Tag Archives: Ireland

IRISH FOOD WRITERS GUILD AWARDS 2011 – artisan producers honoured

 

Now in its 17th year, the Irish Food Writers Guild (IFWG) Food Awards were originally conceived to promote and reward the indigenous, independent producers that are the lifeblood of the food industry in Ireland. In these days of hugely hyped awards (in which, I should declare I’ve played my part!) and elaborate voting systems of the “more mates you have, the likelier you are to win” ilk it’s worthwhile stressing the integrity of the IFWG awards. To show you what I mean, here’s the Judging Process:- No company or individual can submit an entry for these awards. Every member of the Guild (a group of around 30 of Ireland’s significant food writers) is invited to nominate products they believe are worthy. The products must be produced in Ireland and the main ingredient must be home produced. The producer must be trading for at least three years. Products are bought and paid for and a formal tasting meeting is convened. After all products have been tasted members vote, using proportional representation. The producers nominated would have absolutely no idea; the winners would only know shortly before the award ceremony – principally because we like them to have product at the reception for guests to taste. Also because the chef responsible for the awards lunch needs to be familiar with the winning produce as they will be incorporated into the menu on the day.

Everyone involved can be proud of these awards.

This year’s awards went to Janet Drew for Janet’s Country Fayre Beetroot Blush (Wicklow); Brian and Lindy O’Hara for Coopershill House Irish Venison (Sligo); Pat O’Neill for O’Neill Foods’ Dry Cured Rashers, Bacon and Ham (Wexford), with a special Environmental Award going to John Flahavan of Flahavan’s (Waterford).  Artisan baking innovator Derek O’Brien received the Guild’s rarely-awarded Lifetime Achievement Award. Derek, a former head of the Baking Department at DIT and head of the Baking Academy of Ireland, was honoured for so successfully passing on his passion for bread-making and his considerable skills to the next generation and helping ensure the survival of traditional craft baking in Ireland.

At the award ceremony, held again at L’Ecrivain, IFWG Chairperson Orla Broderick said, “Now, more than ever, we need to be supporting our local producers, many of whom are suffering as a result of rising costs; cheap, low quality imports and the obvious fact that our economy has contracted significantly.   If retailers fail to make room on the shelves for our indigenous producers and if we, as consumers, fail to support them, we will in a short space of time witness the demise of dozens of small and medium-sized producers, who will simply be squeezed out of business.”

Saying that we should recognize “an opportunity for Ireland” Darina Allen, standing in for IFWG president Myrtle Allen to present the awards, commented, “Ireland is one of Europe’s largest dairy and beef exporters, and home to several world-class firms and hundreds of food artisans. All this comes at a time when the global demand for food is projected to increase by 70% over the next 40 years. The affluent world is demanding locally grown, non-polluting, traceable, transparent food, which is exactly what we in Ireland can produce.”

ABOUT THE WINNERS

Flahavan’s is one of Ireland’s longest privately-owned, family-run businesses and has been operating in Kilmacthomas, Co. Waterford for over 200 years. It is the only remaining oat mill in Ireland. The company has invested heavily in environmental initiatives: water power from the mill stream and state-of-the-art energy efficient dryers and boilers (fuelled by chaff, a by-product of oats), generate energy for the production process and heating for the mill and offices;  A €500,000 investment in a 4,000 ton storage unit for organic oats; sourcing oats from local growers and persuading them to increase their acreage of organic oats are amongst the other environmental benefits that have been implemented to save air and sea miles.  Flahavan’s is now close to realising its ambition of sourcing 100% of its organic oats in Ireland and of being 100% self sufficient in energy. Flahavan’s received an environmental award for its impressive array of ingenious initiatives thatenhance the environment.

Reinventing herself from art historian in the National Gallery of Ireland to artisan producer of a fine range of chutneys, relishes and sauces, Janet Drew has created something truly special with her Beetroot Blush relish.  A rich-coloured, delicate flavoured, sweet sour relish made from the humble Irish-grown beetroot and Irish apples, Beetroot Blush is infinitely versatile and has proved a bestseller everywhere. Working from her base in Rathcoole, Co. Wicklow, Janet is responsible for the product production, in-house design and label printing, storage and distribution of all Janet’s Country Fayre products.

Lindy and Brian O’Hara have been rearing fallow deer on the 500 acre estate of Coopershill House, situated in the beautiful unspoilt countryside of Co. Sligo, since 1995. The deer lead a natural, free range life, grazing on hilly land which features soil that is either marl (clay) or a little boggy. The land has been in grassland for fifty years, encouraging a variety of natural herbage which contributes to the unparalleled quality, complex flavour and tenderness of Coopershill House Irish Venison.

