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  • Normal food is so unfashionable…

    September 16, 2009 @ 1:25 am | by Tom

    You don’t often see or hear a very funny sketch about fashionable attitudes to food but try That Mitchell and Webb Sound on the BBC Radio 4 website. It starts 5.40 minutes into the programme. Fat and sugar really do taste nice…

  • Our favourite drug

    September 12, 2009 @ 10:50 pm | by Tom


    Reading Orna Mulcahy’s piece in today’s paper I came across a comment from Dr Bobby Smith, a specialist in addiction, which was quite arresting. He said that people who grow up in Mediterranean cultures don’t develop a respectful attitude to drink because they are introduced to alcohol early but because in such cultures being drunk is seen as unacceptable and, presumably, antisocial.

    We offer an occasional glass of wine to two of our daughters – one aged 16, the other 20 – on the basis that it’s good to introduce young people to the concept of wine in the context of food and fellowship and sharing around the dining table. Both of them tend to accept when it’s Champagne (they are already developing expensive tastes) and to refuse when it’s anything else. If they were hoovering up anything that’s offered to them, I’d be worried – and less generous.

    I had virtually teetotal parents – the sort who would pour a half pint of whiskey for bemused guests – and first encountered social drinking when I was in sixth form at school in Dublin. Smithwick’s was the drink of choice but I remember that our present Minister for Finance, who was a classmate, wisley confined himself to “a glass of stout” on such occasions. The nascent Minister was a model of sobriety but some of the rest of us enjoyed occasional bouts of over-indulgence. We tested the boundaries (and some fearful combinations) but never put ourselves in any great danger. We certainly didn’t do illegal drugs (although some of us did at university in a mild kind of way) but smoking was permitted in the sixth form common room – something that led to a period of addiction to Camel and Chesterfields in my case.

    The other night I met a group of young lads at a filling station in Waterford. They wanted to say hello because they knew me from The Restaurant and proudly showed me their bottle of Buckfast Tonic Wine, a beverage which I last tasted on the Podge & Rodge Show during an impromptu blind tasting. It tasted bad enough on its own, but became truly terrible when mixed with Benylin (“a great phlegm buster”, as one of the terrible twins said at the time). I didn’t manage to identify Buckfast but, bizarrely, did pick out the Benylin.

    Buckfast is produced by the Benedictine monks of the eponymous abbey in Devon and it sells in large quantities to Scottish teenagers who are, it seems, attracted by its sweetness, high alcohol content (15% abv or thereabouts) and the fact that they can buy it for a fiver. It is known as Buckie. If it were made by the monks of Ampleforth in Yorkshire, it would be known, no doubt, as Ampie. Or if it were produced at that other Benedictine institution, Downside, it might have an even more appropriate pet name.

    I don’t know if the Buckfast monks are, morally speaking, any different from the people who make WKD, that combination of food colouring, flavours and alcoholic syrup. But I do remember, at Downside, listening to readings from the Rule of Saint Benedict and the excerpt that sticks in my mind concerned the duties of the cellarer. It certainly didn’t refer to helping teenagers get out of their skulls. The King’s Arms in Stratton-on-the-Fosse kept a sharp eye out for Downside boys attempting to tap into the supplies of alcohol there but security was occasionally breached.

    Ian Jack, a great writer normally, has an exceptional piece in today’s Observer about Buckie and attitudes to alcohol and the fact that Scotch producers, during Prohibition, smuggled whisky into the US through the same Carribean routes favoured by drug dealers today. It is a very thought-provoking essay. It points out our hyprocrisy but avoids suggesting any facile solutions.

    As for Buckfast, it’s just too easy to say that it’s not the product that matters, but the way in which it is used. Teenagers are not abusing Cotes du Rhone or Meursault. If Buckfast ceased production, they would find other sweet and alcoholic beverages (they would not have far to look). But the monks might sleep more easily.

    (The Buckfast Tonic Wine image which appears above comes from the Abbey’s own website. The slightly blurred nature of the picture doubtless reflects the possible effects of over-indugence).

