Monday, 22 July 2019

Food Adventures in Andalucia

I’m in Spain, just an hour north west of Seville and I’ve just had the most (for me) idyllic morning wandering in a remote part of Andalucia through oak woods where the black legged Iberian pigs snuffle to find the acorns that make the famous Jamon de bellotta (cured ham) from this area so  sweet and exquisite. But today I’m picking wild plums directly from the trees, there are two types, yellow mirabelles and small wine coloured fruit that look like fat cherries, sweeter and not as tart as damsons but a similar size. Sadly the wild figs and pomegranate aren’t quite ripe yet but the green walnuts are just at the perfect stage for pickling.

We’re staying at Finca Buenvino near Aracena, a pink washed, guest house, covered in wisteria and vines, virtually hidden amongst the chestnut and cork oak trees on a hilltop in the heart of the Sierra de Aracena.
Sam Chesterton and his Scottish wife Jeannie came to Spain in the early seventies in search of an old ruin to convert but eventually decided to build on this beautiful site close to a spring of clear water, an immensely important factor in Spain.


Much of the building material was old and traditional, local brick, terracotta tiles, metal grills, high arched doors, a panelled dining room, an intriguing mix of Scottish country house and Spanish villa with a relaxed country house feel.
Finca Buenvina has just five bedrooms, the house can be taken as a unit complete with cook and cleaner or one can just stay on as a guest and be pampered. There’s also the option of several lovely self catering cottages in the woods complete with pool.  It’s quite the find for those who are seeking an alternative to Costa del Sol. Sam and Jeannie are the most genial of hosts. Jeannie cooks the kind of food that I love to eat and now their son Charlie has joined Jeannie in the kitchen.

The food scraps from the kitchen get fed to the happy hens who scratch around under the trees so beautiful eggs for the many Spanish egg dishes. Tapas before dinner were some of the best I’ve tasted anywhere – quail egg with morcilla, Pimenton de Padron, tortillitas.…
A little shaded corner to curl up with a book or just snooze for a siesta in the afternoon and yet another memorable dinner on a terrace as the sun sets with the swifts swooping and whistling overhead.

Sam and Jeannie offer regular cooking classes and one can book now to partake in the traditional metanza early in the New Year, the next one is scheduled for around the first week in February 2020. A fascinating experience where one can learn how to butcher and preserve every scrap of the free range black pigs from the snout to the tail. Learn how to cure jamon in sea salt, (Kg for every kilo of ham) and how to make a variety of chorizo and salchichon, morcilla, zarappa, chistora and a myriad of other porky treats. At the end there’s a party with a huge cauldron of guiso de cerdo, a pork stew, serve with lots of beer and red wine and much merriment.
Wannabe writers can join a Writers Retreat – details for all of these options are on their website. They even have their own cookbook - The Buenvino Cookbook – Recipes from our farmhouse in Spain.
Other places to eat in the area:
D’Caprichio in Los Marinos
Jesus Carrion Restaurante in Aracena
Visit Cinco Jotas in Jabujo for a tour of the Jamon curing rooms to taste the very best Jamon that Spain has to offer - understand why Pata Negra is so revered around the world.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Honey & Smoke


Honey & Co chefs, husband and wife team, Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, are sitting contentedly at our kitchen table podding peas and broad beans for supper. 

They’ve spent the afternoon prepping for their guest chef course at the Ballymaloe Cookery School.  They live in Central London, run two mega successful and much loved restaurants and a deli called Honey & Smoke in Fitzrovia.

Each is jam packed with guests who absolutely love their homey Middle Eastern food. There’s something particularly welcoming, warm and comforting about Sarit and Itamar’s places and it’s the kind of food we love to eat, who isn’t addicted to scooping up dollops of hummus or baba ganoush on ashtanur flat bread or pitta. 
They both love cooking and have since they were five. They originally met in the kitchen of a posh Italian Restaurant in Israel but decided to emigrate to London, where they worked in the Orrery, it’s worth knowing that Sarit was pastry chef for Ottolenghi and executive head chef at Nopi, both sensational restaurants.
This is their third guest chef appearance at the Ballymaloe Cookery School (read about their 2015 visit here). They love coming to Ireland and their idea of heaven is being able to wander through the farm and gardens, pick the leaves and petals for the salad, dig potatoes, snip off the blossoms from the zucchini, licking their lips at the thought of how they will prepare them.  Real cooks are endlessly excited by beautiful produce and exciting new flavours.  
They have searched the highways and byways of the Middle East for the best spices, sumac, za’atar and best street food.  Their enthusiasm is infectious, even strangers sometimes share recipes with them – they endlessly try to recreate the flavours of their childhood and home country.  Honey & Spice is like a tiny Aladdin’s Cave with shelves packed with the best Middle Eastern ingredients, which I’ve discovered I can now order online to recreate their recipes from their three books.

Image result for Honey & Co At HomeHoney & Co, Honey & Co The Baking Book and the recently published Honey & Co At Home, which has already become many of their devotees favourite.  
The format of Honey & Co At Home is different to the two previous books and includes recipes, For Us Two, For Friends, For the Weekend, For a Crowd…at the end of the book there’s an excellent section entitled For the Kitchen, a sort of store cupboard section of spice mixes, pickles, relishes & sauces.  The book is worth the price for this one chapter alone. Their harissa, ras el hanout and tahini has certainly added zing to my dishes, I also love the pithy and the self-deprecating writing.
It’s also worth checking out the Honey & Co podcast The Food Talks available on iTunes and Spotify to download and several segments on YouTube where they are cooking favourite dishes in their inimitable way.
25 Warren St., Fitzrovia, London, W1T 5LZ Tel: + 44 2073886175
Honey & Spice
52 Warren St., Kings Cross, London W1T 5NJ Tel: + 44 2073886175
Honey & Smoke
216 Great Portland Street, London W1W 5QW Tel: + 44 2073886175

