Monday, 25 May 2020

Sustainability


Sustainability - what could be more timely? But for many of us the word sustainability is confusing and has many interpretations. A loose definition of sustainable agriculture might be - farming in sustainable ways which meet societies present food requirements without damaging the environment or compromising the ability for current or future generations to meet their needs.

The past few weeks have amongst many other things, given us a badly needed opportunity to press the Pause Button in our busy lives. I suppose it must be my imagination that Spring and early Summer 2020 was the most beautiful ever. The birds are singing their little hearts out to cheer us up…everything on the farm and in the gardens is green, vibrant and blossoming. Mother Nature seems to be compensating for our misery and despair and reminding us that, given half a chance, she will provide abundance for us. Even in this short time, changes in human behaviour have benefited the planet - quieter skies, clearer water, cleaner air, healthier nature, bird and insect populations increasing…

We can’t stay in ‘lockdown’ forever but we now know that we can make massive, rapid changes when we adapt the ways we work and live. When this terrible pandemic is over, we have a chance to change our behaviour to offer a secure future, and survivable temperatures to our children and grandchildren, and we MUST. For years now we have heard and largely ignored the scientists and climatologists predictions. We could scarcely comprehend the scale of the threat to the planet and future generations….even if we could absorb the seriousness of the situation, many felt helpless -  It was virtually impossible to believe that Governments and vested interests would ‘step up to the plate’ to implement the changes that needed to be made. Nothing but the Covid 19 enforced change could have achieved so much in such a short time. The pandemic should not have come as such a surprise, something of this magnitude was predicted over and over again, not least by Nostradamus, in Aboriginal Lore and by scientists, yet many Governments failed to listen and prepare.

As the planet became more and more polluted, causing almost irreversible climate change, extreme weather conditions - floods, tornados, cyclones, hurricanes… We were too distracted and growth obsessed at any price to notice. Food became increasingly less nourishing, compromising our health and immune systems so we are less and less able to survive the increasing number of viruses that are challenging our systems.



I know I’m like a broken record but surely it must now be beyond obvious that there is an urgent need to re-embed practical cooking and other life skills, including growing food into the national and secondary school curriculum.  No Irish child, boy or girl, must ever again be awarded a Leaving Certificate without being able to prove they can cook for themselves. Otherwise, we are undeniably, failing in our duty of care to our young people, as many helpless 20, 30 and 40 year olds have realised to their cost in the past couple of months.
So how do we practice sustainability in our everyday lives? Once we start to think that way there are a myriad of opportunities. We can make a huge contribution in the way we choose to spend our food euro. Think about each and every item we put into our shopping baskets – really focus on supporting local producers and small businesses as much as possible. Let’s ask ourselves a few basic questions -  Is it in season, does it’s production damage the environment, is it properly nourishing, are the producers being paid a fair price, how about animal welfare,  packaging….After all that am I buying more than I need? Let’s work towards zero waste in every aspect of our lives?

Start to grow some of our own food, even if it’s just a few salad leaves on a windowsill – you can’t imagine the joy and satisfaction…Realize that it’s worth paying a little more for chemical free food – after all it’s surely better to be proactive and invest in our food as medicine rather than paying for meds and food supplements - let’s be proactive. 

Thursday, 21 May 2020

A Sweet Treat

This was another post that I didn't get around to sharing at the time... I'm sure we're all in need of a little "sweet treat" now.


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At a glitzy event at Palais Brongniart in Paris in February 2019, Ballymaloe House won Trolley of the Year Award at the inaugural World Restaurant Awards for its iconic ‘Sweet Trolley’ as it’s affectionately known. 



Over 100 chefs from 37 countries made up the panel of judges for 8 different categories of the restaurant experience... Ballymaloe House had first been long-listed, then short-listed, the tension was nail-biting and then at last the announcement. The iconic dessert trolley that Myrtle Allen had introduced at Ballymaloe House, when she opened her own dining room as a restaurant in 1965, had won the top award... super exciting... 

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The original timber trolley was made by the late Ballymaloe farm carpenter, Danny Power who was well known for his ‘tasty woodwork’.


