It has been difficult this year to see the scraps of blue sky among the clouds. But as the country seemed at times to march towards its doom, the culinary world was often marching to a different tune. That doesn’t mean we were not without some sad and low culinary moments too, however, so this year my list of 2011’s most memorable culinary moments includes the good, the bad and the ugly.
The year may have been a difficult one, but a challenge can be as much the mother of invention as necessity, and in the food and restaurant world, as the challenges grow, so do the clever solutions.
What’s more heartwarming is that much of this year’s successes come from a deeper understanding and appreciation of our indigenous food traditions and culture. The next step is to convince policy makers that small is not just beautiful, but vital to local economic growth.
Food as an inspiration continues to run amok across broadcasting and print alike, and those who get the formula right can be guaranteed fame or fortune. Sometimes even both.
The arrival of the Masterchef folk created quite the stir, and as tensions rose and some obviously forced drama unfolded, there was no denying the talent and enthusiasm of those taking part, and indeed the sophistication of the production values. It was a missed opportunity to showcase artisan Ireland, but a star was born in the winner, Mary Carney.
The government food budget
Who would have thought that a stint at the Criminal Courts of Justice in Parkgate Street, Dublin, would be a culinary revelation? I was on jury service (despite what some might have hoped) and was obliged to dine on Catering by Aramark, which got me thinking – what is the government’s grocery bill?
Think about it, and then imagine if anyone who secured a government catering contract was obliged to use a percentage of food from the local area, or use a percentage of artisan food or better still food with PGI indications. The boost to local jobs would be enormous. Sadly this remains a fantasy highlight in my little head.
The Ballymore Inn
Trust your friends, and trust other foodies. For me, that was the lesson of the year. I’d skipped far too often through the village of Ballymore Eustace, Co Kildare and right past the Ballymore Inn, and what a mistake that was.
Georgina and Barry O’Sullivan have been quietly delivering flawless, seasonal food with creativity for years, with the likes of Duncannon haddock with sauté carrot, courgette with tomato and basil sauce, and simple-sounding afters like gooseberry and apple pie with homemade vanilla ice cream. A magical celebration of the real craft of good cooking.
The space is tastefully decorated and has traditional peat fires, and there’s a cracking Irish welcome too.
Campo de’ Fiori ristorante and wine bar
The good news story in Bray has been the expansion of Marco Roccasalvo’s mini-empire. With his new eatery open on the seafront in a very stylish setting, all your prayers for authentic Italian food have been answered.
Try the sprezzatino di cervo al Barbera d’Alba su polenta grigliata, a dish from northern Italy using venison slowly cooked with Barbera d’Alba and served with grilled polenta. Or perhaps the brodetto di pesce invernale, a clear winter fish soup with an extraordinary quantity of quality fish.
The star dish is probably the tagliatelle al ragout d’oca e gamberi, a clever combination of rich goose meat and asparagus tips. Sublime.
Fishing for lunch in Dingle
Magical Dingle got a bit more magical for me this year after a trip out to the bay, not to see Fungi, but for my first sea fishing trip. Dingle Bay Charters (www.dinglebaycharters.com) is part of a new local initiative allowing you to ‘catch and cook’. Essentially this means you head out in the morning and, following some careful tutoring, you cast into the deep and hopefully land your lunch.
As luck would have it the gods were with me on my trip, and I landed enough lunch for a year. But the particularly satisfying part was bringing it to the pub where it was cooked, washed down with a pint of the local beer, Tom Crean, and enhanced by a sneaking feeling that Bear Grylls should probably be worried about his job.
Peter and Mary Ward’s shop and café in Nenagh in Co Tipperary reflects their commitment to delivering quality local food that is a veritable cornucopia of the riches the hinterland has to offer. Their café offers traditional dishes as well as modern twists, but essentially theirs is an uncomplicated approach, where the essence of the ingredients are never overshadowed by cheffiness.
They have supported and nurtured local suppliers for many years, and each sale is accompanied by a breathtaking depth of knowledge. Peter Ward is an extraordinary ambassador for our food sector, and if we were a mature enough state to have an honours system, we’d be doffing our hats to Sir Peter at this stage of his career of integrity.
