Bia, glorious bia

Sat, Mar 13, 2010, 00:00

PADDY SNACKERY:US food writer Colman Andrews tells Belinda McKeonthat Ireland, with its superb local ingredients and skilled artisan producers, has the potential to become a food-lover’s heaven

NO MATTER HOW much you love your potatoes, your soda bread and your smoked salmon, the sound of a government official going on – and on – about their importance to the country’s economy might tend to put a hole in your appetite, even if you’re a world-famous gastronome. So it was that Colman Andrews, co-founder of the prestigious food magazine Saveur, and an expert on cuisines Catalan, Italian and Rivieran, and one of the big-league figures in the US food world, wound up tasting the tedium at a Bord Bia symposium on speciality foods in Kinsale back in 2002.

“There was a government minister droning on about something, and I decided to repair to the bar,” Andrews says. “And Stephen Caviston and I were talking, working on a bottle of Jameson, and they had a monitor in the bar, showing what was still going on in the hall.”

Suddenly, Andrews remembers, it was no longer a monotone of percentage-this and per-capita-that. Suddenly, somebody altogether more attention-grabbing had taken the stage.

“This young guy with unruly hair was up there shouting about farmhouse butter and creamy milk, and how when he heard people saying there was no real Irish food anymore, he didn’t know what they were talking about. And I said, I have to meet that guy.”

That guy was Peter Ward, who along with his wife Mary runs Nenagh’s Country Choice, a delicatessen and coffee shop which also happens to be one of Ireland’s best-known artisanal food businesses. Andrews later wrote about the Kinsale outburst in Saveur, where he paraphrased Ward’s final flourish thus: “When people come here from another country wanting to taste Irish food, and we serve them something from a German-owned supermarket, that ought to be an act of treason.”

The drone of officialdom had definitely been drowned out. “I said to him, I really liked what you said, and you’re the only one here that has really gotten excited about Irish food.”

Andrews decided, then, to write a Saveurcover story about Country Choice and about the artisanal producers with which it deals. It meant a return journey to a country about which, in culinary terms, he had yet to be convinced. That Irish Food Board event marked his first visit to Ireland, but apart from meeting Ward and tasting some very fine Irish cheeses, the visit didn’t make a huge impression on Andrews’s tastebuds. “I thought, why did I come all this way to have Irish barbecue sauce, or Irish cajun seasoning?” he says, with an apologetic laugh. It was only on successive visits, and under the guidance of the Wards, that he began to really discover the country’s food treasures.

He saw how Barbara Harding made butter in the old-fashioned way, on two wooden paddles, on her Borrisokane farm. He tasted more of those artisanal Irish cheeses: Gubbeen, Durrus, Milleens, Ardsallagh, Cooleeney, Cashel Blue. He went to Moran’s Oyster Cottage in Kilcolgan, and to Anthony Creswell’s Ummera Smokehouse in Timoleague, and to Robert Ditty’s bakery in Derry. He tasted David Llewellyn’s Luska wines in Lusk, Sean Kelly’s black and white puddings in Westport, and James McGeough’s Connemara lamb “prosciutto” in Oughterard. He ate at Chapter One, at Gleeson’s Townhouse in Roscommon, at Fishy Fishy Cafe in Kinsale, among many others.

He met chefs and with cooks, with farmers and with producers. He made the acquaintance, too, of the Allens at Ballymaloe, who added to his education in Irish ingredients and Irish cuisine. And, somewhere along the line, he realised that he had more on his hands than just another story for Saveur. He realised that he had a whole book.

That book, The Country Cooking of Ireland, just published by Chronicle Books in San Francisco, is as lush and as heartening as the recipes it contains – more than 225 of them. It’s illustrated by Christopher Hirsheimer’s gorgeous photographs of food, of produce, of kitchens and of the people who, in Andrews’ words, are currently turning Ireland into “one of the most exciting food stories in the world today”. And, interspersed with historical and anecdotal accounts of the history of Irish food production, and with literary references from the Táin to Thackeray, from Maura Laverty to Seamus Heaney, it is beautifully written, right down to the notes on ingredients.

Andrews has collected recipes not only from chefs and cooks, but from library archives and estate records. You won’t just find Peter Ward’s recipe for pint-glass bread in here (he concocted it for his student son, figuring that “every university student has at least one pint-glass in the house”), but also original 18th-century recipes for carrot pudding and root soup, a recipe for eggs messine by Clementine Beit (née Mitford) of Russborough House, and a recipe for fish cakes from Molly Keane’s book, Nursery Cooking. And there’s more; so much more. As Darina Allen says in her foreword, what Andrews has discovered is that “locally grown and prepared food never really went away.”

We do a lot of worrying about the loss of our traditional food culture, Allen says, and we mourn the loss of small butchers and small bakers. But these recipes, and the case studies that accompany them, help us, says Allen, to “see afresh the value of what we’ve managed to maintain . . . and helps us understand the great urgency of fighting to preserve it.”