Every evening, Myrtle piled it high with an ever changing selection of her favourite seasonal desserts. Always a homemade ice-cream made from the rich Jersey cream of the farm’s pedigree herd. This was, as it still is, served in a bowl of ice that Myrtle created to keep the ice cream chilled throughout the evening. A meringue gateau of some kind, a compote of fresh seasonal fruit from the walled garden. Rhubarb perhaps, or green gooseberry and elderflower followed by currants and berries in Summer and Autumn. Perhaps an orange or silky chocolate mousse, creme brûlée or her favourite carrageen moss pudding with soft brown sugar and cream or Irish Coffee sauce.


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Fast forward to now. JR Ryle, the young pastry chef who came to work with Myrtle in 2004 accepted the prestigious award on behalf of Ballymaloe. He continues to work his magic with his equally passionate team in the Ballymaloe pastry kitchens but now he’s also in demand to do Sweet Trolley Pop Ups....

He’s just been to New York to do the first US Ballymaloe Sweet Trolley ‘Pop Up’. King on King Street in Manhattan was the venue; it was a roaring success, totally oversubscribed…



I spoke to co-owner of King, Ballymaloe Cookery School alumni, Claire De Boer who with her friend Jess Shadbolt opened King on King St in September 2016.

“Something magical happened, it felt like a house party, everyone was chatting to the next table and having fun”

The pastry chef at King also trained at the Ballymaloe Cookery School and the River Café. Brian McGin of Netflix flew in from Australia on his way to L.A and Claire Ptak of Violet Cakes came from London, Food Journalist, Christine Muhlke of Bon Appetit, a big fan of King came to the rescue when JR was having difficulty sourcing a Trolley in New York.

David Tanis was there from the New York Times, four people from the prestigious Prior Travel Club. Clare De Boer told me that full capacity for Sunday lunch is 40 guests but due to the overwhelming demand they decided to do two sittings and stopped the bookings at 80 plus.

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Special Silverwood tartlet tins had been flown out to New York two weeks earlier. Jerpoint glass in Kilkenny was commissioned to make the hand blown glass bowls for the compote and pannacotta... they arrived just two days before the event... nail biting stuff... Stable, that shop in Westbury Mall in Dublin provided the beautiful linen for the trolley but sadly the hand thrown Fermoyle Pottery didn’t arrive from Ballinskelligs until after the event – next time!

Watch this space for news of future Ballymaloe Sweet Trolley Pop Ups

Monday, 18 May 2020

The Hungry Gap

The Hungry Gap is almost over, that’s the name gardeners traditionally gave to the three or four weeks between the end of the Winter vegetables – roots, kale and leeks and the beginning of the Summer bounty when there is little or no fresh produce available in gardens and virtually no greens on the supermarket shelves. Well, here at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, our Farm shop has been super busy for the past seven weeks since isolating regulations were introduced. People all over the country are discovering the seasonal treasures in their own parishes, local honey producers, farmhouse cheese makers, fish smokers, poultry and egg producers, charcuterie makers and artisans of all shapes and sizes.


We’re so fortunate to be in the midst of a 100 acre organic farm in East Cork with hens, pigs, cows, a micro diary which yields Jersey milk, home-made butter, buttermilk, yoghurt and thick rich cream everyday. A Bread Shed in a converted mega trailer and a Fermentation Palace in another repurposed trailer, but best of all from the food point of view is an acre block of greenhouses (a relic of a horticultural enterprise which operated right into the 1970’s ) which we now use as a protected garden. Although it’s not heated, the crops mature two or three weeks earlier than outdoor vegetables and herbs.



I feel elated when the first of the beetroot is ready to harvest. Three super delicious vegetables in one, the beets, stalks and leaves. Most people just think of pickled beetroot but the young beets are unbelievably delicious served as a hot vegetable particularly with a roast duck or a fish gratin. I pickle the stalks too. They cook in a minute or two, drizzle them with extra virgin olive oil and add a little shredded fresh mint for a feast. We add them to stews, fish dishes, on and on.. but certainly don’t waste a scrap.


