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04 June 2010

The irish Times Healthplus

Heavenly Behaviour

One of my favourite New Yorker cartoons shows a typically befuddled man, standing on a cloud, and wearing standard-issue heavenly garb: a grand pair of angel's wings, and a calf-length hospital robe.
Standing beside him, and similarly attired, is a cross-looking wife. She is looking over her shoulder, and saying to our hapless-looking angel: 'Here comes God. Ask if we can move to another cloud'.
Heaven. It isn't a place where nothing happens. It's a place where life continues, just as before, complete with nagging wife. Our hapless male angel might have dreamt on earth of a balmy idyll, maybe even replete with dusky virgins and sweet flowing streams such as the martyrs for Islam are promised.
Instead, our New Yorker angel still looks like an exhausted Wall Street banker, and his wife, as he could have predicted, isn't satisfied with her after-life. In The New Yorker, heaven is always a humbling place: the masters of the universe may float transcendentally, but their feet are made of clay.
I was thinking about this idea of heaven recently, as I helped out a bit at the launch of Truly Tasty, a book of recipes for people with kidney disease.
The first thought, quite frankly, was one of guilt. In the rere inside page of Truly Tasty there is a little pouch which contains an Organ Donor Card. I wasn't carrying a donor card, and as I mingled at the launch amidst wonderful kidney patients, their nurses and doctors, I felt thoroughly ashamed.
Above all, I was embarassed, especially as I listened to patients speak of their gratitude to the donors whose decision to allow their organs to be harvested for transplants had made the continuation of their life possible. I had never heard people express such profound gratitude, and it was expressed to people they had never had a chance to know.
My embarassment was compounded by the fact that, as a card-carrying atheist, it should be people like myself who have no belief in an after-life who should be the first to be card-carrying donors.
So, with the donor card signed and filed in my wallet, I wondered why we are so reluctant to be organ donors? And this brought me back to our New Yorker angels.
As a loving, and deeply sentimental people, we have become thoroughly wedded to a supernatural idea of heaven. Instead of a place where our souls wait until the day of reckoning, we have recast it as a sort of Sublime family get-together.
Heaven today is like a celestial Electric Picnic, with an audience that includes all our ancestors. And, just like the New Yorker cartoons, in Heaven we look just like we look now, or maybe just as we look after we have been to the hairdresser and had a facial and a manicure.
This is a thoroughly nice idea, but really you wouldn't want to examine it too deeply to know that is has as much substance as those clouds that the angels hang out on in cartoons. And if you were to read a new book by the Princeton professor of philosophy, Mark Johnston, which enjoys the provocative title of “Surviving Death” (It’s the succesor to a volume entitled “Saving God: Religion After Idolatry”. Johnston does good titles), then you would realise that there is a much, much better way of making the most of your potential after-life.
Johnston’s concept for surviving death is a development of John Stuart Mills’ idea that “all who had received the customary amount of moral cultivation would up to the hour of death live ideally in the life of those who are to follow them”.
For Johnston, we can live on “in the onward rush of humankind and not in the supernatural spaces of heaven”. This, asserts the professor, is an altogether better place than 'the supernatural spaces of heaven, even if such spaces existed'.
It’s a lovely idea – the good person who has passed away acquires a new face every time a baby is born — but you don’t need to concern yourself with theology or philosophy to realise one simple thing.
This is that every time an organ donor passes away, and allows the gift of harvesting their organs for others, whether they are patients waiting for kidney, heart, liver or other organ transplants, they facilitate “the onward rush of humankind” in the most practical and immediate way. A death can give life, and not just life but a second life.
It's a no-brainer idea, but do we resist it because of our supernatural, sentimental idea of heaven, where we are recast as a mirror-image of ourselves? If we were really Christian, we would know that the commandment to love our neighbour can be put into action in the most powerful way possible.

One of the most famous New Yorker contributors over the last forty years, Woody Allen, once wrote: 'I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it by not dying'. Carrying an organ donor card gives you a chance not to die.

13 May 2010

The G Hotel, Galway

Eamon Barrett's report on Galway's The G Hotel is worrying reading. The G is quintessential example of a “Builder's Hotel”, developed by Gerry Barrett, a man with multiple business interests, and a number of other hotels in his portfolio.
But, The G promised so much, and initially delivered, thanks to stunning style and sharp service.
A few years down the line, however, and the errors that Eamon recounts are all primary, basic matters: they are not supposed to happen in a top class establishment...

Thankfully, work has been fairly hectic for us now for quite a while but you know what they say about all work and no play..... So we decided it was time for some chill out indulgence and I've wanted to stay at The G Hotel since I saw the first pictures of Philip Treacys outlandish design influence. It is a little strange to drive through the retail park to get to the car park but once the lift opens facing the silver lounge you are well and truly transported to another world. Check in was stiff and not exactly warm and there was an unusual insistence that both of us sign the registration, which I haven't come across before. We had treated ourselves to a top end room and I was surprised to see that this room - though absolutely excellent in every other way - faced onto the retail car park instead of the lake at the front. I was also surprised at this level that the mini bar had to be requested to be filled. Nonetheless, the welcoming cupcakes with silver icing was a lovely touch.

Hungry after the long drive from Waterford we moved to the stunning pink lounge for some food and waited for someone to serve us. And waited. There were plenty of staff - the hotel was busy - they just kept passing us by with their eyes fixed straight ahead. Eventually, some twenty minutes after sitting down, we managed to crane our necks enough to make ourselves look positively alien and thus attract the attention of a passing waiter. I went for the homemade burger and chips and J went for the plate of local cheese and charcuterie with warm breads. The food arrived reasonably quickly and as soon as my burger was laid down I asked for some ketchup. Julies plate of cheese and charcuterie was exceptionally weak and the promised warm breads never arrived. Just like the ketchup. Another twenty minute interval became too much for me and I left my seat and pleaded with a member of staff to see if some ketchup could be retrieved. It arrived shortly afterwards with a curt apology. When a passing manager inquired if everything was alright I quietly told him that service had been abysmal - not something I would normally do but we had driven three and a half hours to stay in this place for Gods sake! To be fair he was much more apologetic and did look after us for the rest of our stay in the lounge.

Things didn't get much better at dinner. There was no one to greet us, leaving us standing at the entrance to the restaurant like lost souls. When someone did arrive and we explained we had a booking for two we were asked 'Is this part of your package?' which didn't add any sense of 5 star ambiance to the occasion. Shouldn't their software tell them we weren't on a package?

We were shown to a truly horrible table in the centre of the room which would have left the two of us facing straight ahead and away from each other. A request for a table against the wall was not automatically granted but the fact that we remained standing obviously got the message across and we were shown to an alternative table. The shining star of our visit was the lovely Pedro who looked after us for the evening and had a gentle and professional manner that meant we felt totally relaxed. I didn't make notes on the dinner but it amounted to not much more than decent hotel food- a lobster ravioli for me was ruined by a heavy meat based sauce. The bar afterwards produced some excellent cocktails and the best mojito I've had since 33 The Mall closed.

We relaxed with breakfast in the room the next morning, no element of which caused me to change my mind about the hotel. Checkout was a little better than check in but lacked any real warmth.

There's no denying the magnificent gayness of the hotels design, it really is beautiful. But the critical element of deferential and professional service was sadly absent not to mention the slightest hint of friendliness or care for the guest. Very much, 'look at our lovely cushions, aren't we amazing'.

In fact, if anything, the G has merely served to place the achievement of Cliff House into greater context, where a stunning building has been matched by a warmth of service and a professionalism of operation that makes you forget where you are. Isn't that what we all want? To escape the humdrum and to live the fantasy of luxury for just one little day? Has no one at the G heard of 'fur coat, no knickers'?

