Monday, 10 June 2019

Ruffage


An exciting parcel arrived on my desk today, a present from a past student who wanted me to have a copy of her very first cook book – Abra Berens is the 28th Ballymaloe Cookery School student to write a best-selling cook book. It’s called Ruffage, published by Chronicle Books and has just been chosen by the New York Times as one of the Top 10 Books of 2019 – and that’s no mean feat….
Abra did a 12 Week Certificate Course here in 2006. She’s chef at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan and a co-founder of Bare Knuckle Farm. She’s making quite the impact and strives to connect people with their food both through dinners and progressive food policy, helping to further a food policy where farmers earn a living wage, protect our environment through agriculture and waste as little food as possible...no doubt influenced by the zero waste policy we do our best to espouse here at the Ballymaloe Cookery School.

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A year and half after she left here she took up residence in a forest valley between two cherry orchards on Bare Knuckle Farm in Michigan. She plunged all her savings into the project, worked from dawn till dusk, ate brilliantly but by the end of the first year was so ‘poor and cold’ that she decided to return to Chicago to get a job that paid “in green backs” rather than green leafy vegetables. There was lots of delicious food at the pie shop where she worked but soon she was craving the carrots that seemed to get sweeter with every passing frost, the tiny kale greens that still sprouted from the stalk and the almost obscenely orange-yolked eggs. “Farming changed the way I cook”.

ruffage
I too, know that feeling, when you sow and tend a seed and wait patiently for it to grow into something to eat you will cook it carefully and lovingly and use every single scrap. You will want everyone to know that you grew it...Furthermore, it gives one a far greater respect and appreciation for those who grow nourishing and wholesome food all for us.
The format of Ruffage is also interesting. It’s not a vegetarian book but Abra has chosen vegetables as the principle ingredient and gives deeply knowledgable advise on how to select, store, prepare, cook and serve them using a variety of cooking techniques. She starts with a pantry section and some essential condiments.  There are recipes for each vegetable and suggestions for 3 or 4 delicious variations, and many, many cooking methods, pan roasting, poaching, boiling, sautéing, grilling, oven roasting, braising, confit, frying, stuffed, marinated, baked, caramelized and of course raw.
ruffage
Who knew, that there so many super exciting ways to serve vegetables, I love this book and plan to stock it in our Farm shop here at the Ballymaloe Cookery School. We don’t have much space so I’m super fussy about what I ask Toby to stock but this is a ‘keeper’.

Monday, 3 June 2019

Claire Ptak - Royal Wedding Baker Teaches at Ballymaloe Cookery School

Claire Ptak - baker to the Royals, as one of our current 12 Week students put it, shared her magic with us at the Ballymaloe Cookery School recently. Claire, who loves to bake, started her career at Chez Panisse in Berkley in California, baking delicious, simple pastries, cookies and galettes with beautiful ingredients. Beautiful butter, beautiful fresh eggs, beautiful, seasonal fresh currants, cherries and  organic flowers and herbs to embellish the cakes.

Image: @violetcakeslondon

In 2005, she moved to London and set up a stall in Broadway Market in Hackney selling cupcakes. There was a queue from the very first day for Claire’s beautiful but sometimes not picture perfect looking creations.
Somehow, people’s gut feeling told them that this was real and much more likely to taste delicious than the perfect looking fondant iced confections so prevalent nowadays.
Image: www.instagram.com/violetcakeslondon

Violet Café and Bakery was started and word spread fast. Both royalty and celebrities snuck in or sent along quietly for a goodie box of Claire’s treats from Violet Café. Claire never divulged their names or very personal cravings.
Her style is Anglo-American – her scones are long triangles with sugar tops and many delicious additions peach, raspberry, white chocolate...
Her buttery ‘biscuits’ which we would call scones are made with lots of sour cream and occasionally butter, are split in half and sold as breakfast ‘biscuits’ with bacon, egg and hot sauce inside.
Among the celebrities we now know who were her fans, was a fellow American girl with style, called Meghan Markle which led to Claire being asked to make ‘the wedding cake’ for Harry and Meghan’s wedding. When the story broke, Claire was suddenly catapulted onto the international stage – her Instagram followers went from 69,000 to 205,000 in a few days.
Image: @violetcakeslondon