Pat O’Neill produces hand-crafted, dry-cured, tender, well-flavoured bacon and ham, low in salt, with no phosphates and no added water – just pure tasty bacon. It’s a world away from commercially wet-cured bacon. Pat supplies to many leading chefs in the south-east including Eugene O’Callaghan of Kelly’s of Rosslare, who was recently awarded the Georgina Campbell Hotel Breakfast of the Year. Output has grown by 10% every year. Pat has not increased his prices for over five years and the product offers real value for money.

Derek O’Brien’s journey began with an indentured apprenticeship and a signed  agreement between his father and his master baker stating that, “he would be an excellent worker, a good time keeper, would not frequent wine taverns, or consort with loose women.” Since then he has graduated through the ranks of Johnston Mooney & O’Brien, Marks & Spencer, studied his craft in the UK and Germany and was for a number of years, the Head of the Baking Dept. at DIT. Derek now runs the Baking Academy of Ireland in Palmerstown and is as dedicated as ever to ensuring hand-crafted traditional bread baking is kept alive in Ireland.

Michelin star restaurant l’Ecrivain again played host to the awards where Sally Anne and Derry Clarke treated Ireland’s food press and leading industry figures to a special menu, created using the winning produce. The one-off menu was complemented by a selection of wines from Gleesons incorporating Gilbeys and Tipperary Natural Mineral Water, an Irish product now in its 25th year of production.

Derry’s  menu comprised:

Derek O’Brien’s Bread Basket

Whiskey cured smoked salmon with Janet’s Country Fayre Beetroot Blush and citrus mayonnaise

Coopershill House Irish Venison loin with pumpkin purée and a black pudding filo cigar

O’ Neills Foods Dry-Cured Bacon salad with figs and an apple & honey dressing

Flahavan’s mille feuilles flapjacks with lemon cream

Thanks were also expressed  to Bord Bia for their continued support of the Irish Food Writers Guild Awards and for the loan of their kitchen for the tasting meeting.

 

 

 

 

Cooking The Blues

Health, history, novelty – but what do they taste like? Ernie Whalley cooks the Blues

Many of the original potatoes first introduced to Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries have long since disappeared. Today, a handful of commercial varieties remain. However the Keogh family, who have farmed in North County Dublin for the past 200 years have re-introduced some of these rare and ancient varieties by developing seed from old agricultural archives. Each Heritage (as they term them) variety has an original colour, shape and taste – Blue potatoes, which were first grown here in the 1900’s, have a dramatic dark purple skin and the flesh within is deep blue, a colour it retains after cooking. Tom Keogh, from Peter Keogh and Sons reckons “The novelty factor of cooking blue mash or blue chips will raise many eyebrows at the dinner table. It is also a great way to get young children interested in eating potatoes.”

Recently, I received a sample box. I’ve come late to these violet and indigo wonders; it seems every food writer around has already been extolling their virtues. What virtues? The cynic might say “Well, they’re purple, aren’t they? So what?” But, bear with me…

Cook these potatoes and your guests will be eating a slice, or maybe a chip of history. Purple/blue potatoes have been linked to the Incas. Some say they were reserved for the king. People have speculated that the original potatoes brought back to Europe by (maybe) Columbus or (was it?) Sir Walter Raleigh were of this hue. I can just envisage the conversation:-

Elizabeth I: For godsakes, Walt. These things clash with my regal attire. Can’t you find some that tone with my new French robe? Green, yellow or something?

Raleigh: I can probably get white, your majesty.

Elizabeth: Do it, so. Begone.

(six months later)

Raleigh (bowing low, while doffing his hat with a flourish): Behold, your majesty. The white potato.

Elizabeth: Fool. These tubers are not white. They are a sort of muddy brown, with scab and big holes wherein some clumsy oaf has stuck a pitchfork. (To Burleigh, her chancellor, conveniently standing by at the head of a posse of tough looking dudes with shiny helmets and big spears) Seize him! Off with his head!!!

But, seriously, how do the purple spuds stand up to testing?

Well, they are not of the “Rush Queens, Pure Balls of Flour” ilk. Texturally, the purple spuds are, if not quite ‘waxy’, grainy or mealy, more like. ‘Compressed porridge’ was what came to mind when I baked them in their jackets. Roosters have nothing to fear. Roasted, they don’t have a deal of flavour – nothing to wean me off the Golden Wonder or the Kerr’s Pink, both of them fluffy within and crisp-crusted without. They make decent chips – with the caveat that the purple/blue hues metamorphose to mottled brown and navy. havern’t tried mashing them yet.

Novelty value apart, there is one very good reason for eating blue spuds. The strong blue colour is the same anthocyanin that gives blueberries, blackberries and aubergines their distinctive tints, a powerful antioxidant which protects cells from damage and so may inhibit certain cancers, heart disease and muscular degeneration.