12 May 2010

The Kerry Way: Ramblings on Kenmare

A couple of weekend days in Kenmare confirms the town's status as the most food-orientated town in the country. The following are stray thoughts about what makes it special...

Taking tea; put together The Truffle Pig in its smart new Henry Street address, An Cupan Tae, Jam, and Manuela Goeb's Breadcrumb Bakery with its neat new tables and chairs, and Kenmare offers a brilliant selection of cutting edge places in which to take tea or coffee. Best of all, and typical of the town, they are All Different: The Breadcrumb rustic, An Cupan traditional and chintzy, Truffle Pig slick and smart, Jam bustling and laid back. Quite wonderful.

On Saturday morning, we headed off from just past the abandoned church west of Moll's Gap and walked the seven miles back over the hill into Kenmare. The sun shone, the clouds were magnificent, the trees alternated between Pan's Labyrinth ruined stumps to Lord of the Rings magical embellishments, and the walk took forever because our kids said “Take a picture of me here!” and “Take a picture of me here!”, and “Take a picture of me here”. Seven miles of the Sublime.

As we neared Kenmare, we hove into the Kilmurry Business Park where Remy Benoit runs his Kenmare Salmon Company. In the past, we haven't written about M. Benoit in our guides, because we believed his fish was all exported. Not true: you can buy it, for instance, in the Supervalu just down the road from the factory. And buy it you should, for this is a superb smoked fish – our kids, in particular, went wild about it – with the subtlest gracing of smoke, and the cured, herbed version is just as fine. Truly beautiful work.

Our kids also went wild about Wharton's traditional fish and chips, which they confidently declared to be the best fish and chips they had ever eaten. They were also particularly impressed with the gentleman who ran the shop, who was super-friendly and who, because they didn't have quite enough money, gave them a third bottle of pop for free. How to win future customers...

The next night they ate at Packie's, and declared it to be, maybe, their favourite restaurant. Sam had the roast duck, Connie had the coconut chicken, and PJ had the pasta. For dessert they demolished the sticky toffee pudding, and unambiguously declared it the finest of them all. Using his Dad's money, Sam tipped generously: the lad recognises some of the finest service in the country when he gets it...

Sam's folks, meantime, were up in The Park Hotel, enjoying their Celebration of Ireland Festival, which we will cover in the next posting.

07 May 2010

The Cancer Question is going to go ballistic!

A fascinating piece, in advance of a major new report on cancer, by columnist Nicholas D. Kristof in The New York Times:

The cancer question is going to go ballistic! Consider this:

“Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety,” the report says. It adds: “Many known or suspected carcinogens are completely unregulated.”

Go get rid of the Roundup and go Organic, and get rid of the plastics!

06 May 2010

Congratulations Colman!

We wrote a while back about how we had some involvement in bringing Colman Andrews to Ireland back in 2002, and how 8 years later the result was his magnum opus, The Country Cooking of Ireland.
Well, at the annual James Beard Foundation Awards, Colman has snapped up not just the Cookery Book of the Year award, but also the International Cookery Book Award.
That's a mighty achievement: whilst the Beard Foundation gives out many awards, the book awards are deeply serious – Claudia Roden, for instance, received the Hall of Fame Award for her timeless A Book of Middle Eastern Food.
You can view the many winners here:
So, big congrats to Colman, and another ground-breaking moment in the international appreciation of Irish cooking.

05 May 2010

The Irish Times Healthplus: Chicken Everywhichway

Your friend the chicken

A friend stopped me in our local shop recently and confessed that my family had been the topic of conversation in his house over several days.
“Your poor children, having to survive all week on just one chicken....!”, he joked. Well, I hope he was joking, at any rate. This piece is about two things: frugality, always a great virtue in the kitchen; and improvising, making two, or tree or five, things out of one base ingredient.

“The morning was one of those true still mornings in summer before the heat comes, the door open on the yard. Earlier that morning he must have gone through his hives… and while he was talking some jam fell into the beard and set off an immediate buzzing. Without interrupting the flow of his talk, he shambled to the door, extracted the two or tree errant bees caught in the beard, and flung them into the air of the yard”.

That is the late, great John McGahern remembering, in an article from 1991, his time as a youngster visiting his bee-keeping neighbour, Willie Moronoey, from whom the young McGahern borrowed books.
The passage has always struck me as the epitome of peacefulness – imagine being so relaxed that you don’t even notice bees in your beard! – and it came back to me recently as I listened to a news report that many families in Ireland are being forced to switch their mortgages to interest-only payments.
For families forced into that position, there will be no such Willie Moroney mornings, for the stress of debt is ever-present, a cloud over your consciousness, a burden not only on your mind but, even more pertinently, on your health.
It is at stressful times such as this that we most need the comfort of good home cooking. Soulful, true food can lift us out of despond better than anything else. And if we can somehow marry good food to thriftyness, then we win twice over.
My favourite method of marrying thrift with deliciousness is to make a roast chicken dinner into three or – maybe – even four meals. Impossible? Well, yes it is impossible if you only have an industrially-reared supermarket bird, which won’t have enough flesh and strong bones to let us get maximum value.
But if you have a good fowl from Carlow Chickens, or Margaret McDonnell’s Ballysax birds, or a Born Free bird from Waterford, or a Mullan’s farm chicken from Northern Ireland or one of Sandra Higgin’s Carbury chickens, then you are away on a hack, and those delicious dinners are coming at you.
The system is simple. Roast your chicken for Sunday dinner, and enjoy it with the family with all the trimmings. Of course, if you have a big brood, or just a few teenagers, there may be little flesh meat left, but after dinner make sure to collect every edible scrap from the bird and combine it with whatever is left.
Now, using the picked-clean carcass, make a chicken stock: put the bones in a pot, cover with water, add sliced onion, carrot and celery along with bay leaves, and let it simmer away for an hour or so, skimming off any frothy stuff from the surface.
With your stock, you have the basis for meal two, a chicken risotto, where you cook Italian Arborio rice in the stock. You can add some pieces of the left-over chicken flesh to it, but equally you can save the chicken and just flavour the risotto with mushrooms, or courgettes, or celery.
If you aren’t comfortable making risotto and you don’t have Arborio rice, make a pilaf with standard white rice, but again use the stock for cooking the rice to make it very flavourful and nutritious, and again add chopped mushrooms, or chopped sweet peppers, adding the cooked chicken at the last few minutes as the rice comes to be completely cooked.
You can also use some of the stock to make a rich velouté sauce – a white sauce made with stock rather than milk – which will be used to give you meal three: a chicken gratin.
This simply involves placing your slices of left-over chicken in a dish and covering your chicken with the velouté, or with a standard white sauce, sprinkling on some breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan, and letting the dish brown in an oven for twenty minutes or so. This is one of my kids’ favourite dinners.
To bulk the gratin out, add some cooked broccoli or leeks, or cooked mushrooms, though the kids will hardly thank you for the mushrooms.
Another option with the left-over chicken is to make a chicken pie, option number four. Line a dish with slices of streaky bacon, toss in your pieces of chicken and add some quartered hard-boiled eggs. You can also add some cooked carrots, or tinned artichoke hearts, then throw in some chopped parsley, chopped spring onion, moisten with a little of your stock, then cover with some pastry and bake in a hot oven for thirty to forty minutes. This pie is beyond good.
Another kid’s fave which I have added into the repertoire recently and which gives you a fifth option is to use the chicken to make Thai green or red curry. Just fry your Thai paste in a little vegetable oil, add in a tin of coconut milk – if you have any stock left then add it in also – let it simmer for a few minutes, then add florets of broccoli, thin slices of carrot, pieces of baby corn, chopped up sweet pepper, let the vegetables cook in the milk and when they are ready add in the pieces of cooked chicken. Serve with white rice.
All of these dishes are super-duper comfort food, good for the health and the heart, just the thing for straitened circumstances and hard times.

