Category Archives: Food

IN MEMORIAM Clarissa Dickson Wright


RIP Clarissa Dickson Wright. Or, to bestow her full name, Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmerelda Dickson-Wright (yes, honestly). Girl, you’ll be missed. Hope you got your desired last meal – wing rib of beef with the bone in.


I thought it would be fitting to reprint the interview I did with Clarissa back in 2003. It took place in her bedroom at the Four Seasons, Dublin. She was in her dressing gown. I was very nervous.

Most people, the ones who only saw the Fat Ladies programme, never realised what a stunner Clarissa was in youth. I recall meeting her in London back in the late Sixties. She was, of course, propping up a bar or maybe it was propping her up. Whatever, she had the room’s attention.



First published in Food & Wine Magazine


It’s not every day you get to interview one of the world’s top six biking icons. Who was also voted one of ‘1000 people nastier than Mick Hucknall’. I asked Clarissa Dickson Wright “Are you missing your Fat Lady friend?” “It sounds awful to say ‘no’ but because we were only together for filming I don’t really think she’s gone. I’m quite certain Jennifer’s sat up there with her bike propped up against a cloud, chain-smoking cigarettes while teaching the heavenly choirs how to sing jazz.”

Was it true that Clarissa was the youngest woman ever to qualify for the Bar? “I think I still am. My father wouldn’t pay for me to go to Oxford unless I read medicine which I didn’t want to so I stayed at home and read law at University College. Largely because I hated my father and my father hated lawyers.

“I’d never cooked anything until I was 21. We always had servants and we had this wonderful cook who was illiterate and had no desire to learn to read at all. My mother was deeply embarrassed that cook couldn’t read. But she had the most amazing memory. If you wanted cook to learn a new recipe you read it to her and if it was terribly complicated you read it to her twice. She and my mother had a great working relationship and because my father was very prominent in the medical world we entertained a good deal. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen because I loved food. When I was 21 my father went off his head and left home and my mother said ‘Now we can have some really jolly parties but there’s no one to cook.’ I said ‘Well I expect I can cook’ and I could. It’s a natural talent – like some people can sing or paint.”
I was beginning to enjoy myself. This was one witty, funny, interesting lady, fat or otherwise. Something she said struck a chord for I myself gave up the legal profession. “So…” I ventured. “What was the bridge between law and cooking on TV?”
“My life only makes sense if you know I’m an alcoholic.” (Clarissa is very upfront about her drinking.) “Well I was a very public drunk wasn’t I? Nobody says ‘Good heavens, Clarissa, you weren’t an alcoholic!’ Everyone says ‘Dear God, I thought you were dead!’ if they haven’t seen me for a bit.

“My mother died and left me an obscene amount of money. I went round the world to sort out her affairs and, it was an extraordinary thing, all ambition left me. But I fell into cooking by accident. I was visiting a friend who was cooking on a charter yacht in the West Indies. Her father died back in England and she asked me to take over. When I eventually got back to London I found I’d inherited, as a bad debt, a drinking club in St James’s. What my infinitely respectable mother was doing lending money to this old girl with a drinking club I’ve never managed to find out. I saw myself as one of the last drinking club queens of London, sitting on my bar stool, swinging my legs, with people buying me drinks until I fell off. I was thirty, not quite a society beauty but not bad looking and I must say, quite sought after. Because I don’t like things that don’t work and because there was nowhere to eat in the area I changed the hours, gave group membership to Christie’s and The Economist and started serving food between twelve and six. I didn’t actually need to make money at first, I was still rich. But then the looks went, the money went, the lovers stopped coming and it just became a hard grind. Eventually it all got too much of an effort and … I got sober.

Her life seems a series of jump cuts. “How did you get the role in ‘Fat Ladies’?”, “I owe it all to the cardoon. Do you know what a cardoon is?” “An edible thistle,” I ventured. Clarissa claps her hands, in schoolgirl fashion. “Hooray, well done, so few people do. It’s a barely edible thistle. I had this mad obsession. I decided I owed it to the British nation to restore it to the cardoon. Pat Llewellyn was making Sophie Grigson’s Eat Your Greens at the time and somebody said “Have you seen Clarissa’s cardoons?” They were grown by an admirer in a field in Chapel St Leonard, near Skegness. Do you know Skegness?” I knew the town only from ancient railway posters proclaiming ‘Skegness is So Bracing’ and from ribald postcards mailed from Butlins by racy aunts. “Exactly. Pat arrived and demanded ‘Thrill me with your cardoons.’ I must have done because she said. ‘Ooh you’re really good at this television lark, we must do something else.’ Much later she met Jennifer over lunch and watched her ride off on her motorbike. Pat had what she described as ‘a vision,’ which she’d sold to the BBC. I’d only met Jennifer Patterson once, at a lunch party in Tuscany. I think the BBC thought we’d fight, thought that was the dynamic. But the minute they put us together it was us against the rest. There was this hooligan element. Do you remember the episode where we changed places? We were doing about five miles an hour then I accelerated away and whooped ‘Look, we’re doing the ton already!’ Of course we weren’t but the BBC felt they had to delete the line. I don’t think Triumph ever forgave us. Here was their new superbike, a more powerful version of the one Marlon Brando rode in The Wild Ones and we borrowed it and went cooking.”

I’d read an American review of Two Fat Ladies describing it as ‘heavy on humour and calories’. Was that the reason for its success?
“I think it was. You know sales of butter and cream went up 19% during the series and the pundits attributed it almost entirely to us.”

“And you advocated lard?”
“Lard and beef dripping are the two fats that you can actually heat so high that you seal the food through immediately. The best fish and chips to my mind is the kind that’s cooked in beef dripping.”

