This was my first restaurant ‘review’ after lockdown ended, fetching up to a dining establishment, ordering and eating food and then subsequently writing about it in the Irish Examiner, yet it wasn’t a regular or routine review—even the most familiar has taken on a different cast or hue in these strange new times.
Here’s an opinion piece I wrote for last weekend’s Irish Examiner, offering a perspective on the possible future for Irish dining and hospitality during Covid-19 and its aftermath. It has long been one of my most favourite things to do, to break bread with friends and loved ones in all manner of dining establishments, from the humble cafe to the most elevated of Michelin starred restaurants and everything in between. Will it be more of the same or will we be looking at a radical departure, an entirely changed landscape for all? Personally, I believe it will be very much the latter.
Like many people, I’ve always found it hard to listen to the sound of my own recorded voice, and inevitably squirm with embarrassment listening back to any interviews I’ve ever done on radio (TV comes with the added horror of seeing myself filling out the widest of wide screens; obviously a lot of issues!).
So it says much for the professional empathy and journalistic skills of food writer and journalist Catherine Cleary and her partner-in-crime, food historian and producer Juliana Adelman, who between them are responsible for the highly enjoyable podcast, The Comfort Feed, that I not only for once thoroughly enjoyed being interviewed but was actually able, for the pretty much the first time, to listen back without any of my usual ‘aural dysmorphia’.
Catherine asked gently probing and intelligent questions, all dressed in the lightest of humours, and then sat back to leave me ramble, even allowing me on occasion to mount my soapbox to talk about serious food issues alongside my more usual guff. Juliana’s subsequent edit was especially sublime, gathering up the aforementioned verbiage and fashioning it into an interview that made me sound like a vaguely rational being as opposed to some punchdrunk old barstool orator who’d simply wandered in off the streets. Have a listen and if you like it, there are even better episodes to be found elsewhere in the series.
(An extended version of my regular Irish Examiner cookbook reviews.)
Despite being the cook in our house, a daily communicant at the stove, lockdown now has me whiling away hours in the kitchen at a rate not seen since I last wielded a skillet in a professional capacity, way back when God was just an apprentice and my knees were still visible to me without a mirror. Unsurprisingly, the cookbooks are taking quite a hammering and none more so than Dearbhla Reynolds’ The Cultured Club (Gill Books)
TCC is no venerable classic to be dusted down from the vaults—indeed, it is still basking in the glow of the very warm welcome that greeted its publication in 2016—but its central themes of preserving and even improving on the nutritional potency of fresh produce—ensuring fresh produce can continue to deliver nutrition long after any purported ‘use-by-date’—is especially appropriate for the times.
Equally, fermented food opens up a whole new world of flavours, tastes and textures, elevating familiar ingredients to a newly elevated plane. (Only last week, I turbo-charged some fresh, stir-fried cabbage by stirring through a couple of spoons of a sauerkraut I had made just a few weeks before, turning a fine, simple dish into something entirely more complex and delicious.
What’s more, the process of fermentation creates superfoods that truly realise the potential of food as medicine, with benefits including the reduction of inflammation and the creation of healthy gut bacteria, the latter now scientifically proven to have a profoundly positive effect on physical and mental health.
The fermentation of fresh plant-based produce is commonplace in many parts of the world and it is only an accident of geography that it is not more so on this island of Ireland, one of the most clement growing climates in the world, meaning there has never been the same imperative necessity to preserve food as it might be, say, in more northerly parts where the soil is frozen solid for months each year.
That’s not to say it wasn’t happening: if the notion of consuming ‘fermented’ food will have many more conservative eaters running for the hills, that soon changes when you point out that their toastie and pint of plain both result from fermentation, cheese and beer being fermented food staples since prehistoric times, and, during the Dark Ages, Irish monks were especial innovators in cheesemaking, dispersing their expertise around Europe.
If ever there was a book to guide novices into broadening their culinary horizons it is TCC as Reynolds exhibits her passion for her chosen metier with a friendly charm that leaps off the pages in clear, concise and easily comprehended prose.
She is equally adept as a teacher, starting each chapter with clear, concise explanation, delivering recipes that commence with the ‘ur-recipe’, then building on that foundation. The chapter on sauerkrauts, the usual jumping off point for most novices when commencing a deep dive into fermentation, starts with the classic recipe and then riffs on that: Golden Kraut, ‘preserving the sun’s warmth for colder days ahead’; Hola Curtido, a Central American kraut with chilli hit; Super Spicy Seaweed Kraut; Moroccan Kraut, with typical North African spices; and even a Four Thieves Kraut.