  • Bone marrow

    September 11, 2009 @ 10:16 pm | by Tom

    I got some rump steak and a big marrow bone from my local butcher, Bart O’Donoghue in Tallow, this afternoon. Following a recipe from Richard Corrigan’s first book, From The Waters and the Wild, i chopped the rump steak very finely and added the bone marrow, also very finely chopped. If you are not familiar with bone marrow – and most of us are not – it looks and feels like very dense fat. Then I formed the mixture into thick hamburgers and fried them briefly on a hot pan and put the pan into the top of the Aga for about five minutes.

    The result was astonishing. These were hamburgers with a vast amount of flavour and they remained beautifully moist. They were also still pink in the middle which I know is potentially risky but they were so good that I didn’t care. I was eating this stuff at home, prepared by myself from superb raw materials. Not risk-free, I know, but oh so good.

    Bone marrow is not fashionable these days but I have a feeling that it is about to be rediscovered. It features occasionally on the menu at one of my favourite restaurants, Hereford Road in West London. I ate there again the other night and enjoyed Bath chaps (cured pig’s cheek, boned and rolled and then fried) with a dandelion salad; then some slow-roasted rare-breed pork belly with fennel; then some perfectly ripe Stitchelton (an organic Stilton in all but name) with a glass of 10 year old tawny port. They do the stunning Delamotte Champagne NV for stg£35 and the dearest main course is stg£20.

    I asked one of my dining companions, a corporate lawyer, who the typical customer might be. And he looked around the room and said “investment bankers”. How times have changed…

    If you want to find this exceptional restaurant which, thankfully, is not yet fashionable, it’s actually on Leinster Square, London W2, despite the name. It’s less than 10 minutes walk from the Notting Hill Gate tube station (Central Line and District and Circle).

  • Pork: chefs wake up…

    September 8, 2009 @ 5:49 pm | by Tom


    Good old Eurotoques have surveyed Irish chefs in relation to what they think about Irish pork. The result is astonishing: 88% of them are not at all impressed with it. This means that 12% of them think it’s fine. I wish we knew who they are. I don’t want to eat in their restaurants.

    I have come to the conclusion that mainstream Irish pork is awful. It has damn all flavour, poor fat distribution and comes from a production system that denies the unfortunate animals access to the outdoors. Why we lag so far behind Britain in getting free range pork into the mainstream, I have no idea. You can get free range and organic pork in most of the big supermarkets in England. The free range stuff from Waitrose is particularly delicious.

    Eurotoques held a seminar on pork last weekend. Entitled The Whole Hog, speakers there from Ireland, Britain and Italy enthused about proper pig meat and urged Irish farmers to fill a huge gaping void in the market – and not just the Irish market, as Trevor Sargent pointed out, but throughout the EU.

    And it doesn’t have to be all about very small scale production. According to Eurotoques, one of the speakers, Helen Browning tenant farms a 1,350 acre organic mixed farm in Wiltshire, which she took over in 1986 and gradually converted to organic. In the late eighties she established Eastbrook Organic Meats which sells to supermarkets and runs a home delivery business. She later established the ‘The Flying Pig’ outdoor catering venture and recently took over the running of the local village pub. Eastbrook Farm currently includes 220 British Saddleback sows and an average of 1800 pigs at any one time, which are fully integrated with the arable system. They finish between 3000 and 3500 pigs per year.

    Eurotoques continue: “…John Paul Crowe … farms a mixed farm of mainly beef and pigs and on a smaller scale crops and sheep. He believes a good mixture of enterprises is key to a vibrant organic farm. John Paul works in conjunction with his brothers TJ and Eamonn of Crowe’s Farm Artisan Meats in the marketing of their range of products…TJ Crowe is a second generation pork butcher at Crowe’s Farm in Dundrum Co. Tipperary and runs the processing end of the enterprise. He has 13 years experience in the day to day running of his abattoir and processing and a lifetime of growing up beside one.”

    Clearly the Crowes are prophets in their own land.

  • Sally Barnes: Food Hero

    @ 12:18 am | by Tom


    Tonight in London, at the Great Taste Awards, Sally Barnes of the Woodcock Smokery in West Cork won the award for best wild smoked salmon for the second time in a row. This, as far as I can gather, is a unique achievement and the award was presented, very appropriately, by Richard Corrigan.