The Old Convent
Set in the idyllic land of the Golden Vale, the Old Convent in Clogheen, Co Tipperary, is something of a hidden treasure. Chef Dermot Gannon has created a new style of fine dining that is less about the ego of the chef and more about the glory of artisan produce.
Ancient cooking methods are also used, and although you might see a foam here and there, the Aga cooker and smoking also play an important role.
The former convent is also a tasteful hotel and although the nuns are long gone, peace still reigns and the kitchen is clearly blessed.
Seafood in Kinsale
The mistake people make about Kinsale is heading down to the Bollinger Kinsale Gourmet Festival and then not returning until the following year. The town’s food needs regular celebration and regular visits.
The festival is certainly a way of brightening up October though, and the closing seafood lunch is a phenomenal celebration of seafood and talent.
It is also a way of trying numerous restaurants in one sitting, and this year the closing Sunday lunch included Restaurant d’Antibes, the Blue Haven, the Captain’s Table at Acton’s Hotel, Crackpots, Jim Edwards, Max’s Wine Bar, Man Friday Pier One at the Trident Hotel, Toddies, the White Lady, Jolas and Fishy Fishy. Phew.
Da Mimmo Italian Pizzeria and Deli
You know you’re onto a good thing when a proprietor refuses to serve certain food. Recently a customer at Da Mimmo on the North Strand in Dublin tried to order a pizza with ham and pineapple – cue hundreds of Italian grandmothers spinning in their graves. But they were having none of it, offering instead authentic thin crust pizza with real, quality toppings.
People are beating a path to Da Mimmo’s door. Their pasta, breads and antipasti items are equally as good as their pizza, and as it is my nearest eatery, they have constant inspection. Set in a very ordinary-looking spot, the interior is a higgledy piggledy gathering of just a few tables, so prepare to queue or grab a pint in Cusack’s pub a few doors down.
I have had some truly ambrosia-like raw milk this year, with each one singing of its own terroir and breed. David Tiernan’s milk from his farm in Dunleer, Co Louth, was a highlight, and is still available in A Caviston in Greystones, Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, the H2G Market in Glasnevin, Traders and Georges in Drogheda, and Centra in Dunleer. But this may not be the case for very much longer, as the government plans to ban raw milk due to supposed health risks that it has failed to properly support with scientific facts.
The real tragedy here is that it unwittingly reveals what those of us in the food sector have always known: decisions about our long-term food security policies are being made by people who don’t understand or care about the sector. The minister responsible, Simon Coveney, has stumbled at the first hurdle in managing small, sustainable industries.
Joe Macken’s Crackbird
Joe Macken’s pop-up restaurant success was a testament to innovation in supremely challenging times. By harnessing the power of Twitter, and making the most of the fact that landlords are keen to rent empty spaces for even a short period, he created a phenomenon in the capital, opening Crackbird on Crane Lane before moving it to larger premises on South William Street.
He has now created another restaurant called Skinflint (see what he did there?) in the Crane Lane premises, where he serves up grilled flatbread pizzas. As he does with Crackbird, he gives free meals to some of his Twitter followers each day – it creates its own marketing drive, and the winners are never made to feel like freeloaders. It’s actually a win-win, as winners are bound to bring paying customers back. Crackbird doesn’t serve the world’s greatest chicken, but it is tasty and is served with creative sauces in an uber-trendy setting with the added relish of a clever Irish business model.
The Wild Honey Inn
The Wild Honey Inn in Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare is a joy of talent and seasonality. Chef Aidan McGrath celebrates all that is wild, free-range, seasonal and local in the relaxing surroundings of a homely but airy bar with a great big stone fireplace to keep you warm.
Deceptively simple dishes include velouté of smoked haddock, potato and leeks with crisp duck egg, as well as mussels poached in saffron and basil. Clever, restrained and beautiful cooking that saw him land a Michelin guide Bib Gourmand, the only pub in Ireland to manage the famed gong.
This first appeared in The Sunday Business Post, 4 December 2011.