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28 January 2009

Limerick you're a darling

It's always the same.
Ever since we published the first editions of the Bridgestone 100 Best Guides, back in 1992, we get to publication day – which is tomorrow, Thursday 29th – and someone turns up and opens an outstanding new destination. It's been the same every year, and 2009 is no exception. Patricia has just opened No 1 Pery Square, and it's the address Limerick has been waiting for. Valerie O'Connor is knocked out.
Take it away, Val...

The restaurant at No.1 Pery Square was booked out all weekend, great to hear in these times. This chic, city centre hotel has barely opened it's doors and is already enjoying the kind of custom it deserves. The building is a lovingly restored Georgian house, situated opposite the lovely People's Park, and the new wing of the building is in keeping with the architecture of the area, low key, red brick, subtle. Patricia Couglan, from Clarina, made this project happen after several years experience in the hotel trade. She has brought classic chic to Limerick city, something we have been waiting for, and I personally applaud her.

I had booked myself in for a full-body massage in the Spa: there's a spa!! And it's in town, five minutes from where I live. Unlike other "beauty destinations" here you can arrive for your treatment an hour before to use their lovely thermae rooms and aromatherapy areas. This place is stylish, warm, calming and, being in the cellar of the building, Patricia has left some of the old brickwork exposed so, while you might float away, you never forget you are in a place full of history. Beth, as a masseuse, is gifted and Lisa is also really good at what she does. Ladies, and Men, take yourselves there.

I spent Saturday night at the hotel: it was my birthday and what better way to have a treat than this. The dining room is simple, French style elegance with lots of mirrors and carefully selected little paintings around the room. The kitchen is open at the front so you can see chef work his magic. This chef has no fear and cooks lots of big, robust dishes just right for this time of year. Starters of peat smoked haddock and potato chowder promised a brave step from a traditional favourite. Foie gras, seared, the best way to have it was on the menu but I'd just eaten foie gras the day before (birthday remember!!) so I chose the rabbit rillettes with apricot chutney and slivers of toasted sourdough baguette.
The rillettes were perfectly preserved, a rough type of pate with lots of flavour, delicious piled on the toasts with the chunky, plump apricots. My friends starter stole the limelight, steamed mussels in Normany cider with shallots. So simple yet as soon as she lifted the lid you could get the smell of the West coast of Ireland, like Liscannor under a lid. I stole lots of hers, as I do, sorry!! Mains were hard to chose from – pig's trotter with mash and salsify, roasted sea bream with cauliflower and tomato and ceps – were pushed aside for my choice of the special, wild boar sausage on sauerkraut with scallops in a light cream sauce. Dee had the char-grilled lamb rump with creamed potato and ratatouille, with a side of bashed neeps - that's turnips to you and me.
My dish was – I'm looking for words here – but it was really outstanding, the sausage was full of the kind of meatiness and strength you can only imagine that comes from wild boar. The cabbage was tart and tangy like it should be, then the sweetness of the scallops just made it all so perfect, heavenly. Must have that again. The lamb was perfect, chargrilled and pink, an unusual way to treat this cut of meat but it worked so well. All the veggies were perfectly treated, and devoured.

We were stuffed out of our minds already but, of course, went for dessert. Dee for the bread and butter pudding, sweet, soft and served with vanilla marscapone, mmmmm. I chose the chocolate cabernet tart, so smooth, like closing your mouth and happily meeting your maker. Creme fraiche on the side was too tart for this tart, but a minor mishap. The staff here must have been hand picked from some top qulaity list, mostly French they are classy, caring but not invasive, and full of smiles. I would love to say that I floated off to my room, and my mind did, my indulged body following slowly after.

My room, the Lord Barrington Room on the top floor is luxurious, old world with a modern edge. With sage green painted furniture and beautiful mirrors and seats to sink into, it is truly indulgent, yet simple. I slept the sleep of a baby in my princesses bed and awoke the next morning to open the curtains and look over the park. How great, and I'm here in Limerick.

Breakfast, a light one was brought to my room and I wallowed in the luxury of breakfast in bed on a Sunday morning. I just had to use the roll-top bath with the L'Occitaine toileteries before I happlily got dressed and walked the five minute walk home. What a difference a day makes.

Patricia Coughlan is a hero, bringing style, luxury and class to this city in the perfect part of town. Thank you.