Whatever upsetting dieticians and cardiac surgeons, Clarissa has been the focus of much hostility (viz. the ‘nastier than Mick Hucknall’ web poll) over her high profile ‘Face of the Countryside’ role, in particular for her support of foxhunting. “I’m number three on the antis’ death list. I have all my post checked by Special Branch. In the early days of Clarissa and The Countryman one of the antis got hold of a copy of the BBC schedules. So this well orchestrated chorus of protestors rang up while the programme was on, screaming about all this terrible cruelty to animals. They didn’t realise the North Lonsdale Foxhounds episode had been put back. On screen, I was actually in The Scilly Isles cooking a lobster!”

Hates? “BBC humour. In one episode we were fly-fishing one of the best beats on the Tamar. They wanted me to come down the river in a pedalo, waving a minnow shouting ‘Yoo-hoo, look what I’ve caught. How silly.”

Thirty years a fisherman myself, I have qualms about killing things I don’t eat. “Why don’t we eat foxes?” I demanded. “Foxes kill things that we eat, that’s why we kill foxes. We don’t eat them because carnivores aren’t good to eat. With the possible exception of man – although man’s an omnivore. When I was ten I saw a picture in National Geographic of a native chief holding up a fork. In the article he laments ‘Nothing tastes as good now they don’t allow us to eat ‘long pig’.” Our eyes met and I had an alarming mental picture of being roasted on a spit, pan beneath to catch the dripping. I changed the subject. “Does success bring its own problems?” “Yes. There’s nowhere in the world where I can go without being recognised. It’s a good job I have no secret vices any more.”

Last meal on earth? “The day they hang me I shall have a wing rib of beef – with the bone in. “

Two Fat Ladies was the most successful cookery programme ever, capturing 70 million viewers, dubbed into 14 languages and subtitled into another eleven, including Inuit. If Pat Llewellyn (who also discovered Jamie Oliver) is reading this article I have a deadly idea for her next culinary extravaganza. Provisional working title is: ‘The Fat Lady and The Bald Geezer’. I’d be happy to sit in the sidecar.



Vie de Chateaux

It was my birthday and I was lost in wildest Naas, looking in vain for a restaurant I’d hardly heard of. I only came across it earlier that day trawling the web. The rain was bucketing down. I sat at the wheel, morosely pondering whether our expedition, given the conditions, was serendipitous or just plain stupid. Meanwhile, Sibella was out on the forecourt, under her brolly, talking to a pleasant-looking lady in a Range Rover. The latter came to the driver’s window, which I was loath to wind down but did. “Follow me,” she said, adding as an afterthought, “It’s the best restaurant in Naas.”

 Now some may think that but faint praise. Kildare’s county town hardly ranks among the world’s culinary must-do destinations, does it? Lyons, San Sebastian, Sydney, Naas, Copenhagen, spot the odd one out. I would be lying if I said I held out any high hopes for a birthday lunch at Vie de Châteaux. Vie de Châteaux? Shouldn’t it be ‘Vie de Château’ or  ‘Vie des Châteaux’? The grammatical blip would have raised the hackles of my old  pedant of a French teacher, the man who, on hearing “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” didn’t recognise the source of the quotation, instead exclaiming “What a perfect use of the jussive subjunctive!”

 Anyhow, be that as it may, a couple of right turns later we pulled up outside what appeared, through the aqueous curtain, to be a rather stylish restaurant in a pleasantly pastoral location just a short stroll from the Grand Canal. The only picture of the interior I could find on the web really didn’t do the place justice, something I pointed out to the proprietor after we’d eaten. Pastel walls, backdrop to some respectable art, comfortable seating in an unaggressive shade of brown and grey and plenty of light combined to set us at our ease.

Vie de Châteaux, as you’d expect from the name, is a French restaurant. Owned, run, managed, cheffed and staffed by les français -Frank Amand, formerly manager of the excellent La Mère Zou in Dublin is the owner; David Thomas, the manager, is from Brittany – “between Nantes and Châteaubriant” – and Sebastien, the chef, hails form Paris. 

 If you exclude those establishments under the patronage of famous named chefs, French restaurants re-created in alien countries largely divide into two types. There are those who simulate trucker’s dinner stops; the sort that flank France’s major trunk roads, source of so many disappointments for tourists. Tough  thin-cut steak with frites, or maman’s unspeakable chicken casserole are the eternal dishes du jour in such places. The other kind is the restaurant staffed by sneering, dicky-bowed waiters porting menus the size of family bibles, where the chef has a Brobdingnagian hand with cream. “Dining French” is all too frequently one’s worst gastro-dream brought to life.

Vie de Châteaux bucks the trend. The lunch menu comprised everything from tartines, in effect open sandwiches, to a full a la carte. The tartine of grilled scallops and wild mushrooms struck us as enticing and excellent value for €9. Another €2 got you the bargain deal of the tartine of your choice plus soupe du jour. We were tempted but not swayed as Birthday Boy had set his heart on a pig-out.


Vie de Châteaux wooed us early with a bowl of astonishingly good bread. I summoned up more of it to mop up my starter. Now I am partial to mussels, they would rank high on my list of favourite edibles. At the same time I get a tad weary of the treatment dished out to these magnificent molluscs in restaurants. “Cook them in wine. Pile them high (in a distressed enamel pan). Flood with the cooking liquid and (often) a swirl of cream” seems, throughout Ireland, to be the bog standard chef’s instruction to his commis. A great dish, but all too commonplace. Here I was jolted out of my ennui. An unusual vessel arrived at table, a cast iron, stylised bas-relief of a bunch of grapes in which every hollow was flooded with a tomato, garlic and olive oil ‘fondue‘ into which tiny, delicate, shelled mussels had been dropped, before baking. It impressed as much for its simplicity and purity of thought as for its rampant flavour. Sibella, in contrast, went for the most complex-sounding dish on the menu, the summer salad with smoked duck magret, green asparagus, soft egg, melon, pine nuts and a balsamic dressing. This too was a triumph despite the profusion of ingredients.