There are now plans to open a second Violet Café next year and all because of cake….
Claire is passionate about the importance of using quality ingredients for baking delicious cakes, breads and pastries. She told us about a fast emerging trend for ‘seasonal cakes’. The wedding cake was an Amalfi lemon and elderflower perfumed cake because the wedding was in the midst of the elderflower season in May.
Claire and her daughter Frances at Ballymaloe Cookery School - Image: @violetcakeslondon

I love the idea of cakes reflecting the seasons, so easy as we come into the summer with an abundance of summer fruit, berries and currants around the corner. Claire also used lots of spelt, sorghum, kamut, rice and rye, khorasan flour and soft cane sugars for her cakes and has many gluten free and accidentally vegan confections – something for everyone to enjoy.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Sri Lankan Spice

It came as quite a surprise to many to discover that one of the several ‘hats’ I wear is Honorary Council General for Sri Lanka to Ireland…

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The 3,000 plus Sri Lankan community in Ireland are of course aware but it wasn’t until the tragic events in late April when I attended mass in the St Mary’s Pro Cathedral, celebrated by Archbishop Martin for the victims of the massacre that my connection became more public.
I accepted the honorary role in November 2017 on the invitation of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe…. who visited Ireland and Ballymaloe Cookery School over Christmas period in 2015.


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Our Sri Lankan lunch for some of the Sri Lankan community and dignitaries, here at Ballymaloe Cookery School.
I’ve visited Sri Lanka many times, an astoundingly beautiful country, lush, green and fertile with delicious food and warm and friendly people who have endured  many years of turbulence but had recently become accustomed to a more peaceful era.
Sri Lankan tea is some of the finest in the world. I’ve visited the tea plantations and seen at first hand the care and dedication that is involved, from the hand picking of the ‘tips’ of the Camellia Sinensis, tea bush to the drying, withering, grading….
Sri Lankan tea pickers. Image: http://nagenahiru.org/women-plantation-workers/
It is important that the Sri Lankan tea industry remains glyphosate free at a time when there is a growing concern worldwide among scientists and the general public about the toxic effects of pesticides.
True cinnamon is native to the lush tropical forests of southern Sri Lanka. The gentle coastal hills are especially suited to the growth of cinnamon. Wars have been fought over this spice. In 1505 the Portuguese sailed to that part of the world in search of cinnamon so they could cut out the Arab middlemen. In those days it was gathered from wild trees but when the Dutch succeeded the Portuguese the first plantations were sown and cinnamon has been flourishing ever since.

Sri Lankan cinnamon estate : https://acriltea.com
On my last trip to Sri Lanka I wanted to see the process of cinnamon production for myself so I visited Mirissa Hills, a working cinnamon estate with 360 degree views over Weligama Bay. Thilak the general manager, showed us around the estate which grows both cinnamon and galangal and explained the whole process. On our way to the plantation we passed the little temple to Pathini, The Buddhist God of cinnamon. The air was filled with the scent of cinnamon.
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The cinnamon is still harvested and peeled in the same time honoured way by the skilled Salagama caste. It cannot be mechanised and the process has survived virtually unchanged since ancient times.
The cinnamon peelers go into the fields early in the morning. They choose twigs about 5 feet long and about 1 ½ inches thick -  straighter are easier to peel.  Shoots or leaves are trimmed with a sharp curved machete. 

