A French foodie homecoming
FOOD:For Paris-based food writer TRISH DESEINE, a pilgrimage to the old country with her half-French children meant soda bread, butter and lots of potatoes – as well as nostalgic, self-indulgent and joyfully cliche-ridden visits to the local farmers’ market
I’D BEEN MISSING Ireland terribly, and with one of my half-French children already far from the nest, and the other three not far behind, I was conscious they knew too little of their “other” country. It was time for a pilgrimage. The white walls, open kitchen and wood-burning stove of Jerry Owen cottage, near Skibbereen, leapt off my laptop and became our Irish home for the month of July – and home, too, to the French BFFs of my children (16, 15 and 12) and our hair-shedding, mud-loving dog.
Living in France, with its rich and mature food culture, I enjoy the luxury of not considering food part of my children’s education. Good food is affordable and accessible. It permeates French life in a natural, unselfconscious way.
In Ireland, there would inevitably be more chat about what we’d be eating, and my children would be discovering the country’s heritage and culture through its great food traditions. (Full Irish for everyone and toasted soda bread and butter for me every day.)
Gallantly, then, in the name of my children’s expectant palates, my first stops – at the farmers’ market and excellent Field’s Supervalu in Skibbereen – were nostalgic, self-indulgent, cliche-ridden bonanzas. Fresh and smoked fish, modestly named “prawns” (in fact, the most fabulous langoustines), soda bread, Glenilen butter, Kerrygold butter, Supervalu butter (er, research), double cream, marmalade, duck eggs, bacon, Clonakilty pudding, Union Hall strawberries and tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, Irish cheeses and potatoes. Oh man, the potatoes . . . Field’s also sells handy bags of local, fresh, ready-washed mixed salad leaves, which makes life so much easier.
West Cork restaurants beckoned, but for seven or eight of us, eating out daily was out of the question, and cooking at home with Irish ingredients was a joy.
My rental kitchen was better equipped than most, and the cooker had a split-level grill, perfect for the emergency toasted cheese I miss so much in France. Our meals were as simple and every bit as tasty as those I prepare in Chavenay.
So far, so rose-tinted, but as we travelled around the country, to Portrush via Dublin and Belfast and back south again, a glaring reality became apparent. The harsh dichotomy of a booming middle-class foodie culture (it’s my environment – and no apologies for that) and looming early death through obesity, mostly for low-income families and their children, is as obvious in Ireland as it is in the UK. And, seemingly, in a country with few school canteens and a Government that votes to allow schools to maintain vending machines, even less is being done about it.
Farmers’ markets, artisan shops and world-class restaurants thrive side by side with the chicken ’n’ chip joints and across the street from the 24-hour corner shop, where the only unprocessed vegetables are a few onions, chilled apples and tomatoes and potatoes.
People are encouraged to snack and, in most places, it’s trash they’re offered: gigantic cupcakes; bucket-sized soft drinks; deep-fried, pastry-clogged, sausage-filled gunge; mayo-sodden sandwiches; and crisps, always crisps.
Glossy magazines full of glossy recipes with “easy” tips for “effortless” fantasy entertaining and healthy living sit next to mountains of confectionary, soda and snacks that customers mechanically pick up – even if they’ve just finished breakfast and all they really need is some washing-up liquid.
In a country so inspired by the US lifestyle, the evidence from across the Atlantic of the growing link between obesity and income urgently needs to be considered. Although physical activity is important to staying healthy, and despite at times misleading presentation of information from the food industry, the evidence points not to lack of exercise as the main cause of obesity, but poor diet.
After 25 years in France, where the same problems have been and are being tackled effectively, I naturally trust our governments for good sense and intervention on public health issues, but in Ireland, where state accountability is less than in the UK, I don’t know where the answers could lie – even if I have a few ideas about how, at least, to help in the short term.
The US architect and designer Richard Buckminster Fuller wrote: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” So I’m going to work along those lines – and not kid myself that the money-spinning reality constructed by celebrity chefs (Frank Hederman calls it “liestyle”) that makes up most of the existing UK/Irish food media is having an impact where it might be more useful.
Viewers rarely attempt the stuff they see on TV cooking shows. Thrift shops are full of chef and yummy-mummy cookbooks (including, doubtlessly, my English-language ones) that people were given as presents, from which they have never cooked a dish.
It rained every day of our stay, bar one-and-a-half (we counted). But we had a fantastic time and the children loved it. Our best meal, for seven, was hake from Skibbereen Farmers’ Market, spanking fresh and pearly firm, baked with a little butter and served with salad and new potatoes, followed by Gubbeen and soda bread, and, for pudding, meringues and strawberries from Union Hall.
I’d love to believe all Irish people could have access to such produce, feel confident about preparing it, sit down together to eat and understand why that would be a good thing. And it strikes me that such a small country, with a proud farming tradition and supreme terroir, is perfectly equipped to deliver this. But unless we rethink how that might happen – and fast – things are going to get a whole lot worse. Not for foodies, but for the children of parents who cannot be blamed for feeding them cheap, bad food when their lives are already very tough indeed.