So far as aesthetics go, perhaps the most sympathetic deployment would be as potato salad, cutting the boiled or steamed tubers into wedges and mixing with small, whole white salad potatoes (varieties like Charlotte or Nicola) would make for an appealing contrast in shape and texture. Some chopped scallions and a bulb of raw fennel would add bite and crunch, alternatively a handful of blanched mange tout. Potential for a “Wow!” factor at a dinner party here.

Currently my favourite salad dressing – and it works as well for potato as for green salad – is a 6:1 blend of good extra virgin olive oil and WHITE balsamic vinegar, with a scattering of chopped chives and thyme leaves, a little salt and a good grind of fresh black pepper. Of the white balsamicos the Belazzu brand is especially piquant (I get mine in Greenacres of Wexford but other good delis stock it). Another potato salad dressing I like is a 50/50 blend of homemade mayonnaise and Greek yoghurt.

Keogh’s Heritage Blue potatoes are now available exclusively in Superquinn stores nationwide from for a limited period, priced €2.99 for a 1kg box.

Restaurant Review – The Lock Brasserie

As one who once put his money where his foodie mouth was, I have an enduring admiration for restaurateurs, most of whom work heroic hours for the sort of reward that could probably be exceeded if they’d stayed in bed and put their savings in prize bonds.

Very few of the restaurants now considered members of the Dublin dining establishment have had it easy. I can’t think of one that was an overnight success and most have had wobbles along the way. Ask Ross Lewis, Kevin Thornton, Derry Clarke, I’m sure they’ll give you chapter and verse.

What always amazes me is when a restaurateur who has climbed inch-by-inch up the greasy pole of profitability by dint of a combination of talent, hard work and that rare commodity cop-on decides to open another outlet. Take, for instance, Sebastian Masi and Kirsten Batt who, within weeks of begetting a first child, have begat a second restaurant. Having nurtured Pearl Brasserie to the age where, in Sebastian’s words “it rattles along nicely” and, obiter, picks up awards along the way (Food & Wine Magazine Restaurant of The Year 2009) they decide to acquire and re-open Locks. Mad or what?

Making a go of Locks is undeniably the most challenging yet intriguing restaurant project in Dublin. Picked up and dropped into any other city in Europe the canal bank at Portobello would be awash with restaurants, cafés, bars, etc. As it is, Locks and the estimable Nonna Valentina stand alone and the adjacent waterside remains the province of swans, joggers and snoggers.

Back in the 1980s Locks, along with the Coq Hardi and the Mirabeau was a place that caused you to exclaim “Hey, someone in this benighted country must have money!” I was taken there once; you could hardly see across the room for Havana cigar smoke and a tramp could have got a year’s pleasure from a night’s discarded butts. Paradoxically, Locks descent started around the time the rest of us acquired enough sponds to dine out under our own steam. In decline, it changed hands and became an all-things-to-all-people eaterie and that didn’t work either. Despite good chefs, a semi-scenic location, parking outside the door and a room other restaurateurs would kill for, Locks Mks 1 and 2 eventually didn’t hack it.

So what of Mk.3? Sibella and I arrived and were delighted to find  Thomas Pinoncely, formerly of Pearl Brasserie, installed as maitre d’. Thomas is one of those suave-but-not sticky, friendly-but-not effusive meeters’n’greeters and it was early evident that his version of hospitality is rubbing off on the front-of-house staff. Chef is Rory Carville who has done stints at The Four Seasons and L’Ecrivain in a peripatetic career, a man with a reputation for revering the fresh, wild and real.

From the a la carte Sibs selected the goat cheese beignets, a tastefully appropriate presentation of this eternal crowd pleaser. I homed in on the (bottom to top) daube of beef, monkfish cheek and foie gras. For ages I just stared, marveling at the serendipitous combo of three of the things I like most; the glistening fish, the crisp-yet-deliquescent foie, the juicy beef – seduction on a plate. Or thankfully in a dish, as there remained a heavenly sauce to mop up with the good bread provided and enjoy like the encore at the end of a great gig. A short odds candidate for ‘starter of the year’, I decided.

“The rare breed pork belly or the lamb?” I enquired of Thomas. “The pork, undoubtedly. It is the chef’s signature.” I needn’t really have asked. The words ‘rare breed’ always suck me in. There’s a universe of difference between the flesh of a cosseted Gloucester Old Spot or a Tamworth and that of a flabby cartoon porker that’s been fed on God knows what. This piggy king came crowned with two tortellini, both stuffed with pork shreds and soused with a sherry vinegar reduction. The presentation was modern – dots and zig-zags of a pea puree and good tart apple sauce. In contrast the vegetables we’d ordered were delivered in traddy-looking copper pots – crisp small chips (I’m getting a tad fed up of the ubiquitous fat feckers) and a harmonious mélange of small peas, garlic, pearl onions and celery, styled ‘a la francaise’. Sibs had a wonderful piece of hake, a much under-rated fish, again pristinely arranged. Locks’ new chef has created a see-saw where ‘food you’ve just got to eat’ and ‘food so pretty you shouldn’t spoil the picture’ swing back and forth before coming to rest at the ‘eat me’ end. Sebastian Masi has this talent in spades so I’d guess he was pleased to find someone cast in his own image.