    Sally is an inspirational artisan producer who doesn’t compromise. It’s my belief that she produces the best smoked salmon in the world, by quite a margin. The texture is drier than most, which appeals to me, and there is a goodly amount of smoke. But at the same time it’s subtle and magical. I know it’s not cheap. How can it be? But I also know that Sally doesn’t drive a flashy car or go on lots of expensive holidays. People like this do what they do because they believe in the product. If it helps to make a living, then that’s a bonus.

    Well done, Sally and team!

    A few years back I wrote the following piece for Derry and Sallyanne Clarke’s Not So Much a Cookbook. Bear in mind that it’s not up to date. But maybe it’s worth revisiting in the light of this great achivement:

    Woodock Smokery
    Co Cork
    Phone: 028 36232

    It’s not that Sally Barnes got into fish smoking by accident. I reckon she was destined to become what she is today: one of the best smokers on the planet. But I’m always amazed how many brilliant, passionate producers are kind of selected by Fate and one day – bang! – they discover their true vocation.

    It happened to Sally in 1981. Her husband was a fisherman working off the coast of West Cork. There wasn’t a lot of luxury in their life, but they loved it. However, money was scarce and when one of his customers went bust things looked black. The debt was settled in kind and Mr Barnes was given a smoking kiln.

    He wanted to sell it but Sally had other ideas. She had been experimenting with smoking. As she says, it’s one of the oldest ways of preserving food and it’s a traditional way of dealing with a glut. But she had only got as far as sawdust and biscuit tins. The kiln was like getting a Lexus when you were used to a rusty old bike.

    With two small children, very little money and the winter setting in, she discovered that she could produce something that people really wanted, especially around Christmas: smoked wild Irish salmon.

    For the first few years, Sally’s Woodcock Smokery supplied local people. But good news travels fast in the food world. In no time she had a loyal bunch of customers who wanted to spread the gospel. And it soon went beyond salmon. Sally Barnes was becoming a landmark in foodie West Cork. And West Cork, being a kind of melting pot, is known about all over the place. Soon Jancis Robinson, the wine writer, was telling the media that she would be starting her Christmas dinner with Sally’s smoked salmon.

    Sally was destined to be brilliant at whatever she does. She’s a true believer. And to be a true believer you need curiosity and dedication. The energy goes without saying.

    It wasn’t enough for Sally to produce the best smoked fish in Ireland. Maybe the best smoked salmon in the world. She also put herself through the Open University. Twice. She took degrees in biology and in oceanography because, as she says, she wanted to understand the science behind what she does.

    Her approach to smoking is very traditional. “It evolved as a preservation technique,” she says. “The salting and the esters from the smoke kill bacteria but these days that’s not so important so smoking is more about flavour. I just prefer the old-fashioned way because it delivers more smokiness and more character. But without losing the real character of the fish.”

    According to Sally, there’s no formula for smoking. “It all depends on the individual fish,” she says. “The size, the salting, the position in the kiln. It’s different for every item that goes in. You can’t mass-produce this stuff. It needs your head and your hands.”

    Her palate is unbelievable. Anyone who has ever tasted her smoked haddock will know that it leaves the rest standing. Her secret is simple. She feels that a little fruit wood mixed in with the usual oak chips brings out something. A kind of character that you only get in haddock.

    Being a true believer isn’t easy. Sally has only ever used wild fish. She feels very strongly about this. She is scathing about fish farming in general and is up in arms about the very idea of “organic salmon”. “This is a con job,” she says. “How can it be natural and sustainable when it takes between 3lb and 5lb of wild fish to produce a mere pound of so called organic farmed salmon?”

    “Fish farming is an environmental abomination,” she says. “In Norway at this stage, 40% of the wild salmon catch are escapees from farms. What does that tell you about what fish farming is doing?”

    The problem for Sally is that wild Irish salmon is now like hen’s teeth.

