volume wine producers. No more Haut-Brion, no more Romanée-Conti, no more little garagistes producing super stuff in small volumes. Just red and white wine.
So, what should Sarah Carey do to see the real picture, to grasp the fact that small farms are the future, not the past, and that it is the culture of agriculture that must be expressed, and not the business of agribusiness?
She needs to tour some farmers' markets, and ask the farmers selling there how big their holdings are. She needs to go to producers like Peter and Jenny Young in Castlefarm in Co Kildare, to see how a new paradigm of farming – and communicating about farming – is made to work.
“There are some positive features of small farming and I'll get to those another day” she promises, so can we suggest Sarah takes a trip to Bantry and visits Martin and Yvonne Flynn in Maughnasilly Farm, just up the Borlin Valley. That wee trip will let her see the “positive features of small farming” up close and personal. And take in Gubbeen Farm in Schull, and Glenilen Farm in Drimoleague. Those three farms alone will show how Irish agriculture could – and should – be practiced. And we live somewhere in the middle of those three farms, so Sarah should drop us a line when she is coming, and drop in for a glass of wine after her West Cork tour.
Small is beautiful. And sustainable. And soulful.
Ms Carey will then understand that it is the agribusiness model that is destroying Irish farming, and sundering its very soul. But she will have the consolation of meeting some very soulful farmers indeed.

24 July 2009

The Buttery Café, Wicklow

Aimée and Claire are doing a great job at the Buttery Café in Wicklow.
Caroline Byrne is charmed

The Buttery is a doll’s house of a café, with cutesy furnishings and little touches everywhere to create the perfect ambience for this girly establishment. Run by two best friends, Aimée and Claire, the counter brims with cutesy, very homemade looking frosted buns and other delectable confectionery. You can smell the baking before you enter, which lets you know before you’re told that everything’s made in-house, right down to the lemonade. The day’s fare is put up on the board and changes every day, and they offer a good selection of vegetarian and gluten-free foods, the latter, the menu informs, they are working on expanding.

For non-vegetarian options, slow-roasted Dijon beef casserole with creamy mash, or the staple hearty bangers and mash, sound pretty darn good, and good value too at only EUR*13 and EUR*10.50 respectively. I plumped for some of the veggie treats that day however, and the Portabello mushroom stuffed with creamed leeks and blue cheese, and the brie and tomato tart, made for a tasty lunch, from good ingredients too, The little café sells the locally made Wicklow Blue and Brie-style cheeses, in addition to other local and non-local artisan products, such as Helen Gee jams and preserves from Abbeyleix, Co Laois.

If I’d felt like it I could have indulged myself from the sweet list, which is almost as long as the savoury menu, but I’m glad to leave a reason to call in again; Tuscan plum tart tartin, gooseberry fool, any of those gorgeous cupcakes, or even fresh organic Wicklow strawberries and cream (in summer), are good reasons to stop by if ever out that way.

There are plenty of reasons to call into the Buttery Café @ Fishers: their support of Irish (and other) artisan food producers, their use of only ecologically-friendly cleaning products and policy of recycling and composting waste, and the warm, friendly atmosphere generated by the staff and the whole place in general, and the fact that they serve genuinely yummy food. Go girlies!

The Buttery Café @ Fishers
Co Wicklow

01 2812892

Open seven days a week: from 10am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday, and 1pm to 5pm, Sundays and Bank Holidays