I wimped out of dessert, taking only a selection of (excellent) ice creams and sorbets. Then I was mildly miffed to find I could indeed have eaten Sibella’s ethereal strawberry fool, with ice cream on the side too. Afterwards, I couldn’t resist espresso and was, of course, disappointed. Why is it the last thing you have before you leave a restaurant is so often a let-down? (Memo to all restaurateurs: get over to Third Floor Espresso on Middle Abbey Street and watch Colin Harmon in action). On the other hand wines, some available by glass or 375ml carafe, were excellent. We took an Alsace Pinot Blanc (Meyer-Fonne, fine producer) and a Cote du Rhone smugly secure in the arcane knowledge that they bore the hallmark of Le Caveau and Simon Tyrell, two of Ireland’s best specialist importers. Service throughout was first rate.

We parted with €121, ex-service, including coffee and two carafes of wine. I already love Mk 3 or The Lock Brasserie to bestow its proper title. I intend going back, next time for lunch and soon, picking a day in which sunlight floods that gorgeous room, lingering for as long as they’ll let me.

Rating

Food ****

Wine ****

Service ****

Ambience ****

Overall ****

The Lock Brasserie, 1 Windsor Terrace, Portobello, Dublin 8 Tel: 01 420 0555

First food awards judged by robots?

Hey ho, more food awards, more bollocks and bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m  not knocking the worthy artisans who collected the gongs, plaques or crystal gee-gaws at the Blas na hÉireann, National Irish Food and Drink awards. God knows, it’s hard enough to make an honest copper these days and those who toil in the food business, beset on all sides by bureaucrats and clowns in white coats, deserve all the plaudits they get and more. But, Jesus, the hype in the press release announcing the winners would have Phineas T.Barnum weeping into a pail of elephant shite. An ice cream took the big prize “beating off hundreds of top food and drink producers from all over Ireland.” This was presented by “leading industry expert” Peter Ward. Now Peter is a very nice man, who runs a fab deli in Co Limerick but I’m sure even he would agree the description is a tad OTT.

Be that as it may, what really pisses me off is that  Blas na hÉireann claim their awards to be the “only Irish food awards that focus solely on taste”. This is a blatant untruth, what’s more, a deliberate one.* The public should be aware that The Irish Food Writer’s Guild has been presenting their annual awards (focussed entirely on taste) for the past fifteen years. The IFWG’s awards have brought deserved recognition to many excellent producers, too many to list.

Blas na hÉireann’s spurious claim does a disservice to the pioneering Irish food writers, most of whom are still active members of the Guild who created the awards, the first of their kind.

What Blas na hÉireann do have and the Guild doesn’t, it seems, is the appliance of science. The judging process, we are told, was “developed and overseen by the U.C.C Food Science Department”. Can’t compete with that. Presumably deep in a bunker on campus there’s a batch of bespoke robots who chomp though a mountain of sausages, puddings, drisheen, rashers, ice cream, cheese, chocolate, soup, pies and poultry miles faster than can possibly be achieved by a team of respected food scribes, spewing out the results, based on a complex mathematical formula, in milliseconds. Does one of them write the press releases too?

* I did actually inform the PR representing  Blas na Éireann  of the prior existence and format of the Guild Awards and of the incorrectness of their claim, last year when I first received notification of  the inauguration of the Blas na hÉireann awards.

I should stress that the views contained herein are my own and not necessarily representative of the IGFW, of whom I am a member.

Full list of Award Winners available from katyjamespr@gmail.com

Corrigan calls for abolition of Bord Bia

richard-outside-front-door I’m sure many of the journos who found their way to Richard Corrigan’s press conference last Friday imagined the big man’s impending rant to be just a publicity stunt to publicise his restaurant and his new TV programme. Maybe that’s why the event wasn’t as well attended as I thought it might be, with several notables from the food journalism scene absent from the event. In the end it was left to Orla Broderick, chair elect of the Irish Food Writer’s Guild, Aoife Carrigy of Food & Wine, Tom Doorley and myself to cary the flag and ask the pertinent questions. The rest of the press corps present were ‘Newsos’ and ‘Snappers’.

 

Personally, I eschew the begrudgers’ view. I’ve known Richard for a long time and that’s not how he operates. What he does is home in on something he feels mega-strongly about (remember ‘Chickengate’?). Then he wades in, metaphorically speaking, with fists and gob flying, food’s answer to Mohammed Ali aka “The Louisville Lip”.  Richard Corrigan aka “The Meath Mouth”  always strikes me as coming across more like St.George, charging into battle, terminating dragons with extreme prejudice,  than St.Patrick, calmly telling the snakes to “feck off ”.