Monday, 24 June 2019

Coombeshead Farm - a farm to fork guest house

A few weeks ago we flew from Cork Airport to Bristol, hired a car and headed for Devon and Cornwall. I’d forgotten how beautiful the English countryside can be, the abundance of wildflowers in the hedgerows and so many beautiful mature trees.  One can’t but draw comparison to our Irish countryside, so often denuded of hedgerows and with so few mature trees.  Of course it depends on the area in both countries but I’m becoming ever more alarmed at the wanton disregard for the environment.
We had booked a few nights stay at Coombeshead Farm near Lewannick in Cornwall, a ‘farm to fork’, guest house with just five bedrooms owned by chefs Tom Adams and his partner April Bloomfield. 
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Image: https://www.coombesheadfarm.co.uk/gallery
We arrived tired and hungry and felt instantly at home. The bedrooms are small by most hotel standards but charmingly decorated with a homemade soap made from the lard of their own pigs, a little decanter of mint vodka to sip and two pieces of homemade toffee to share or argue over. The house is surrounded by organic gardens in a working farm with vegetable and herb gardens and a flock of heritage chickens.
The farmhouse is in the midst of 66 acres of woodlands and meadows grazed by sheep, there are beehives and a wood burning oven and a fire pit. Curly haired Mangalitsa pigs romping and rooting around the fields underneath the oak spinney behind the house. The bread is made in the ‘state of the art’ bakery in the barn by Ben Glazer, beautiful dark crusty loaves of natural sour dough that also make their way to some of the top restaurants in London.
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Image: https://www.coombesheadfarm.co.uk/gallery

The food is super delicious, we stayed for three nights and looked forward to each and every meal with eager anticipation. The atmosphere feels like a house party, comfy sofas, crackling fires - guests tend to congregate in the kitchen around the stove. 
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Image: https://www.coombesheadfarm.co.uk/gallery
Breakfast each day was a simple feast, dark crusty sourdough bread with homemade Guernsey butter, compote of seasonal fruit - rhubarb, apple, gooseberry with elderflower, raw honey, homemade jams, granola, bircher muesli, gut boosting water kefir, kombucha and gorgeous unctuous yoghurt. A most fantastic slab of fine home cured streaky bacon and homemade sausages from the happy rare breed Mangalitsa pigs with a soft flowing scramble of their own eggs.
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Image: https://www.coombesheadfarm.co.uk/gallery
Lots of pickling, fermenting, curing and preserving. Small plates of creative, flavourful real food. No silly foams, gels or skid marks on plates.
Here these young people are really ‘walking the walk’, not just ‘talking the talk’ as so many places do, skilled, accomplished earthy organic food, locally sourced and seasonal.
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Image: https://www.coombesheadfarm.co.uk/gallery
The menus sang of the season and the produce picked at its peak from the vegetable garden and hedgerows - zero miles food. I’m licking my lips remembering some of the flavours still so vibrantly fresh in my mind: Country loaf and Guernsey butter, new season's asparagus wrapped in crispy filo parcel, garlic scapes and Jack of the Hedge, pickled ramson and cabbage terrine, curds and nettle, Mangalitsa loin and turnip, hazelnut tart with fresh cream… you’ll just have to go there yourself to experience the magic!



Monday, 17 June 2019

Gooseberries – The Forgotten Fruit

This evening we had compote of gooseberries with elderflower after supper with a few friends, a simple dessert, just stewed gooseberries really but it blew everyone away. Most of our friends hadn’t tasted gooseberries for years – they had virtually forgotten about them. 



The intense flavour sent them into a spin of nostalgia many called them Goosegogs when they were children. They reminisced about the gooseberry bushes in Granny’s garden, picking gooseberries from the prickly bushes, top and tailing them around the kitchen table for gooseberry jam, and the dire warnings not to eat them before they were ripe or “you’d get a pain where you never had a window”.

Wonderful how a flavour brings memories flooding back, one mouthful and I was back in our little vegetable garden in Cullohill, picking tart green berries into an enamel bowl, so hard they sounded like stones against the side of the bowl.


Gooseberries are ripening in the Ornamental Fruit Garden - Ballymaloe Cookery School

Mummy usually made red gooseberry jam from the riper fruit, but years later I discovered the magic of green gooseberry and elderflower jam from Jane Grigson’s Good Things cookbook published in 1971.
She also introduced me to the magical combination of green gooseberry and elderflower. Ever since, as soon as I see elderflower blossoms in the hedgerows, I know it’s time to dash down the garden to rummage through the prickly branches of the gooseberry bushes to pick the hard, green, bitter, marble-sized berries.
It’s difficult to imagine that they are ready to eat but believe me they make the best jams and compotes at this stage and also freeze brilliantly.
If you don’t have a gooseberry bush in your garden, dash out and buy at least one now, better still three, at least one should be Careless, Invicta is another delicious variety which is somewhat resistant to mildew.
Unless you live close to a good Country or Farmers Market you are not likely to find fresh gooseberries. Unlike strawberries and raspberries which are available ad nauseam all year round, fresh gooseberries are rarely to be found on a supermarket shelf.
We grow several varieties of gooseberries; some in bush form. We train others as cordons or in a fan shape along a wall. The latter are a brilliant discovery, so much easier to pick. Gooseberries are deciduous and the fruit is high in Vitamin C.
Only today, I discovered the origin of the word gooseberry or spíonán in Irish, apparently they were so named because they were used to make a sauce for roast goose to cut the richness – Can you imagine how delicious that combination would be?

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.
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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.
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.