Chateaubriand, according to my First English Edition of The Larousse Gastronomique, was created by the chef Montmireil for his employer, author and diplomat Vicomte François-René de Châteaubriant. The dish was on Vie de Châteaux’s specials board. I had to have it, figuring that a man hailing from near the the Loire Atlantique town of Chateaubriant, in the Vicomte’s fief, would know a good one. David confirmed this and kept his promise. What arrived was a hunk of tasty tenderloin, cooked precisely rare and accompanied by crisp frites. The béarnaise, shame, was not available but the proffered green pepper sauce, piquant and lively, proved a good substitute. I was feeling smug until I glanced across the table and saw Sib’s glistening halibut. Immediately I wanted that too and had to be restrained (by Sibs) from ordering a fish course. Shameful greed but Birthday Boy didn’t care.

 The revels continued through dessert. When juxtaposed Sibella’s raspberry vacherin with spiky swirls of red coulis on a silver-hued plate and my own eccentric-shaped glass coupe of strawberries with coconut ice-cream speared with a vertiginous shard of praline looked like culinary sci-fi creations.

 Mention  must be made of the wine list, an eclectic selection of mainly French wines, with a good deal of thinking outside the box by someone who knows his stuff and possesses a well-honed palate. Many of the wines are available as ‘drivers’ glasses’, large glasses, 50cl carafes and bottles. There were two very credible house wines, a Cote de Duras sauvignon and a  Minervois. As Sibs was driving the reds had it for a change and I enjoyed the lion’s share of a very civilised Crozes Hermitage. Following which, there was a small hiccup over the meaning of ‘double shot espresso macchiato’, soon sorted by the efficient and delightful girl in charge of our table.

Verdict: an astonishingly good restaurant I can only describe as ‘French without tears’. The lady in the Rangey had called it correctly and, if she’s reading this, heartfelt thanks. I had a great birthday lunch at Vie de Châteaux, do get there.

 Vie de Châteaux, The Harbour, Naas , Co Kildare. Tel: 045 888 478


Food ****

Wine ****

Service ****½

Ambience ****

Value **** 

Overall ****


Here’s last night’s dinner:



1. Home made ‘fettuccini’. Made  from the recipe in the Thermomix Cookbook. I was a bit amazed that it worked – their pizza dough recipe is terrible.

for 2 I used

200g doppio zero flour

1 large egg

1 tsp olive oil.

Then I followed the procedure, adjusting with 3 extra tsp, one at a time, of water to get the texture right. Next, I cling-filmed and chilled for 30 minutes.

Removing the cling-film (important this!)  I then processed the dough through my pasta machine – 3 passes wide open (6), folding once after each one. Then 1 pass each, folded, through 5, 4 and 3.  Then through the larger of the two cutters. The result was somewhat like the fettucine I’ve had in Rome – slightly thicker and wider than tagliatelle (not narrower like some of the stuff you get in packets here). Then I hung it to dry.

2. The sauce – scallions, garlic, celery and 3 chestnut mushrooms chopped very fine, then sweated in a little EV olive oil before deglazing the pan with some red wine and adding stock, basil, fresh oregano, good organic passata and seasoning to taste.

3. Young zucchini and runner beans, briefly steamed then left to sit in a small frying pan with a knob of butter and a scattering of black pepper.

I was chuffed that the zucchini, runner beans, garlic, scallions, basil and oregano came out of our garden – and I only have a tiny plot.



POINT BLANC – is there anything better than classical French cuisine?



Seeking inspiration, I’m sat in the garden, drinking rosé and thumbing through recipe books, old faves I haven’t used in a long time. Okay, so Raymond Blanc’s palette has been augmented by the use of ingredients such as lemongrass and ginger but the recipes in this wonderful book (first published in 1988 when the young, self-taught Raymond was widely regarded as the best chef in Britain) are deep-rooted in the French classical tradition.

Coquilles Saint-Jacques aux Feuillettes feature. As do Carre d’Agneau Rôti, Iles Flottantes (Façon Maman Blanc) and more. No chemistry set, no grubbing about under hedgerows, nothing easy-peasy thrown together in the TV programme manner. Here, preparation is often long and involved. Stocks are all made from scratch.

It prompted the thought that, done properly, there’s no more satisfying cuisine than French classical. Tomorrow it’s Côte de Boeuf for me, lightly smoked in ‘Gianluca’ my outdoor oven over apple wood, juniper berries, bay and rosemary. Not forgetting the Sauce Bordelaise.

Minolta DSC


On a trip to South Africa a few years ago I encountered the ‘braii’ for the first timepastedGraphic.pdf. My wife, who lived in Capetown for a few years had told me about these events. Initially, I was slightly less than whelmed, reasoning that a ‘braai’ was in fact a barbecue and I had one of those at home, why all the fuss?

As the evening unfolded I realised that to describe a braai as ‘a barbecue’ was the culinary equivalent of calling, say, Yaya Toure ‘a big lad’. There’s much more to it than acquiring a chunk of ironmongery designed for char-grilling sossies and burgers. Braai is a culture, a tradition. For the white South African male, mastering the art of cooking humongous quantities of steak is an essential life skill. ‘Braai’ is both noun and verb. The braai is not only the equipment used for the purpose, it is the name given to the cooking method and even the event itself.

Said event has very macho overtones. It’s a boy thing. At the first braii I attended, in the hills beyond Paarl, an arriviste from wimpy old Europe turned up with two big bowls of salad, causing his sexual orientation to be questioned all night.

Frequently, too, you’ll be treated to a tasty chunk of venison which mine jovial host has slaughtered in your honour.