 

So it proved. Heart on his sleeve, combative as ever, Richard opened up by calling for the abolition of Bord Bia or at the very least a radical rethink of how the body promotes Irish food in Ireland. The current situation, he said, is highly unsatisfactory in that Bord Bia is prevented under EU law from promoting exclusively Irish produce in the domestic market through the Quality Assurance Scheme. This means that the Bord Bia Quality Assurance Scheme can apply to produce from any EU country and is therefore deeply flawed. Therefore buying Bord Bia quality approved products does NOT ensure that the products are Irish; that the products are GMO-free; or that the interests of Irish farmers and consumers are a priority with the Bord.He went on to say “I believe that the promotion of Irish food abroad and the promotion of Irish food at home should be separated. I would like to call for at least a radical overhaul of Bord Bia’s role in order to preserve and create Irish jobs, to empower Irish consumers, to support Irish farmers and to see taxpayers’ money spent constructively”, said Richard Corrigan. “Ireland has a unique capacity to produce the safest and highest quality food in Europe instead we are sailing in the opposite direction.

 

As a manifesto it was a hazardous roll-up of three separate issues and Richard’s pebbledash approach weakened his argument in the debate with Aiden Cotter, top dog at Bord Bia, later that afternoon at which he came over as badly-prepared, under-briefed or whatever. There were a good few non sequiturs in his speech at the press conference too. Richard asked why weren’t people like the Ballymaloe Allens and others who had the welfare of Irish food at heart involved in Bord Bia’s schemes. The truth is they often were, certainly in the setting up of initiatives like the ill-fated and ludicrously unworkable Feile Bia scheme for restaurants and producers. One of my criticisms of the Bord during my time as Editor of Food & Wine Magazine was that their Quango sub-committees always involved ‘the usual suspects’ and maybe some fresh, original thought wouldn’t have gone amiss.

 

I agree with Richard’s suggestion that Bord Bia are maybe not the best equipped organisation to uphold quality,ethical food production funded as they are by the major agri-businesses for whom the bottom line is paramount. Given Bord Bia’s track record with the ineffectual Feile Bia scheme (which failed largely because it wasn’t properly policed) and the woeful ‘Just Ask’ campaign that replaced it (no sanctions if the restaurant simply lies!) it’s right to question whether the Bord are the right people to do the job. “Abolition?” I don’t think so. What they do rather well is help market Irish food abroad, their primary role.

 

Clearly, we can no longer slap an Irish badge on the package and hope that does the trick. For a start the EU seems to have made it clear that QA schemes (like the Ritz hotel?) are open to all. But was it ever really desirable? Remember the ‘Gi’ sticker? There was some awful crap carrying that label in its heyday. No, what the consumer needs to know is that the food is ethically produced, traceable,  free as possible from pesticides and the ilk, and entirely free from taint by GM. The ‘Irish’ tag is nice to have and it’s great to know we’re supporting our own but it’s surely a ‘gizmo’ on top of the primary requirements. After provision of the above info the consumer can make up his or her own mind whether they want to go the tasty/healthy route or the cheap route but at least let’s empower them to be able to make that choice.

 

Lastly, over all this, like a pall of black smoke, hangs the GM question. The person who establishes the truth as to why our government is going it alone in facilitate the importing, growing and using of GM crops when the likes of France, Germany, Austria etc are moving in the opposite direction should be given the Presidency of Ireland for life. Anyone doubt there’s a link with The Forces of Darkness? One day it will emerge for sure but by then it will probably be too late.

 

By far the most impressive person at the press conference was Michael O’Callaghan, co-ordinator of GM-Free Ireland Network (website: www.gmfreeireland.org ) whose regular press releases make essential reading for anyone interested in the topic. Here’s what he told me: “I’ve been advised by experts from overseas that Ireland has the purest topsoil in the EU by far. And, along with New Zealand, we are the country least likely to be affected by climate change. In marketing terms, we own a gold mine. And the likelihood is, we’ll give it away.”

 

 

The Charms of Wexford, part 2

All this said, it’s ‘the other Wexford’ that claims my affection, to the extent where friends have taken to calling me ‘The Ambassador’. It begins with a left turn on the N11 at Ferns towards the picturesque town of Enniscorthy. One the way you pass Salville House, a weekend retreat that enables you to do an extensive sampling of your own fine wines while someone else (in this case the talented proprietor Gordon Parker) worries about the food. I have never stopped to eat in Enniscorthy but have plundered the local butchers, Staffords, for their excellent beef, lamb, chicken and ducks. Just out of the town you pass a sign for Monart, currently the spa both the beautiful people and the 51-week-a-year couch potatoes want to get to.