    When Ireland brought in a ban of drift nets a few years ago, there was uproar. Some people say that this is vital if wild salmon is to survive. But others disagree. Sally Barnews believes that the ban was imposed because of the power of the rich, amateur angling lobby. Whatever the truth of the situation, the effect has been disastrous for people like her. The supply of wild fish has almost entirely dried up.

    She is importing wild fish from Scotland, as she says “just to survive”. “It’s lovely fish but when I asked the fisheries people how I should label it they said Product of Ireland! Anything than be a Product of Ireland provided something is done to it once you get it here. You could just cut it into steaks and say its Product of Ireland! Isn’t that just plain mad?”

    The drift net ban, in the end, was down to the EU. They put the pressure on Ireland. But Sally’s real argument is with the Irish government. “The ban was introduced because of a habitat directive,” she says. “The government went overboard complying with that directive but they’ve been ignoring another one, an environmental directive about water pollution. There’s raw sewage still floating down the river through Skibbereen. What the hell does that tell you about priorities?”

    Globalisation, she says, is behind the decline in the old ways of fishing: using day boats to catch and deliver truly fresh fish. “The dealers don’t care where fish comes from any more,” she says. “They will move huge quantities of fish around the world, fish from trawlers the size of a village that go out for weeks on end. How can proper fishermen get a decent price for risking their lives in a world like that?”

    There’s factory farming and there’s factory fishing. Recently, Ireland’s entire mackerel quota was caught by six boats in just three weeks. It’s no wonder, with that and the drift net ban that Sally took a break a couple of years ago and went to Cape Cod in the United States. She went there because she wanted to help an old friend set up a smokehouse using arctic species of fish.

    “It was fascinating,” she said. “With fish like King Salmon from Alaska the fat distribution is totally different and I had to re-learn the salting process. But the smokehouse I helped set up has won lots of awards so I guess I’m okay as a teacher. Maybe that’s what I’ll end up doing. Teaching people around the world how to do it.”

    But there is hope for the Woodcock Smokery. Sally’s daughter Joleine is now working there and experimenting with new products. They have found a source of superb, organically reared ducks nearby. Now they will have to get permission from the authorities to start smoking them. If all goes well, Ireland will have a new classic from a great producer. But Sally’s story tells you a lot. Like that great food is never easy. And that bureaucracy gets in the way.


  • A great deal on M&S wines

    September 4, 2009 @ 2:46 am | by Tom

    As I mentioned earlier, Marks & Spencer are giving 25% of wines, champagnes and fortfieds when you buy six bottles or more. This is an astonishing offer and I was surprised to see no signage telling us about it when I visited the Cork store the other day. I assumed the deal was over but when I got to the checkout was pleased to find it was still going strong.

    Here are a few suggestions, just to whet the appetite. Now, bear in mind that I’m not good on maths or even basic arithmetic so the prices quoted are before the discount.

    Good old Spain! The value is exceptional, especially if you avoid fashionable spots like Ribera del Duero and Rias Baixas. This is a ripe, round red with a nice backbone of acidity and lovely length. Elegant stuff and not an oaky monster.

    This is big and well oaked but it’s not a monster. Layers of fruit, plenty of toasty vanilla, terrific length. This is wine for rib-eye steak.

    Lovely, easy-drinking Sicilian with a screwcap. Terrific colour, clearly from a warm climate but not at all blowsy. With the discount, it’s a no-brainer. Perfect partner for pasta puttanesca or even a packet of crisps (or better still, Twiglets, which you can now buy in Tesco, hooray!)

    CHATEAU DE SAYE €12.49
    The big, heavy bottle suggests that this is no run-of-the-mill red Bordeaux. No, this is proper claret with real concentration and a subtle seasoning of oak. It could pass for a cru bourgeois

    MACON-UCHIZY €13.99
    I don’t have the domaine name to hand, but it’s the only one on the shelves. Once again, Macon produces a winner, in this instance a straight, fresh, tart but still slightly honeyed white wine with no wood (at least none that I can detect). An antidote to that terribly unfashionable affliction, Chardonnay Fatigue.