02 May 2010

Agroecological Farming

What is, or will be, “an overhyped footnote in the history books?”

The answer, according to a powerful piece by Anna Lappé in the Journal “Foreign Policy” is “industrial agriculture”
And what is the future? “Agroecological agriculture”.
Why? Because with agroecological approaches, “farmers gain knowledge, including knowledge about ways to adapt to changing climate and to share their knowledge with each other. Farmers become less dependent on distant, centralized suppliers of high-priced biotech seeds and chemical inputs and therefore less vulnerable to their notoriously unstable prices. Though perhaps harder to measure, this independence may be the most critical advantages of agroecological farming.“
Independent farmers! Now you're talking. Ms Lappé's piece is a thunderous riposte to a piece of flummery by Robert Paarlberg in the same journal, entitled “Attention Whole Foods shoppers”. It only takes Ms Lappé a few hundred words to show that black is black and white is white. Mighty stuff.,0

29 April 2010

When the going gets tough...

It was just a simple enquiry to Sarah Nic Lochlainn, of Ardee's Fuchsia House Restaurant – “How's business holding up?”, that provoked the following, inspiring, reply. If you would like to hear more from this brilliant restaurateur, then Sarah is one of four local businesswomen talking on Wednesday May 5th on LMFM at 2.15 pm about how to think outside the box and get through tough times.
For the meantime, I found this reply to be genuinely moving and inspirational. A backpacker's manifesto!

Hi John,
Business is quite good. We've had a rough couple of years like everyone put we've gone back to 80hr weeks and are constantly trying to think outside the box and it worked out quite well for us.
This year we had a good Valentine's weekend, then we had Tom Doorley here doing his "Dine with Doorley" evening at the end of Feb. That went down a treat. Tom was very charming, informative and entertaining.
In March we were reviewed by Paolo Tullio. Of course in a town this size word got around that he had been before we even appeared in the Indo and that created a buzz. He also gave us a plug on "Today with Pat Kenny" for our value menu.
Following on from those two big names we've received a lot of local press including a feature interview on LMFM, the local radio station.
Although times are very tough, we feel more comfortable in this new-old Ireland. We find that people appreciate hard graft, value for money, a sense of humour, contribution to community and many of the old values have come back into fashion.
We never felt comfortable in the designer label Ireland of the 90s and 00s as like yourselves, we started out as backpackers and still see ourselves as such!
We both worked (very!) hard in our parents' businesses growing up and want to teach our children the value of hard work.
Through the very rough times of the past two years, we've stayed focussed on the fact that our children will grow up in a nicer society as a result of what's happening to us.
On the flip-side people appreciate our positivity and optimism. We made it house policy not to discuss doom and gloom with our customers. They come to us to get away from their own reality for the evening. When someone starts going down that route during a conversation at a table, we tell them we can hear the bell dinging in the kitchen and exit!
We have diversified into home cooking sauces and also do catering in homes and workplaces in response to people's new need and that has worked out well for us. It just entails SO MUCH extra work to set up a new enterprise as you know.
We hope to be at Bloom this year, so please watch out for us. Our sauces are called Aruna and we'll be under that banner. We look forward to seeing you there.
Best regard,

28 April 2010

Go The Irish Times

Over-Delivering the Hospitality

We have a problem with hospitality in Ireland.

For some crazy reason, and despite the fact that tourism has been a mainstay of our economy for several decades, we persist in the belief that hospitality is an instinct.
We think it’s something we just have – like freckles, or red hair, or the inability to finish sentences without saying “like”.
And we love to compare ourselves and our instinct to those who don’t have this instinct – the English, the Dutch, the French.
Do we need to work at hospitality? Do we need to learn it? Do we need to practice it? Hell, no way. Us? Sure we are all a bright fountain of quotes from Joyce and Behan, witty as Sean Hughes, fluent in the historical nuances of our little island, and anyway we all know someone who knows someone who knows just who you need to ask to get what it is you want.

This belief in our instinctual hospitality is not just ridiculous, it’s also dangerous. It’s dangerous to the well-being of our hospitality businesses. Several years ago I wrote a book called “How to Succeed in Hospitality”, written directly as the result of a series of disastrous experiences in several places to stay in Ireland just as the Celtic Tiger was roaring into overdrive.
The cream of the crop was a joint adjacent to the N6 where I broke my own cardinal rule: never complain. In the Bridgestone Guides, we don’t complain: we just pay the bill and walk away and consign the experience to the dustbin where those places live who will never get into one of our books.
But the N6 joint was just too bad: the filthy, uncleaned dining room; the untrained staff; the shambolic, straight-from-the-micro breakfast. I poured it all out to the lady behind the desk, whom I suspected was the owner, and I concluded by saying that I wrote about Irish hospitality, and that this place made me feel ashamed.
She looked at me steadily. Then she swiped my credit card.
She was the original Lisbeth Salander. Maybe, in retrospect, I was lucky to get out of there.

As Mr Justice Peter Kelly remarked recently in the Commercial Court, as creditors chased one of the many fallen angels who used to be masters of our universe, after hubris, comes nemesis. The hubris that built so many sorry-sad hotels is now headed for a nemesis called NAMA, and we have the truly appalling vista that hotels that include iconic names and destinations are to be managed by bean counters. Builders Hotels are going to become Bean-Counter Hotels.
What possible chance have these hotels of surviving? Little or none, in my opinion, in a market that is cannibalising itself with deeper and deeper discounts, and where only those steeped in the culture of hospitality have any real chance of being able to survive, thanks to the trust they enjoy from their customers, and their ability to get better.
But even the good are fearful, for the collateral damage being inflicted right now by hotels being kept open at any cost in order to reap tax benefits is causing the virtuous to suffer, big time. Between 1634 and 1637 the Dutch nation lost its collective sanity, on account of tulips: “tulipomania” drove those solid, sensible Calvinists crazy. What can we call our own mania for allowing thousands of hotel rooms we had no need of to be built: “hotelomania”?

Hospitality is an art form, but it is also a discipline, and a profession. Great hosts, like great cooks, are not born: they are made, and they are made through practice, and professionalism, which is why they master all the nuances of the art.
Everytime I meet someone who is truly great at the art of hospitality, I also meet someone who is a truly hard worker, and a truly dedicated person at that.
It’s almost twenty five years now since I first set eyes on Myrtle Allen, of Ballymaloe House. It was late during dinner service on a Saturday night, and Mrs Allen was clearing a table of its dirty dishes and cutlery and rolling up the messed-up tablecloths.
Fifteen years ago I made a television programme about Kelly’s Resort Hotel in Rosslare. My abiding memory of the programme and of the hotel is of Bill Kelly ferrying desserts out of the kitchen and into a packed dining room, late on a Saturday night.
In 2009, when the Hotel Federation reckoned hotel occupancy levels were not much above 50%, Kelly’s was trading with over 90% occupancy.
Time and again as we write our guides, the defining characteristic of a place is not the grandness, or the chicness or the design. Instead, it’s this sort of thing, from my editor Eamon Barrett:

“In hotels the greatest failing seems to be not getting the staff - every one of them - to understand how important it is that they engage with the guests. Eye contact, a smile, a greeting - all add to that sense of calmness that one seeks when staying in any guesthouse or hotel. In a 5 star hotel recently I stood at the bar for ten minutes while various staff members passed me by - all totally intent on their own task and problem - and oblivious to me as a guest”.