At the inner end of Wexford Harbour stands the Ferrycarrig Hotel, owned by local hero Liam Griffin who master-managed the Wexford hurling team to a glorious against-the-odds All-Ireland victory in 1996. A follow-up, alas, is not yet in sight. The Ferrycarrig makes a great base from which to discover the charm of both town and county and has a very decent restaurant, Reeds.

Third exit at the Duncannon Road roundabout and I’m in ‘home’ territory. Tantalizingly, in the distance, you glimpse the sea and it’s to the sea we’re headed. Not to Kilmore Quay, though the town has its charms, particularly access to the mysterious Saltee Islands where a man in the last century proclaimed himself a king and set up a parliament of fishermen. Instead we carry on down the military road, essaying a right and left through Wellington Bridge, a village named for the famous ‘Iron Duke’, conqueror of Napoleon, the Irish-born English hero proclaimed that if you are born in a stable it doesn’t make you a horse. Beyond the village, we pause to buy glistening fish from Susie and Patrick, a brace of beautiful black sole and queen scallops for garnish and some breakfast kippers. I could be persuaded to reveal the exact location – just send the Latour ’82 to…

The countryside here is not noted for rugged grandeur. Instead it beguiles, drawing you in through its subtle, understated charm. Even the cliffs lack drama, compared to, say, West Clare or Donegal; although there is much drama to be found in a walk around Hook Head in inclement weather, when the path is strewn with clouds of candyfloss sea foam, like Christmas-come-early; the waves hit the rocks, rise and knock your hat off. The Hook lighthouse is not the usual seaside trinket. It is squat and purposeful, as befits its title as the oldest in Europe.

The beaches are only amazing. From Duncannon’s long strand, largely ignored as an amenity except during mega-heat waves and bank holidays to Grange, the fisherman’s beach, there’s one for every reason and every time of day. Baginbun gets the morning sun. At Dollar Bay, which faces almost due West, bright Phoebus donates light and warmth until well into a summer’s evening.

In Duncannon village you’ll find two pubs, Roche’s and The Strand Tavern, with the locals divided in their loyalties. Roche’s is definitely ‘all pub to all people’; sports maven telly-gogglers, traditional musicians, pool players, smokers and those who are simply there ‘for the craic’ all seem to have their own defined space. Me, I’m there to drink Guinness by the pint bottle ‘off the shelf’, that is ‘unchilled’. I’d counsel you to try it; traditional, unique and subtle in flavour, once you get used to it, the frozen pint from the pump will seem lacklustre by comparison.

Like its counterpart across the road, Roche’s is family owned and at various times Bob, Eileen, James, David and assorted other members of the family are to be found serving there. An exception is Cindy, who will be running her stylish restaurant, Sqigl (pronounce it ‘squiggle’) in the adjacent barn. Eat in any Wexford restaurant and you could be forgiven for thinking that the county was the prototype for Gulliver’s Brobdignag. Sqigl is no exception – though the food is modern and cultured and the presentation pristine there are sufficient accompaniments to ensure you won’t go away hungry.

Oh, we are so lucky. Three top class restaurants almost in walking distance and another a mere five miles away. Billy Whitty is the chef and co-proprietor (with his partner Joanne) of Aldridge Lodge and his history is a heart-warming tale. Son of a local prawn and lobster fisherman, Billy, as a boy, always had a yearning to become a chef. Alas, the pen-pushers responsible for running catering course didn’t think he had what it takes and turned him down. Subsequent events proved that these guys are food’s equivalent of Decca’s Dick Rowe, the A&R man who famously scribbled ‘groups with guitars are passé’ and, thereby, donated The Beatles to rivals Parlophone. At this point enter Kevin Dundon who’s been in these pages previously. “If you want to become a chef” he said, “You’d better come and work for me”. Billy did and rose from being plongeur’s assistant to sous chef in less time than it takes to say ‘foie gras’. Billy’s own restaurant on the outskirts of the village is now a consistent award winner. Sample any course on the menu – particularly the lobster, supplied by ‘guess who’, and you’ll see why.

Meanwhile, at next door Arthurstown, Kevin and Catherine Dundon have opened a champagne bar in Dunbrody House. As well as a decent selection of bubbly and a range of smart cocktails the bar also serves great food, in the shape of starter-sized portions, three or four of which shared between two would make an informal meal. This will suit guests of the hotel as well as casual customers. Not everyone wants to eat a full dinner every night even when the uber-talented Kevin is at ‘the piano’.

Chefs and public alike keep an eye on the heights above the village where Richard Corrigan is knocking down one house and building another. “Will The Big Man open a restaurant?”, everyone wonders. Richard laughs off these suggestions, protesting he’s only here for the beer and the boating. It may be true.