This intriguingly named recipe is apparently based on one given in exchange for lighter punishment when the aforementioned thieves were caught robbing those dead and dying victims of bubonic plague, without ever themselves falling prey to infection, thanks to the astonishing immunity boosting properties of the combination of herbs employed, which are known to stimulate circulatory, respiratory and immune systems. Not only does it seem an extraordinarily apposite recipe as we live through the era of Covid-19, it also happens to be especially delicious, one of my favourite recipes in the book.
TCC is so much more though than krauts: vegetable ferments covers seeds, root vegetables, tubers, bulbs, flowers, fruits and leaves. There are condiments, dips, and tapenades. There are dairy and nut milk ferments and grains too are covered in breads, crackers and soaked breakfasts.
The list goes on, providing an entirely fermented menu: breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in between, and Reynolds’ beverage recipes are worth price of admission alone: from cracking kefirs to utterly simple, delightfully delicious, effervescent ginger bugs.
If you thought vinegar was just something to sprinkle on a fish supper, Reynolds’ comparatively brief chapter is a considered introduction to the ranging culinary potential of this most astonishing of liquids—food, medicine and all-round domestic workhorse in one—and might well inspire further immersion into vinegars and vinegar-making, a subject that has inspired an entire library.
TCC is far from the only book I’ve read on fermentation but the first to truly place it in an Irish context and, were I to compile a list of ten essential books for the Irish cook, professional or domestic, it would be one of my very first choices—I think that is pretty much the definition of a classic cookbook.
This is an extended version of a cookbook review published as part of The Menu, my weekly Irish Examiner food column
For the duration of the coronavirus crisis, I am turning my weekly Irish Examiner food column into a class of community bulletin board posting information of any alternative initiatives being undertaken by any in the Irish hospitality sector (restaurants, cafes, pubs, hotels, food trucks, takeaways, etc) to continue to trade. I will also be featuring independent Irish food producers and growers, along with any small or mid-size independent food retailers. I am especially keen to feature any food-related community, social and charitable initiatives or to give a shout out if anyone is looking for help with same.
Take good care, each and everyone of you, let us hope that somehow we can avoid the full extent of the horrors currently ongoing in poor Italy and that we will someday soon gather once more around the table to raise a glass and toast, Sláinte Beatha! x
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Extended version of my review of South, by Sean Brock, from The Menu, my weekly Irish Examiner food column
Cookbook: South (Artisan), by Sean Brock
Skim the surface and Sean Brock appears a facsimile of the 21st century hipster chef: food tattoos; visceral attachment to meat (in his case, pork); zealous advocate for the gospel of locavorism and heirloom produce. That he has earned global renown over the last two decades through his elevation of ‘hillbilly redneck’ cuisine of the Deep South to the stuff of fine dining might even suggest a calculated, post-modern ironic take on culinary populism.
But slough off preconceptions to dig deeper and you’ll find a sensitive and genuinely unaffected country boy who has almost singlehandedly kickstarted the revival of the vast and varied cuisines of his native Deep South, a food heritage long subsumed by the reductive and utterly destructive present-day US industrial food and agriculture system.
In a country that is the canary in the coalmine for the global epidemic of diet-related non-communicable diseases, now the leading cause of mortality in the developed world, one of the lazier go-to tropes to encapsulate the catastrophic nutritional downgrading of the American diet had been the notion of redneck yokels gorging on BBQ, fried chicken and similar cholesterol-laden coffin food, a protracted, lingering death sentence for the impoverished, ignorant and poorly educated.
Brock not only put paid to the cliches but triggered a revival in the cuisine and through his passion for the hyper-seasonal and hyper-local (‘the only way to truly taste the South on any particular day’) and his appreciation of its impact on the quality of his finished dishes, also facilitated the creation of a new commercial space for premium heirloom ingredients, such as Carolina Gold rice, Jimmy Red corn (a heirloom crop that utterly transforms Southern staples such as cornbread and grits) and Sea Island red peas (legumes), that had almost entirely vanished.