But hang on a second? Aren’t we Irish brilliant at the eye contact, as we simultaneously take your bags, and ask how your dog is, and explain all 10 courses of the tasting menu?
We are not. And the reason why we aren’t good is because we think we are great.
Even the guys who are running builder’s hotels think they are great: at one place in Dublin every member of staff shook my hand when I arrived and left: it was like being the parents of the bride in a wedding line. Sadly, when it came to breakfast, it took no less than 45 minutes to get scrambled eggs. Perhaps the chef was shaking hands with the chickens.
Away from this comedy of errors, one central truth has emerged over the last five or six years as we have been selecting and describing the different addresses that make it into our annual Bridgestone 100 Best places to Stay guide: the best places to stay in Ireland are getting better and better. They are trying harder and harder to create destinations that reflect not just the tastes and interests of the owner, but they are expanding and developing the scope and depth of what they offer. And that no longer means having a golf course nearby for him, or a spa for her (women’s golf, as folk in the business call them).
The following six destinations are places that exemplify this new trend, but we could have chosen many more.
On our last visit to Ballymaloe House, for example, my kids made some incredible pottery on a day-long course with the brilliant Kinsale Pottery School. We could have chosen the cutting-edge cookery courses offered at The Tannery in Dungarvan or Ballyknocken House in Wicklow. If you want to learn to cook from the best chefs in the country you could also choose Kelly’s Hotel, where chefs like Eugene Callaghan and Neven Maguire appear annually, in addition to serious gardening and wine appreciation courses.
I like the way in which some houses like Grove House in West Cork, or Kilgraney House in Carlow are incorporating art galleries into the space. If you are doing a spot of self-catering at the glam Inisbeg in West Cork you can take a moonlight kayaking trip around Reen Harbour with Atlantic Sea Kayaking.
The best places to stay are becoming not just expert in hospitality, but also expert in all the adventures and specialisations that their location can offer. The days of just opening up your doors and thinking that you are magically blessed with the gift of hospitality are over. To succeed now you must be a Master of the Little Universe that exists in and around your country house, B&B or hotel, and you have to know how to bring that universe to your guests.

Kilcolman Rectory
In a perfect world, before you open a country house you would train as a chef, an interior designer, and a gardener. Sarah Gornall has trained in all these disciplines, and it explains why Kilcolman Rectory is such a dream country destination, hidden away a few miles west of Bandon. You could bury yourself in the gorgeous aesthetic of the house, but when there is fishing with an expert ghillie, cookery classes from Sarah and, especially, the chance to locate your inner Winston Churchill by doing a course on watercolour painting with local artist Jenni White. Select some of the garden’s beautiful flowers, set up your easel, and the rest is surely easy… (Enniskeane, Co Cork 023 8822913)

Rathmullan House
You can’t keep up with Donegal’s Rathmullan House. Pioneers of sustainable cooking and food production, celebrated as one of the best kitchens in the country with Kelan McMichael having succeeded Ian Orr, they even operate a Rathmullan House mobile kitchen, which won the Bridgestone Award for sustainable cooking at 2009’s Electric Picnic. Back up at Lough Swilly, and the opening last year of the new Rathmullan Sailing and Watersports School is another enticement to head up to the Fanad Peninsula. Five days scooting around Lough Swilly on their new Laser Bahias, or exploring the coastline in sea kayaks, should build up a respectful appetite for great cooking.
(Rathmullan, Co Donegal, 074 915 8188)

South Aran
A few years ago, we went out one morning in Enda Conneely’s boat and, only a short distance out into the seat at Inis Oirr, we were quickly hauling in mackerel and pollock on our rods. We brought them back to Enda’s Fisherman’s Cottage restaurant, sliced them for sashimi and enjoyed them with wasabi and soy sauce, and a perfect espresso. It remains one of my all-time favourite breakfasts, and I want to do it again, maybe taking in a powerboating course, or doing some more serious sea angling. If the water isn’t your thing, then Enda and Maria also offer yoga, pilates and chi gung courses, sea vegetable and macrobiotic cookery courses, as well as life coaching. (Inis Oirr, Aran Islands, Co Galway 099 75073)

Gregan’s Castle Hotel
There are a number of places in the Burren in County Clare that are splendidly out-of-the-box, and which feel as if they couldn’t exist anywhere else – The Burren Perfumery and Tea Rooms; O’Loclainn’s Bar; An Fear Gorta, to name just three. But amongst modern Irish country houses, Simon and Freddie Haden’s Gregan’s Castle is one of the most singular, thanks to a sublime aesthetic – Mrs Haden is one of the great interior designers – and also thanks to Mickael Viljanen’s incredible cooking. They can organize surfing, rock climbing, horse riding and more, but our ambition is to take a day-long guided tour of this extraordinary landscape with local guide Shane Connolly, digging deeper into the flora, geology and history of this out-of-the-box place. (Ballyvaughan, Co Clare 065 707 7005)

Gougane Barra Hotel
Every summer, Neil and Katy Lucey set up the Theatre by the Lake, just at the back of their splendid Gougane Barra Hotel. Everyone arrives for dinner before the show, then troops into the little theatre, where Aidan Dooley might be performing his Tom Crean extravaganza, or Des Keogh might be confessing the life of an Irish Publican, or Mick Lally might be sorting out suitable matches in John B. Keane’s The Matchmaker. To see such chamber dramas and comedies in such a setting is a blessing, whilst the hotel itself is one of those traditional, modest, family-run Irish hotels that happily constitute the very antithesis of the brash builder’s hotels. (Gougane Barra, West Cork 026 47069)

Parkswood House
Terrie Pooley used to run a fashion design business in London, so if your ambition is to learn how to make dresses, fashion perfect trousers that actually fit you properly, or maybe just understand how to work a sewing machine, all the while enjoying comfort, incredible views over the River Suir and great local foods, then a course at Terrie and Roger Pooley’s Parkswood House at Passage East is just for you. The Pooleys are great people people, amd Parkswood is simply pristine (Passage East, Co Waterford 051 380863)

11 April 2010

Asian Junction Catering

Asian Junction, West Cork

Piers Gourley-Diment hasn't got the website for his company, Asian Junction, finished yet, but if the Vietnamese spring rolls we tried and which Piers was selling at the Clonakilty Market are anything to go by, he won't need to worry about his site, as his food will see Asian Junction take off like a rocket.
Like most ethnic cuisines that wash up in Ireland, the fire of Asian cooking is usually subtracted from the equation. Well, Piers knows his way around fiery chillis and dipping sauces: a few bites of these spring rolls and our mouths were delightfully on fire: the real thing! the real burn!
Piers worked in Asia as a photographer and diving instructor, and wound up at the Chiang Mai cookery school. He has learnt well, so if you crave the flavours that blew you away when you were on holiday, then Asian Junction is your destination.
Courtmacshery, West Cork Tel: 085 722 0259

09 April 2010

Clonakilty, 21 years later

Here is the text of a speech delivered this morning to launch the newly sited market in Clonakility.
It was only when Jix Kelleher asked me for a few words that I realised that it was just over 21 years ago that the story told in the speech happened. 21 years! And Tom O'Donovan and his sisters are looking as young as ever!

It is a great honour to be asked to officially open the Clonakilty Farmer's Market, not just because markets are so vital to our economy and our culture, but because doing so brings me full circle, and gives a completeness to something that happened 21 years ago.

Back then I was a know-nothing food writer – nothing much has changed, as you can see – when two men in this town took myself and Sally by the hand and showed us what west Cork meant.

I use the term “meant” deliberately: West Cork isn't just a place, it is a way of thinking, a way of seeing. West Cork means what we want it to mean, so long as we can understand it.

After Tom O'Donovan and the late Eddie Twomey had shown us all around Clon' in March 1989, I immediately understood what “West Cork” meant. It was the fastest and, I think, the most profound lesson I ever learnt. It changed my life: a year or so later I was living in West Cork, because I wanted that thing that Tom and Eddie had revealed to me.

They revealed an openness, a pride, and a kind of poetic everydayness that I had never seen before. They revealed life to be an art, and a particular sort of West Cork art at that.

