Saturday, 15 September 2018

Ireland's West Coast - A Foodie Tour

For me, ambling slowly through the Burren in Co. Clare is almost a spiritual experience – the prehistoric landscape feels sooo ancient,  I can virtually feel the spirit of those who chipped away patiently to build the drystone walls that still provide enduring shelter for the little fields.

It’s like driving through the Garden of Eden, fields of wild flowers interspersed with an occasional elderberry or hawthorn bush scattered here and there, a flock of sheep grazing contentedly, even a few cattle.
Can you imagine how delicious the meat of the animals reared on this bio-diverse pasture must be.  Looks like there will be lots of sloes and hazelnuts too, the blackberries are just ripening on the brambles pleading to be picked.
Image: Alison Derham for The Irish Times

We’re on our way to Ennistymon to eat at Little Fox, a newly opened, super cool café on a corner of Main Street.  A short menu of delicious food, a red lentil and turmeric soup with masala yoghurt and toasted seeds was delicious as were all the salads and the Gubeen sambo on flatbread.
Just across the road is a cheese shop called The Cheese Press owned by the inimitable Sinead Ni Ghairbhith. Locals get 30 cents off their coffee if they bring their own cup to reduce plastic use.
Just across the street, a little further up,  Pot Duggan’s (McKenna's Guide Irish Pub of the Year 2018) is also rocking so set aside a little time to visit Ennistymon and beautiful Co. Clare.


Then on to Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Roscommon to visit a variety of inspirational farms.  First, Ronan Byrne aka The Friendly Farmer who rears free-range turkeys and geese and has a farm shop on his 35 acre farm at Knockbrack close to Athenry. Ronan also sells at the Moycullen Farmers Market on Friday and the Galway Farmers Market on Saturday where his growing number of devotees often queue up to buy his produce.
Image: Rare Ruminare.ie

Near Ballymote in Co Sligo, we came upon Clive Bright’s enterprise, known as Rare Ruminare, Clive has a most beautiful herd of Hereford and Shorthorn cattle which he ‘mob grazes’ on lush,  organic pastures on his family farm near Ballymote in Co  Sligo. Clive Bright’s Hereford and Shorthorn meat can be bought in chilled boxes insulated with lambs’ wool, directly from www.rareruminare.  I can certainly vouch for the flavour having eaten Clive’s beef cheeks for lunch – this young farmer cooks brilliantly as well. Loved his paintings too –detailed drawings of insects and plant life, beautifully observed.

Image: http://www.drumanilra.ie

From there we popped in to Drumanilra Farm Kitchen Café in Boyle and met owners Liam and Justina Gavin whose beautiful farm overlooks Lough Kee,  I won’t easily forget the few minutes I spent leaning on a farm gate watching Drumanilra’s herd of gentle Dexter cattle grazing naturally and contentedly on the nourishing pasture.  These cattle will have an honourable end on a plate in the café in their much sought after Dexter burgers or for local people to buy in the farm shop, look out for their rashers and sausages too.


We covered a lot of ground over a couple of days.... On our way south, we detoured to Birr to catch up on Ballymaloe Cookery School alumni, Hannah Ward at Woodfield Café just outside the town.  Another cool café – delicious brunch and a wander around the tempting Woodfield Garden Centre at the rear.  A lovely surprise to find Mueller, O’Connell sourdough bread from Abbeyleix for toasted bacon and Mossfield cheese sandwiches.
Image: www.riotrye.ie 

Our next stop, the Eco-Village at Cloughjordan in Co Tipperary to meet Joe Fitzmaurice in his Riot Rye bakery, wonderful smells....we had the opportunity to watch Joe shaping and baking his sour dough loaves in the  wood-burning oven – beautiful crusty bread to nourish his community which for him is a major priority. Check out his sour bread classes, www.riotrye.ie.
Just outside the town we found Mimi and Owen Crawford whose rich and beautiful organic raw milk and butter, people flock to buy at Limerick Milk Market and locally.
They also rear and sell their own plump Ross free-range organic chickens, lamb, bacon and pork.  Their small 20-acre holding is super-productive with a little tunnel and vegetable patch bursting with fresh product. 
That was the last stop on this short reconnaissance
trip - so many inspirational people.  We ran out of time to visit Sodalicious in Limerick, a recent start-up owned by another Ballymaloe Cookery School allumni Jane Ellison - we hear it's worth a detour.
HOT  TIPS

Riot Rye Bakery, Cloughjordan will host the Real Bread Ireland Gathering on Saturday September 22nd 2018, check out www.riotrye.ie for details of courses through the year.
Also Féile na nÚll Apple Festival The Sustainable Community Fair on Saturday 22nd September. A Taste of Cloughjordan Ecovillage for more details see www.thevillage.ie for a day of talks and discussions, amphitheatre performance, apple pressing, apple pie contest, Ecovillage guided tour, The Little Food Fair and so much more…..