Over at nearby Campile, Denise Bradley, formerly of Sqigl, Roly’s in Dublin and Colin O’Daly’s much-missed Park in Blackrock has taken over the Shelburne where the challenge has always been to make something of the mundane room. Denise has achieved this, cosying the place up with dividers, decent curtains and enough candles to light Notre Dame cathedral. The food is mainstream-modern and, like other restaurants in the area, majors on local ingredients and decent portions. The desserts (Denise is a trained, highly-skilled pastry chef) are mouthwatering as well as being total eye candy.

There’s no shortage of things to do. The gardens at Kilmokea House are wondrous, especially when the rhododendrons are out. The tea and scones are excellent at any time of year. From Rosslare to New Ross there are any amount of golf courses and par threes. There’s great sea fishing to be had. The JFK Memorial Park is well worth an hour or two’s stop. New Ross, a town in the process of transformation, now has a Thai, a Chinese and an Indian restaurant as well as the Dunbrody famine ship replica, a salutary warning against excessive hedonism. Locals, among whom I count myself, are justifiably addicted to Patsy and Phillip’s Nutshell Cafe, decent coffee and fine home cooking with a health food shop out front lest ye overindulge.

The ferry at Ballyhack puts the adjacent county, Waterford, within five minutes’ reach, alerting the visitor to the charms of The Strand, The Tannery, Faithlegg, Coast and La Boheme as well as Rockett’s the pub where they still serve crubeen. But, as Moustache, bistro keeper in Billy Wilder’s ‘Irma La Douce’ said, “That’s another story.”

Originally published in Issue 3 of ‘Intermezzo’, Ireland’s premier food, wine and travel magazine

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The Charms of Wexford

The Lighthouse, Hook Head
The Lighthouse, Hook Head

I have just celebrated my 20th anniversary of coming to Dublin to live. When I arrived on 28th August 1987 the place was closed for business. Emigration, albeit not in famine ships, seemed to be the fate of Ireland’s populace once more. The ferries leaving Dun Laoghaire sat several feet lower in the water than the one that brought me to land. Did somebody actually shout “When you get in, turn the lights back on” or was that a trick of my imagination?

Now, or so ‘they’ tell us, it’s boom time and we are accounted one of the richest nations in the world (although I still have this queasy feeling that sometime soon a small year old child will jump up a la Hans Christian Anderson and holler “Daddy, daddy! The economy has no clothes on!”) Undaunted by such pessimism, the ‘wild geese’ are returning by the planeload to find discretionary income abundant and, unlike the old days, plenty to spend it on. These days Dubliners drive non-utilitarian cars, one per adult. Many have second homes or, at least, the wherewithal to spend weekends ‘down the country’.

My wife and I discovered county Wexford about ten years ago, on a sea kayaking weekend, roughing it in a hostel at Ramsgrange. Prior to that we’d always driven westwards in search of relaxation, to the Shannon or to Connemara. Now ‘The Model County’ is our favoured destination and we get there as often as work and other pressures permit.

That county’s inhabitants will always tell you, with an enigmatic smile, that Wexford is located in ‘The Sunny South East’, one of those time-worn clichés you used to find proclaimed on adverts in railway carriages long before we discovered Mallorca and Malaga where they have real sun. Still, there’s something in it. After ten years we are still always surprised how benign the weather can be when we get the far side of Gorey.

There are really two Wexfords, east and west. Gorey at the northernmost tip of the county has been dragged unwittingly into the Dublin commuter belt, a feat accomplished with the aid of greatly improved roads. I wonder how many politicos and planners have weekend places at nearby Courtown?

Gorey itself is somewhat bereft of gastronomic delights, although this is bound to change. There is an honourable exception a few miles away at Marlfield House where the Bowe family have always maintained exemplary standards of hospitality, aided and abetted by an excellent chef. The reputation of Marlfield was built on its food, much of it grown in the hotel’s kitchen garden where fresh herbs, vegetables and fruit are gathered daily. There is an emphasis on local produce. Mention should be made, too of Papa Rhodes at Ballycanew, a village on the Gorey to Wexford road, which has a reputation among locals and holidaymakers for simple, tasty Italian food and a ‘fun’ atmosphere.

South and East of Wexford town, where the strands are long and inviting, the Lobster Pot, the Hearn family’s pristine country pub at Carne established long ago the envied reputation of being one of the best places in Ireland at which to eat fish. Rosslare, from whose port the ferry departs for and arrives from France – watch out for wayward drivers on the wrong side of the road – boasts another icon. Kelly’s Resort Hotel and Spa, in the same ownership for three generations, is justly regarded as the best place in Ireland for a family holiday. Nowhere is bringing kids so lacking in stress for the parents. And nowhere is more care taken to ensure that those adults sans brats who just want to chill, eat drink and red the papers, remain undisturbed. Bill Kelly, the caring proprietor walks the dining room on a nightly basis, making himself known to guests. Another fillip is that Bill’s father-in-law is the illustrious Rhone producer Paul Avril and his wines embellish an already spectacular list.