We also have the first bunches of Spring onions and the new seasons Sturon onions are bigger than a golf ball by now with lots and lots of green leaf. I’ve been melting the sliced bulbs in extra virgin olive oil for four or five minutes on a gentle heat, then adding every scrap of the sliced greens, some thyme leaves… A gorgeous accompaniment to a main dish or add a good dollop of cream to make an unctuous sauce to accompany a steak. The green spears of asparagus continue to pop up in beds in the garden so do try this asparagus and spring onion tart sometime during the few short weeks when Irish asparagus is in season.   
The pea pods are already forming lots of pea shoots and flowers so we’ll have those in a couple of weeks but guess what – we’ll have some new potatoes ready to harvest and sell this coming week. There’s something especially exciting about the first of the new potatoes, every year when we sit down to enjoy the first of the crop, we make a wish and I remember my parents annual refrain, “Please God, hope we’ll all be as well this time next year”, all the more poignant in the midst of this Covid 19 Pandemic.
We’ve also had the very first globe artichokes this week. Simply cooked, in boiling well salted water with a dash of vinegar. Then served with a little bowl of lemon butter to dip the base of each leaf in and to enjoy the heart in chunks.
We’ve had lots of rhubarb for weeks now,  I eat it in some shape or form almost every day in a sweet or savoury recipe and as a compote for breakfast. A little stewed rhubarb makes a change from apple sauce and cuts the richness of pork deliciously.



Beetroot - Three delicious vegetables in one.

The new seasons beets are just ready to harvest.  The beets are swelling everyday but one can eat them from when they are the size of a table tennis ball.  We love them served hot as a vegetable when they are young and sweet but we use the stalks and leaves too.  The leaves are delicious served fresh in a salad or wilted down like spinach.  The stalks and leaves can be served together as in the Beetroot Tops recipe or the stalks can be blanched, refreshed and drained, then  tossed in a little extra virgin olive oil and some freshly snipped herbs and serve warm or cold.

How to cook Beetroot
Leave 5cm (2 inch) of leaf stalks on top and the whole root on the beet. Hold it under a running tap and wash off the mud with the palms of your hands, so that you don't damage the skin; otherwise the beetroot will bleed during cooking. Cover with cold water and add a little salt and sugar. Cover the pot, bring to the boil and simmer on top, or in an oven, for 15-20 minutes (in May/June when they are young) depending on size (they can take 1-2 hours in late Autumn and Winter when they are tough). Beetroot are usually cooked if the skin rubs off easily and if they dent when pressed with a finger.  If in doubt test with a skewer or the tip of a knife.  Use in chosen recipe.

Hot Beetroot with Cream and Parsley


Serves 4-6

675g (1 1/2 lbs) beetroot, cooked
15g (1/2oz) butter
salt and freshly ground pepper
a sprinkling of sugar
150-175ml (5-6fl ozs) cream
2 tablespoons of coarsely chopped parsley

Peel the freshly cooked beetroot, use rubber gloves for this operation if you are vain!  Chop the beetroot flesh into cubes.  Melt the butter in a sauté pan, add the beetroot toss, add the cream, allow to bubble for a few minutes.  Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and sugar.  Taste and add a little lemon juice if necessary. Scatter with fresh parsley and serve immediately. 




Beetroot Tops (Stalks and Leaves)
Young beetroot tops are full of flavour and are often unnecessarily discarded; but if you grow your own beetroots, remember to cook the stalks as well. When the leaves are tiny they make a really worthwhile addition to the salad bowl, both in terms of nutrition and flavour. This isn’t worth doing unless you have lovely young leaves. When they become old and slightly wilted, feed them to the hens or add them to the compost.

Serves 4

450g (1lb) fresh beetroot tops
salt and freshly ground pepper
butter or olive oil

Keeping them separate, cut the beetroot stalks and leaves into rough 5cm (2in) pieces. First cook the stalks in boiling salted water (1.8 litres/3 pints water to 1 1⁄2 teaspoons salt) for 2-4 minutes or until tender. Then add the leaves and cook for a further 2–3 minutes. Drain, season and toss in a little butter or olive oil. Serve immediately.


Beet Stalks with Olive Oil and Mint

Prepare and cook the beet stalks as above, drain well. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with freshly chopped spearmint. A simple but truly delicious combination.



Beet Leaves


Serves 4-6

In season: May-early June

Here are three different basic methods of cooking beet greens.