I have been addicted to it ever since, and I have been grateful to Tom, and Eddie, ever since.

Markets are meshworks, places where everyone is equal, and where everyone's equality gives enormous strength to the endeavour. In recent years people have procrastinated about markets by pirouetting around legislation. As a recovering lawyer, let me say something simple, and slightly legalistic, about legislation: never let it get in the way of doing the right thing.

Doing the right thing means having a thriving, well-surrported market in every town. We need markets as the bedrock of our local economies. We need markets as the bedrock of our local food cultures. In West Cork, we need markets as the bedrock of our tourism culture.

Markets need to be supported by the town authorities, and by the townspeople. Markets create simple economies, and complex cultures. Markets give people a chance to start new businesses, in the most direct, accessible, low-risk manner. We have a national economy which is in crisis. One way to solve the problem is through markets, where local foods from local people are bought and sold and where the money never travels more than a few miles. If that seems like a simple solution to a complex problem, then that is just what it is.

The glory of West Cork is a Can Do attitude. But it's not gung-ho. It's simply creative, and imaginative. Artistic, if you like. Everyday markets are part of that artistic glory, that singularity, part of the colour, the fabric, the mesh of talented people.

I wish the market well, and I know that, with the right support, it will thrive, and become another jewel in this town that already offers so many singular jewels.

And I want to thank the town, and to thank Tom, for what was shown to me 21 years ago last month. I wish that everyone who visits Clon' will have the great fortune to see what I saw then, and to come to understand West Cork, and to know what West Cork means. Thank you.

John McKenna

01 April 2010

A Good Friday: Dingle Farmer's Market

We are just off on our way to Dingle, to officially open their newly reconstituted Farmer's Market, tomorrow.
So, that will be a very Good Friday in Kerry, and we will post some pics of the stall holders after we have cut the ribbon, smashed the champagne bottle against the trestle table, thanked the Mayor and the Committeeee, kissed the babies, arm-wrestled John O'Donoghue, launched the regatta and eaten our way through the town.
The kids can taste those Murphy's ice creams already...

Double AA in Waterford

Great retail experiences aren't too common in Ireland. We still lack a dedicated service culture, one that expresses the nobility of a retailer who truly understands their chosen calling.
But if you take a trip to Waterford, you can get a Double-AA retail experience, in two very different circumstances.
The first A is Altitude, Eamon and Julie Barrett's store up the hill in Ballybricken. Buying a bike and a pair of hiking boots here offered us two masterclasses: how to find the right pair of boots, and how to get advice to make sure you have gotten the right bike.
Smart, smartly-dressed, and very fit-looking staff were so on top of their game that the time we spent in the store was a pure joy, and the upshot, of course, was that we spent much more than we had intended to. The shop is an aesthete's delight, and we will be back for some of that cool gear. Altitude shows a retailer who has done The Edit: there is nothing but cool stuff here from the best, most serious brands, whether you are biking, hiking, surfing, skiing, or just want some cool threads to make you look fit.
The second Double-AA will take you down the road towards Passage East to Ardkeen Stores, the Jephson family's unique supermarket. Ardkeen is just what it says:it is a SUPERmarket, and one of the truly great retail experiences. Again, the Edit has been so rigorously carried out here by the owners that there is nothing but covetable Irish artisan brands for sale, and you want every one of them. Again, we spent far more than we intended, and we were as happy as sandboys.
So, a Double-AA rating for Waterford when it comes to retailing.

24 March 2010

Perfect Fish & Chips

Getting fish and chips perfect isn't easy. Late last Friday I tried to make battered haddock and chips for the kids, and it was a modest disaster: not epic, but still embarassing.
If my children had tried the fish and chips in Fishy Fishy Chippy in Kinsale, they wouldn't even have looked at my effort. The Fishy Fishy fish and chips are, well, perfect. The batter on the haddock and the hake we enjoyed is close to a tempura batter, rather than the traditional chipper batter which is much heavier. The chips were, well, perfect: dry, starchy, salty, and they even have malt vinegar on the table so you can add the correct note of working class echtness.
(Which reminds us of a Peter Mandelson joke: Mandy, up in his constituency of Macclesfield or somesuch, for the weekend, is keen to rub shoulders with the natives and show his comradely spirit. He goes into a chipper and orders his fish and chips. Peering over the counter he sees some green stuff. “Oh, and I'll have some of that guacamole too”, says the Prince of Darkness. The “guacamole”, of course, is mushy peas. We're sure this joke has no basis in reality – Mandy would be perfectly briefed before entering the chipper by his staff – but let's not worry about truth.)
Martin Shanahan of Fishy Fishy is coming your way, by the way, courtesy of “Martin's Mad About Fish” on RTE television on Thursday, April 22nd, at 8.30pm. The series of six programmes is directed by Rory Cobb. Martin's two books, The Seafood Lovers' Cookbook, and Irish Seafood Cookery, are both in print and available from good bookshops

23 March 2010

The Irish Times; Healthplus March 2010

The greatest uncontrolled experiment in human history, or, What we don’t talk about when we talk about food

Several years ago I was one of the panel at a Eurotoques food conference in Wicklow when one of the speakers, Dr Uwe Hild of the Irish Doctors Environmental Association, said something that has troubled me ever since.
“We are living through the greatest uncontrolled mass experiment in the history of mankind”, Dr Hild said, referring to the way in which the food we eat has become so drastically altered over the last number of decades . This has happened not just through the manipulations of food science, but also because of the industrialisation of our agriculture.
It was the kind of statement that deserved Monday’s front page, but food conferences tend not to get front page coverage. So Dr Hild’s remark didn’t get beyond the room, though I am sure everyone who heard it has not forgotten it.
But maybe times change, and maybe our concerns over food and health, food quality and food politics, have grown. A few weeks back, I managed to muddy the waters a little by saying that people who blithely buy imported foods in foreign-owned supermarkets are committing a “traitorous action”. It is, I admit, an inflammatory statement, but I didn’t expect to fan the flames quite as much as what transpired.
I don’t believe my remark got attention because it was inflammatory, however. Despite what many people believe, you can’t hype the media, and if some remark gets attention it is because it strikes a chord with contemporary thinking.
And that chord is, usually, one of unease. People are unhappy about the power and arrogance of multi-national supermarkets and the feudal ways in which they exercise that power. All I did was to amplify that concern.
So, whilst I am getting things off my chest, let me voice what is, to me, the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to food, health and politics.
Let’s say that we were today to institute a mass epidemiological study of Irish food and health, drawing together into a coherent whole the various groups already doing this manner of study.
And let’s imagine, then, that we could fast forward fifty years. What would we say, with the benefit of scientific observation and analysis and fifty years of hindsight, about what we eat today and, in particular, what we feed to our children?
Would we be horrified to find, for instance, that it was diet that meant that Irish women could not match the longevity enjoyed at present by Japanese women?
Would we, with hindsight, look back at a period when childhood obesity and the problems of ADD and ADHD grew, and find that we should have been examining how children were reacting to a diet of highly processed foods, and drinks that use high fructose corn syrup?
After all, every parent has seen their kid come back from the friend’s birthday party when the kids have been royally over-indulged, and had to suffer the blue smartie behaviour that followed.
Should we be taking serious, life-changing lessons from the Mediterranean diet, with its mix of fresh and raw foods, rather than the token use of olive oil which salves our consciences and persuades us that we are on the right road? Would such a course help us to fight the incidence of depression in our society?
In short, would we find that just as previous epidemiological studies identified cigarette smoking as the cause of heart disease and cancers and led to Government actions against it, that we should now be looking very closely at diets that are the products of industrialized farming, and industrialized food manufacturing?
Are we, at present, making ourselves very, very certain indeed that our food is making us fit and well, and not just fat and sick?
If there is, to quote Dr Hild, an “uncontrolled mass experiment”, then shouldn’t we be setting up the controls?
Of course, industrial food manufacturers insist that their products are safe, and are safely policed. And we live in a free-market world, where we make few moral judgements about how people spend their money.
But my concern, in particular with our children, is with the cocktail effect of having chemicals in each and every element of our diet, from the initial production on the farm right through to the ingredient that turns up on the dinner plate.
The epidemiologist Dr Jerry Morris, the first man to prove the link between exercise and heart attack rates, died last October, aged 99. In an interview given a month before his death, he said, “Just imagine what historians in the future are going to say about the way we’ve allowed this epidemic of childhood obesity. ‘Disgrace’ is a mild sort of word”.
The problem with food and health is that waiting for the judgement of history will condemn more people to a life lived under the shadow of the Western illnesses that are killing us. Let’s act now.