Friday, 7 September 2018

A Rewarding Trip to China



Recently I went all the way to China … The impetus for the trip was the news that my last book Grow Cook Nourish had been shortlisted for a World Gourmand Cookbook award. It was up against stiff competition including Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Companion and Oprah Winfrey’s Food, Health and Happiness… reckoned that my tome urging people to take back control over their food, grow some of their own and cook it, wouldn’t have a chance.


Image result for grow cook nourish


Nonetheless it was an excuse to spend a few days doing some edible research in China and surprise, surprise, Grow Cook Nourish WON a special award  - Best World Gourmand Cookbook 2017 -
and my publisher Kyle Cathie received the Publisher of the Year Award so that was definitely the ‘icing on the cake’ …



On this trip we took in Beijing, Datong, Pingyao and Yantai where
the awards were hosted.

Yes, I walked on the Great Wall of China, visited the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, The Summer Garden and the totally awesome Hanging Temples near Mount Hengshan in the Shanxi Province but in this piece, I’ll concentrate on the food and the many good things we tasted.



The pace of change, in virtually all Chinese cities is just jaw
dropping, most of the traditional single or double storey houses have been demolished to make way for gigantic skyscrapers 28-30 stories tall, the horizon is dotted with the tallest cranes I’ve ever seen.

Peking duck is the great speciality of Beijing. Of course there are a
myriad of restaurants who serve it, Mongolian hot pot too, but if you have a craving for McDonald’s or KFC they are there aplenty,
however I’m always on a mission to taste the local street foods and so far, they are still a part of everyday life, even in Beijing where it
seems there is a huge push towards all things Western. A wander
through a local vegetable market is also an illuminating window into local culture and eating habits. One of Beijing’s most fascinating is the Sanyvanli Market, opens at 6am and has stall after stall of beautiful super fresh vegetables and exotic fruit, mangosteen, durian, lychees, pomelo, also ripe mangoes and huge hard scary grapes, some round, others pointy. All the fruit and vegetables were beautifully presented and packed including, boxes of spanking fresh waxberries (myrica rubra) also called Chinese bayberry, all juicy and delicious.Stalls were piled high with fish and shellfish, scallops, sea urchins, crabs, lobsters, crayfish, much of it still alive.

Butcher shops selling freshly slaughtered meat, black and white
skinned poultry and tons of offal. A wild mushroom stall with a mind-blowing selection of fungi including cauliflower mushrooms the size of a baby’s head. Two little bakeries, making Chinese flat breads,were nestled among the stalls. I loved watching them rolling huge rounds of dough – 2 feet in diameter and cooking it on a hot griddle, sometimes plain but often with chopped scallions or garlic chives incorporated. I took a little video so I can experiment, it was so delicious, I hope I can manage to recreate this popular breakfast bread at home.



The night markets are also a must, there are many but we visited the one just off Wangfujing Street, Beijing’s posh shopping street where all the luxury brand shops cluster. This area really comes to life after sun down.

Here I ate scorpion kebabs and crispy silk worms, surprisingly
delicious once you grit your teeth and decide to be adventurous. Lots of offal, squid and dumplings, chicken feet and gizzards and tiny toffee apples- a Beijing speciality. Lamb kebabs were also delicious but a roast goat (kid) leg with cumin and chilli was the best of all. This market was fun but a bit touristy.

Street food vendors are still a vital part of everyday life in China.
Dough stacks, youtiao, snacks like scallion pancakes, Jianbing . Sweet potatoes roasted in old cooking oil drums are also delectable.
Don’t leave China without attending a tea ceremony, a wonderful
ritual after which tea will never be the same again. We tasted ginseng, jasmine and gunpowder tea and puer, exquisite but sadly the teas I bought having been assured that they were identical quality were anything but – sadly a frequent occurrence in China, from taxis to restaurants. Follow the guidebooks advice, insist on using the taxi meter and check your bill meticulously…..otherwise a brilliant and delicious experience.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Edible Flowers


Cornflowers, primroses, forget-me-nots, day lilies, marigolds, roses, lavender, nasturtiums, dahlias, chrysanthemum


I love to scatter flower petals over desserts, cakes and biscuits. Judiciously used they also add a little magic to starter plates and salads. Of course the flowers must be edible but a wide variety of blossoms are, as well as the flowers of broad beans, scarlet runners, sun chokes, peas and sea kale, but remember they will  eventually grow into the vegetables so pick sparingly.