All that said, these guys really do know their meat – from choosing to cooking and your average Irish BBQ burger burner could learn a whole heap from watching the braai boys in action.

A key element of the braai (noun) is the consumption of copious amounts of wine usually red and beefy as the meat that’s piled up ready to braai (verb).


If you fancy getting tuned in to the life of braai, Wine consultant Jean Smullen, who runs the excellent wine diary over on her website has organised an interesting event, matching prime cuts to South African wines. During the evening you’ll learn about what to look for, how to assess quality and how to cut and cook meat.

Venison – Le Quartier Francais, Fransshoek


The Prime Cuts and Premium Wine event will take place at two venues: Dublin: Ely Wine Bar & Brasserie, Custom House Quay, IFSC, Dublin 1, on Wednesday 31st October, 2012. Ryan Stringer Executive Chef will be on hand to share his expertise and knowledge about meat and the art butchery. Cork:- Barry’s of Douglas, on Wednesday 14th November, 2012. Alan Murphy, Chef at Barry’s has many years experience as a specialist meat chef. Years of working in country houses means he has a great knowledge of meat and game.


The evening will start with bubbles. Those attending will be greeted with a glass of the very elegant Cap Classique from Pongracz.

TO BOOK contact: Jean Smullen WSET Dip Tel: (086) 816 8468 email:  COST: €25 per person – advance booking essential


For the record, my own method for cooking steak is – a large black iron pan over a high heat. Get the pan as hot as possible, don’t oil it. Smear the meat both sides with a trace of Extra Virgin olive oil, then anoint with crushed sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and a generous squeeze of lemon juice.  Place on pan, sear both sides and keep on turning until the steak is cooked to your liking. Approx 4 minutes for rare, 6 for medium rare for a 1″ thick steak. The method comes from a chef in Montepulciano, Toscana, Italy, circa 1986.

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Match of the Day – Barcelona hosts Wine & Culinary International Forum



Last weekend (29th September-1st October) Barcelona was the venue for the Wine & Culinary International Forum, the first international congress on the harmony and interaction between wine and cuisine, as well as the complementary nature of both on gastronomic menus. The event, sponsored by Bodegas Torres and aimed at professionals, took place at the Hotel ME Barcelona.


240 professionals from the world of wine and food attended the event, with Catalunya and Spain represented by Meritxell and Toni Falgueras from the Celler de Gelida, Juan Antonio Herrero from Restaurante Lágrimas Negras, Joan Ras, President of the Catalan Academy of Gastronomy, Rosa Esteve from the Tragaluz Group, Juli Soler from El Bulli, Marie Louise Bayols from Lavinia, Isabel Brunet from Monvínic and Joan Carles Ibañez fr0m Lasarte, among others. Sommeliers came from the Netherlands, Canada, Finland, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. There was a full press corps among which Ireland was represented by a trio of wine writers – myself, Tomas Clancy, John Wilson – plus Melanie Morris, editor of Image. All-in-all a very sociable and harmonious team who, together with Findlater/Torres PR consultant Emma Needham fell into that category an England cricket captain or a Barbarians tour manager might describe as “good tourists”, essential if you are to live cheek-by-jowl in a hotel and at a conference for three days.

So far as I am aware, there has never been an event of this kind in which  in which influential sommeliers, chefs, wine producers and tasters in the world debated, as objectively and scientifically as possible, the complementary nature of food and wine.


That the congress could take place was thanks to Bodegas Torres who maintain an interest in exploring the culture of wine over and above commercial considerations. The organisation was absolutely spot on with events starting on time and running to tight schedules throughout the day, important when, as on Saturday, we kicked off at ten in the morning and finished at 9pm.


As in any such event, some lectures and workshops were more interesting and informative than others. Josep Roca, one of the three brothers behind the 3-star El Celler de Can Roca at Girona, with massive chutzpah entitled his talk ‘Sommelier, a risky profession: my boldest matches’ but, alas, the talk didn’t quite match the hype, perhaps the topic was too daunting. And the ensuing ‘round table’ conducted by three eminent sommeliers didn’t really get to the heart of the matter. It’s only a personal conclusion but I believe here ego got in the way of giving the customer a good time and, from the discussion outside afterwards, I heard others express the same opinion. Still, dissent as well as assent is what these gatherings are and should be about.


The workshop ‘Wine in Sweet Cuisine’ given jointly by star pastry chef Oriel Balagueur and Ferran Centelles, sommelier at El Bulli for 11 years, was very well received. For me, though, the highlight of the day was the workshop ‘Taste Buds and Molecules; the aromatic science of Food & Wine’ given by Canadian author, cook, researcher and sommelier, François Chartier who has also worked with Ferran Adria. I am on record for dissing much of what’s written about food and wine pairing, believing a good deal of it to be hokum, or at least, mere personal opinion, unsubstantiated by evidence. My own view has long been that marriages of food and wine are like any other marriage. Five per cent of them are made in heaven; ten per cent in hell; and all the rest can be made to work. Now along comes a guy who has done his homework and established clear scientific links and relationships between the ‘taste molecules’ in food and wine – “synergie aromatique” as François called it. Now we’re talking! At last we can determine a relationship based on logic and science, not wooly opinion. This was ‘road to Damascus’; for me and I can’t wait to get my hands  on his book, which I ordered from Amazon as soon as the talk had ended.


The tripartite conversation between Jancis Robinson, who needs no introduction, her husband, the ex-restaurateur turned critic, Nick Lander and Spanish-American sommelier Victor de la Cerna was notable for Jancis’ incisive introduction of the word ‘price’, first time I’d heard it mentioned all day. That evening she showed me the blad for her latest book Wine Grapes, Co-authored with Julia Harding MW and grape genetecist José Vouillamoz. It promises to be an authoritative tome. Jancis, whom I last met approx 25 years ago, is convivial, as well as impressive. We need her, as the first line of defence against the massed ranks of those who would turn wine appreciation into number crunching. Good also to meet Fiona Beckett (@winematcher) at last, with whom I’ve had some interesting sparring matches on Twitter re wine and food pairing – now she is a believer! Also Britta Wiegelmann, editor-in-chief of ‘Vinum’ magazine and another ‘good tourist’.