Wheelchair accessible, parking available

15 July 2009

The Irish Times Healthplus

The Ketchup Effect

Ten years ago, the Swedish government stated in very simple terms its environmental objective: “To hand over to the next generation a society in which the major environmental problems have been solved”.
In the ten years since, as Frank McDonald reported in this paper back in May in an article entitled “Sweden’s Green Approach”, the Swedes have been working hard to reduce Co2, to use biofuels, and to get to a place where they will be carbon neutral.
Mr McDonald’s piece was inspiring, so much so that I slipped it out of the Weekend Review to make sure that my teenage kids read it. Their response? “Why aren’t we doing the same?”
Why indeed. Yes, our environmental problems are huge, but the Swedish approach – make a big statement, but then find the answers in a series of multiple little steps that congregate to form a solution – doesn’t require anything truly radical.
So, let’s say we were to do the same thing with our health and our food in this country. Let’s say that tomorrow Ministers Sargent and Gormley come up with that big statement, but this time about food and health. What’s our Irish objective? “To hand over to the next generation a society in which the major food and health problems have been solved”.
Okay, that’s the big statement. Where are the solutions? Well, before we find the solutions, let’s agree on the problems. Quite simply, much of our modern lifestyle is making us sick, and fat. We eat the wrong foods, we don’t exercise enough, and we have no vision of how food and health are inextricably intertwined.
We use our health services to cure problems that are caused by our lifestyles, but our health services can scarcely cope, and we are paying a fortune for those services, money that the Exchequer no longer has.
To find our solutions, let’s take a wise word from that crafty old sage, Albert Einstein, who once said: “No problem can be solved by the same thinking that created it”.
So let’s change the thinking, and also use the idea of “The Ketchup Effect”, because it sounds like so much messy fun, and because I think selling The Ketchup Effect to children will be a cinch.
What is the Ketchup Effect? Eva Sunnerstedt of Stockholm City Council used the expression to describe how you get everyone to follow the examples of the early adapters when it comes to changing how we behave: “When you shake the bottle first, nothing happens – and than it’s all over the plate”. So, where do we find the new thinking, and then how do we get it all over the plate?
Modern medical thinking says, in effect: it’s ok to get sick because we can cure you. But might we not be in a better place if the orthodox thinking said: we don’t want to waste time, money and resources curing you when we can prevent the problem in the first place. Prevention is better than cure: just what Mother always said.
Here are some ideas about how we might prevent future problems, and thereby hand on to our children a society which has no difficulties with food and health. Goodness knows we are handing onto them a society that, in so many other ways, is little other than broken and bent.

Licensed Supermarkets
You need a licence to sell booze, and so should you need a licence to sell food. The terms that the licence requires retailers to comply with are simply that their food sourcing is Good, Clean & Fair. That means that at least 50% of their produce is Irish grown and made, and that the producer has been paid a fair price to supply clean food. If you don’t comply with Good, Clean & Fair, you lose your licence to trade.

Edible Education
Give me the child and I will give you the food lover, should be how we see food education in schools. Home Economics should be seen as the glory it is: a subject that teaches you how to control your life by controlling your diet. So, I’m afraid it’s going to be compulsory Home Ec from now on.

Oil-Free Food
Sunshine and soil are what you need to produce food, and whilst we don’t have an abundance of the former, we have gazillions of acres of the latter, so we can easily produce more than enough food to feed ourselves and to have a stable, secure food policy. So, we switch away from monocultures – grass and beef; intensively reared crops – that are dependent on fossil fuels, and revert to mixed, organic farming on each and every single farm. I’m as fond of them as you are, but we actually don’t need all those cows, and they are a very, very inefficient way to produce food energy for people.

Physical Education
Energy in, and energy out. We need to burn up our food calories by lots of physical activity, so in schools PE will be up there with Maths, Irish and English as a must-do subject. And just as the dentist sends you a note every six months to come in for a check-up, your doctor will do the same for your six-month fitness check.

Real Food Facts
The fact that food advertising for highly-processed foods continues on television is shameful. But we need to go even one step further, so that if you buy an item in a supermarket, its bar-code will disclose how far the ingredients have traveled, their fuel cost, and their total calorie count. Try selling some Cypriot spuds to your teenagers when they can see exactly how many air miles have been involved and how many tons of fuel were needed to grow them and then get them out of the ground, into the air and onto the shelf.

Hospital Food will be Local, Healthy and Fresh.
If you do wind up in hospital, then we assure you that what you eat will be part and parcel of making you well again. Lots of grains and vegetables, just a little meat, and lots of it grown in the hospital’s very own vegetable and fruit gardens. This means the most important guy in the hospital isn’t the consultant, it’s the gardener. And that’s the way it should be.

Chop House, Lismore

Eamon Barrett enjoys seeing Justin and Jenny Green get it right. Again.