The canary yellow zucchini and squash blossoms are also irresistible not just to tear into salads but also to dip into a tempura batter - stuffed or unstuffed.

Image result for ballymaloe cookery school edible flowers

Even the cheery little nasturtium flower with its peppery taste are both cute and delicious stuffed with a little herby cream cheese. We also chop the gaily coloured nasturtium blossom and add them into a lemony butter to serve with a piece of spanking fresh fish.

Fennell and dill flowers have a delicious liquoricey, aniseed flavour. They too add magic to fish dishes and broths but also to some pastas and of course salads.

crab toasts
Image from one of our 12 week students: http://themarkettableblog.com

Dahlia flowers are gorgeous sprinkled over salads, I particularly love them scattered over an heirloom tomato or potato salad.

Thyme flowers are various shades of blue and purple – we love to use them to garnish little pots of pate or to sprinkle over a bowl of silky onion and thyme leaf soup.
Sage and hyssop flowers are even more intensely blue and they two give a vibrant and perky flavour to salads and summer vegetable dishes.
The kombuchas and water kefirs that we serve at the school every day also include edible flowers which introduce the yeast of the area into the gut enhancing drink.


Thursday, 16 August 2018

Guest Chef: Merlin Lebron Johnston


A couple of weeks ago the Summer 12 week Certificate Course students had a special treat, when Merlin Lebron Johnston from Portland Restaurant in London came as guest chef to The Ballymaloe Cookery School. This gentle young man is the youngest Michelin-starred chef in the UK.


Merlin Lebron-Johnson

His back story is intriguing. Merlin had a distinctly, rocky relationship with school, eventually he was fortunate to be sent to Ashbourne, a progressive school in Devon, where the students in conjunction with the teachers made the decision that going to lessons was not compulsory on the assumption that if they did turn up to class, they would be interested and give it their all. This worked brilliantly for 95% of the students, but Merlin was not interested in any class so he hung around for a bit…The secretary, a lady called Joanna doubled up as a cook and produced school dinner every day.


Three courses - vegetarian, organic and delicious. The students could either have packed lunches or school dinners but the latter was expensive so Merlin would plead with Joanna to give him some food, “She made rice pudding and crumbles, crème brûlée, great salads, pasta. I would beg her for some. We made a deal. If you want to cook you need to wash up, fine with me and seeing how I wasn’t that busy. I started helping her cook and after a bit she got busier and eventually I started to cook for my school at 15….” When exam time came the teachers said, “Well you seem to love cooking, we think you should be a chef”, so Merlin left and got a job. “Once I found cooking I became pretty obsessed and became totally focused on working in the best restaurants”.


For the next five years Merlin worked in top restaurants in the UK, Switzerland, France and Belgium, both classic and experimental, including In De Wulf in Belgium where there was a big focus on foraging and fermentation. At 23 he became sous chef there.

Meanwhile in London, Will Lander and Will Morganstern were looking out for a head chef for a new restaurant they planned to open in Great Portland Street, so at 24 he became head chef at Portland and was awarded a Michelin Star within 9 months of opening, the youngest chef in England to be awarded that accolade.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

To add to your bucket list

If you have compiled a little list of things you’d like to do before you die you might like to add; 'take an Aer Arann plane to the island Inis Meáin’...It only takes six or seven minutes but it’s a memorable flight in a tiny Cessna plane. Check in at the friendliest little airport (Connemara Airport) where you’ll be weighed in with all your bags and handbags. Travel light because if you and your baggage are too heavy you’ll have to wait for the next flight or take a ferry from Doolin. Once airborne you’ll be out over the sea in minutes and then a glimpse of the tiny fields of Inis Meáin surrounded by dry stone walls, ancient and hauntingly beautiful, a few cattle here and there and fields full of wild flowers. 



You’ll wish the flight would last longer as you taxi along the runway at Inishmann Aerodrome, towards the bungalow with the control tower on top. The fire-engines all standby but fortunately no need.  A warm welcome to Inis Meáin, the least visited of the Aran Islands and for me the most enchanting. It comes as a shock to hear Irish so clearly and beautifully spoken and to realise that English is the second language on this island. Padraig Pearce came here to improve his Irish and so did Synge whose thatched cottage one can still visit.

