A Taste of Ireland

Donal Skehan

By Sharon Ní Chonchúir, Contributor
June / July 2011

Ireland’s Food Revolution

We Irish have had a fraught relationship with food for far too long. Generations were raised to see it as a crime to leave even the tiniest morsel on our plates. Instead of being encouraged to develop a taste for good food, we were told to consider ourselves lucky to have any food at all.

Is this a legacy of our past? For centuries, British landlords exported the finest Irish meats, butters and grains abroad and we subsisted on the leftovers, which amounted to little more than potatoes. When the blight struck and those potatoes failed, millions suffered in the resulting famine. From then on, we learned that what matters is not the quality of the food you eat but that you have any food to eat in the first place.

Thanks to the people introduced in these pages and many others like them, this is finally changing. We are learning to appreciate our food producers who make farmhouse cheeses and butters, cure meat, smoke fish and harvest vegetables that are among the best in the world. We are beginning to take pride in Irish food.

Donal Skehan is Ireland’s answer to Jamie Oliver. This self-taught cook shares Jamie’s passion for home-cooked food and through his food blog, cookbooks and soon-to-be-launched TV series, he is inspiring Irish people to follow his example.

“I believe everyone can learn how to cook,” says Donal. “Here in Ireland we have such wonderful produce. We should be proud of it and, even more importantly, we should make good use of it.”

Twenty-five-year-old Donal was raised in what he calls “a foodie family” in Howth, County Dublin. His parents ran a fruit and vegetable business, where he helped out from a young age. Members of his extended family also had an interest in food. His grandmother was renowned for her baking. Two uncles trained at the Ballymaloe Cookery School and his aunt Erica Ryan is one of Ireland’s best-known food stylists.

It wasn’t long before Donal took an interest in food too. “I remember the thrill of flipping my first pancakes,” he says. “Pancakes and cakes were what I made as a child but when I hit my teens, I took over my mum’s side of the kitchen and started making hearty home-cooked food.”

This is the type of food he continues to make today and it’s what you’ll find on the blog he started in 2007. Chicken hotpot, roast garlic shepherd’s pie and rhubarb crumble are some of the dishes you’ll find at www.donalskehan.com.

The popularity of his blog earned Donal a book deal. His first book got great reviews. He has just released his second –  Kitchen Hero – and he is about to launch his TV show of the same name.  
He thinks his success is due to the simplicity of his cooking. “People can be intimidated by books written by chefs,” he says. “My food is simple. It’s the type of food you can throw together at the end of a long day’s work.”

Although it may sound as though he was destined for a career in food, Donal first ventured into the world of music. He even had two Irish number one hits with his band ‘Industry.’

“Music and food were my main interests and I always knew I would pursue one or the other,” he laughs. “I grabbed the chance to sing when it came along but I knew my singing wasn’t as good as my cooking. I’d eventually come back to food.”

He continued to blog while touring with his band and four years later, he couldn’t be more thrilled to be involved in the Irish food scene.

“Irish food is incredibly inspiring at the moment,” he says. “The snobbery has gone and now we value what we have. Chefs are cooking with local, seasonal produce. We are going back to the roots of Irish food.”

Through his collaboration with Bórd Bia (the Irish Food Board), Donal has discovered that there is also a growing interest in Irish food abroad.

“I cooked a dish of Cashel Blue cheese and black pudding for 700 people in Paris in March,” says Donal. “They lapped it up. For the French, who are so informed about food, to be that interested in Irish food says a lot. It shows we really should be proud.” 
Peter Ward is fanatical about food. Surrounded by farmhouse butters and cheeses, his wife’s homemade jams and all sorts of delicacies, it seems he thinks of little else.

“The excellence of Irish food is our oldest commodity,” states Peter. “Think of our milk products, black puddings and seafood. All of these compare with the best in the world.”

Peter should know what he is talking about given that he has devoted his life to food. Growing up in Navan, he lived in a house “where what was on the table was more important than the type of car in the drive.”

His father loved food. “He was my original food hero,” says Peter. “He travelled the country selling cattle and always brought food home from wherever he had been: beef, cheese, fish or black pudding.”

After leaving school, Peter worked for the Dunnes Stores supermarket chain. They sent him to Tipperary where he met his wife, Mary, at a local dance.

The pair saw a gap in the market for a speciality food store and in 1982 they set up Country Choice in Nenagh. In the years since then, the shop has become a haven for anyone with an interest in food.

“We sell food we like ourselves, food we would serve our visitors on a Sunday,” explains Peter.  
When they first opened, their stock consisted of Mary’s jams and the finest produce to be found at local agricultural shows and country markets.

“I’d go and see who had won what prizes,” says Peter. “Then I’d ring them up and order supplies from them. That’s how we developed our contacts with people.”

Their focus was always on organic, natural food. “We had duck eggs, brown soda bread and jam in the window that first day,” remembers Peter. “They could be our family crest because they are still the basis of what we do today.”

In the 30 years since then, he and Mary have added more and more produce to their shelves. They also make and serve the best of Irish food in their café.

“For us, it’s all about where the food comes from,” says Peter. “Who makes it and how do they make it. These are the important questions.”

In fact, Peter thinks these questions might just give us the answer to Ireland’s current economic problems. “Nobody is going to drop out of the skies into the rural parishes of Ireland,” he says. “We need to look to our own and what we are good at, which is tourism and food. Combine the two and work from there.”

He believes every tourist coming to Ireland should look forward to tasting Irish lamb, beef, butter, bread and milk. “And we should deliver on that promise,” he continues. “It’s treasonable to give our valuable guests cheap, foreign, mass-produced food.”

Visitors to Country Choice in Nenagh and to the shop/café now open in Limerick’s Milk Market will certainly find that Peter and Mary deliver on the promises they make to their customers.