He has become a grower-chef, developing a restaurant farm and also working with specialist farmers who sometimes produce whole crops based on a handful of heritage seeds supplied by Brock. (Much of the reductive homogenisation of Southern cuisine before Brock came to prominence can be linked to the increasingly poor quality of primary ingredients produced by industrial agricultural systems—a global problem—which always emphasises quantity over flavour. For example, as the natural sugars in dried corn were no longer to be found, cooks began adding more and more sugar to cornbread recipes.)
Over the last two decades, his personal pilgrimage has seen him evolve to the point where he is now as much culinary historian and curator of the myriad traditions of Southern US cuisines every bit as much as he is a chef and, at this stage, it seems would prefer to be remembered primarily for the former.
First up, let’s be clear, you will not be taking this book down to your local Irish supermarket to stock up on ingredients to replicate the bulk of these recipes; you will hardly fare much better at specialist food stores, for this is locavore food, based on specifically regional produce, very much of Brock’s native Southern US terroir. Quite simply, you will never get watermelon or peach of sufficient quality in Ireland to bother with the very tempting salad that pairs the two; two-year aged country (smoked and cured) hams, Carolina Gold rice, Sea Island red peas, sorghum seeds and flours and a range of bourbon-based condiments might as well be for sale on the moon; and recipes demanding a piscine shopping list that includes catfish, snapper and sheepshead, will equally demand knowledgeable and improvisational shopping at an Irish fish counter to find alternatives.
Rather this is a tome for keen amateur cooks and pro chefs seeking to get the juices flowing and the synapses firing as they engage with what is a hodgepodge of epicurean influences. Those influences—native American, African slaves, European colonial settlers and more—collided in a climate ideal for outdoor cooking and, more pragmatically, where open fire was often the only affordable cooking option for slaves and poor whites too impoverished to afford a proper stove or oven. This style of cooking, of course, furnishes smoke, Southern cooking’s primary unifying ‘ingredient’, shared right across what Brock believes to be a host of Southern cuisines as myriad and differing as the cuisines of continental Europe, two geographical areas of similar size.
With this in mind, he devotes serious effort to bringing al fresco open fire cooking indoors, citing it as being ‘absolutely central to [his] cooking style and philosophy’, and offers a wealth of technical information on methods and means of achieving those resultant charred, smoky flavours so crucial to Southern cuisine (smoked tomato vinaigrette, anyone?).
Salads, generally, are ‘substantial’ affairs, dressed with bolshie flavours and soups too present like main courses in their heartiness and heft. Actually, that is pretty much a recurrent theme: fish recipes are the polar opposite of, say, the spartan ascetic of Nordic purity; Grilled Swordfish with Green Gumbo, sees greens cooked with butter, flour, vegetable stock and Bourbon Barrel Bluegrass Soy Sauce; Lowcountry Fish-Head Stew, a sticky, rich melange, is rooted in African cooking; and Shrimp and Oyster Purloo is Brock’s take on another wonderful, deeply flavoured classic, a Southern cousin of Spanish paella.
A definitive fried chicken recipe takes two days including overnight brining, an ice bath to remove impurities, another night’s rest for now-breaded chicken to form a near unbreakable bond with the skin ,and then a last-minute second breading just before frying, before finishing with a quick toss in ‘super-flavourful’ rendered animal fats.
Above all else, Brock prizes genuine pasture-raised (ie from free range pigs, a rarity on the Irish table) cured and smoked country hams, aged for anything up to two years and as prized as Jamon Iberico.
Animal fat is another crucial ingredient to Southern cooking. Recent scientific evidence suggesting the connection between the consumption of saturated animal fats and elevated cholesterol is not at all the forgone conclusion once presumed will come as reassuring news to those intimidated by its primary place in Southern cooking, nowhere more evident than in Brock’s meat dishes, which heavily feature lards and fats derived from beef, bacon, pork and ham.
Strip steak, grilled with plenty of butter, comes with his ‘love sauce’ made of bourbon barrel Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, chives red onion, garlic, lemon juice and melted, rendered beef fat. Elsewhere, he suggests resting/finishing cooked steak in warmed fat near fire embers. It even turns up in Killed Lettuces, hot bacon fat as part of a vinaigrette to be poured over green salad. Less-informed health Nazis may deem it madness, but there is no denying the method for fat is where true flavour lies and Brock freely employs it for vegetable side dishes as well. A pot of iconic collard greens (close cousin to kale) uses rendered lard, the umami quotient furthered heightened with the addition of one of the following: pork belly, jowl bacon, ham hock, dried shrimp or oyster; elsewhere, shiitakes and morels are exquisitely grilled in beef fat.