No ‘hurdy gurdies’ here just one shop and one pub and miles of tiny boreens to walk or cycle through, some of the boreens still have a rough surface and a strip of grass growing along the middle, here and there edged with harebells and ladys tresses and ox eye daisies. When I cycled my bike along I was on my way to Cromall at the south end of the island to watch a couple of traditional currachs (albeit with motors attached) pulling up lobster pots.  


The profusion of wild flowers in the fields reminded me of the meadows of Transylvania. I’m sure it rains occasionally in Inis Meáin but somehow the sun always shines when I’m there. We stayed at the lovely Inis Meáin Suites, two blissfully relaxing days being cherished by Marie-Therese and nourished by Ruairi’s pure and delicious elemental food – a taste of that place, of the island, of the produce from their garden and the surrounding sea, a very special place – you’ll need to plan a year ahead – bookings are open for 2018 sometime in November.


When you get there make time for a visit to Inis Meáin knitwear, beautiful, beautiful knitwear. Some utterly simple, others incorporating the traditional island patterns and the changing colours of the sea and landscape.
Visit Synge’s Cottage too and Dun Chonchuir or “Conor's Fort”. Pop into the church to see the Harry Clarke stained glass window and try to take in a ceilidh in the village hall where everyone from 9 to 90 taps their toes, swings and joins in for a Siege of Ennis and The Walls of Limerick...aahh that’s what memories are made of. 

Friday, 4 August 2017

Jerusalem

A couple of months ago I had a delicious dinner at an exciting Israeli restaurant in London’s Soho called The Palomar. The amazing vibe transported me right into the Jerusalem party scene. The intriguing Yiddish, Yemini and Meknes style dishes whetted my appetite to learn more about this kind of food. Our friends, Yotam and Sami at Ottolenghi and Itamar and Sarit from Honey and Co in London have also been spreading the word about Israeli and Middle Eastern food for decades.



As ever, I decided to make a trip to the source. I arrived into Jerusalem on a Thursday evening and headed straight for the famous Mahane Yehuda Market, known as the ‘Shuk’.

A huge colourful, partially covered, bustling market with over 250 stall holders, selling an irresistible melange of seasonal vegetables, fruit, fresh herbs…there are butchers, fish mongers, innumerable bakeries piled high with challah, babka and a tantalizing range of filo and kunefe pastries. 




Others crammed with a wide range of za'atar, tahini, sumac, fresh spices, nuts and dried fruits, dates, olives, barberries… Some just sell many variations of halva. Of course there are also little shops selling wines, housewares, clothes, sandals and a huge variety of Judaica.



In and around the edges of the market, there are street stalls and cafes offering irresistible street foods – shawarma, falafel, kebabs, kibbah, shasklik, konafe, baklava…… 



Juice stalls, press and squeeze the freshest juice as you wait, mango, orange, pomegranate, pink grapefruit, carrot, lime…..

The vendors vie with each other calling out their prices to passersby. On Thursdays and Friday morning, there’s an extra frenzy of activity as the Jewish community stock up with produce for the Sabbath meal. The bugle is sounded by a couple of Haredi men on Friday afternoon, the market closes and doesn’t reopen until Saturday afternoon.



But, what I hadn’t realised was that for the past few years, at night when the stalls close and the graffiti covered shutters are secured. The market reinvents itself into the centre of Jerusalem’s hip night life scene where local foodies, hipsters and tourists hang out. Table and chairs are set up, suddenly there’s live music, dance, cocktails and great food… The energy is off the scale.
Thursday and Saturday are the liveliest nights but every night, the area is a swinging scene. How about that for an idea for the English Market in Cork City



It was very tempting to eat in the midst of all the excitement but we’d managed to get a 10.30pm booking at Machneyuda restaurant on the outskirts of the market. It’s the inspiration for, and the mother of, The Palomar restaurant in London which had inspired my trip. It’s the hottest restaurant in Jerusalem right now and has been for quite some time. Exuberant head chef, Asaf Granet and two friends chop, dice and sauté to the beat of loud zippy music while banging on pots and pans in the open kitchen. Conversation is virtually impossible but the cacophony of sounds and the lively party scene is enough to keep all the guests wildly entertained as they enjoy Asaf’s eclectic take on Jerusalem dishes. I particularly loved the silky polenta with mushrooms, crisp asparagus, slivers of parmesan and truffle oil and of course the shikshukit and hummus with lamb and many toppings.
Dessert can be homemade twix and tonka icecream, pistachio hash cake, cheese cake in a jar – old school style. Alternatively, a table of friends could opt for the raucous splashed dessert to be hurled onto their tin foil covered table top by three exuberant chefs – a delicious spectacle – not for everyone…




Monday, 15 May 2017

LitFest is This Weekend!