The skill has been passed down from generation to generation over the centuries. The peelers sit cross legged on hessian sacks on the floor in the peeling shed with their bundle of cinnamon sticks by their side. They need just three tools, a curved peeler, a brass rod and a small sharp knife called a kokaththa.
First the outer dark leathery layer is shaved off; this is returned to the cinnamon fields for compost.
When the peelers have several layers of precious inner bark they carefully layer them inside each other, over lapping to create a four foot quill.
Image: https://acriltea.com

These are carefully laid on strings of coconut coir hanging beneath the tin roof. It takes eight days, away from sunlight for them to curl and dry. They will then be rolled tightly, and allowed to dry for a further ten days. The cinnamon ‘quills’ are then tied into large bundles to sell in the market where they will be precisely cut into the cinnamon sticks we know.
Real cinnamon is known to be a natural ‘cholesterol buster’, unlike it’s inferior and cheaper relation cassia, which is often passed off as cinnamon.
How to know the difference….true cinnamon comes from the thin pliable bark of the Cinnamomum Verum trees. This cinnamon is softer, flakier and paler than cassia which too has it’s place but the flavour is more acrid than sweet, gentle and aromatic. This is the Sri Lankan cinnamon, which I use at Ballymaloe Cookery School,  perfumes for both sweet and savoury dishes.
Hard quills or ‘bark like’ pieces are more likely to be cassia so save those for vegetarian curries if you don’t have true cinnamon. Always try to buy cinnamon whole and grind it yourself, ready ground cinnamon is regularly cut with the less expensive cassia. So it’s darker in colour and has a more aggressive flavour. I’ve had many questions about Sri Lankan food, is it similar to Indian food, hotter, spicier…? In fact it is a wonderful melange of Indian, Indonesian and Dutch flavours reflecting the countries history as a spice producer and trading post over several centuries.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Sweet as Honey

Today, May 20th, is World Bee Day, so a whole post this week on honey, nature’s most delicious, interesting and bio diverse sweetener.
Honey has long been prized for its medicinal properties, now backed up by modern medicine and a growing body of scientific research. I’m a big honey aficionado...

Ancient Ireland was known as the Land of Milk and Honey and coincidently the name Ballymaloe means the Townland of Sweet Honey. The anglicized version of the Irish Baile Meal Luadh – meal means honey and luadh means soft or sweet. These names entered into the language over 2,000 years ago and would always have reflected a particular attribute of that place. So Ballymaloe must have been well known for the quality of the honey from surrounding the area.

Here at Ballymaloe Cookery School we have some hives in the pear and apple orchard looked after by our local bee keeper... beautiful honey...
Both honey and bees are utterly intriguing, the colour, flavour and aroma of honey reflects the flora from which the bees collect the nectar. Heather honey tastes and smells quite different from mixed flower or apple blossom, ivy, rapeseed…
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Honeys from further afield have their own distinctive taste. Lavender honey captures the aromatic essence of the lavender plant as does chestnut, orange or acacia blossom. Honey from pine forests which I also love, tends to be more resinous and a deeper amber colour.
The New Zealanders did a brilliant marketing job on Manuka honey when they discovered that is was most effective in killing antibiotic resistant infections such as MRSA. But it’s not the only honey with these and many other healing attributes. Raw honey is increasingly being used to treat, difficult to heal, wounds and burns. Other studies have shown its efficacy as a cough soother.
Raw honey is the term used for honey that has not been heat treated to extract the honey from the combs. It still has its full complement of antioxidants, enzymes and antibacterial properties. It looks paler in colour, and sets almost solid in the jar. Here in Ireland we have an astonishingly wide range of honeys. Check out the local bee keeper/s in your parish. I seem to favour honey from small local producers. Talk to the beekeeper, hear the story, each honey will taste different and contain the antibodies and enzymes of the area, which help to counteract eczema and hay fever. Look out for city bee keepers too. The Dublin Honey Project is intriguing as is Belfast Bees;  there are similar projects in London, Paris, New York, Sydney …
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How about keeping bees yourself? It’s really thrilling to have your own honey. It’ll be slightly different every year depending on what the bees are feeding on and the prevailing weather. If the idea of doing the bee keeping yourself doesn’t appeal, contact your local bee keeper, they are often delighted to have few more hives. Particularly in an organic garden or on a rooftop in an urban or rural area where there are little or no pesticides.... Scientists are now convinced that neonicotinoids have been damaging vital bee colonies and have a dramatic impact on eco systems that support food production and wildlife.
The EU banned the use of neonicotinoids in 2018 after a major report from EFSA concluded that the widespread use of these chemicals is in part responsible for the plummeting number of pollinators, vital for global food production – they pollinate ¾ of all crops. Finally,  governments appear to be listening to their citizens concerns, so hopefully the bee numbers will begin to recover. Nature given half a chance has an amazing ability to heal and regenerate.
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Image: The Conscious Kitchen
Honey is not only brilliant lathered on toast, I regularly add a spoonful to savoury dishes, dressings and salads to balance acidity and add a sweet- sour element. Chefs are caramelizing honey to add a bitter note to some desserts... Have several types in your pantry, so you can experiment with different characteristics. We love to have a whole honeycomb for our guests at breakfast and if you’re crafty you can make a candle from the left over wax....

