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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