It has not been a year of unmitigated glory for Ireland as a food island. Many are still struggling to keep their businesses going and small food businesses do constant battle with regulations created for mass producers by indifferent politicians. Still, there has been some good news including the continued lower VAT rate for the hospitality sector. Perhaps this has helped the many new restaurants open their doors? Tax breaks for the artisan beer sector is giving employment across the country too, if only more lessons were learnt from these policies. Nonetheless, nearly every week I hear or taste something new of Ireland and most of it is good. I have set out below my highs and lows of 2013 and as always, due to the disparate nature of each item they are not in any particular order.
A Michelin star for Campagne in Kilkenny
When Arbutus Lodge got its Michelin star back in the 70s the Cork Examiner relegated the news far from the front page. However, it made front-page news in the London Times. Things have changed now and although Kilkenny’s star sits under a bridge, it’s not quite under a bushel. Campagne is a wider story of steady business growth. Chef Garrett Byrne, formerly of Ross Lewis’ Chapter One, graduated with the Chapter One’s philosophy and has brought it to Kilkenny. Along with other local restaurants Byrne has helped foster small suppliers to provision him adding to a network of growing success. His food also happens to be pretty spectacular.
Campagne, Kilkenny City. www.campagne.ie
The high cost of cheap food came into sharp focus when the horsemeat scandal broke in January. The traces of equine DNA in cut-price meat was a frightening peek into a chain of buying and selling which left little food-value after everyone had taken a cut. Darina Allen did some frightening calculations on this: if the burger costs the consumer 20 cent (as many cheap burgers do), some 30% is taken by the retailer in profit, about 20% goes to distribution costs, which leaves us with 10 cent. But lets not forget packaging, marketing, labour and several other costs. We’re probably down to less than 5 cent now. There can’t be much nutritional value in 5c worth of meat though some argue that the poor rely on these prices to survive. The reality is if you don’t spend the money on the plate you’ll spend it at the dentist or the doctor, and that goes for the national shopping list as well as the household one. Except of course those who cannot afford quality food can’t afford heath care either. Like planned obsolescence our present food and health systems benefit a few and shorten the lives of the many.
Brother Hubbard’s coffee
No matter how humble a career you choose, if you do it with commitment and integrity you become an expert at it. There’s something of this philosophy in Brother Hubbard’s. There was no flash, expensive spend on the interior of the Capel Street café and their simple menu is thoughtfully created, so much so that they have managed to reinvent my breakfast . Their Middle Eastern breakfast plate of a free-range boiled egg, fresh hummus, sumac, extra virgin olive oil, crumbly feta, za’atar, cucumber, tomato, fresh mint, olives and toasted bread is a wonder of a dish. It would be hard to choose between this breakfast and their flawless, flavourful coffee as both offer the best kick-start to the day.
Brother Hubbard, Capel Street, Dublin 1. www.brotherhubbard.ie
Ox in Belfast
A new generation of foodies are taking on the mantle in Northern Ireland. Building on the work of Nick Price of Nick’s Warehouse, Paul Rankin and Michael Deane diners now have an even wider palate of cooking styles to choose from including Stephen Toman at Ox. This is a hybrid of style and simplicity, where pure ingredients sing of the local terroir, yet are framed with great skill and precision. Alain Kerloc’h’s wine list will have you coming back for more.
Ox, Belfast, www.oxbelfast.com
Jane Russell’s Handmade Seasonal Venison Sausages
I’ve always loved Jane Russell Sausages, they are made with natural casings and only the finest ingredients, and you can really taste the difference. As Jane Russell says: “No off cuts. No short cuts. Just prime cuts.” Her knowledge of the food sector shines through in the products she creates. The venison sausages are a wise use of an important resource, we should be adding to the variety of our diet with the wealth of game on offer. Another great idea from Jane Russell.
Highbank Orchard Dessert Cider
Rod and Julie Calder-Potts are as committed to their organic orchard as a mother is to a child. But this is no hippy-dippy business whereby they make their ciders, syrups and apple juices for the principle of it. This is a business with longevity and vision, forever innovating and changing, as the market requires. Their latest offering is a Dessert Cider which is a clever challenge to our reliance on dessert wines (well, my reliance). I’m not sure if a glass of the nectar contributes to your one of five a day but it tastes as if it should. www.highbankorchards.com
The Chapter One Book
I spent nearly eleven months working with Ross Lewis, Barry McCall and Orla Broderick, amongst many others, on this magnum opus. From the first design concepts to each shoot, the many drafts and discussions there was one element which ran across all activity. A level of commitment, professionalism and authenticity that is rarely valued in Ireland. There’s a reason Barry McCall is a photographer of international standing and Ross Lewis has a Michelin star, the evidence was in the work I did with them and I was humbled by the experience. Copies of the book are available from the restaurant website: www.chapteronerestaurant.com
Cakes in the Brown Hound Bakery
Located in the fairly non-descript Bryanstown Centre in Drogheda the interior of the Brown Hound Bakery is far from non-descript. A stylish gathering of objet-trouvé, dark woods and glass domes filled with sweet and savoury treats makes a journey here feel like a happy ending. You’ll recognize some cakes but others are inspired by the owners’ US heritage from maple chocolate cake to Boston cream pies. However, you will struggle to leave without taking bagfulls of what’s on offer, a happy ending in itself.
A disease of kings
I have weathered hair loss, a spreading waistline and even wrinkles with little concern but the arrival of extra uric acid in my body has had a far more dramatic effect. I have developed the aspirational disease of my profession; the ‘disease of kings’, namely gout. The list of foods to avoid during an attack includes the obvious like red wine, port and foie gras but it also includes foods you’d think could only do you good like scallops, pink grapefruit, offal and anchovies. At least in a bygone age sufferers did not have to contend with reams of conflicting advice on the internet which includes cherry juice (€22 per 473 ml of concentrate in Down to Earth, yikes!) others suggest a tablespoon of organic cider vinegar in water every morning. Thanks also to @rachelgibney on Twitter for the suggestion of bicarbonate of soda with water. None of these have worke. On the up side I suspect a bespoke walking cane with a silver handle will suit me rather well.
Jess Murphy’s cooking in Kai, Galway
I like to cook and dine out, natch, but I don’t assume I’ll be able to reproduce a Michelin starred meal at home. However, I do like to be inspired when I’m eating out and that’s just what happens in Kai. New Zealander Jess Murphy has such an interesting take on the local ingredients that you sometimes wonder if they’ll work, yet they always do. Weaving textures and flavours, like a great storyteller, her style is a unique experesion of her history and Irish produce.
Kai Cafe and Restaurant, Galway City, www.kaicaferestaurant.com
What next year holds for the food world is anyone’s guess, who would have thought you’d find a horse in your burger in 2013? Still, insects are starting to appear on Paris menus but I suppose the difference is they actually tell you. While the numbers using food banks in Ireland continues to grow bankers salaries are not shrinking. Food consumption and policy is a good moral and political litmus test of a nation, perhaps ours will start to change but our past record suggests good food work will be left to the few.
This first appeared in The Sunday Business Post, December 2013.