The Art of Eating: Chapter One, Dublin

It is an enormous luxury to be allowed write 1,200 words in a restaurant review, as we were asked to do for the sublime American quarterly, The Art of Eating. So here is a look at 17 years or so of Chapter One

Chapter One Restaurant,Dublin: Proper Behavior for the Occasion

Dublin and its citizens have long had a curious relationship with what an older generation of food writers used to call “fine dining.” I remember being brought to lunch at a posh, French-owned restaurant in the city, where at an adjoining table, four female friends were celebrating the birthday of one of them. In place of dessert, a little cake came out from the kitchen, and the three friends serenaded the birthday girl with “Happy Birthday.” Except they sang it sotto voce. Dubliners do not sing songs of celebration sotto voce unless, it seems, they are in expensive, French-owned restaurants in Dublin.

This lack of ease began to change during the 1990s, thanks to a few new restaurants. Derry Clarke opened L’Ecrivain in a tiny basement on Dublin’s Baggot Street; the cuisine was serious yet approachable, and the service was relaxed. Roly’s Bistro in Ballsbridge gave the people of an expanding and economically emerging city a smart, white-tablecloth room, and an ambience in which everyone could sing “Happy Birthday,” all together, at full volume. Rather more quietly, Ross Lewis and Martin Corbett opened Chapter One Restaurant. The location was inauspicious: the basement of an old Georgian house in run-down Parnell Square on Dublin’s Northside.

Upstairs, in a house that in its glory days had belonged to the whiskey-distilling Jameson family, was the Dublin Writer’s Museum, with the Hugh Lane Gallery a few doors along. Despite these tourist destinations, the Northside of Dublin didn’t have any noted restaurants, a situation that hasn’t changed greatly even today. And as chef Lewis was a Cork man, and front-of-house Corbett hails from a hotel-owning family in Roscommon, both had the added disadvantage of being “blow-ins” in a city that is in many ways parochial and cliquey.

It was easy, therefore, to regard Chapter One as being less than serious, and when I first wrote about them, in 1992, it was to point out that the portraits of Samuel Beckett and James Joyce hanging on the walls seemed to be the restaurant’s only concession to modernism. “In furnishings, in service, and especially in the food,” I wrote, “Chapter One is firmly back in the days before Jemmy and Sam shook the literary world into a new age”.

Fast-forward 17 years to a Saturday evening in late October. Fifty-four people have been in Chapter One for the pre-theatre dinner, one of the restaurant’s specialties, and have headed off to listen to Stevie Nicks sing “Dreams” one more time, or else to mull over Conor McPherson’s newest play, The Birds, in the Gate Theatre. Eighty-four people are about to follow them for dinner, in a restaurant which seats 85. In the teeth of the most severe financial recession Dublin has endured in almost 30 years, Lewis and Corbett are operating at capacity.

In 2007, the Guide Michelin bestowed a single star on the restaurant, one of only five in the city. Ross Lewis has served as Commissioner-General of Eurotoques, the European chefs’ organization, and he is a member of Ireland’s Taste Council, a support group for artisan producers. The critical reputation and commercial success of Chapter One could not be greater.

What has happened is a two-part story. The first is Ross Lewis’s development as a leading chef in his country. The second is the way in which that narrative was written by people other than Lewis himself, in particular by his band of suppliers, whose creative input has given his food its signature.

In contrast to the modern era, where chefs, like concert pianists and violin players, are under pressure to reach a state of defining maturity at ever-younger ages, Lewis achieved his style gradually. During the 1990s, Chapter One touched appeared on[?]Appeared on is good) few critical radars, yet it built a dedicated audience, drawing in the local business community at lunch and attracting residents who enjoyed the fact that this was their own restaurant, a Northside destination for Northsiders.

The dinner three of us enjoyed on that Saturday evening shows the level of culinary assurance head chef Cathal Leonard and Lewis now command. Starter courses were quail with white truffle honey glaze, gratinéed peas and girolles in a smoked-bacon cream with aged sherry vinegar; langoustine spring roll with red pepper Basquaise purée and basil; and the starter for which the restaurant is best known: its charcuterie trolley.

If that is the choice, one begins with a slice of rabbit terrine with pear and mustard purée made in-house, one-year-old cured ham and slices of smoked and cured venison from Ed Hick, Dublin’s leading pork butcher, and a little watercress salad and toasted sourdough bread. This trio is quickly followed by a black pudding and veal sweetbread boudin with apple and horseradish compote, and pressed foie gras with farmyard jelly (ham and tongue stock finished with Pinot Gris, white grapes, and a little cream) and ice wine verjus.

Each dish was elegantly and colorfully crafted, but the textural variations were of particular merit: the langoustine wrapped in sheer rice paper, the agrestic textures of the cured meats followed by the tenderness of the foie gras and the sweetbread and black pudding boudin, the crunch of the peas and girolles in the gratin in contrast to the tender flesh of the quail.

Main courses continued the exacting rigor: Angus beef from Maurice Kettyle with acidulated onion and sage compote and a girolle mushroom cream; hake with glazed red pepper, crab, and ratatouille; and wild halibut with violet artichokes, Dublin Bay brown shrimp, and black olive oil, were masterly and succulent, as was the single dessert we shared, a warm chocolate mousse with orange and Campari jelly, coffee cream, and vanilla ice cream. A plate of Irish farmhouse cheeses held Durrus from West Cork, Diliskus from County Kerry, Glebe Brethan and Bellingham Blue from County Louth.

Standing behind this exciting and wholly successful cooking are the suppliers — besides the ham and venison from Ed Hick, there’s pork from Pat O’Doherty, who rears his pigs on an island in the Fermanagh lakelands; organic vegetables from Gold River farm in County Wicklow, south of Dublin, run by the Pearse and Winterbotham families (who add acreage almost every year to keep up with demand), to name just a few.

Somewhat ironically, the development of modern Irish cooking has been fuelled by producers who have returned to traditional methods of farming and old breeds. Connemara lamb is reared on heather-filled uplands in the west of Ireland, and is a smaller animal which yields less meat but compensates with a unique, sweet taste. Kettyle beef is exclusively Angus and Hereford, reared on grass and then dry-aged for up to 28 days. The lack of any industry in counties such as Wicklow, south of Dublin, has allowed organic farmers to create ”closed” farms, where all fertilizer and energy needs are created on the farm itself, thus perhaps reinforcing a taste of terroir. And whilst over-zealous health regulations have seen many farmhouse cheesemakers choose to pasteurize their milk, a hardcore few still insist on using raw, unpasteurized milk from their own farms.

In contrast with my first visit in 1992, Chapter One today presents a defining picture of modern Irish cooking — superlative in technique, grounded in the produce of artisan suppliers, and served with easeful charm, in this case by Martin Corbett and his crew. We counted three different Saturday night parties singing “Happy Birthday.” Loudly.