Go to No.1, eat there, stay there.

No. 1 Pery Square Hotel, Pery Square, Limerick, Ireland
Phone: + 353 (0) 61 402402 Fax: + 353 (0) 61 313060

27 January 2009

Obama's Margarita

An interesting little story from AP:

Visiting one of his favorite Chicago restaurants in November, Barack Obama was asked by an excited waitress if he wanted the restaurant's special margarita made with the finest ingredients, straight up and shaken at the table.

"You know that's the way I roll," Obama replied jokingly.

Rick Bayless, the chef of that restaurant, Topolobampo, says Obama's comfortable demeanor at the table - slumped contentedly in his chair, clearly there to enjoy himself - bodes well for the nation's food policy. While former President George W. Bush rarely visited restaurants and didn't often talk about what he ate, Obama dines out frequently and enjoys exploring different foods.

"He's the kind of diner who wants to taste all sorts of things," Bayless says. "What I'm hoping is that he's going to recognize that we need to do what we can in our country to encourage real food for everyone."

Phrases like "real food" and "farm-to-table" may sound like elitist jargon tossed around at upscale restaurants. But the country's top chefs, several of whom traveled to Washington for Obama's inauguration this week, hope that Obama's flair for good food will encourage people to expand their horizons when it comes to what they eat.

We say: the fact that Obama is even in Topolobampo shows that he knows his stuff. Outside of Mexico, the best Mexican food is to be found in Chicago, and Rick Bayless, whose books we love, is the main man of Mexican cooking in the USA.
Of course, Obama only needs to follow the advice offered by Michael Pollan in his New York Times piece – available to read, if you have 15 or 20 minutes – on – to transform American agriculture and eating. That's the way to roll.

Making a meal of it...

We read, in today's Irish Times, that union sources involved in talks with the Government over proposed spending cuts have described the language of a framework document as a “blancmange”.
Government Chief Whip Pat Carey is also quoted as saying that pay cuts mooted for TDs and Senators “will form part of the decision and menu that will be presented for decision in the next few days”
Blancmange? Menu? What is it with all this covert foodie talk? Shouldn't they be chewing over some hard decisions before they get to dessert?...

Michelle Hyland of Galway's superb Gourmet Tart Company writes to let us know that this dynamic crew of bakers have opened a new store, in the Galway Shopping Centre, joining their outlets on Abbeygate Street – where we last bought some superb pastries – Henry Street and in Salthill. GTC have also won the contract to supply sandwiches and savouries to the University, so it is full baking ahead for Michelle and Fintan and their team...

And the GTC aren't the only dynamic bunch of bakers in the country. The Natural Foods Bakery, run by Orla and Ellie O'Byrne with Roddy Henderson, from their base in Pier Head, in Blackrock in Cork, have added extra seating to their Paul Street shop and café. You will also find the NFB at farmer's markets in Coal Quay, at Mahon Point, and at the new Blackrock Village market that they have been instrumental in setting up in the car park by the pier. It takes place on Sundays from 10am-2pm. Ah, those magnificent cherry buns!

25 January 2009

That Was The Week That Was

Some news from the week of the Obama inauguration...

Nash 19 in Cork city is offering a Valentines meal for two to go: start with organic chicken liver pate or love potion, then monkfish and tiger prawn pie or Green Saffron lamb curry or chicken and asparagus pasta with Country Choice Parmesan, then a Benoit L'Orge chocolate heart, and a bottle of fizz and a red rose. €72.50 is the price, order by Feb 10th and collect on the 13th. Claire Nash and her crew also have a surprise in store this week, but we can't say anything about that just yet...

Sarah Kennedy's bistro in Fairview, Dublin 3 is packing them in, with a new upstairs room that seats 35 and has a small bar area. Ms Kennedy is offering knock-out, recession-bustin' value for money, and you can read more in the new Bridgestone 100 Best Places To Eat in Dublin 2009, on your mobile 'phone now: www;

John O'Brien, head of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland will not be seeking a second five year term of office. This week The Irish Times reported that a report on contaminated bottled water had been delayed by the FSAI. Mr O'Brien felt the report “needed scientific revision and independent peer review”. Mr O'Brien's deputy, Alan Reilly, apparently expressed concern about the delay. Mr Reilly also wrote, according to the newspaper, that “Many of the bottled waters on the market are nothing more than tap water in bottles”. Expect this bottled water issue to gather more steam in the coming months, as more evidence emerges about the environmental impact of all those little bottles...