Over the years I have found that it pays not to have pre-conceptions in this job.
Over enthusiasm inevitably leads to disappointment; underlying suspicion is often cast aside with pleasant surprise. But with Justin Green's announcement of the opening of the old Barca premises in Lismore as O'Briens Chop House I couldn't help but feel that tingle of anticipation that something was going to be good; very good.

And I wasn't wrong.

The premises has been left largely untouched bar, as Justin says, "a lick of paint". The lovely old marble counter and tongue in groove panelling along the bar all makes for very pleasant surroundings to enjoy a glass of prosecco. Through to the dining room, it's all just spot on and discreet good taste abounds with good art, understated furnishings and a lovely set of French doors leading out into a lush green garden.

The menu offers a great choice of simple dishes at great prices and mains focus heavily on meat, as you'd expect with a butcher of the quality of Michael McGrath just accross the street.
Devilled lambs kidneys on toast for me at E6.20 were just knock out - the absolute essential with kidneys is to get them as fresh as possible and there was no doubt that these were just that. A tiny kick of chilli in the sauce was perfectly judged. J's ham hock terrine with apple, raisin, chutney and toast was a real masculine example, great chunks of hock meat for just E5.75.

There were so many dishes from the mains list we wanted to try: McGraths mixed lamb grill with chips; pan seared pork chop with champ; steak and kidney pie. I really wanted the McGrath's hanger steak with baked bone marrow, bearnaise sauce and chips but my better half prevailed and we ordered the Porterhouse Steak for two - all 1KG of it - with chips and bearnaise. What a piece of meat it was, served on a thick wooden board between us, two jugs of bearnaise and two silver tankards of chips. Those chips turned out to be the only - slight - disappointment of the evening, not just hitting that perfect texture and taste that a really good chip delivers. I should mention the Porterhouse is not cheap at E72.00 for the two of us but it was an incredible piece of meat.

Desserts were summery and sharp: gooseberry and elderflower mess for me and summer berry trifle for J. - at E5.70 each, very good value. Good coffees, friendly and well trained staff, everything well handled. A great new addition to Lismore.

12 July 2009

West Cork Literary Festival 2009: Food Writing

I have just enjoyed the enormous pleasure of spending a week discussing food writing with a brilliant bunch of students for five mornings, as part of Bantry's annual West Cork Literary Festival.
My thanks to my students – Hedy, Susan, Mo, Damhnait, Leeanne, Aisling, Doreen, Michael and Brian – for their commitment and engagement, which was at times unbelieveably potent and intense.
We discussed many books and writers, and the following list is my attempt to draw them all together.
The class were particularly struck by this passage from Patience Gray's “Work –Adventures –Childhood Dreams”:

“I have the Sculptor to thank for ‘giving me the right’ to make things because, before I knew him, any creative thing I undertook seemed to be a kind of madness, something which is could ‘afford’ only to do in time that was ‘free’ or ‘stolen’, with its undertones of guilt. In fact in making things you make time your own, or vanish into into it. Suddenly you are Nowhere. Living in the Present”.

Richard Olney
Simple French Food (Grub Street)

Patience Gray
Honey From a Weed (Prospect Books)
Work, Adventures, Childhood Dreams (Edizioni Leucasia)

Michael Pollan
The Omnivore's Dilemma
In Defence of Food
The Botany of Desire

Joanna Blythman
The Food We Eat

Marcella Hazan
The Second Classic Italian Cookbook (usually found in a single volume with the first Classic Cookbook)

Wendell Berry
The Gift of Good Land (Ten Point Press)

Denis Cotter
The Café Paradiso Cookbook
Paradiso Seasons

M.F.K. Fisher
The Art of Eating (Vintage, a collection of 5 of MFK's books)

Diana Henry
Crazy Water Pickled Lemons (Mitchell Beazley)

Mary Sheehan
Coming Home To Cook (

Jane Grigson
Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book

Lori di Mori
Beaneaters and Breadsoup (Quadrille)

Leon Katz
The Hungry Soul (Chicago)

Robert Freson
The Taste of France
Savouring Italy

Bill Granger
Bill's Kitchen (Murdoch Books)
Feed Me Now! (Quadrille) – for the meatball recipe with the grated onions

Martin Shanahan & Sally McKenna
The Seafood Lovers' Cookbook (Estragon Press)

Elizabeth David
French Provincial Cooking

01 July 2009

July 1st, bendy cucumbers, Hallelujah!