Monday, 29 April 2019

Meat-Free Mondays

Big fuss on Prime Time recently when An Taisce’s Green Schools Programme with support from the National Climate Change Action and Awareness Programme recommended that schools implement ‘Meatless Mondays’ and encourage children to eat less meat and dairy. The IFA were up in arms and the ensuing debate only served to confuse viewers even further.

So what to do…? There’s no denying climate change, it’s a blatantly obvious reality in all our lives and each and every one of us has a responsibility to play our part to mitigate it in our own little way. Cooks and chefs can combat climate change by actively sourcing their product from farmers and food producers who farm sustainably in harmony with nature and by working towards a zero waste policy. The same principals apply to the rest of us, but back to the furore. The farming community overall are responding positively to the challenge and are doing their best to move to more sustainable farming systems but meanwhile there’s nothing to be gained from ‘shooting the messenger’. Best to concentrate on producing the very best meat and dairy products, delicious, nutrient dense food that consumers can truly trust: grass-fed, chemical-free and free from residues of antibiotics. I’m often asked what exactly is the definition of grass-fed? Difficult to get an answer…
Nonetheless, whether we like it or not it’s time to accept that reduced meat consumption is a trend that is definitely here to stay. Note that multi millions of dollars are being invested in the meat substitute industry. That is not going to change anytime soon so let’s put our efforts here in Ireland into producing REAL quality not quantity and charge enough for it. One can of course be super healthy on a vegetarian diet provided one can source nutrient dense organic vegetables and grains.
I myself am, what’s nowadays termed as a flexitarian and a very happy one at that. I love vegetarian dishes and also eat lots of ‘accidently vegan’ food but love good meat, poultry and fish. However I’m super careful about the quality of the meat and fish I eat. I go to considerable lengths to source organic, free range chicken – considerably more expensive but cheaper in the end because I can get six meals from one plump chicken and a fine pot of broth which in itself is ‘super food’. I also try to find lamb from a local butcher who can find a sheep farmer who finishes his lambs on grass rather than concentrates, the difference in the sweetness of the meat is palpable.
I search for beef from our native breeds, Hereford, Aberdeen Angus, Poll Angus, Shorthorn, Dexter or Moilie. I’m looking for a rich beefy flavor when I enjoy a small steak, a stew and indeed the crucially important offal or organ meats as they are referred to by the excellent Weston A. Price Foundation, whose Wise Traditions podcasts and guidelines for optimum nutrition are worth checking out. 
However, it’s really important to remember our farmers who labour day in day to produce the food that nourishes us… Many are having a really tough time at present, struggling to meet the challenges coming from all directions – the uncertainty caused by Brexit, rising production costs coupled with lower and lower prices at farm gate as the supermarkets force the prices ever lower to provide their customers with cheaper and cheaper food.
We urgently need ‘true cost accountancy’ so consumers understand that cheap food is a myth in health terms and socioeconomic terms. As tax payers we pay many times over to provide subsidies to support what are in many instances unsustainable systems, to clean up the environment, and our rivers and lakes and to fund the health service.
So the real price of the item is invariably 4 or 5 times the price on the shelf. The biggest threat to our health and food security is the low price of food at the farm gate. Farmers, particularly small farmers, are leaving the land in droves all over the world, sad and disheartened because they simply cannot produce the nourishing wholesome food, we say we want for the price they are being paid for it. We are sleepwalking into a gargantuan crisis. The non-farming communities  are generally unaware that farmers are fortunate to get 1/3 of the retail price and lucky to be paid months later. What other section is expected to sell their product or services below an economic level and survive?
I happen to believe that dairy products and good meat and fish are vitally important elements in our children’s diets and am a great fan of butter and organic raw milk from a small dairy herd. It’s interesting to note that the demand for raw milk is growing steadily as people become aware of its extra nutritional elements and flavour. Despite the perception, it is not illegal to sell raw milk in Ireland, it is available at several Farmers Markets and small shops. Check out Mahon Point Farmers Market, Midleton Farmers Market and Neighbourfood to name a few…