If you have been inspired by Barack and Michelle this week and are going to take a 'plane to Chicago to see where the first couple used to hang out, ignore the Oprah store and get down to Manny's on the corner of Jefferson and Roosevelt in the centre of Chicago. Order the corned beef, and the cherry pie. Barack also used to eat breakfast at Valois...

Thanks to my ten-year-old, PJ, who brought me home a photocopy of the menu after his class had discussed the inauguration at school (“I thought it would be good for your career”, he said), I can tell you that Barack's inauguration lunch went like this:
Seafood stew with lobster, scallops, shrimp and cod, with Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc 2007
Duck and pheasant served with sour cherry chutney and molasses sweet potato, with Goldeneye Pinot Noir 2005
Apple cinnamon sponge cake with sweet cream glaze, with Korbal Natural Cuvée...

This week we launch the 2009 Bridgestone 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland, and the Bridgestone 100 Best Places to Stay in Ireland. Lots of great new places to eat and stay for your 2009 staycation. In all good bookshops at €12. More on this later...

Avril and Willie Allshire of Caherbeg Free Range Pork write to tell us...
“The pork crisis (debacle) hit us pretty hard, but we're coming out the other side. Despite everything, we decided to continue with our plans to launch Rosscarbery Recipes Pork Paté. To date, it is the only pork paté to be manufactured in Ireland on a commercial scale. We haven't had a big launch, but it is available in Scally's S.V., Clonakilty, and S.V. Glanmire. Making haste slowly is probably the best thing in the present climate. It has no butter so is not a spreadable product. Finally, I thought of a slogan for Rosscarbery Recipes: 'Obsessed with Quality'.
As folk who enjoy everything Avril and Willie make, especially their bacon and black pudding, we look forward to the new paté, and to seeing it distributed widely...

21 January 2009

Obama Presidency rocked by discovery!

For months now, it has been the phrase on everyone's lips: “Yes, We Can”.
From Barack Obama to to every democrat you ever met, all had one simple message tied up in one little slogan: “Yes, We Can”.
But we have all been hiding a dark secret. A secret that covers up plagiarism, that reveals prejudice, prejudice against small little characters in hard hats with bib 'n' tucker trousers and checked shirts.
That's right: just cast your mind back. Say it: “Yes, We Can”.
Now, ask yourself this question: who do you remember first coining that phrase? Which icon, which colossus, which monument to masculinity first breathed those words to his dear sweet girl. And to his digger. And his dumper truck. And his cement mixer.
You remember now, don't you? You knew all along, didn't you?
Step forward the man who (probably) should today be the 44th President of the United States...
Bob the Builder.
Sing it proudly, Bob:
“Bob the Builder, can we fix it?
Bob the Builder, Yes, We Can.
Scoop, Muck and Dizzy, and Rolly too, Lofty and Wendy join the crew
Bob and the gang have so much fun, working together to get the job done.
Bb the Builder, can we fix it?
Bob the Builder, Yes, We Can”.
We hate, at this early juncture, to suggest that President Obama should resign.
But, you know, some reflection might be in order...

Cool People

Speaking of Cool People, as we were with Barack and Michelle, brings us to Michelle and Erik, founders of Dublin's blessed trinity of ELY winebars.
Mr and Mrs Robson have, for ten years now, proven themselves to be brilliant restaurateurs, with an intuitive understanding of what people want and how they want it. And that is why ELY, ELY CHQ and ELY HQ work. They serve us the things we want, the way we want them: fine wines, good food, great surroundings.
Ten years ago, they opened on Ely Place with that simple mantra. Ten years later, that mantra is made to work each and every day in all three ELYs
They have proven in their work that Cool can mean modest, hard-working, understated, generous. They show that Cool can be a part of everything you do: the wines you select and the way you serve them; the attitude and grace of your staff; the design of the rooms in which you work; the confidence to keep things simple, but genuine. That is Cool. That is The Cool.
And now, with a stunning book, “the wine and food of ely through the seasons”, they take that Cool to another level. This is a landmark book in Irish food publishing. It is pure gorgeous. The food is amazing. The wine writing is concise and wears its learning lightly. It is witty, and often downright funny. It is everything that ELY represents, on the printed page.
It is The Cool.