— John McKenna
18-19 Parnell Square, Dublin, LUAS Abbey Street tel +353.1.8732266,, open Tuesday to Friday 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. and Tuesday to Saturday 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., about 35 euros for lunch, 60 to 70 euros for dinner, not including wine; tasting menu 85 euros. Chef's table

25 February 2010

Ballymaloe Cookery School - Food Writing Course

There is great pleasure to be had in introducing food lovers to the extraordinarily rich trove of great writing which underlies the business of cooking and eating. In our one-day course at Ballymaloe Cookery School we are hoping to introduce the class to the great prose stylists who realised that writing about food is the most important thing anyone can do. We are also hoping to show them just how to make a food book, and how to blog!

21 February 2010

Ceci N'Est Pas Un Critique

I have several reasons to be grateful to Luc Dubanchet:

1. Two of his photographs look directly down at me from the wall above my computer, and they always make me smile.

2. He once took a photograph of me in which I somehow didn't look like a blithering eejit.

3. He introduced me to the sublime jazz piano music of Tord Gustafson.

4. He was the bloke who helped me to understand why French gastronomy was in dire trouble.

M. Dubanchet rides a Vespa around Montmartre in Paris where he lives, wears a scarf even when it isn't cold, and is extremely funny. Or, he is funny so long as you don't persist in the chauvinistic belief that French gastronomy is the greatest in the world, and that French cooking has nothing to learn from anyone. I was once at a festival where M. Dubanchet and the wonderful chef, Gilles Choukroun, reduced several members of the audience to states of utter, steaming rage by their assertions that French cooking had totally lost its way: the anger was scary to behold.
This week, in Deauville, Mr Dubanchet and his crew from Omnivore, his punky magazine, will once again annoy a lot of people in France at their annual festival, when they will do a lot of funky cooking and question a great many so-called truths about French cooking.
When Mike Steinberger of the FT asked Luc what he thought of the Guide Michelin, for instance, Luc replied: “A dead weight. It is stupid to give stars – we are not in school”.
More significantly, Mr Dubanchet precisely points out why France has been left behind by other countries where the cookery is more dynamic: “People didn't really cook; they just practised a cuisine”.
Now, it takes a French intellectual to make such a fine distinction. On the one hand there is cooking – inquisitive, dynamic, creative, cultural. And on the other hand, there are those who practice a cuisine: stolid; staid; uncreative; repetitious; unimaginative.
So, the next time you find yourself in some boring “French” restaurant that tries to impress you with foie gras and lobster, yell out: “Stop practising! Show me some cooking!”.

07 February 2010

What shall we tell the children?

The Irish Times Healthplus February 2010

John McKenna

What Will We Tell The Children?

“Parental Advisory: Explicit Content”.
That’s the sticker on the cover of the sort of cds my kids seem to love buying and listening to, the ones where some rapper mouths off with the sweary language and the street bravado.
It’s also the sticker that is completely ignored, for trying to stop your kids listening to music that boasts bad language is like trying to stop the tides: you won’t manage to do it, and any effort is pointless.
But I wonder if a new book, aimed at the younger reader, shouldn’t be something that should most certainly carry a “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” sticker?
The book, unfortunately, has the sort of title that will likely put any child off even before they open it. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets Behind What You Eat”, is by Michael Pollan, the distinguished American writer and professor, and has been adapted, from his original 2006 book, for the younger reader by Richie Chevat.
It is a mark of the stature the book has acquired since its publication that such an edition should exist – I have never known a book about food to be adapted for children before – and I should confess that I personally believe the book to be the finest text on food and politics published in the last couple of decades.
Mr Chevat’s adaptation is masterly, but it needs that Parental Advisory for a simple reason: let kids read the book, and it will freak them out. Chevat has maintained the original premise of the book – let’s look at these four different meals, from a dinner of McDonald’s burgers and fries eaten in a car, to a meal where everything has been grown, sourced and hunted by the author – and let’s look at the systems that produce them.
But what he has done is to simplify the narrative and the discoveries of the book, and to thereby sharpen their impact.
In the new edition, the kids are told that “It’s time to become a food detective!” and they are advised to “delve behind the scenes of your dinner” and to “go undercover at the supermarket”, and “by the time you’ve digested the last page you’ll have put together the fascinating (and sometimes disturbing) puzzle of what’s on your plate and how it got there”.
The problem is, the disturbing bit is very, very disturbing indeed. Even the simple stuff makes you shake your head about what we eat and what on earth it does to our bodies and our healthfulness after we have eaten it.
It didn’t surprise me much to learn that thirteen elements of a McDonald’s Chicken McNugget are derived from corn, but what astonished me was the fact that there are 38 ingredients in a Chicken McNugget. 38 ingredients! What are they all doing? And what are they doing to me if I eat one of those things? And when I learn that McDonald’s sold 4.8 billion individual nuggets in 2004, should I laugh? Or just weep?
It’s also shocking to see simple charts and graphs that point out that in the period since 1971, the number of kids in America who are obese has tripled. In the same period, the number of calories from High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) that an average American eats has risen from 3 calories to 200 calories per day.
Later in the book, as Pollan goes pig hunting in California, our young food detectives get a taste of gun play and hunting – real detective stuff! But, again, whilst there is drama in the hunt, it is a prelude to the disgust, the shame and the regret a novice feels after a kill: the animal’s stench; the realization that you have caused a creature’s death; the confusion of emotions.
“I suspect that reading this book will complicate your eating life. Writing it certainly complicated mine”, admits the author. So, the big question is whether letting kids look behind the curtain of what the food industry produces for them to eat is cathartic, but necessary. Or is the reality of how so much of our food is messed-up and mucked-up simply too much for young minds to bear? Will every teenage girl who reads the book become a vegetarian? Will every adolescent boy refuse to eat a piece of chicken or drink a can of Coke?
Strangely, after wandering through the darkness of industrial food, Pollan writes that, “It’s amazing how knowing the story behind your food can make it taste better”. His experiences have made him cautious about what he buys and where he buys it, and they have driven him away from industrial food and the places that sell it.
“I call shopping and eating this way ‘voting with your fork’” he writes, and the book ends with a powerful call for consumers to be extra conscientious when you are buying what you are going to eat.
And that message seems to me to be a particularly powerful one to lay before young people, even with all the bad news they will discover in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”.
Kids are idealistic, and don’t want to live in a world that demands the constant forgetting that adults are so adept at.
The food they eat today, and the food they will eat for the rest of their lives can be something that enriches every part of their life, their health, and the life of the planet. Or it can diminish them, and their planet and, most especially, their health.
So, empower those cranky adolescents in your life by giving them a pressie of Michael Pollan’s masterpiece. Stick a “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” sticker on the cover and – who knows? – they might even read it.

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma – The Secrets Behind What You Eat” is published by Dial Books.

Tom and Me

No More Mister Nice Guy

The well-known wine writer and television celebrity Tom Doorley had a pot shot at me in The Daily Mail this week. The Irish Independent asked if I would like to reply to Tom's criticisms. One rarely gets a right of reply – especially via a different newspaper – so here is what I came up with in defence of what we have written in the new Bridgestone irish Food Guide. I'm still slightly amazed at being allowed to discuss these issues in the mainstream media.
The following is the complete text, which was slightly edited for Saturday's Irish Independent Weekender.

There was a time when you could have summarized the business of writing about food in one single, simple word: nice.

Nice people wrote about nice things to shop for and to cook and to eat, and they wrote about nice wines to drink, and they wrote about nice restaurants where nice people served you nice things.

Everything in this world was, basically, nice. It was a world where criticism didn’t exist – though there might, occasionally, be a disappointing cheese soufflé in a restaurant or, let’s be honest, a recipe for battenburg cake that was less precise than one might like.

No matter. One shook off these crushing disappointments because everything else was, well, nice. And so there was no need to use harsh, critical terms when writing about food, terms like “cloying”, or “irritating”, or “ludicrous”, or “bizarre”, or “daft”, or “bunkum”, or “deeply insulting” or “crazy” or “elitist”.