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Happy Easter





Happy Easter to you all! What extraordinary weather we’re having as we spring into summer and back into winter again. Just a few mornings ago there was a bitter frost and then a glorious summer day… The leaves of my poor little beetroot seedlings got frizzled in the garden so I hope they’ll recover…
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This weather ‘roller coaster’ is kinda spooky… Normally the pale yellow stalks of sea kale are in season in April but this year we’ve been harvesting them from under the cloches for over a month, in fact the crop is almost finished. Even more extraordinary is our asparagus crop usually in season in May. This year we ate the first meal at the end of February and have had several cuttings since.
Super charged, climate change whether cyclical or man-made or a combination of both is a terrifying reality, however as a consequence, this Easter we can enjoy not just the first of the rhubarb but both Irish asparagus and the last of the seasons sea kale.
In every village shop and on the high street, the shelves are groaning with Easter eggs, ever cheaper and if the truth be known, less good chocolate in many. As we scramble for the cheaper and cheaper food, I can’t help thinking about the poor cocoa bean farmers, who are forced to take less and less for their raw materials – price takers, not price makers…
As with Christmas, the blatant excess and consumerism makes me deeply uneasy and almost feel queasy. Somehow it makes me focus even more on the true meaning of the Feast of Easter, I vividly remember a time when we all fasted throughout Lent and took on a penance of our choice. We ‘gave up’ sweets or ‘the drink’ or some other secret obsession…and then there was the satisfaction of having kept to our resolution and the joy of the first bite of an Easter egg on Easter Sunday after Mass or Church – one lovely little chocolate egg that we ate morsel by morsel often over several days.
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Image: Briana Palma

The hens in our ‘Palais de Poulets’ have gone into overdrive, they hate the cold, wet Winter days, and only lay haphazardly but coming up to Easter they start to lay again with gay abandon so if you have a few hens and I hope I’ve managed to persuade you by now to have a little moveable chicken coup on your lawn - you can enjoy dipping those tender asparagus spears into a freshly boiled egg.



Pam has already made the traditional Simnel Cake with a layer of marzipan in the centre and 11 balls on top to symbolise the apostles. Yes, I know there were 12 but Judas doesn’t make it to the top of the cake…
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Image: Independent.ie
We’ll roast a shoulder of sweet succulent Easter lamb and enjoy it with the already prolific spearmint in the herb garden and then of course there will be a juicy rhubarb tart. This year I’m using the Ballymaloe cream pastry recipe, it sounds super decadent and is but it’s extraordinarily good and super easy to make so don’t balk at the ingredients – just try it!

Monday, 15 April 2019

Hot Spots on The New York Food Scene

I spent a week in New York over the St Patrick's Day festival. Even though the primary reason was to do events and interviews to promote Ireland and my latest book, Darina Allen, Simply Delicious: The Classic Collection, (quite a mouthful!), so it was also a brilliant opportunity to check out the New York and Brooklyn food scene. 