The first day concluded with a tasting of wines by Primum Familiae Vini, the ‘first families of wine’, an international association created in 1992 by  Robert  Drouhin and Miguel Torres and consisting of eleven European family-owned estates. Of course, to do it properly we should have had Sassicaia, Tignanello and Vega Sicilia but a line up of Badia & Passignano Riserva 2007; Guidalberti 2010;  Ch Beaucastel 2007; Vega Sicilia Alión 2009; Petit Mouton 2005; Torres Grans Murailles 1998; Conca de Barbera 2007; Pol Roger 2002; Drouhin Le Clos 2008 and a Symington vintage port is not a bad way to end a day, especially a long one.


On the next day we went to the Torres Winery at Penedes. Mercifully,we were spared the bottling line! Interesting to see the high investment level and the ongoing renewal program in the vineyard. Highlight had to be the 8-course, plus amuses bouches, lunch provided by the trio of Roca brothers from El Celler de Can Roca which left us in no doubt as to why this restaurant is the current number two on Restaurant Magazine’s global list.

Finally, a huge thank you to the organisers and Miguel Torres for providing such a thought-provoking conference and, yes, let’s admit it, a gastronomic tour de force. I’ve love to see it become a regular, perhaps biennial event.



YOU’LL NEVER BLOG ALONE – the day I discovered I’m a blogger and other stories

There are now over 400 food bloggers in Ireland. Though my food and drink website, Ireland’s first, has been up and running almost ten years I never considered myself a part of the blogosphere. Though the term ‘blog’ had been coined in the early noughties it certainly wasn’t in common usage, at least not here in Ireland. No, was ‘a website’, I reckoned. So I typed, scanned and uploaded blithely ignorant of the inhabitants of Planet Blog, multiplying like mushrooms around me. Until a couple of months ago, when a friend said “How’s your blog going?” and I thought “Blimey! Is that what it is? Hey, I’m a blogger!” Hardly a Damascene conversion but I did feel a smidge like Hans Anderson’s duck, the one who suddenly twigged he was a swan.

‘Blogger’ sounds so much cooler than ‘website proprietor’. Having assumed my new identity the next thing was to find out if I had family out there. Splashing about in the big pond that’s the web I came across The Irish Food Bloggers Association. Here I found kith and kin, people who, like me, enjoyed cooking something nice to eat and writing it up. Though I’m by no means the clubbable kind I joined up.

Bloggers are sociable souls. The IFBA run a fair few functions for their members, one of which was a food photography day organised with the help of Bord Bia. Though I’ve been taking photographs as a hobby since I was old enough to suss that the round glass hole goes at the front, I thought the event might provide opportunity to meet other food bloggers and, hopefully, hone up my photographic skills. The day was kicked off by the energetic and eminently likeable Donal Skehan – no mean food photographer himself, though commendably self-deprecating. Jocasta Clarke, a professional photographer with a number of food books to her credit and Sharon Hearne-Smith, a food stylist, gave a glimpse of how the pros do it and gave tips on improving our technique. Final turn was Damien Mulley a guy who seemingly regards himself as ‘the baron of blog’, advising how we might make ours more visible. Seems all we need is a penchant for picking fights with celebs and a snap of a naked lady wrestling a python – don’t ask!

During the intervals we munched lovely cakes, scones and tarts thoughtfully brought along by some of the attending bloggers, numbering forty in all. I was gobsmacked when Kristin Jensen, co-founder of IFBA told me the Association boasts 400 members and growing. That’s 400-odd people in Ireland alone, writing on the web about food! Contrast that with maybe thirty (and declining) in print media and you get some idea of the way things are going.

It’s not surprising that the food and hospitality industry PR machine has started to cosy up to the food bloggers. Some restaurants now extend dining invitations to the blogging community, hoping for a favourable review. Significant bloggers are included in junkets formerly the exclusive perk of mainstream journalists. Some are given or loaned products to test. Product reviews in blogs should maybe taken with a pinch of salt (of the freshly ground marine variety). Unless you’ve had a lot of practice it’s hard to give a bad rap to a free blender. There is, as yet, no food bloggers’ code of ethics.

Nigel Slater and our own Darina are the patron saints of food blogging. I’ve never been in another blogger’s house but I can imagine framed portraits of the pair hung above the fireplace, in the space a previous generation reserved for the Pope and J.F.K. Bloggers usually write in the first person. Suits me, I’ve always been an opinionated sod, I can do “I” and “me” with the best. Where I do go off message is that food bloggers do not tend to be savagely critical, conserving their small stock of napalm for the occasional blitz on battery chickens or food with millions of air miles. This grumpy, censorious old git will have to practice being nicer to his fellow humans if he’s to coexist.

For those who are tempted but haven’t yet dipped their  toes into the tide  of food blogging they’ll find the blogmood  upbeat, informal, very much heart-on-sleeve. Most blogs major on recipes, with a generous dollop of local, green and good-for-you. Food bloggers, by and large, have marshmallow hearts; they embrace causes like ‘Eat Irish for a Week’ – that is if they can bear to give up coffee for the duration!  For many, the blog is a hobby; bloggers usually have day jobs, kids or both so don’t expect daily updates. Culinary interests are kaleidoscopic – chilli worshippers, curry mavens, Mexican, Scandinavian, Korean, Italian food tifosi. There are a lot of bakers, mostly excellent and a good few soup specialists. Vegetarians and vegans are well catered for. People with dietary restrictions or allergies will find kindred spirits. All foodie life is there.