Phew! Finally, some good news for Western Malekind.

Intellectual. Gifted writer. Awesome orator. Leader of the world's most powerful and wealthiest nation. Father of two gorgeous girls. Hot, smart wife. Kingpin basketball player...
Come on, Barack! Give us Western males a break. How is a guy to match up!
But wait... it seems that Barack Obama, President of the United States, can't dance! Trips on his wife's dress. Stamps on Michelle's toes. Barack is not Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, and isn't even Fred and Gene rolled into one, as we might have suspected.
Hope for Western malekind at last!

13 January 2009

Your Staycation in 2009

Ok, so everyone is broke, depressed, and fed-up with the recession, credit crunch, global downturn, whatever you are having yourself.
If only you hadn't bought that holiday place in Marbella, Florida, Ghana, wherever, the one you can't afford to fly to any more!
Never mind the if only's. In advance of getting all the dope on the hottest new places to stay in Ireland and the hottest new restaurants, which the 2009 Bridgestone 100 Best Guides will reveal to you when they are published shortly, here are some don't miss destinations for your 2009 staycation

Kanturk, North Cork
Your man: Jack McCarthy
Ardrahan cheese and smoky bacon dinner sausage; Guinness and cider spiced beef; cherry and oak smoked dry cure bacon; smoked beef; Sliabh Luchra beef; North Cork pancetta... these are just a few of the extraordinary things that Kanturk's presiding genius, Jack McCarthy, creates in his small butcher's shop in Kanturk. This man has a wild imagination and creativity, and whilst it is easy to by-pass Kanturk in the normal course of events, only an idiot would fail to make the detour to buy some of the finest charcuterie available in Ireland. Kanturk it is, then

Galway, County Galway
Your Girl: Yoshimi Hayakawa
Yoshimi, formerly of Kappa-ya, has opened Wa Café on New Dock Street in Galway. See you there for aduki bean roll, miso with rice balls, salad with umeboshi dressing and a Gammo to go. Destined to be the hippest address in the city this year.
New Dock Street, 091 895850

Durrus, West Cork
Your Girl: Carmel Somers
When Carmel Somer's book, “Eat Good Things Every Day” is published later this year, it will mark the end of the first stage in one of the most exciting culinary careers in Ireland in the last decade. Ms Somers has created West Cork's finest destination restaurant in Good Things Café, shown herself to be a gifted teacher, and her book will further cement a stellar reputation.

Dublin, County Dublin
Your Girl: Deirdre McCafferty
The boss of the evergreen Cornucopia published a brilliant book last year, “Cornucopia at home”, and the expansion of the restaurant in 2009 will mean even more happy customers for the most lip-smackin' vegetarian cooking in the city.
Wicklow Street, Dublin 2

Blacklion, County Cavan
Your Man: Neven Maguire
A wonderful new book, “Neven's Food from the Sun”, a new 13-part television series beginning on February 18th on RTE 1 at 7.30 pm, and the hottest restaurant in the country. It's all in a day's work for Mr Maguire. But there is something else going on here: Neven's food and his book show a chef who has stepped up to another level. If you haven't made the pilgrimage to Blacklion, 2009 is the year to do it, and stay for at least two night so you can see all the changes this cook can ring. On a slightly related note, in the 2009 Bridgestone 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland, we think we might have managed to finally work out what makes Neven Maguire tick. Well, maybe...

Dungarvan: County Waterford
Your man; Paul Flynn
The hottest new cookery school, allied to a beautiful series of rooms in an elegant townhouse, and the most unique style of Irish cookery in the restaurant. The Tannery Cookery School joins The Tannery Townhouse and The Tannery Restaurant as the hippest triptych in the land.

Dublin, County Dublin
Your man: Owen Doorly
Mr Doorly's brilliant bakery on Grand Canal Quay, Il Valentino, is a revelation in the art of great bread, and an ace space to take coffee and lunch. Life affirming, and somehow incredibly comforting, just what you need in harsh times.

Your Garden, Any County
Your Man: Yourself
This is the year to finally get around to making that lawn into a productive vegetable garden. Start the right way: do a course at The Organic Centre in County Leitrim, buy your seeds from Madeline McKeever's brilliant Brown Envelope Seeds, and get your tools from Manfred Wandel's brilliant Fruit Hill farm. Now, you are sorted.

