Neven Maguire looks like butter wouldn't melt in his pulmonary artery
Neven's Irish Food Trail: Nothing seems to make his mouth water like a successful brand
It takes about 25 minutes before you realise where the first episode of Neven’s Irish Food Trail (RTÉ One, Wednesday, 8.30pm) is leading.
That is the point when the chef rolls several snowball-sized globs of rich, creamy mozzarella into some flour, egg yolk and breadcrumbs, drops the lot into a roiling deep fat fryer, then serves it in a small smoky lake of red tomato and roast garlic sauce and livid green wild rocket pesto.
“How good does that look?” he says, as though butter wouldn’t melt in his pulmonary artery.
The truth is it looks so good that RTÉ has scheduled the finale of Operation Transformation 30 minutes later, purely as a health warning.
The efforts of Neven Maguire’s new show, however, are to trace the sources of such indulgences. The fascinating thing about his discussion with Maeve O’Keefe, a young innovative Cork dairy farmer, is how business-oriented they both are.
O’Keefe’s farm phased out its pedigree Holstein cattle, and though she finds her Jersey cross breeds more inquisitive than Friesians (who presumably just go with the herd) her interests in them are more savvy. Dairy farmers, once paid by the litre, are now paid per kilogram of milk solids, and these cows yield weighty amounts of fat and protein. Everything O’Keefe considers is a matter of management – fertility, lameness, grass – as though modern farming has come closer to Moneyball.
Does that explain why the show quickly becomes so inedibly corporate? Maguire’s appeal is based on a sensuous intimacy, the kind of soft voice and features that assure you that deep frying full-fat cheese will just be our little secret.
Here, however, out in the fields or on factory floors, Neven speaks in maths. Some 1.4 million cows graze 300 days a year among 18,000 dairy farms producing 11.6 billion pints of milk in Ireland, we learn. Unsurprisingly, a representative of Ornua, the owner of Kerry Gold, has her own spiel on butter down pat. But you require a big appetite for PR to share Maguire’s gee-whiz admiration.
By the time he samples a lemon meringue tart with the owner of La Patisserie, Robert Bullock, who cranks out 10,000 of the things a week, there seems to be no end of industrial efficiencies that won’t get Maguire’s mouth watering.
“I love the tartness of it, the crunch of the pastry, the touch of soft mallow top and that lovely acidity of the lemon.”
You have to admire that discerning palate for a mass product. What might he say about a Mars Bar?
To be fair, big businesses often expand from modest enthusiasms, as Toby Simmonds of Cork’s Toons Bridge cheese makers makes patently clear. His process for making pasta filata cheeses is covered in pedantic detail, though. Simmonds points out that he uses a moulding machine to divide his mozzarella into portions, whereas, “traditionally in Italy they would have done it by hand”.
Within the show, though, this feels like a miracle of the machine age, the way Soviet propaganda used to lionise the tractor, or the way Neven enthuses later about a brand of blender.
Perhaps it’s a more personal affiliation. Because Maguire, like any celebrity chef, is himself a successful brand. Understanding the origin of ingredients, and the industries that spring up around them them, can provide a useful trail in the appreciation of food. But, calorific as the results might be, it’s a relief when it leads Neven back to the kitchen.