For my part, I’m delighted with my new found chums. I’ve ploughed a lonely furrow since I left Food & Wine Magazine. Now I’m coming to realise that, as Rogers & Hammerstein (nearly) put it “Blog on, blog on and you’ll never blog alone…”

A good night's work for Gianluca and me - a dozen pizzas and some bread for breakfast


A good night's work for Gianluca and me - a dozen pizzas and some bread for breakfast

I’ve had my outdoor pizza oven for a year now and I think last Saturday was the first night I’ve really felt confident with it. This was due in no small measure to the calming presence of Leslie Williams who is further down the pizza trail than me.

The building of the oven is fairly fully documented elsewhere on this forum + and that both the oven itself, an Italian Linea, supplied by Ian from Terracotta Warehouse in Manchester ( ) and the base that I had conceived for it are pretty sound. Were I to do it again I’d make the plinth a couple of inches wider all round so I could put more cladding on. It would also allow me to build a weather-beating brick and tile roof over the oven if I so wished, although I like the ‘mini-mosque’ look of the dome.  I’d maybe double the amount of insulation under the oven floor. That apart, it’s spot on. For the top skin I used ‘Segrelime’ a system devised by Ian to protect the oven against the ravages of the Irish climate – chiefly piss rain and, last winter, surprisingly, a horrendous amount of snow and frost. In the event, it didn’t work. Massive cracks (in the top surface only) appeared and it was clear the ‘Segrelime’ – a compound of lime, insulating granules and some mysterious liquid as far as I remember – hadn’t adhered properly to the surface below. After a deal of deliberation I consulted a company called Dineen Refractory who hang out at Athy (well, sort of near Athy, I’d probably never find it again). Dineen, who specialize in building materials with a what you might call a calorific content – from chimney pots to kiln-building materials, were very helpful. After listening to my problems they sold me two bags of a two-pack compound they call ‘Castable’. One element is a high alumina cement, the other, what the manager called ‘grog’ (some kind of aggregate). Mixed together with water  the compound is used for cladding kilns and has been tested up to 1600 degrees  – whether Fahrenheit or Celsius that’s far more than I need. It wasn’t cheap – you can get a back of hydraulic lime for about €4. My ‘Castable’ cost almost €80 but if it did the job that was fine by me.

Gianluca's new 'castable' top skin. Maybe not as pretty as before but a helluva sight more durable - and that's the bottom line!

I was advised to put the material on over the existing surface and that’s what I did. It was easy to clad the top of the oven, which is relatively flat. The steep sides, however, presented a problem. In the end I resorted to making ‘mud pies’ and plastering them on by hand. Alas, with about 2 square feet to go I ran out of material and had to order another bag. Dineen kindly sent it up with a courier, who charged me a tenner, fair I thought. Early days, but the ‘Castable’ seems to have worked a treat, forming a tough and, thus far, weatherproof hard skin. You can now rest a hand on the top of the oven while the fire is roaring, proof that the insulation is working.

An awful lot of topping. Looks like a formula for an accidental calzone!

FIRE The first mistake I made was to have the logs too big. These are fine for stoves used for room heating but useless if you want to crank the oven up to 400 C quickly. 12cm/5 inch – 20cm/8 inch hardwood logs split lengthways into four are perfect. To this end I bought a big, sharp axe. A bag of kindling is also useful for getting things started and building a fire fast. An old-fashioned bellows is handy  - if anyone in your family is going to Morocco on holiday, they sell them on markets there. I soon found that a broad, flat fire works better than a tall, narrow, teepee-shaped one. Reading a book on the early days of steam locomotion it seems that drivers and firemen on the Great Western Railway discovered the same thing! The aim is to have the fire cover as much of the floor surface as possible before you sweep it to the back or side to create a hot surface for cooking.

DOUGH I’ve acknowledged Marcela Hazan as the source of my pasta recipe. My pizza dough comes from Alice Waters of Chez Panisse  via River Café Yellow, except that I’ve replaced her rye flour with semolina.

4 tsp granular dried yeast

125ml warm water 150g semolina flour

250ml warm water

2 tbsp milk

4 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp sea salt

500g ‘00’ flour

Makes 6 ten inch pizzas.

Step One

Warm a bowl large enough to take the total mixture. Mix the yeast with the warm water in the warm bowl and stir till melted. Leave in a warm place for at least 30 mins, until it forms ‘a sponge’ –  a good description, this.  Then add the rest of the ingredients. Knead by hand (my method) for 20 minutes or in a food processor with a dough hook (AW’s) for 15. The dough should still be wet and sticky – this gives a crisper crust. Place the dough in a bowl, greased with extras olive oil and drizzle a little over the top. Cover with a cloth and leave to rise in a warm place for two hours.

Step Two

Knock the dough back, leave in a warm place to rise again for a further 40 minutes. This is pretty pluperfect stuff – I must confess that, when pressed, I’ve cut these times to 1 hour/30 minutes without it making much difference to the finished pizza. Here, River café and I diverge. They say roll out into 6 golf ball sized pieces to make a ten-inch pizza. I find this doesn’t work for me (or indeed for Leslie). Both of us had trouble getting the golf ball to stretch beyond 9 inches in diameter. Anyhow, try for yourself. It’s no big deal to take a slightly larger lump of dough.

So, onwards and upwards. Crank the fire up to 350-400 C and you are ready to go. Push the fire to the back or a side, keep it going with a couple more small logs and work away. You want big blaze, with little smoke. Flour the rolling surface well, also the pizza paddle, particularly near the front edge.