Healthplus, The Irish Times: A Great Big Hygge

Three times in my life, a turnip has stopped me dead in my tracks.

The first time was back in 2002, when I put a spoon into a bowl of turnip and brown bread soup, and tasted something that was nothing less than food for the Gods. It had been cooked by the brilliant Catherine Fulvio, who had just taken over the running of Ballyknocken House, near Ashford in County Wicklow.

Ms Fulvio cooks like a dream, but this dish showed something even more than dreamy cooking: it revealed the cook’s ability to ennoble the humblest of foods: the everyday turnip.

Four years later, Nick Price of Nick’s Warehouse in Belfast cooked some creamed swede to accompany a dish of confit of Gloucester Old Spot pork. It isn’t often that you get an entire room of diners to applaud a chef when he comes out to say a few words at the end of an official dinner, but the roomful of eaters raised the rafters in applause for what Mr Price cooked. Above all, I think, we were applauding that turnip purée, which was so silky, so fine, that it stopped us all in our tracks.

And just a couple of weeks ago, at a weekend pig cookery course in Carmel Somers’ Good Things Café in Durrus, West Cork, Ms Somers showed us how to cook turnip. You peel it, you cube it, you add in lots of grated ginger, salt, pepper and olive oil, and then you roast it. Nothing could have been simpler, and nothing could have been more delicious.

“This is turnip?! This is divine!” we all hooted, amazed by what talented cooks can show you when they bring their skills to the simplest of things.

Now, you may never have had a Road to Damascus moment with a turnip, or at least not yet, but when this sort of thing happens to you, you realise that the humble turnip is just one of those modest winter foods we take for granted.

Parsnips. Cabbage. Leeks. Belly of pork. Pigeon. Blood oranges. Apples and pears. Pumpkins. Mussels. Walnuts and chestnuts. These foods have too few champions nowadays, in a culinary climate where we have become mesmerised by the foods of the Mediterranean.

But Mediterranean foods don’t suit our winter climate, when we want food to give comfort, succour and satisfaction, as well as deliciousness. You don’t crave sunshine foods when you need something rib-sticking to withstand the cold and the closing of the light at 4.30 in the afternoon.

Our neglect of winter foods is even more of a disgrace when you consider that we have, in our culinary arsenal, what is perhaps the defining winter dish of all time. “Irish stew is the common denominator of all the meat and potato daubes and, by virtue of its purity, it may be the best”, wrote the late Richard Olney in his classic book, “Simple French Cookery”, a text that I, and many others, consider the single greatest cookery book of all time.

Olney’s championing of the dish is right and proper, and it is a shame that we have let the French steal the idea and rebrand it in multiple forms as meat and vegetable daubes. The purity of Irish Stew defines exactly what winter cooking offers us: root vegetables allied with cheap cuts of meat, subjected to long, slow, patient cooking, and in the end offering something that transcends its quotidian cast of ingredients.

This is cooking that bestows comfort on us, and we should value and respect that comfort. In her book “Roast Figs, Sugar Snow”, the Northern Irish food writer Diana Henry writes that “The Danes in particular get great succour from food in the autumn and winter. Hunkering down in a café filled with candlelight to eat a cardamom-scented pastry with a big mug of coffee is what they describe as “hygge”, an untranslatable term meaning “cosy, warming, life-affirming”.

What a lovely term: hygge. Hygge Cooking, “What would you like for dinner, dear?”. “Oh, just give me a big hygge”.

Just think of all the dishes you know that are Hygge Cooking: Dublin coddle. Belly of pork with pickled prunes. Colcannon. Cabbage with garlic. Turnip and brown bread soup. Ham hock with bacon. Irish Stew. Squid with potatoes. Buttery champ. Sausages and polenta. Pumpkin and lentils. Tartiflette, that gorgeous, gooey mass of potatoes and cheese that works so well with Irish farmhouse cheeses. Sheridan’s Cheesemongers include a fine recipe for Tartiflette on the box of their duck confit. It goes like this:


Preheat oven to 200C. wash & parboil 300g of baby potatoes for 10 minutes. Dice a small onion and 2 slices of bacon (or lardons) and sauté in a little extra-virgin olive oil till soft. Slice potatoes, add to the pan with 1 glass of dry white wine, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Transfer to a shallow buttered dish and cover with 20g Durrus cheese cubed (rind removed), season and mix gently. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes.