It’s crazily busy at Litfest HQ – the fifth Ballymaloe Litfest is on this weekend  19th-21st May. 


This year we’ve changed the emphasis somewhat so the proper title is A Food and Drinks Literacy Festival at Ballymaloe. We’ve continued to build on the previous years events which have by now been written about from New York to Sydney, Los Angeles to Capetown with well over 35 nationalities attending.  They return to their own countries to spread the word of what’s happening on the Irish food scene and the fun and thought provoking events they attended at the Litfest. 


Sommelier Colm McCan has managed to assemble yet another world class line up in the Drinks Theatre. Isabelle Legeron M W, a London based wine writer and global crusader for the natural wine movement is coming along as well as many other luminaries from the spirit, craft beer and cider world. Garrett Fitzgerald and James Boland will discuss their book The Brother Hubbard Cookbook.  David Puttnam will be in conversation with John McKenna ‘Living, Working and Eating in West Cork’, Trish Deseine, Irish food writer and cookbook author will give her perspective on Irish food culture - also unmissable.


Brian McGinn Ex producer of Netflix and series Chef's Table will be in conversation with David Prior International Editor of Conde Nast Traveller, they’ll both be keeping their eyes open for stories.


The festival takes place at Ballymaloe House, Ballymaloe Cookery School, The Grain Store and the Big Shed. This year the humming Big Shed at the heart of the festival will once again be brimming with good things to eat and drink from some of Ireland’s finest artisan producers. There will be the sound of music ranging from the gentle during daylight hours to the more energetic when the sun goes down. Some of the weekend’s many free Fringe events will take place here and the Family Corner will ensure that festival goers of all ages will be kept happy and amused.


So what am I looking forward to at the Ballymaloe Cookery School? At last we’ve managed to tempt Clare Lattin and Tom Hill over from their restaurants in London’s Soho and Shoreditch to share some of their recipes. Readers of this column will know that Raw Duck and Duck Soup as two of my favourite London restaurants. Monika Linton from Brindisa who wrote the book I’ve been waiting for on Spanish food will teach a class on Saturday morning.

Then there’s Jacob Kennedy from Bocca di Lupo, back by ‘popular demand’ as is the beautiful and gracious Claudia Roden who will speak on both Saturdayand Sunday.


Generous as always, Sunil Ghai from Pickle in Dublin will share the secret to many of the dishes that have made Pickle award winning new restaurant so renowned.



But you may not yet have heard of Sumayya Usmani who’s really making waves with her Pakastani food. This is award winning author’s first appearance in Ireland – don’t miss it….

Charlotte Pike (former Ballymaloe Cookery School student) has already built up quite a following with her Fermented book but this time she will focus on her recently published book, Smoked and show us how to have fun at home, hot and cold smoking all manner of delicious foods.


Christian Puglisi of Relae, Manfred’s and Baest in Copenhagen can’t stay away. After his last trip to Ballymaloe he was so inspired by the farm, gardens and ethos that Mrs Allen had created that he is setting up the Farm of Ideas Project – he’ll tell us all about it on Sunday afternoon in The Carrigaun Room.


The Grain Store will host the symposium – a series of short talks and presentations on the theme - Our Responsibility. The BBC Radio 4 food program, Sheila Dillon and Dan Saladino are coming over from London to 
record from the Litfest.


Want to go foraging on the seashore with Alys Fowler, garden correspondent of the Guardian?  Or watch another of my food heroes, Margot Henderson of Rochelle Canteen will talk on the Joy of Cooking in the Grain Store on Saturday afternoon. 



The pretty Garden Tent nestled alongside the scented rosemary bed is now an established and exciting venue over the weekend and will have a full programme of free events to which all are welcome. John Bowman from RTE will be back with his Questions and Answers as will Jim Carroll with his banter series.

There simply isn’t nearly enough space to mention all of the 64 speakers or events so go and check it out on litfest.ie.


Some events are already booked out but there are still lots of opportunities, so come along it’s still not too late to book.  Maybe our biggest coup of all is Vytenis Andriukaitis who will speak in the Grain Store on Sunday ‘To Eat is a Political Statement’ and then there’s the Great Grocers and Joanna Blythman speaking on Nutrition – Really? and our own Professor Ted Dinan on Diet, Stress and Mental Health and even a session on Food from Space by astrophysicist Niall Smith – sure where would you get it!


And believe me all of the above is just a taste. Check it out, see you there and speaking of taste here’s what to come.