This morning, Reuters reports the following. It might seem trivial, but actually it is very important, because it is the application of common sense to the marketplace.
Now, the EU needs to stop regulating vegetables, and get around to regulating those who sell them in supermarkets...

"July 1st marks the return to our shelves of the curved cucumber and the knobbly carrot," EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said.

"More seriously, this is a concrete example of our drive to cut unnecessary red tape. We don't need to regulate this sort of thing at EU level ... It makes no sense to throw perfectly good products away just because they are the 'wrong' size and shape."

EU rules defining minimum shapes and sizes will be repealed for 26 fruits and vegetables - including apricots, aubergines, cherries, garlic, leeks, peas, spinach and watermelons.

Ten standards will remain, including those for apples, citrus fruit, kiwi, peaches, pears, table grapes and tomatoes. Those 10 account for three-quarters of the value of EU cross-border fruit and vegetable trade. But even for these 10 categories, countries will be able to allow shops - for the first time - to sell products that do not meet the EU standards, provided they are labeled to set them apart from 'extra', 'class I' and 'class II' fruit.

"In other words, the new rules will allow national authorities to permit the sale of all fruit and vegetables, regardless of their size and shape," the commission said.


29 June 2009

Your Staycation 2009

Regular readers will have noticed how intermittent this column has been of late. The reason is simple: we are working on the 500-page Bridgestone Irish Food Guide!
But, those 500 pages aside, it is time to share some discoveries and hot tips that might prove useful for your summer staycation. Here we go...

West Cork

Blairs Cove, Durrus
Reports of Richard Milnes' cooking in the country's most beautiful dining room are uniformly ecstatic. There is also a simpler bistro-style menu available, so bring the family one night, and save the dinner menu for a special night for 2.

Dillons, Timoleague
Currently run by Julie and John, who formerly worked for Dan Mullane of Echo Lodge in Limerick.

Toddies at The Bulman
Pearse O'Sullivan is doing great things in this lovely bar at Summercove.

Taste is the shop of your dreams, especially on Thursday afternoon when all the good Cork stuff arrives down direct from the Mahon Point Market.

Sheridan's on the Docks
Here is what our friend Leslie wrote about his last visit:
Lunch at Sheridan's on the docks last week - fab lamb stew with barley, truly great. Excellent bread, funky atmosphere while still a regular pub. Outstanding espresso for 1 euro: outside of Italy I don't know anywhere with coffee for 1 euro!

Knockranny House Hotel, Westport
Chef Seamus Commons is making serious strides in this big hotel, and has even started smoking his own salmon, and doing so superbly. Definitely the hot Mayo spot.

Gregan's Castle Hotel, The Burren
At the risk of over-stating ourselves, the cooking here is off the chart, and so is the place itself.

The Wild Honey, Lisdoonvarna
A pretty pub with rooms, from that fine cook Aidan McGrath, which is shaping up rather nicely.

Valentia Ice Cream: don't miss the chocolate in particular.

An Leith Phingin Eile: some nice cooking is taking place in this most atmospheric little restaurant.

The Lemon Tree, Dunmore East
Joan Power is now offering evening meals on Friday and Saturday evenings, with super cooking.

Banyan, Tramore
Eugene Long is doing the good thing here in the former Coast building:lovely food, lovely room.

The Barking Dog
The former Rain City room at the bottom of the Malone Road is firing out some ace cooking. Sunday brunch is particular is very fine indeed.

Happy travelling!

