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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 CafĂ© 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...