A new dish I discovered recently is lamb necks cooked with anchovies, from an impressive book by Jennifer McLagan called ‘Cooking on the Bone”. This is just the sort of slow-cooked, ultra-cheap, sticky and unctuous dish that spells out winter. The lamb necks cost me less than four euros, and all you need otherwise is a little red wine, some red wine vinegar, some anchovies and some rosemary leaves. It’s slow, and it’s simple:

Lamb Neck with Anchovies

Serves 4

8 pieces trimmed lamb neck

1-2 tablespoons olive oil

Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

250ml lamb stock

2 garlic cloves, sliced

6 anchovy fillets, rinsed

1 tablespoon rosemary leaves, chopped

125ml red wine vinegar

125ml dry red wine

Make sure the lamb neck pieces are trimmed of all excess fat. If you can still see a band of sinew surrounding any of the pieces, make a few nicks in it to prevent the pieces from curling as they cook.

Lightly coat the bottom of a large heavy frying pan with the olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. Season the lamb lightly with salt and generously with black pepper. Add the lamb to the pan, in two batches if necesssary, and brown on both sides, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer the browned lamb to a plate and discard the fat from the frying pan.

Add half of the stock to the pan and bring to a boil, deglazing the pan by scraping up the browned bits from the bottom. Reduce the heat to a simmer, add the lamb neck, in a single layer if possible, and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes, turning the lamb once. Make sure there is always a little liquid covering the bottom of the pan.

While the lamb is cooking, put the garlic, anchovies and rosemary in a food processor. Process until finely chopped, then add the wine and vinegar and process again.

After the lamb has simmered for 30 minutes, stir in the anchovy-vinegar mixture and bring back to a simmer. Cover tightly and braise for 1 to 1 and a half hours, or until the lamb is very tender. Turn the lamb pieces every 30 minutes, and make sure there is always liquid covering the bottom of the pan.

Transfer the lamb necks to a warmed platter and keep warm, loosely covered with foil. Place the pan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the juices have reduced to about 175ml and are slightly thickened and glossy. Check the seasoning, and add salt if necessary. Pour the sauce over the lamb and serve.

Lamb neck with anchovies is the sort of dish that marries beautifully with polenta, the hearty corn meal staple that is presently fashionable amongst food lovers, but which is a dish many older people in Ireland remember with dread from their childhood, when they called it “yellow meal”.

Strangely enough, I have found that children love polenta, but I used not love to cook it for my kids because it was so much work: an hour spent stirring corn meal? No thanks. But then one of those eye-opening recipes came in a book by the great American writer, Paula Wolfert.

What on earth was I doing stirring polenta for yonks, when all I needed was to pop it in the oven and let the oven do the work? The great benefit of this recipe is not just simplicity, but also the fact that if you make 2 cups of polenta, you will have left-over polenta to fry until it is crispy and crunchy, which is the way the kids love it best of all.

Oven-Baked Polenta

For soft polenta, use 5 parts liquid to 1 part polenta. For medium polenta, use 4 parts liquid to 1 part polenta. Serves 6.

2 cups medium-coarse cornmeal

8-10 cups water

2 tablespoons butter

2 teaspoons salt

Preheat oven to 350F. Generously butter a 12-inch casserole. Add cornmeal, water, butter and salt and stir until blended. Bake uncovered for 1 hour and 10 minutes, then let it stand for 5 minutes before serving.

Other lovely things to pair with polenta are bolognaise sauce, and some good sausages in tomato sauce, just the sort of cooking that gives you a big hygge.

Roast Figs, Sugar Snow by Diana Henry is published by Mitchell Beazley

Cooking on the Bone by Jennifer McLagan is published by Grub Street

The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen by Paula Wolfert is published by John Wiley

That lovely Renault 4...

A little piece we wrote for the Guild of Food Writers magazine, marking (almost!) twenty years of writing about Irish food...