18 June 2009

O'Brien Chop House

The inimitable Justin and Jenny of beautiful Ballyvolane House are set to open a new restaurant in lovely Lismore.
O'Brien Chop House will be in the former Barça premises, and this beautiful old pub has been left well alone, so its charming original features will shine as you enjoy some smart cooking, using well-sourced ingredients. The end of the month is when the doors should open. For more details, contact Justin Green on 025 36349 or

17 June 2009

Mindful Eating/The Irish Times

The Irish Times Healthplus/June 2009

Mindful Choosing

The first time I read about Brian Wansink’s Campbell’s tomato soup experiment, my reaction was to feel distinctly queasy, followed by a distinct loss of appetite.
What did Mr Wansink do to make me feel this way?
He simply sat people down in front of a bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup, and told them to eat as much as they wanted. In “Nudge”, their witty book about how humans exercise choices, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler take up the story of an experiment they call a “masterpiece”:
“Unbeknownst to them, the soup bowls were designed to refill themselves (with empty bottoms connected to machinery beneath the table). No matter how much soup subjects ate, the bowl never emptied. Many people just kept eating, not paying attention to the fact that that they were really eating a great deal of soup, until the experiment was (mercifully) ended”.
Sunstein and Thaler call this sort of behaviour “mindless choosing”. Their conclusion is devastating: “Eating turns out to be one of the most mindless activities we do”.
So, we know the cola is packed with numerous spoonfuls of sugar, but we drink it anyway. We know the breakfast cereal is as salty as seawater, but we eat it anyway. When someone asks if they can supersize that order for us, we say “Sure, go ahead”, even though we know it will do us no good whatsoever. We open our mouths and, it seems, we switch off our brains.
Where does this mindless choosing get us? “Nearly two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese”, Thaler and Sunstein tell us.
But if mindless choosing can get us to a bad place where our health is out of control, it seems to me that we are, in fact, headed to a much worse place altogether, thanks to switching off our brains when it comes to food.
A couple of years ago, I spoke to a bunch of food producers at a convention in Northern Ireland, middle-aged men for the most part, the sort of people who might be called “strong farmers”, men who rear beef and sheep and have good farms.
They were, without exception, the most demoralized and bitter group of people I have ever encountered. Why? Because they were part of a morally bankrupt food system, a food system where what they were paid for what they produced was controlled entirely by big supermarket chains.
Their relationship to the supermarkets wasn’t one of client and customer. It was, instead, a relationship of master and slave, and they knew they were the slaves.
Strong farmers. Weak slaves.
Two years on from that day, and I see photographs in The Irish Times of potato farmers storming into supermarket management meetings to protest at purchasing policies that are leaving them with no future. We read of retailers demanding cost reductions of up to 40%. 40%!
How much is your pay packet down this month? Just imagine if it contracted by 40%. Could you survive? Of course not.
Kate Carmody of the Irish Organic Farmers & Growers Association is quite clear about the choices we need to make when we decide what is to be put on the table:
“If we want a vibrant local economy we must support it by our purchasing decisions. Most of us can afford to do this if we choose, even in the recession”, says Ms Carmody.

“Buying seasonal, local, organic food is quite simply better for us, our environment and our economy. When we shop, we can all make a small but significant difference to pulling the country out of its current difficulty and supporting our friends and neighbours in retaining their jobs. The choice is ours”.

What Ms Carmody is proposing is the opposite of Thaler and Sunstein’s mindless choosing. We might, then, call it “Mindful Choosing”, the recognition that our choices, and our mindfulness about the food chains that link us all together, have direct consequences not just for our health, but also for our present and future wealth.

To be mindful is to take thought or care about what you do. With food, the issue is actually much bigger than that bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup that never empties. If our mindlessness goes no further than considering the cost of our basket of groceries in a supermarket, then we shall soon see all around us an agricultural and social wasteland. Every farmer will be like the farmers I met two years ago in Northern Ireland.

Instead, through mindfulness, our eating, the final act in the chain that begins with sunshine and photosynthesis, that works its way through the work of the farmer and the producer, and which ends with the skill of the cook and the appetite of the eater, can be the most mindful thing we do, each and every day. “The choice is ours”, says Kate Carmody. Indeed it is.