“Country Choice is a home away from home for us and all our customers,” says Peter. It’s a home where you’ll always be invited to sit at the table and savor the best of Irish food. www.countrychoice.ie

Did you know that Ireland has been renowned for its dairy produce for centuries? The city of Cork was once home to the largest butter market in the world and Irish butter was shipped from there to destinations as far away as India, Australia and Brazil.

One family is doing its utmost to restore Ireland’s reputation for fine dairy produce. Glenilen Farm is to be found at the end of a winding country lane in West Cork. Here, the Kingston family have a herd of cows whose milk they use to make the creamiest of yoghurts, butters, creams and cheesecakes.    
“We aim to make the freshest and most natural dairy produce,” says Valerie Kingston. “All of our butter, cream, yoghurts and other products are full of natural goodness and don’t have any additives or preservatives. This gives them a pure, authentic farmhouse taste.”

Glenilen Farm has been in Alan Kingston’s family for generations but it wasn’t until Alan married Valerie (also a farmer’s daughter from West Cork) that they started to make dairy produce.  
Valerie had studied food technology at university and set up a cheese-making enterprise in Burkina Faso after she left university. Finding herself newly married, she decided to use the skills she had learned at university and refined in Africa to make cheese from the milk produced by the farm’s cows.

It wasn’t long before she was making cheesecakes and yoghurts in her kitchen. Pleased with the results, her next step was to set up a stall at Bantry’s Farmers’ Market. She soon had regular customers who loved her produce as much as she did.

That was 1997, and what started as a kitchen enterprise has now become a business employing more than 20 people. Glenilen products are now stocked throughout Ireland and in Tesco in the UK.
These changes have meant that Alan and Valerie have had to increase production and automate some of their processes. Despite this, their principles remain the same as ever.

“Our products are made using the best ingredients available, reflecting our steadfast belief in the goodness of wholesome, natural food,” says Alan.

You can taste the difference this makes to their produce. Their yoghurts are smooth and creamy. Their cheesecakes and mousses are bursting with fresh flavor. This is Irish dairy produce at its absolute best. www.glenilenfarm.com

Once upon a time, coastal dwellers combed the shorelines of Ireland for edible seaweeds. Carrageen, sea spaghetti and duileasc were all commonly found on the Irish table.

Today, this practice has virtually died away. “By the 1970s, we were among the very few who harvested from the shore,” recalls Prannie Rhatigan, author of The Irish Seaweed Kitchen, a book that aims to revive the tradition of seaweed harvesting. “I think folk memory still associated it with extreme poverty.”

Prannie grew up in Sligo where her father would take her seaweed harvesting. “He taught us all about the glistening crop on the shore,” she remembers. “The cycle would begin after the first frosts had sweetened the sleabhac and would continue throughout the year with other seaweeds.”

She continues to harvest seaweed to this day. “If the moon is new or full, I harvest some seaweed for my family and friends,” she says.

It was these same friends who urged her to write her book. “They love my seaweed recipes and encouraged me to write them down before the knowledge was lost,” says Prannie.

While researching her book, Prannie discovered just how old seaweed harvesting is in Ireland. The 5th century Brehon Laws mention duileasc as a condiment to be served with bread, whey milk and butter. Seaweed is referred to in a poem written by a monk in the 12th century, and a 1938 survey found that 32 species of seaweed were eaten in Connemara.

“I came to see that Ireland’s long association with edible seaweeds, and with duileasc in particular, has earned that plant the right to become a national symbol akin to the pint of Guinness, the Aran sweater, the potato and the harp,” says Prannie.

Prannie passionately believes that more of us should eat seaweed, as our ancestors did. Her book tells us how to source, identify, prepare, cook and store it. It features 150 recipes covering everything from soups to sushi and even chocolate cake. There’s even a chart outlining the nutritional properties of each seaweed.

“Like many before me, I grew up with the understanding that seaweeds were not just tasty, but healthy and nutritious too,” says Prannie. “This is something I wanted to pass on to my readers.”

Many of the recipes in the book are Prannie’s own. Others come from her friends and family. And still more are from well-known chefs and cooks. Darina Allen, Richard Corrigan and Californian Alice Waters all contribute their favorite seaweed recipes.

Prannie hopes her book will inspire others to make more use of the seaweeds on our shores. “Our ancestors were lucky to have seaweed,” she says. “We are lucky too because seaweed remains a food option. It’s a living treasure by the shore.”  www.prannie.com

Donal Skehan, Peter Ward, Prannie Rhatigan and Alan and Valerie Kingston are part of a growing group of people who believe in the value and quality of Irish food.

These people know that what we have to offer extends far beyond a plate of bacon and cabbage or a bowl of Irish stew served with boiled potatoes. They realize that we have many other fine ingredients that are worth celebrating too.

Food Festivals

If you’d like to sample the best of Irish fare on your next trip to Ireland, why not pay a visit to one of the country’s many food festivals?

The Galway International Oyster Festival takes place from the 21st to the 25th of September. Now in its 57th year, it celebrates the start of the oyster season and the world-famous Galway Bay oysters. 

The Dingle Food Festival takes place from the 30th of September to the 2nd of October. Expect cookery demonstrations, food markets, foraging walks and a taste trail that leads you through the town sampling local produce as you go.  www.dinglefood.com

The Kinsale Gourmet Festival takes place from the 7th to the 9th of October. Local restaurants and food producers come together in Kinsale to showcase the very best Cork has to offer. www.kinsalerestaurants.com

The Savour Kilkenny Food Festival takes place from the 28th to the 31st of October. It features cookery demonstrations, special seafood tastings, food markets and workshops in forgotten skills such as apple pressing and flour milling. www.savourkilkenny.com

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