Almost twenty years ago, my wife Sally and I decided to write a book about the sources and producers of Irish food. At the time, I was a barrister working in Dublin, but actually not working very much at all, as the country was deep in recession, and plagued by emigration. My wife, with that autodidacticism so prevalent amongst women, had begun to write some restaurant criticism for one of the Irish broadsheets, despite having no background in journalism.
So, we could use Sally’s six months of experience, I would take a sabattical from my non-existent practice, and a friend with a little publishing house had promised to publish the finished result, so that was that.
All that stood in the way of replicating the success of influences such as Patricia Wells were that we had no money, no transport, and no idea whatsoever about who made Irish speciality food and where they lived and worked. And, the lease of our flat was up. Intelligent people would have been deterred, but there is, mercifully, something so reckless about people in their twenties who have an idea, that obstacles which are so obvious to everyone else, are utterly invisible.
Our lovely bank manager lent us a few grand, and the first thing we did was solve the transport question by buying a Renault 4 for £100. The car wasn’t actually running when we bought it, and when we towed it in to a local mechanic, Malachy, and explained our plans to tour the country in this elegant vehicle in order to write our book, we asked what he recommended.
“Prayer”, he said.
Almost twenty years later, and the journey is still underway. Perhaps it was Malachy who said a little prayer for us as he fixed the car, but something kept the Renault 4 going for 20,000 miles as we met the people who then constituted the embryonic Irish speciality food culture.The hard core of farmhouse cheesemakers had formed an association – Cais – just 5 years before, but otherwise everything about the artisan food sector in Ireland was subterranean. In fact those words which are now so common to describe food cultures – artisan; organic; bio-dynamic; speciality – simply didn’t exist in the vocabulary of hand-made food.
There were no farmer’s markets, and almost no delis and specialist shops. Myrtle Allen’s Ballymaloe House had created a new paradigm in cooking and dining – the country house – but many who copied the idea were exceptionally wan. In Dublin, good places to eat were few, and were concerned more with swankiness and something called “fine dining”, a concept which seems to me to be more to do with snobbery than with good food.
Despite this, we persisted, inspired mainly by the intelligence, creativity and generosity of the people whom we met and wrote about. Had we encountered a bunch of people as dull as the lawyers I had formerly associated with, then I am sure we would have given up. Instead, we met people whose capacious depths are so profound that I find, even having written about many of them for two decades, that I have still only scratched the surface of what drives their creativity.
The first book, “The Irish Food Guide”, appeared in November 1989, and eighteen months later we agreed a sponsorship deal with Bridgestone Tyres, which allowed us to create a new stable of books which we could publish ourselves. So we set up a little company, Estragon Press, which most people continue to refer to as Oestrogen Press. Sometimes it’s hard to make yourself understood.
We are artisan publishers, living and working up a hill in West Cork, our own business a reflection of the very people we write about. What we think we have learnt is that a food culture is indivisible: the chef thinks like the cheesemaker who thinks like the bio-dynamic farmer who thinks like the sausage maker, and all of them are brilliant, and a little crazy. We are seeing the children of the original artisans taking up the reins of business, and bringing commercial savvy and extraordinary optimism and confidence to these enterprises. We write about these people and their foods, their restaurants and their places to stay in the Bridgestone Guides, and in tandem with their growing stature an audience has developed who seem to enjoy the idiosyncracies of our books, so we no longer have to explain why 5-star hotels are usually out, whilst folk who collect sea vegetables by hand around the coast, or who make brawn, or who rear Moile cows, are in.
Above all, we have had a ball. To be able to chart and describe a food culture as it develops from embryo into early adulthood, has been enthralling. We have been allowed to write about sincerity, and goodness, and generosity, which has meant that our own enthusiasm has never diminished.

12 January 2009

Holy Moley it's, it's... Ed Behr in the FT!

Who says we have lost the power to be shocked and surprised?
Well, you could have knocked us over with a feather when we sifted through the many sections of Saturday's Financial Times only to discover that there, ON THE COVER OF THE FT WEEKEND MAGAZINE, is none other than... Ed Behr, maverick publisher of the world's greatest and most cult food quarterly, The Art Of Eating.
Ed Behr! On the cover of the FT! Well, stone me! Stone us all!
Ed Behr from Peacham, Vermont. 6 hours north of New York. Ed Behr of TAofE. Subscribership: 6,000 hungry souls, scattered throughout the world.
Ed Behr! The new Poster Boy for serious food lovers!
What next? Ed Behr on Oprah? Ed Behr on David Letterman? Ed Behr presents the Oscars (©).
A sign, if ever there was one, that 2009, with a new president and now Ed Behr on the cover of the FT magazine, is going to be one hell of a good year.
Of course, if you aren't a subscriber to The Art of Eating, then you aren't at the races, and you won't have a great 2009.
So, save your soul, and subscribe now: And if you missed the magazine, you can read Joshua Chaffin's fine profile on, in the Weekend section.