A New Star

Remember this face.
This is Annette Minihan of Minihan's of West Clare, and Ms Minihan is one hell of a talent. How far would you walk – barefoot in an electrical thunderstorm – for the best baked vanilla cheesecake you ever tasted? If you are like us, then you would walk any distance for that cheesecake, and for Annette's cheesecake – and her lemon tartlet, and her chocolate and orange and hazelnut tart – we would crawl on our hands and knees in a thunderstorm. Superb work, and we haven't even tasted the award-wining spinach and got cheese quiche yet. Well, avoiding thunderstorms etc etc, you can get this amazing grub here:

Thursday Kilrush Farmers Market from 9.00am to 2.00pm
Friday Ennis’ Regular Market from 8.30am to 2.00pm
Sunday Limerick (Bedford Street) from 12noon to 5.00pm

18 May 2009

Is this the best cooking in Ireland?

Apologies for the title question – the sort of thing that is the scourge of magazines and weekend journalism – but you don't even have to get very far into the series of dishes that forms Mickael Viljanen's tasting menu at Gregan's Castle in The Burren, County Clare, before you find yourself asking that very same question.
And when you reflect on the places that are operating at the same level of Mr Viljanen's achievement, the names that arise are L'Ecrivain, the now-departed Mint, Chapter One, MacNean House, and so on.
Before he made his way to Gregan's, Mr Viljanen worked with Paul Flynn in The Tannery for a year. He has taken Mr Flynn's love of big flavours, and applied it to a technique that has the painterly perfection of Dylan McGrath and the love of surprise of Kevin Thornton.
Lamb comes as a trio of braised neck, breaded shoulder shaped into a finger and roast canon. Lobster is poached in butter, and comes with braised pork and the most amazing baked potato jelly – you just have to try this little baby: it's out of the box. The beetroot dish is a masterpiece, the foie gras a calm indulgence that shows the most extreme technical mastery, whilst the themes explored in the dessert options such as chocolate, custard, strawberry and date and orange are dazzling.
Does he do salted caramel? you ask. He makes a salted caramel to die for, and every plate is a feast for the eyes.
Put this class of food into what is perhaps the leading country house in Ireland at the moment, thanks to Simon Haden's service and Freddy McMurray's design aesthetic, and you have a truly incredible experience. Mr Viljanen is only 27 years old, and a very personable, modest man. There is nothing he won't be able to achieve, but don't waste any time in getting to Corkscrew Hill in The Burren to sample something extraordinary.

14 May 2009

The sharpest tools in the shed...

Eileen Dunne and Stefano Crescenzi are two of the most gifted food entrepreneurs in Ireland, and the recession isn't dimming their ambition, for they have just opened a new L'Officina restaurant in the Arnott's Project shop now open in The Jervis Centre, Dublin.
Seating up to 100 people, the restaurant, designed by Gottstein architects, has a wine bar and a small retail area along the lines of its Kildare Village outlet.

Actually, the McKennas en famille ate at the Kildare Village outlet of L'Officina over easter, and found the entire experience to be nothing short of superb: great room, great staff, great cooking, and then a lovely array of foods to spend a whacking great amount of money on before we got out the door.
It was just great, quite the most delightful way to spend money, and contrary to the somewhat surreal experience of the rest of the village, L'Officina was real, rustic and well rooted. Smart people.

And speaking of smart people, Aran McMahon of RUA, a groundbreaking deli in Castlebar, has a funky, fun new website where you can see RUA in the virtual world:
This is a great shop, one of those pivotal addresses that acts as an aleph of our contemporary food culture in all its inspired brilliance. Don't miss RUA on Spencer Street next time you are in Castlebar.

13 May 2009

Some talking...

John McKenna of this parish will be speaking at the second Slow Food Clare Festival in Lisdoonvarna this weekend, specifically on Friday lunchtime in the Pavilion Theatre in Lisdoonvarna, when the subject will be “Consumption with a Conscience” Whoa! Weighty stuff!
Let's hope McKenna doesn't tell that Homer Simpson joke again, the one that has died a million deaths on the last two occasions he has rolled it out to an unimpressed audience.

You can also catch McKenna at the West Cork Literary Festival, where he will be taking the Food Writing Workshop, between Monday 6th and Friday 10th of July. The five mornings cost €175, and you can expect to hear a lot about Richard Olney, amongst many others. Full details of how to book from