    Just the ticket if you want a break from those seriously pungent Sauvignons from New Zealand and the Cape. Fresh, zesty but attractively reined in on the nose, crisp and dry on the palate. Very good indeed with fresh goat’s cheese.

  • Every little helps

    September 1, 2009 @ 11:26 pm | by Tom

    Interesting to see that Tesco are offering 5% off if you buy 6 bottles of wine (including Champagne and fortfieds) while Marks & Spencer, generally seen as a bit dear give you a whopping 25% off for the same amount. This means that M&S wines currently offer astonishing value for money but hardly anyone knows about it. Stand by for tasting notes but bear in mind that their chunky red from Sicily, Popolino, is €6.45 on the shelf, before any discount.

    However, there are two wines in Tesco which are stunners and currently on special. Tesco Finest Touriga Nacional is a big but not too brawny Portuguese red with a lovely minty/eucalyptus whiff on the nose for a mere €8.99 and Tim Adams Riesling, a bone dry Oz version of this much under-rated grape is simply fabulous (lime, citrus, a touch of classic unleaded and a bit of yeast autolysis – sorry to be boring) for €10.99. For some reason, it comes up as Pinot Gris on the till receipt but don’t let this put you off. These two wines are crackers at this kind of price. But stand by for further details of M&S (or just go there while the offer lasts).

  • Now is the time!

    August 31, 2009 @ 11:23 pm | by Tom


    If, like me, you want to ensure that you have salad crops through the winter, you need to start sowing right away. In an ideal world you will have a greenhouse or a polytunnel but covering plants with horticultural fleece is better than leaving them to the mercy of the elements.

    In terms of lettuce, it’s tempting to think that the variety known as Marvel of Four Seasons (or M4S as I write on my plant labels) will do the trick. But this is an old French variety and, while it’s probably fine and dandy in Provence, it gets a bit wispy in the darker days of a Cork winter. It will sulk and then bolt in the spring. (Sow under cover in February and it will make a lovely early summer lettuce, as pictured above). What you need now is a lettuce bred for short day-lengths and the best that I’ve grown is Montel, a nicely dense butterhead that will bulk up even in December and January. Even out of doors it will do reasonably well but it needs a lot of shelter to perform properly. In the depths of winter, Montel delivers crunchy leaves.

    It’s not too late to sow a crop of cut-and-come-again salad mixtures but outdoors these will not go much beyond December. In a polytunnel you will get a reasonable crop for a month or so longer. Likewise rocket.

    The slightly bitter Batavian lettuces are well adpated to winter cropping but, again, they will do much better under cover. Just think of that cold rain and those icy breezes and consider how much better you would feel, even if night temperatures fall, with a bit of shelter.

    Anyway, the window of opportunity is small. Get your winter salad crops sown within the next week.

  • End of an era in NYC

    @ 11:01 pm | by Tom

    I was sorry to see that Frank Bruni, restaurant critic of the New York Times, is hanging up his boots. In his final column he answers some questions which may be of help to Irish Times readers who find themselves occasionally, and hungry, in The Big Apple. He seems to favour the kind of places I like when he’s spending his own money (but he has been so busy in recent years I’m amazed that he has managed to eat off-duty).

  • The Aga Saga and other rural themes…

    August 29, 2009 @ 11:13 pm | by Tom

    We turned on the Aga again during the week because the dying days of what was Summer in name only had become so dreary. In fact, it was our children who demanded the rekindling. Not quite an ultimatum but they made it pretty clear that we would all feel better if the kitchen had a bit of a glow and if we didn’t have to depend on a Baby Belling (splendid machine though it is in many ways) and a gas ring for cooking. And they were, as is so often the case, quite right. I still find myself putting a pot on the hot plate and trying to find the switch but it’s truly lovely to be able to cook without waiting for the oven to warm up. And it’s bloody good to warm the posterior against the Aga’s polished rail while we watch the rain obscure the otherwise rather lovely view.

    This is, it can be argued, is environmental vandalism. George Monbiot claimed, not long ago, that running an Aga (ours is oil-fired) is a pretty inexcusable thing to do but he got his figures wrong, saying that a large coal-fired Aga produces 9 times the CO2 output of the average home, whereas, in fact, it produces 35% more. These figures were corrected in due course. The piece was headed “This is indeed a class war, and the campaign against the Aga starts here.”