02 January 2009

Megabytes Awards for 2008

Con Traas
In the most recent edition of his Apple Club Newsletter, Con Traas discussed codling moths, the Cahir Climatologist, domestic economics, apple thinning, apples and aspirin, and gave a short history of Gregor Mendel and his Laws of Heredity, as applied to your earlobes.
The Newsletter is both a most diverting and a most illuminating read, and we look forward to it every time, almost as much as we look forward to turning off the road at the sign for The Apple Farm and buying a few cases of our favourite apple juice and, most recently, Mr Traas’ splendid new sparkling apple juice. As a communicator and a farmer and an economic model of how to run a farm successfully and independently, Mr Traas is a paragon of virtue.

Donagh Davern
So, we step out of the car at the entrance to The Heritage, and the concierges already know the names of our children.
We get back to our room after enjoying a splendid dinner cooked by that fine chef Robbie Webster, and there are three cookies and three glasses of milk waiting for the kids. The cookies have their names written in icing sugar: Connie; Sam; P.J. this sort of level of service is inspired and driven by Donagh Davern, manager of The Heritage. The cookie trick, for example, is one he learnt from Francis Brennan in The Park Hotel, Kenmare. Except that Mr Davern has taken it up a gear: it is his innovation to write the kids’ names on the cookies. From the first meeting to the last goodbye, service at The Heritage is exemplary.

Jorg Muller
In Ireland we drink more tea than anyone else in the world, yet we know little or nothing about tea. Jorg Muller is quietly changing that. His Solaris blends of tea are brilliant brews, concoctions that have elemental qualities that once sampled, can’t be lived without. His green chai, for instance, is the finest green tea we have ever tasted – beautifully balanced, free of bitterness, life-enhancing. This is the aesthetic of the world of tea, sold in a beautiful box, waiting to improve your life.

The Coffee Roasters
Each morning, as we fashion a cafetiere of Morning Growler, or Java Republic, or Costa Rica blend from Ponaire, we thank our lucky stars that specialist coffee roasting in Ireland now enjoys such exalted expertise. And that passionate expertise is being rewarded: David McKienan has a state-of-the-art roastery and café in Dublin. Tommy and Jennifer from Ponaire are opening a new roastery and coffee shop and deli in Annacotty in Limerick in a couple of week’s time, and Cork Coffee Roasters just goes from strength to strength. The roasters are on a roll!

Jenny Young
Farmers in Ireland have a problem: they only talk to other farmers.
Jenny Young talks to the world. As a communicator she, and her husband, Peter, are unparallelled. Their newsletters, their events, their organisation, their farm shop at Castlefarm in County Kildare, show how farming can and must interact with community and customers. They act local – superb quality foods produced to organic standards – but they think national, and they are the new farming superstars.

The Jephson Family
Ardkeen Quality Food Store is unlike any other food shop you have ever shopped in: it is better than all he others. The Jephson family have managed to create a supermarket that feels like a farmer’s market and that sells exactly what you want. They also have the sweetest, nicest staff on the planet. Our last Saturday morning visit was, believe it or not, one of the highlights of our year: this wasn’t shopping, this was a cultural event, an aesthetic interlude.

Michael Pollan
We need smart people to state the obvious, to show that common sense is far from common, and no one does it better than Michael Pollan. His book “In Defence of Food; An Eater’s Manifesto” summed things up brilliantly in a little haiku: “Eat food, Not too much. mainly plants”.
But if that seems a little too pat, then just take a look at the open letter to the President-elect that Pollan wrote for The New York Times, and which appears in full on his site. Borrowing on the ideas of Wendell Berry, Polaln attempts nothing less than a comprehensive intellectual restructuring of world agriculture. From fossil fuel to photosynthesis, you might call it, and reading it will be the best twenty minutes of your time spent in 2009