In terms of a traditional food culture, Andrews says, Ireland is in the enviable position of not even realising what it has: superb raw materials, often literally right to hand. “Almost every Irish person I met, no matter whether it was a big city or a small town, had some direct connection with the land,” he says. “Either they grew up on a farm or a relative had a farm. And that’s not the case in Italy or Spain, or France, or England, or Scotland. And it’s not even something people are aware of – they take it for granted.”

The upshot, says Andrews, is that all the current buzzwords of the food world, especially in the US – farm-to-table, organic, sustainable, traceable – are simply descriptions of a significant part of this country’s food distribution system. “The great unsung heroes here are the butchers, who are not doing anything new and special in their minds,” says Andrews, “but in almost every town, you have butchers who not only make their own black-and-white pudding and cure their own bacon, but often own their own animals, raise their own pigs. It’s really an unusual situation.”

Andrews also praises the Irish attitude to genetically modified food. He took part in a Green Ireland conference on GM in Kilkenny four years ago, and says because of the close connection to the land from which food comes, there seems to be a general perception in Ireland that GM is “poison”. But alongside this gift of an almost unconscious artisanal approach to production, there are what Andrews describes as “danger signs” which mean that we should actually take nothing for granted: an increasing contamination of groundwater, a creeping growth in factory farming (pork farming, he says, is undoubtedly the worst offender in this respect) and, above all, a lack of sympathetic government policy. Government officials may drone on as they stand on the platforms, but the realities faced by many small-scale farmers and producers as they try to sustain and grow their businesses point only to a worrying lack of official support.

His evidence is anecdotal, but Andrews tells of numerous artisanal producers who feel stunted by an enforcement of health and sanitation laws and of fishing limits which is much stricter than in the case of many other European countries. One cheesemaker told him of an official coming to inspect her production facility and objecting to the presence of mould on the cheese. Meanwhile, an Inis Óir fisherman told Andrews that more EU patrol boats police the fishing practices off Galway Bay than all along the Spanish coast.

“There is that feeling that over-regulation is stifling them and discouraging new people from entering the field. Everybody wants the food to be safe, and facilities have to be sterile, but these small producers are often required to have the same sanitation processes as huge commercial operations. And that becomes economically unfeasible. Yet you’d think that the Irish Government would want to make things easier for these people.”

If it becomes difficult for new enthusiasts to get into the food business, the result is a fall-off of younger practitioners, something that is certainly by now apparent in Irish farming. Andrews says he has noticed a strong presence of young artisanal producers, but they’re not necessarily Irish. “My anecdotal impression would be, thank God for the Germans and the Dutch,” he laughs. “You see young people from other countries, especially northern European countries, who are buying farms and producing food. But I think it’s true that young Irish farmers are not so much coming through, and that is a problem.” Another problem, Andrews says, is the grip of European supermarket giants such as Lidl and Aldi – the impact of their presence, obviously, has gathered force during the recession.

“It’s in the US, too, that perception that organic produce is somehow elitist, that we can’t all have little baby vegetables grown by Trappist monks, etc, etc,” he says with a shrug.

And yet, on a more positive note, Andrews – who conducted his research during the tail-end of the boom and has made several return trips since – says he has seen evidence of a real shift in Irish attitudes to Irish food. A shift, that is, to renewed pride in the home-grown. The Glasgow restaurateur Ronnie Clydesdale told Andrews about what he dubbed the “Scottish cringe”, when Scottish diners would turn their noses up at Scottish dishes, wanting only, in top restaurants, to eat Dutch veal, Maine lobster – not Ayrshire bacon or heather-fed lamb. “And I think,” says Andrews with a grin, “that there was, during the boom, something of an ‘Irish Cringe’ – the presumption that a sophisticated diner dines on imported food and not on local produce. But now, there’s a big new market in Ireland for things that they wouldn’t have been interested in before.”

And the need to nurture and to develop such an interest in local, non-imported produce is vital, Andrews says, if Ireland wants to fulfil its potential to become one of the most compelling gastronomic destinations in Europe. But there’s other work, too, to do along the way, he advises – not least by Bord Bia, which is marketing the country as “The Food Island”. Sounds great. But is it true? As Caroline Hennessy mused on her blog Bibliocookshortly after Andrews announced his intention to dedicate a whole issue of Saveurto Ireland as a food destination, those “mythical gastro-tourists” might be in for disappointment should they venture off the trails marked out by Georgina Campbell’s guides or John and Sally McKenna’s Bridgestone guides. “Apart from the Avoca shops,” wrote Hennessy, “it’s difficult to find good food on the move throughout the country.”

That’s still discomfitingly the case today, in Andrews’ view. “Ireland has to avoid thinking too much of itself too fast. If you tell someone to go to Ireland and that they’ll eat wonderfully everywhere, that’s not true. It’s not easy yet. What I think is very important too, though, getting back to the Irish cringe, is for people to have faith in their own traditions. Americans, say, don’t want to go to Dublin and eat in the fifth-best French restaurant they’ve ever eaten in. It might be an incredible meal, but that’s not why they go. They want something they can’t get in Paris or New York, whether it’s dishes or just the quality of the salmon, or the taste of the grass-fed beef. That’s what they’ll take home with them. And that’s what’s going to build the Irish food scene.”


The Country Cooking of Irelandis published by Chronicle Books (£30)