    Now, let’s consider, for a moment, that we are talking about the large (4 oven) Aga as against the much more common 2 oven version. And that most Agas run on either gas or oil. The Aga, large or small, reduces the need for central heating to a minimum, obviates the need for a separate cooker, produces as much hot water as anyone could want and renders the tumble-dryer pretty well redundant. At that rate of going, given that a coal-fired big Aga produces 35% more CO2 than the average home, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that the smaller Aga, run on gas or oil, might actually mean the household around which it gathers produces less CO2 than the average. Or at least the same. And, in terms of class war (something that seems to obsess the English, God bless them), I would stress that our Aga was secondhand and cost less than many of the electric cookers that adorn those trophy kitchens in which very little, if any, cooking is actually done.

    Anyway, I’m not going to get hung up on figures. Life is short, and in our own case we grow much of what we eat and don’t take long haul flights very often (even as often as we might like) and we recycle like mad despite the difficulty in doing so in this little country of ours.

    This Summer has been a disaster in the garden. Our spuds were few and small and ravaged by both slugs and scab. The celeriac has provided a feast for the burgeoning slug population and, I am sorry to report, the aspargus bed is in very sore need of weeding. Weeds, which are only plants that grow in the wrong place, of course, are the only plant organisms that have thrived in the warm and the wet. The tomatoes have sulked and we only get to eat them about once a week at this stage when we would normally be getting a bit offhand about the pleasures that they offer.

    But wild mushrooms have been popping up all over the place. There’s a great new website devoted to mushrooms in the wild in Ireland and, while I would not suggest you depend on it to identify what you’re going to eat, it’s a great starting point and it has the particular merit of being produced in and for Ireland.

    This evening we had organic chicken thighs and legs pot-roasted with chanterelles, butter, garlic and a bit of cream. We simply sweated down the mushrooms until all of the inevitable moisture had evaporated and the flavour had intsensified, then added a glass of white wine, the chicken and some seasoning. Then put the lot into the Aga, covered, for the better part of two hours and stirred in the cream at the end, giving it a bit of heat to thicken the sauce.

    Beforehand we ate a salad of wild rocket (actually not wild at all; the “wild” describes the strain), some Marvel of Four Seasons lettuce, a little Fat Hen (that great and very common salad plant), and some young cos leaves. We threw in some blue sheep’s cheese, some croutons and toasted pine kernels and a dollop of vinaigrette based on walnut oil.

    It’s a good year for blackberries. So much so, I was amazed to see those plump, glossy cultivated blackberries in a restaurant the other night when the wild crop was growing within a few hundred metres of the door!

    Anyway, it’s odd to think that the Aga was originally a Danish invention, as it seems particularly suited to the Irish climate. Ideally, we would like to run ours on wood pellets or even our own biomass but, for the time being, we will continue to feed it oil. Our central heating has been turned on for a total of about 72 hours over the past three years. We have depended on the background heat of our gallant little Aga and our couple of woodburning stoves (fuelled, in the main, from our own logs), reasonable insulation and decent sweaters. Clothes are the unsung heroes of the fight against the cold and the damp.

    Finally, I’m sometimes amused by the anti-4×4 tendency. I had an old Range Rover (still have, indeed, but it’s in retirement now although it can run, without adapting, on vegetable oil) which delivered a better MPG than most chunky estate cars. It’s true, of course, that most people who drive so-called Chelsea Tractors don’t go off-road and they should really drive something sensible like (to take a luxurious example) a BMW 320d. When our Land Rover was last in for a service the mechanic said “Of course, this vehicle spends a lof of time off-road”. In fact, it just did the Conna-Midleton run several times a week but cross-country in rural Ireland is the equivalent of “off-road” in most EU countries. Our Land Rover is getting old and shaky but it has done more than 120,000 miles on less than ideal roads. A “normal” vehicle would have given up long ago or, at least, cost us a lot of money on suspension repairs.

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