And there certainly was no need, in this nice world, to suggest that anyone else’s opinions were so odious, so Godawful, that expressing them meant that “the people of Ireland are owed an apology”.

Blimey! This is modern food writing? What happened to that nice, decorous world? Isn’t this the strange cheffy world where macho fools like Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White trade not just insults but actual punches?

No, this is modern Irish food writing, and all the terms above were used by celebrity television restaurant reviewer Tom Doorley, in a recent newspaper article where Tom took me to task for what I had written in the introduction to the new, ninth edition of “The Bridgestone Irish Food Guide”.

Before we get on to what provoked Tom’s ire, you are probably wondering how I am feeling after that verbal assault with all those toxic terms. Hurt? Humbled? Chastened? Apologetic? To tell the truth, after I had finished reading Tom’s piece, the famous retort of Denis Healey, the former U.K. Labour Party minister, came to mind.

Healey was once subjected to a verbal barrage by Sir Geoffrey Howe, of the U.K. Conservative Party, in the House of Commons. After Howe, a bespectacled, owlish barrister, had finished and sat down, Healey stood up and said he felt like he had “been mauled by a dead sheep”.

That’s pretty much how I feel. So I guess I’ll get over it. But, let’s not rule out counselling, just yet.

What provoked Tom’s ire was a paragraph in the introduction to the new Bridgestone Guide. Having asserted that modern international supermarket chains exercise power without responsibility, and that such a thing is “the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages” (thank you, Rudyard Kipling), I went on to say that there has to be “the realization that buying imported food in a foreign-owned supermarket in Ireland is, quite simply, a traitorous action”.

Strong stuff, and deliberately, and consciously, so. So, let me explain what lies behind such a provocative statement. A few years back I spoke to a group of farmers and food producers in Northern Ireland. A lot of them were beef producers – strong farmers – and they were the most despairing men I have ever met in all my life. Why? Because they were being paid 28 pence a pound less for their beef than their counterparts in Scotland and the U. K. by one of the enormously powerful supermarket chains which dominate food retailing in these island. These proud men could assert, truthfully, that they had the better product. No matter: their superior food earned them less, and it was destroying them.

Closer to home, I was part of a delegation that spoke to the Oireachtas Committee deliberating on whether we needed a Groceries Order to prevent below-cost selling. I said we did. To my surprise, the delegation from the Dublin-Meath Growers, who also spoke, said that we didn’t. They had a great relationship with a supermarket chain that accounted for 100% of their business, they said, and they were totally happy and everything was hunky dory. No need for any manner of regulation. The Oireachtas Committee agreed.

In mid 2009, having invested €5 million euro in a new processing plant, the Dublin-Meath Growers lost their contract. From 100% to 0%, just like that. “Competitive Tendering” is, I think, the term they use. I would have another term for this sort of thing, but as it’s one of those rude terms only food writers use, it’s not printable in a family newspaper.

And then one Saturday morning, I was shopping in Ardkeen Stores, just on the outskirts of Waterford, a single independent supermarket owned by the Jephson family. I spent €130, and €120 of that went on food produced by individuals in counties Waterford and Cork. The remaining tenner went to Galway and Monaghan, as it was spent on a duck confit made for Sheridan’s of Galway by Silverhill Foods of Monaghan.

And just as I was finishing the book, queues of shoppers from down south started clogging up the roads into Newry. Their Xmas spend, the biggest splurge on food and drink that is made by every household annually, was leaving the country. At a time when their own economy was nosediving, these good people reckoned it was none of their business to contribute to that economy with their euros. And I thought that such behaviour was, frankly, traitorous.

People like Tom Doorley tell me such an idea is “bizarre”, not to mention “deeply insulting”. And I can see their point. We live in a globalised world with globalised trade, and we ourselves have a food economy focused on exporting in order to earn money.

So, what goes around, comes around and it was foodstuffs, after all, that begat the very idea of trade between the countries of the world. You can’t grow the cabernet sauvignon grapes for your claret in London, and you can’t produce bananas in Hanover, never mind Termonfeckin. So, let’s just accept the way things are. We not only live in a globalised world, we live in a world of globalised free-market economies, and the free market sorts things out, so there is no need for regulation, stuff like Groceries Orders.

Fair enough, except that this belief is just that: a belief. This belief is, fundamentally, based on faith, a faith that says that the globalised free market economy is in everyone’s best interests.

Believing this is simply expressing a faith, much as one might express Christianity or Islam. And like religious faith – which is based on a belief in things unknown and unseen – such a belief is utterly naïve.

Successful cultures and successful economies are based on food security, and on local food economies. Local food defines who we are – just ask any Italian, who will assert that the reason why his region is better than the next region is because their food products are better.

Many writers have sought to answer the question as to why the local food of a country is so important, not just to an economy, but to an entire culture. The great writer Michael Pollan proposed this as a reply to those who say that the food we buy can come from anywhere:

“I’m thinking of the sense of security that comes from knowing that your community, or country, can feed itself; the beauty of an agricultural landscape; the outlook and kinds of local knowledge that farmers bring to a community; the satisfactions of buying food from a farmer you know rather than the supermarket; the locally inflected flavour of a raw-milk cheese or honey. All those things – all those pastoral values – globalization proposes to sacrifice in the name of efficiency and economic growth”.

So, do I owe the people of Ireland an apology? I don’t think so, but I do think that the 1 person in every 4 of Ireland’s population who made a shopping trip to Northern Ireland last year owes an apology to our farmers, our marketeers, our specialist food producers, and all those who toil to put the Culture into our agriCulture.

But finally, let me agree with one part of Tom’s argument. Tom brands me an ‘elitist”. I am. I want the best, for everyone.

In Your Market

What might you find that is good for dinner on a visit to a local farmers’ market? Well, at Mahon Point market in Cork last week, my son Sam and I bought a pair of lovely organic chickens from east Cork, and some excellent haddock from West Cork, which I chose instead of some very fine looking plaice, but only after a lot of head-scratching. We got lovely apples, leeks and turnips from David Barry of Ballintubber Farm, and some organic spuds from All Organic. Salad leaves are scarce, of course, so we got sprouted seeds from Supersprouts, and a North Cork pesto from Conall Breheny. From Gubbeen Farm we got a ham hock and some belly pork as well as their amazing white pudding. Cheeses made from summer pasture milk that are matured are at their peak now, so look out for Coolea, Mount Callan, St Gall or Glebe Brethan. And having had a late breakfast with a sausage sandwich from O’Flynn’s of Tallow and a cup of Cork Coffee roasters best, we took away an early lunch of a piping hot handmade pizza with West Cork pepperoni, from a new arrival I’d never come across before, Il Volcano, made in front of our eyes.

20 January 2010

Launching the Bridgestone Irish Food Guide

So, we are up in Dublin today, January 20th, to officially wave the 9th edition of the Bridgestone Irish Food Guide on its way, with a photo-call at Nick and Stephen's red-hot Pichet Restaurant in the centre of town.
A bunch of artisans will be on hand to wave it on its way, a sign that the core message of the book – that the speciality sector we have written about for 20 years is enjoying robust good health, despite the doldrums in the rest of the economy – is alive and kicking.
In effect, the book has occupied the last 12 months of our working lives, for it started when the 2009 editions of the 100 Best guides were launched, and that was a year ago, almost exactly.
Quite by chance, we are also turning up on your telly this evening, on Nationwide to be precise, with a piece produced by Geraldine Harney from RTE Cork. Donal Skehan, from the admired Good Mood Food blog, is also featuring.
All being well, we should have some nice shots of the folk at the launch, and will post some tomorrow to let you see some of the faces behind the 9th edition.