900g (2lb) fresh beetroot leaves, with stalks removed (cook stalks separately)
salt, freshly ground pepper and a little freshly grated nutmeg
50-110g (2-4oz) butter

For preparation
Method 1 (Wilted Method)
Wash the prepared beetroot leaves and drain. Melt a scrap of butter in a wide frying pan, toss in as many beetroot leaves as will fit easily, season with salt and freshly ground pepper.  As soon as it wilts and becomes tender, strain off all the liquid, increase the heat and add some butter and freshly grated nutmeg.  Serve immediately.

Method 2 (Buttered Beet Greens)
Wash the prepared beetroot leaves and drain.  Put into a heavy saucepan on a very low heat, season and cover tightly. After a few minutes, stir and replace the lid. As soon as the leaves are cooked, about 5-8 minutes approx., strain off the copious amount of liquid that beetroot releases and press between two plates until almost dry. Chop or puree in a food processor if you like a smooth texture. Increase the heat, add butter, correct the seasoning and add a little freshly grated nutmeg to taste.

Method 3 (Buttered Beet Greens)
Cook the beet greens uncovered in a large saucepan of boiling salted water until soft, 4-5 minutes approx.  Drain and press out all the water. Continue as in method 2.  Method 3 produces fresher coloured leaves.

Beet Greens with Cream
Cook the beet greens by method 2 or 3, drain very well.  Add 225-340ml (8-12fl oz) cream to the beetroot and bring to the boil, stir well and thicken with a little roux if desired, otherwise stir over the heat until the beetroot has absorbed most of the cream.  Season with salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg to taste.  Creamed beet greens may be cooked ahead of time and reheated.

Poached Eggs with Beet Greens
A classic dish and one of the most delicious combinations.
Serve freshly poached free-range organic eggs on top of creamed beet greens - one of our favourite lunch or supper dishes.


Friday, 15 May 2020

New Cookery Books During the Crisis

There are some people who can rattle off a book in a few weeks.  For most of us, it takes months, often years to write a cookbook and in some cases the end result is the culmination of a lifetime’s experience and experimentation.

There’s a delicious phew moment, when you send the manuscript in to your publisher and then there is the anticipation of the publishing date, the subsequent launch, media coverage and book signings... 
But what if the important launch date coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lock-down.
Well, that’s been the experience of several well-known food writers plus others who have written their very first tome. 

 I’m particularly thinking of Ryan Riley, whose first book Life Kitchen was published on the 5th March 2020 and is dedicated to the memory of his mother Krista who died in 2013 from lung cancer.  Ryan was just 18 years old, his life changed immeasurably as he watched her bravely battle through the final months of her illness. Among the many heart-breaking challenges his mother had to cope with he noticed that the ongoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy adversely affected her sense of taste. Many foods tasted different, Krista lost her ability to enjoy food which she had always loved at a time when she most needed the nourishment and comfort.  


Ryan Riley (@RyanRileyy) | Twitter
Ryan’s subsequent story is a fascinating journey from winning £28,000 from an initial £20 in a ‘once off’ foray into a casino with a friend, to setting up a Food Stall in Camden, a spell in publishing and eventually cookery writing and food styling. He was determined to honour his mother’s memory in some way and became fascinated by the foods that appealed to cancer patient’s tastebuds. 


Gyoza ParcelsHe joined up with Professor Barry Smith, founder of the Centre for Study of the Senses at the University of London. He was also greatly encouraged by Nigella Lawson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who encouraged him to do his first ever class at River Cottage. Several years and several hundred free pop-up classes later, Ryan has established his own cooking school in Mowbray Lodge in Sunderland, his home city.
Life Kitchen is full of recipes, layered with umami flavours that have appealed to the many cancer survivors with whom he works.