On no account load the pizza on the countertop – get the base on the paddle and then load. And don’t overload the pizza – this has been the cause of more accidental concertina calzones in my early days as a pizza shoveller. Get the pizza on the paddle, then load. Be sparing with the tomato sauce and keep it away from the edges. When loaded up, ferry it to the oven, de-paddle it and be prepared to turn the pizza with the paddle to prevent the edges burning. It should cook in under two minutes.

Leslie drew the short straw, the twylight shift, pissing down with rain. Lucky me was indoors fettling pasta. You win some, you lose some.

TOP TIP Make more pizza dough than you need – you probably will anyway. You can use it to make schiacciata or focaccia – flat bread – when the oven is dying down (below 200 C). Work some slivers of black olive into the dough and form into a ciabata shape. Push dimples in the top with fingers or the handle of a wooden spoon; anoint with sea salt and fresh rosemary leaves and drizzle with good olive oil. Remove from oven when it’s baked (knock on the bottom, if it sounds hollow, it’s done)  – important this, as (under the affluence of incohol) I’ve sometimes forgotten and, sweeping out the oven next day, wondered what the big black stone was. SECOND TOP TIP Don’t go for broke and make 12 inch pizzas from the off (I learned this the hard way). Make 8 inch pizzas and increase the size as you get more confident. I’ve also smoked chickens and, best of all, racks of pork in ‘Gianluca’ –  the nickname bestowed on me by my regular customers when I had my café, on account of a fancied resemblance to Gianluca Vialli, Chelsea footballer, after I’d had a very short haircut.

As I say below, I'm NOT an expert


As I say below, I'm NOT an expert

Whalley’s First Law of Pastatherapy: To make pasta successfully you need three arms + a table 12 inches wide x 18 feet long + one of those old-fashioned clothes drying racks that winds up to the ceiling.

Fresh, homemade pasta is so much better than anything you can get at the shops. In Ireland, at least.

My pasta recipe is pure Marcella Hazan (Classic Italian Cookbook)* For 1 person 1 medium egg + 100g ‘00’ flour, no salt or oil and positively no water. You can scale up exactly to accommodate a larger number 6 eggs + 600g flour for six persons. A good tip she gave, which I’ve adopted is, when making pasta for stuffing (tortellini, ravioli etc) add 1 tsp milk for every 100g flour. This makes the pasta easier to seal after the stuffing is added.

I start the process by heaping the flour into a pyramid on the granite worktop, pushing a hole in the middle and drop the eggs, one by one, into the crater. You can use a large bowl if you wish. Stir the material briefly with a wooden spoon, roughly combining the eggs and flour. Then work the embryo dough into a ball by hand, giving it a light biffing. Hurling it down on the counter is very theraputic if you are having a bad day!

Clingfilm the ball of dough and chill in the fridge, for thirty minutes. Next, it’s out with my Imperia Pasta Presto, the electric version (so much easier than the hand-cranked version because the speed is a constant. Also you have a spare arm). Stretch the dough, flour both sides with a little ‘00’ and feed the dough through the rollers on the widest setting (6 on this machine). Repeat another 9 times, flouring the dough each time. Don’t worry about over-flouring, any excess will fall off when the pasta eventually meets the boiling water. Then reduce the machine setting by one notch for each pass and continue the process, only don’t fold the dough.

Trim the strip of pasta to keep the ends square – amalgamate the trimmings into a ball and save for cleaning the machine afterwards. Never be ashamed to cut the strip of dough for easier handling – it gets longer as it gets thinner. The less you cut it, though, the less work the process is and the less risk of the pasta sticking to the worktop. But it takes an expert to keep 18 feet of pasta in the air – and I’m not.

He is, though. My teacher at a pasta masterclass at Serego Alighieri

For most pasta – lasagna sheets, fettuccini, tagliatelle, linguine – stop at notch 2. If you are making, say, wontons, you can pass it through to the thinnest setting. When you reach the desired thickness pass the machine through the cutters. The Pasta Presto has two – for tagliatelle and linguine – but others can be bought as accessories that fit all Imperia machines.


Hang the pasta to dry – keeping the strips as far apart as you can. This is not terribly important if you are going to cook the pasta straight away. You can hang it over the back of a chair. Or make or buy a version of what I call ‘a pasta tree’, a wooden rack with a number of arms, specifically invented for the purpose. Lastly, clean the machine by stretching, folding and passing through several times on the 6 setting the ball of pasta trimmings. Finish off with three folds of kitchen towel passed through a few times on the 2 setting. Finally, pass the kitchen paper through the cutters. Dust off any excess flour on the sides of the machine with a soft cloth or pastry brush. On no account let water near the machine, this is a formula for grief.

I love my Pasta Presto. The hand-cranked machines are much cheaper, though. The Imperia and the Marcato Atlas are the only ones to have. I’ve inspected a few budget machines and the workmanship (and probably materials too) is poor and I wouldn’t expect them to last too long. The good makes are cheap enough – is a good source and their delivery is prompt. The Imperia is £43 at the writing, plus delivery (around a tenner). Both Imperia and Atlas have a bolt-on electric motor as an accessory for the hand-cranked model.

You can also make pasta entirely by hand. It’s easy enough, if exhausting. I did quite a bit for practice before I bought the machine. Just keep rolling the dough out, remembering to flour. After all the rolling you’ll feel as though you’ve been to the gym.

Cut the strips with a very sharp knife and a metal ruler or by eye alone and hang at least half an hour to dry. When cooking the pasta use a large pan, with plenty of water and a generous measure of salt (remember, there’s no salt in the recipe). I use about a slightly heaped dessertspoonful per 600g. Don’t introduce the pasta to the pan until the water is at a rolling boil. Don’t overcook, tagliatelle cook in under two minutes. Remove, ideally with a pasta grabber (most cook shops sell them) and drain before serving. If you can’t use the pasta immediately it will keep 5 minutes or so in the drained pan, coated with a little extra virgin olive oil.