Talk Irish history with anyone who is interested and they’ll probably lament the failure of the (non-sectarian) rebellion of 1798 in which Wexford’s inhabitants played an important part. The event has been immortalised in songs such as ‘the Boys of Wexford’ and ‘Boolavogue’ which most Wexford people learn in primary school and maybe this has fostered the pride and spirit that has seen Wexford town pick itself up after a period in the economic doldrums to emerge as a vibrant capital for the county. I’d counsel anyone who hasn’t been to go to the Opera Festival, even if they are tone deaf, just to soak up the atmosphere. I still covet the ‘Pub Pavarotti’ title, maybe one day I’ll shed my inhibitions and croak my way through an aria! The town has several fine restaurants; among the most notable are Forde’s and the astonishing La Dolce Vita, the embodiment of Italy in Ireland, presided over by genial chef and saucier extraordinaire Roberto Pons

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Beef & Sheep Producers Call For Gm Free Island Policy

The Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association has today (Thursday 17th June) called on the government to pursue a ‘GM (Genetically Modified) Free Island’ policy. ICSA wants this to be an integral part of a strategy to further develop the green image of Irish farm produce and it could be critical in increasing the Irish share of high value markets for products such as beef. ICSA president Malcolm Thompson said that “the single most important challenge for Irish agriculture is to build on the momentum of increased demand for Irish beef and lamb by strengthening our image as ‘Ireland – the food island’. We need to capitalise on a green image, and tap into the demand for natural products”.

ICSA rural development chairman John Heney explained that if Ireland wants to be a leading supplier of beef and lamb to the highest value EU markets, then it is vital to listen and respond to European consumer concerns. “Surveys clearly show that the majority of EU consumers are strongly opposed to any use of genetically modified organisms, whether as part of food for humans or as part of the diet of animals destined for meat production. This is a vital message which cannot be ignored if we wish to successfully market Irish beef”, he said.

He added that Ireland, as an island cut off from mainland Europe has a unique opportunity to put forward a GM free policy which will be highly credible._ “Because of our island status, we can realistically claim to be GM free, without risk of contamination from other EU countries that may take a different approach to GM. This will give us a marketing edge”, he said.

Mr Heney further explained that ICSA was not making any explicit judgement on the science of GM produce, but rather making the marketing of Irish beef and lamb the key objective of Irish agricultural policy._ “However, we have examined the implications of GM free production for competitiveness and ICSA is happy that the overall best interests of Irish farmers will be determined primarily by our ability to sell beef and lamb in high value markets.

For instance, the cost of GM free ration is only marginally higher than ration with GM ingredients, and at the same time would actually boost demand for home grown cereals such as barley and wheat. In this way, a GM free policy is positive for both Irish meat producers and Irish tillage farmers”, he concluded.

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The Wine Guide – Best of Wine in Ireland 2004

A brilliant book, meticulously researched and an essential guide for Ireland’s wine shoppers. This year it’s benefited hugely from the editorship of John Wilson, a respected wine trade figure, critic and, of course, latterly a regular columnist in this magazine. John’s involvement has brought gravitas, keener focus and enhanced status to an already essential reference work. The guide also benefits from a dedicated tasting panel. The new section on value wines alone should allow you to recoup the cost of the book. All-in-all, highly recommended.

The Wine Guide – Best of Wine in Ireland 2004
9th Edition, edited by John Wilson
A & A Farmer e12.99

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STOP PRESS Irish Food Writers Guild Awards

The Ballygowan/ Irish Food Writers’ Guild Awards were presented at a lunch at L’Ecrivain, Dubin’s latest Michelin starred restaurant, where chef/proprietor Derry Clarke, winner of no less than 3 Awards at the recent FOOD & WINE Magazine/Evian Restaurant of The Year Awards, cooked up an absolute storm , using the produce of the 4 awards winners, plus the wonderful biodynamic orange apples of Penny Lange, herself no stranger to IFWG accredition.

Winners were: Frank Hederman, Ireland’s prime smoker (of mussels, mackerel salmon and eels) from Cobh; James Mc Geough of Oughterard, Co Galway with his wonderful lamb sausage, salami and pate; Pat Doherty of Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh of amazing black bacon and smoked lamb fame and, last but not least, Silke Cropp of Drumlin and Corleggy Cheese.

Silke Cropp deservedlywon the overall award, for the excellence of her own cheeses and for the help that she has given to other Irish cheesmakers, including Maya Binder from Co Kerry. One of the world’s nice people and a fantastic cheesemaker – with her produce in Sheridans, London’s Neal’s Yard and her own stall on the Temple Bar Market, Silke thoroughly deserves her success.

Many notable foodies were at the presentation, including Darina Allen whose first appearance at an Irish Food Writer’s Guild function for years surprised many members of the Guild.

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