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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.