I am regularly asked to share my New York list so here are some of my favourite spots and new finds...
Brooklyn, just over the bridge from Manhattan has many tempting options, one could spend ones entire week checking out different exciting spots. I love Roman’s, Marlow & Sons, The Diner, Hometown Bar B Que and I also hear good things about Ugly Baby but we chose Chez Ma Tante (at 90, Calyer Street) this time, and had a super delicious Sunday brunch, in fact so good that I wished I’d been able to get back for dinner. We particularly loved the oysters with parsley oil and yuyu... 

As well as a 3-inch high kale quiche with a bitter leaf salad, chips with aioli, stracciatella with toasted almonds, raisins, preserved lemons and marjoram with sourdough toast.
Image: https://www.instagram.com/chez_ma_tante/

But the stand out dish was their craggy meltingly rich corn pancakes with maple butter. There are pancakes and there are pancakes but these were by far the best I ever tasted, sweet, salty, crisp and buttery on the outside, soft melting and irresistibly gritty inside. Definitely one of the highlights of the week with pure Vermont maple butter melting over the top.
Image: https://www.instagram.com/chez_ma_tante/

A tiny, Japanese panelled restaurant called Hall is another little gem in the Flatiron. The juicy washu (not wagyu) beef burger served deliciously pink on a brioche bun was particularly delectable and only $5.99.
Image: Superiority Burger Cookbook, Grub Street Press

You also need to know about Superiority Burger, a tiny cult café on 430 East 9th Street, in the East Village. It’s a veggie burger spot and to quote the forthright chef owner Brooks Headley “occasionally vegan by accident”! In this kitchen the produce is superb, don’t miss the must-get Superiority burger. Different specialities every day including homemade gelato and sorbet. There’s very little seating and often a queue but worth it. Unquestionably one of the best restaurants in lower Manhattan and surprisingly cheap for the quality.

I Sodi and Via Carota in the West Village are two of my enduring favourites. I love the simple rustic but always edgy food that much loved chefs, Rita Sodi and Jody Williams offer. Their version of cacio e pepe, the creamy peppery Roman pasta dish, is the best in New York and here’s the spot to also enjoy  a homey plate of braised tripe. No reservations at Via Carota, it’s open till midnight so is particularly worth remembering for late night dining.

King on King’s Street is wowing New Yorkers with their seasonal Italian menu - homestyle cooking with a daily changing menu. The light is particularly wonderful at lunch time in the chic but cosy dining room with the bonus of beautiful art on the walls.
Image: https://www.lamerceriecafe.com/
La Mercerie Café at the Roman and Williams Guild at 53 Howard Street in Soho and a luxury design store, super chic, expensive but worth checking out.
I also returned to both Café Altro Paradiso and Cervo’s, another favourite with lots of small plates, great salads and cocktails. I particularly loved the tortilla with butter beans and chorizo.

Image: https://www.instagram.com/dailyprov/

Daily Provisions
on East 19th is my all-time favourite breakfast or brunch spot, certainly the very best house-cured bacon and egg sandwich in New York. They serve it in a brioche bun, both the texture and flavour are totally delicious. Don’t miss the gougère filled with mushrooms or spinach scrambled eggs. 
The lively little Parisian style café, Buvette, on 42 Grove Street is also top of my 
list. Super coffee, viennoiserie and little plates
Image: https://www.instagram.com/maialino_nyc/

 And finally for now, there’s Maialino for many good things but if you haven’t already had their cacio et pepe scrambled eggs with sourdough toast put it on your bucket list.
This time I sat at the counter and had a few little snacks, loved the grilled organic chicken hearts on rosemary skewers and the white bean puree with sage pesto, espelette pepper and carta musica.

There’s lots more but all of the above are favourites of mine that I couldn't resist sharing with you…