Ireland’s latest cookbook author, Finn Ní Fhaoláin, has a degree in earth and ocean science and a master’s in marine biology. When she is not cooking casual, nutritious, gluten-free meals to share with family and friends, she spends all of her spare time surfing.
By the time she was 10, this poster girl for healthy living had travelled the world with her writer mother, Val (whose pen name is OR Melling), and documentary film-maker dad, Colum Stapleton, joining them on research trips that brought with them experiences as diverse as sailing past glaciers in Alaska, watching cobras dance in India and walking part of the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
Home, for a time, for the family was the Tyrone Guthrie Centre for the arts in Co Monaghan, but these days you're more likely to find the 27-year-old only child chasing waves in Bundoran, where she now lives.
She describes herself as “a small, bubbly blonde with the energy levels of a Labrador”, but it wasn’t always thus. When she was 19, after a period of debilitating illness, she was diagnosed with coeliac disease, and a radical overhaul of her vegetarian diet was required.
“My grocery bills skyrocketed as I stocked up on gluten-free breads, pastas, sauces, cereals and snacks. I needed a part-time job just to cover food,” she says. It was unsustainable on a student budget, and there were many foods she missed eating.
So, “I put my scientists’s hat on, turned my kitchen into a laboratory and pondered what percentages of fats versus proteins would give the best texture to cakes. Some recipes were an instant hit – check out coconut banana muffins with molten dark chocolate core – while others went straight to the recipe graveyard. So long, hemp protein muffins!”
As she continued to experiment, her interest in food and in cooking grew, and she began cooking gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan food for events at her father’s business, Gyreum Ecolodge in Sligo, and also worked at the Fumbally cafe in Dublin.
A youthful book
Last year she completed a 10-week Fáilte Ireland-funded course at Lough Gill School of Culinary Arts, converting all of the practical cooking assignments to gluten-free, and completed the manuscript for her first book,
It’s an exuberant, youthful work, in which the recipes happen to be gluten-free but are also simple and inexpensive to make. “I didn’t write it with a particular age in mind. I guess I just write as I speak, and so it reflects my own age,” she says.
One of the book’s best features is the inclusion of what appear like margin notes on many of the recipes, such as one with a noodle soup recipe, where the marine scientist in her cautions against the use of fish sauce.
So what is wrong with this southeast Asian staple? “Basically fish sauce is the liquid of fermented fish, using salt and pressure to extract the liquid out of smaller fish species that might not be valuable as a food source. That by itself is no problem – I love fish and fermented foods. But I don’t feel I have any way of knowing if the fish was sustainably caught, if the ferment was the first, second or third ferment (second and third involve adding saltwater to the already several-months-old ferments), or what kind of additives have been lashed in, hydrolysed wheat protein and fructose being quite common.”
Finn's World: Do what you love. Love what you eat, by Finn Ní Fhaoláin, is published by Gill Books, €22.99