Maura O’Connell Foley is another first-time author and her beautifully produced and self-published bookMy Wild Atlantic Kitchen is the culmination of Maura’s life in food. She comes from a long line of spirited and entrepreneurial women, known to be ‘great cooks’.  Her mother was a professional cake maker in Frasers Tea and Cake Shop on Haverstock Hill in Hampstead and opened a Tea Shop in Kenmare on her return to Ireland in 1950.  Later Maura cooked alongside her mother in the Purple Heather Tea and Cake Shop, opened the Lime Tree in 1963 and later Pakies on Henry Street.  
Shelburne LodgeMore recently she bought Shelburne Lodge – which was lovingly restored to a registered guest house.  Maura was also an early member of Euro-toques, and travelled widely to add to her knowledge.  She kept her finger on the pulse of the global food scene. ‘Stáges in top restaurants and insights from the many international visitors for whom her multi-award winning restaurant and guest-house are a ‘must visit on a trip to Kenmare.





My life on a plate: Maura O'Connell Foley - Chef, author and owner ...The introduction in ‘My Wild Atlantic Kitchen’ is intriguing, worth the price of the book alone – but the collection of classic recipes are also gems.  Beautiful stylish, delicious and the kind of food that one returns for over and over again.  Maura is much loved and respected as a hugely influential presence on the Irish food scene with her own quintessential style. This comes from a life in food and a love of the beautiful Irish produce from the local farmers, fishermen and artisan producers whom she has supported and showcased on her menu for decades before it became fashionable.  This book is a ‘keeper’ that you’ll return to over and over again. 
Both are available online but try to order from your local bookshop who also need your support more than ever.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

2020 - The Year of the Farm Girl

I’ve just seen the most hilarious little video on the internet, a tearful  'glamour girl’ in despair is talking straight to camera.  She’s suddenly realised that:
"Men are no longer going to be interested in the women with the fake nails because we don’t have them anymore, the eye lash extensions - we can’t get them, I’m gonna run out of make-up soon…Men are going to want a woman who can catch a chicken and take the feathers off of it, or gut a fish or churn some butter or bake a loaf of bread…Can’t do any of it....
2020 is your year Farm Girls, 2020 is for you – I don’t know what I’m going  to do…"

I’m not sure if it’s for real or a clever ‘send-up’ – it certainly has a ring of truth to it. 
Hasn’t this Covid-19 pandemic been quite the leveller, doesn’t matter how rich you are or how many houses you own in the Caribbean, your private jet is grounded, your house maid and cook can’t come to work.  You’ve got to figure out how to work the Hoover yourself and somehow produce 21 meals a week, a nightmare for many...
Academic skills alone aren’t much use in this situation and have left many of us woefully ill equipped to cope during this unexpected crisis which let’s face it was bound to come sooner or later unfortunately this is unlikely to be a once off... 
So let’s not waste the lessons we’ve learned from this crisis, vitally important to look at how we educate our young people.  Hopefully we’ll see practical cooking embedded in the national curriculum, when we reach the ‘new’ normal.



Meanwhile, it’s a question of survival. The penny has certainly dropped with many people that nourishing ourselves and our families must be a priority to boost our immune system and help to keep us strong and healthy.  How fortunate that this hugely challenging pandemic is happening in Spring when some at least can get out into the fresh air, sunlight and start to sow seeds to grow some of our own organic food.



A few tips…
Start the day with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice (preferably organic, OK it’s more expensive but so are meds), it only takes a minute to make and is loaded with Vitamin C.
Porridge is unquestionably the best breakfast cereal, no need to buy any of those sugary cereals, here are a couple of simple recipes for you to make big jars of your own breakfast cereal.  Everyone seems to go on about how breakfast is the most important meal of the day but apparently that ‘fact’ was dreamed up by Kellogg’s when they first launched cornflakes in 1906. 
Many of us only feel like a cup of tea or coffee in the morning, particularly if one eats supper late in the evening.
Unless we are working physically, we seem to need far less food when we are on ‘lockdown’.  If at all possible, it’s good to eat early so one can get a little walk in before bed and hopefully sleep well.  Comforting, one-pot dishes served family-style are easy to make and save on the washing up – often a contentious issue….Good to eliminate as many potential squabble points as possible.

Finally, a couple of little thoughts that have a feel-good factor during Covid-19.
Get out of the house for a 30-minute walk, it’s a mood changer.
Dress your bed.
Put flowers on your kitchen table and beside your bed.
Count your blessings…
Light a candle…
It’s not the same lockdown for everyone…!


Here's to the Farm Girls!