Very occasionally, this Southern quest for big, boisterous flavours and ultimate umami can verge on the paradoxical: he writes correctly of the subtle delicacy of the flavours of spring lamb but his recipe for same (with Rhubarb Butter) calls for a stentorian glaze including soy, fish sauce, miso and sorghum syrup, along with peppers and citric zests.
Desserts are, for the most part, cobblers, pies and puddings, homely and delicious but proof positive that Southern cuisine values the pitmaster over the pastry chef though hickory smoked ice cream is very much on my to-do list.
While it may be nigh impossible to truly experience Southern US cuisines as envisioned by Brock short of visiting one of his restaurants or at least taking a trip to the Deep South, keen cooks of all stripes will derive endless little tips and tricks to transfer to their own culinary locale: either partial elements gleaned from whole recipes, such as Barely Cooked Tomatoes (heirloom tomatoes, fish sauce, turmeric vinegar) served with grilled catfish, but surely an equally sound partner for various northern hemisphere species; or various condiments, pickles, preserves and other flavour additions, such as fermented pepper ‘mash’ flavoured with char from the hearth and used to spike sauces. Best of all, turnip ferment, an elixir tailor-made for those Irish chefs still living in ignorance of the wonders of this mighty yet criminally undervalued tuber so superbly suited to our growing climate, yet for many years viewed as no more than fodder for pigs. Pigs? Now, isn’t that an epicurean irony that Brock especially would appreciate.
The hugely influential Eater is just about the biggest online food and dining media outlet in the US and so it was quite something when they selected Cork as one of 19 dynamic dining destination cities around the world and an even bigger something for me that I was asked to compile and write up the list of top choices on Leeside.
Teach the Children Well
I was delighted to once again be invited by back to Airfield Estate by CEO Grainne Kelliher last September, as one of the speakers at their ongoing and very excellent Food Series. The topic this time was Food Literacy: Unearthing the Knowledge Gap and I was speaking on a subject very dear to my heart, food education. We all increasingly are in need of ongoing food education but the most important target group are our own young children and I firmly believe schools, from primary upwards, have an essential role to play in the delivery of same. The title of my own talk was Practical Food Education Should Be Compulsory in Irish Schools (link below this paragraph) and, naturally, waffling for Ireland as is my wont, I once again ran out of time, so here is the full version for those attending on the day who expressed an interest in reading it.
After speaking at a recent food conference at UCC, Innovation in Irish Food and Drink: Past, Present and Future, I was subsequently invited by Airfield Estate CEO Gráinne Kelliher to deliver something similar at their inaugural Airfield Estate Irish Foodscape talks series. Airfield Estate is a wonderful 38-acre working city farm in Dundrum, in Dublin, complete with livestock, splendid gardens and an excellent restaurant, Overends, it operates as both an educational and recreational facility and is the type of local resource that would be the envy of any major European city. The Overend family were the original owners and Naomi and Leticia Overend and, in a truly enlightened move, established Airfield as a charitable trust in 1974.
It was a wonderful day with great and very varied speakers (http://www.airfield.ie/archive/airfield-estate-food-series/) including the legendary Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh and seems to have gone down well with the audience. Due to time constraints, I had to give my own brand of waffle a severe trimming on the day so was asked by Airfield Estate to subsequently post the entire lecture online. Here it be: Joe McNamee _ Cupcakes _ April 2017
The Swashbuachaill was abroad once more, down in Dingle for the annual food festival and what is also becoming an annual event, a return to one of my very favourite restaurants, Idá’s, owned and operated by the sublimely talented Chef/Proprietor Kevin Murphy. On this particular night, I got to hang out in the kitchen for the first service (and take a few pics) before sitting for the second service, a nine-course meal, each course paired with superb organic/’natural’ wines from Pascal Rossignol of Le Caveau, in Kilkenny, and also ‘scored’ with music especially selected by Dublin-based DJ John Casey. Here’s my subsequent review from the Irish Examiner. Continue reading “Idá’s Restaurant, Dingle”