*In a later cookbook Marcela used 1 egg to 90g of flour but I’ve stuck with the original.

Adelaide TA

TASTING AUSTRALIA 2012 – “Bring it on!”

Just received the news that the next Tasting Australia –  April 26 to May 3, 2012 will be the last, at least in Adelaide. Amazingly, next year will be the eighth time this biennial festival has been held. I’ve been at the last four and, if I get the call, I’ll be in ‘The City of Churches’ next year for the last hurrah. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Since its inception in 1997, Tasting Australia has become a huge international success, providing a unique opportunity for chefs of the celebrity and the ‘up-and-coming’ ilk, restaurateurs, food producers and winemakers to mingle with the world’s food, drink and travel media at, at the same time, sample and celebrate some of the best that Australia has to offer in the way of produce, food products, wines, beers, hospitality and tourism. It’s also a significant event for the public at large. Many of the world’s best known culinary talents demonstrate their expertise on a daily basis. In addition there’s a full programme of ancillary events including talks, discussions and debates, all aimed at the food conscious – truly a ‘Feast for The Senses’ as more than 60 such events are planned. And it’s not all in the mind – during the festival there’s a wealth of gourmet food and drink to be sampled, in a scenic setting along the banks of the River Torrens. When you take into account that South Australia’s famous wine regions which also host some ace artisan food producers are a convenient drive from the city, there are many worse places that the dedicated foodie could be than Adelaide on those 8 days in May/June… ..and few better.

I shall miss Adelaide. Since I started going to Tasting Australia it’s come to seem like a second home. I arrive and check in at The Intercon (used to be The Hyatt). I take the elevator to my room. Inside, the light on the bedside phone glows. I pick it up and find eight messages of welcome – “Saw your name on the guest list, be great to see you, in the bar at half-six?” I wander uptown, off to the Hatters to pick up a new Panama; go over to Browns where they sell stylish threads in Size Fat Bastard; pop into the wonderful Star of Siam for a spot of lunch; then into the amazing Central Market. I return to the hotel clutching half a dozen fragrant white peaches, some brilliant Barossa kabanossi and yet another second hand lens for the Nikon. A quick shower and I’m ready to face the world  downstairs. Ah, there’s David from KL, Shannon from Melbourne, and oh my god Bhisham from Bombay! Brenda and Rick ‘that bloody Spurs supporter’ from Sydney, Jools and Catherine from NZ, Toni ‘the 13th famous Belgian’ and a whole host more. One big rolling, bloody party.

Memories, memories… Me and Paul Rankin getting an upgrade to First of Malaysian Airways. Like travelling on your own private cloud, complete with a cut glass decanter of Otard cognac to which we did a deal of damage. Paul getting mobbed by pretty hostesses at KL airport. Me convincing him “They think you’re Billy Connelly, his shtick goes down big here.” Late nights in The Apothecary 1878…

..Playing one of my songs on Australian radio accompanied by Festival front man, the inimitable Ian Parmenter on gob harp. Doing dinner at Magill Estate with Peter Gago and being given the opportunity to revisit the 1986 Grange.  Acting as Rosemary Shrager’s guide and roadie in The Central Market. Her TV stuff is big in Oz. It felt a bit like walking round Calcutta with Mother Teresa in tow. A woman actually came up and told her “You’ve changed my life”. Cheong Liew’s feast at The Hilton. Getting locked out of my room at Chapel Hill and thereby becoming part of the folklore of wonderful MacLaren Vale. Being with Will Studd, Australia’s answer to the Sheridan brothers, when the news came in that Bill Hogan (Desmond & Gabriel) had won his case against the ‘Food Police’. The impromptu seafood festival at Michael Angelis’ house. Maggie Beer in the kitchen, flashing that 1000 watt and dead genuine smile. Oysters, mussels, crab, lobster, clams, various white fish, smoked salmon and the best taramasalata I’ve ever tasted. Wonderful wines too and some Talisker 10 to top off the evening… .. Antonio Carluccio’s gargantuan collection of (mostly filthy) jokes. Listening to the stall holders’ choir at Willunga market. A memorable long lunch at Fino. With Sydney journo and surfing queen Julica Jungelhuising, spiking the drink of a gobshite journalist by mixing black currant cordial with his Merlot. He was very impressed “particularly with the bouquet”.  Trying and failing to surf in company with Rachel Allen.

Beauties and The Beast

Singing a medley from ‘Oklahoma’ with a busload of convivial people. Learning what ‘a cleansing ale’ means and getting thoroughly cleansed.

Of course it’s not all beer and skittles, nor wine and ‘pokies’ (slot machines to you). For the food and drink writer there’s a very serious subtext to Tasting Australia. A lot to visit, see and taste and a big learning curve to boot. The programme is not for the faint hearted, you need stamina for this gig, matey. We are up early and on the bus, back late and ‘hanging’ as we say here in Ireland. But in the process I learned a hell of a lot about Australian food and Australian wines and the Australian attitude which seems to be  ‘can do’ rather than ‘it’ll do’.

An introduction to Australian native tucker at Langhorne Creek

I can’t leave Tasting Australia without mentioning that it is simply the best organized gig ever and one that all other festival/conference/seminar/food and wine tour organizers should take a look at.  Things happen when and where the programme says they will. Journalists, normally considered an irrelevance if not a nuisance for getting in the way of the guests and celebs, are extremely well catered for. Our wants and needs are understood. The press centre has PCs and power sockets aplenty; there’s an interview room; space for chilling out as well as for partying and a press kit that lacks for nothing, with decent bags to carry it in. Not to mention the provision of good espresso to give you the much needed wake up call before you set out and a fridge full of James Squire’s finest ale to welcome you back to base after an exhausting day.

Family resemblance?