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Tuesday, 17 December 2013

A little Festive Reading

Around this time of year lots of reviews of books appear. The difference with my favourites of the year are that they are not review copies, each has been bought and they are, well thumbed, on my shelves and used on a regular basis.


As a keen cook and supporter of local businesses, including my own small bakery, each of them has had a direct impact on my life, and whilst food related they are an eclectic connection and all well worth a read.
My Cookbook of the year is Master It by Rory O'Connell.

One of the founders and teachers at Ballymaloe Cookery School, Rory is consummately skilled, as evidenced by his lengthy period cooking with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, and much loved by students at Ballymaloe. You can hear Rory through the pages, his dry humour such as his desperation at the current cup cake craze.

Each chapter is like having a private lesson with Rory, and you emerge a much better cook. I love this book and regularly turn to it.

Having trained at Ballymaloe with Rory and Darina Allen a natural choice for me is 30 Years at Ballymaloe.

The book does what it says on the tin, celebrating 30 years of the world renowned school, detailing much of its history, from conception to the current day. Of course there are some classic recipes as taught to students but also 100 new ones. Previous Alumni are mentioned and the book has recipes by some of them. A must for former students and anyone who wants to understand what makes the 'Ballymaloe Bubble' and what makes Ballymaloe an iconic school.

My third book is another cookery book, entirely within the concept of this blog in that it is based on local and seasonal foods.
The Ethicurean Cookbook is from the eponymous restaurant just outside Bristol. Much of the produce used is from their own Victorian Walled Garden, the garden that inspired the establishment of the restaurant. Taking you through the year starting with Winter a large selection of recipes celebrates all that is local and seasonal including some stunning drinks!
 When I left Ballymaloe I put some of my new found, or improved skills to use and set up my own micro-bakery producing breads made without any additives. I use recipes garnered from some great bakers but when in doubt I fall back upon Jeffrey Hamelman.
A winner of the Baguette D'Or the first edition of this book sold out world wide and was only available at hugely inflated prices second hand. Luckily the second edition was published this year and is much more reasonably priced. The recipes are given in Bakers Percentages, industrial quantities and most importantly for the home baker. I love this manual, written for professionals but easily read and understood by the amateur. One of my best selling breads is Vermont Sourdough from the book which I make with a Sourdough Starter that I got from Declan Ryan of Arbutus Bread.
Regular readers of the blog will know that I greatly admire Clonmel based butcher Pat Whelan, a definite Master Butcher whose knowledge of his craft and willingness to share that knowledge is much to be admired.
Pat has produced THE book about Beef in The Irish Beef Book.
Pat writes about the reasons behind becoming a butcher and how great beef should be raised, slaughtered, hung and prepared with great respect for the animal. He then goes on to deliver some terrific recipes, again for the home cook, with co writer Katy McGuinness, beautifully illustrated with photographs. I was privileged to be in Dublin for the launch last month and the buzz amongst those attending was amazing. If you ever cook beef, or know someone who does you need this book.
Pat, as I am sure you know is a farmer as well as a butcher and is championing Wagyu Beef in Ireland, Farming is the basis of all food production, let's be honest no farmers no food. So would you marry a farmer?
That is the question posed by Lorna Sixsmith in her book of the same name.

An interesting mix of fact, social history and very funny anecdotes from her own life married to a farmer, the book was actually crowd funded and without sufficient interest it would never have been published. Luckily for us there was great interest and a delightful little gem is amongst us. Amongst the advice for would be farmers wives is get a good sports bra, needed for chasing cows!
So having read the book Would I Marry a Farmer? If Mrs K did not exist I would be seeking a woman with a few acres and a milk quota.
My final book of the year, and a very nice stocking filler for Christmas is Ian Crofton's A Curious History of food.
Chronologically organised, it's a collection of snippets and obscure facts about food such as Alfred The Great banning the consumption of any Ox that had gored someone to death. The beast would instead be stoned to death.
Both interesting and intriguing this light hearted volume is ideal to dip into when you have a few minutes and will both increase your knowledge of obscure food facts and give you a good laugh.
So there you have it, my favourite books of the year, and all ones I would recommend for your reading, and cooking pleasure.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Zesty food, locally sourced

It has always been a principle of Local and Great that I concentrate on local producers, wherever I happen to be, and avoid writing about large companies and chain outlets.

However, I was intrigued to hear that a major chain Marriott Hotels were proposing to establish new menus based on local, seasonal and organic food. More intriguingly they were doing so in conjunction with River Cottage. Though Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall is well on the way to becoming a brand in his own right, there is no doubt that he is a champion of good and seasonal food.

So could this work?

The project is undergoing a six month evaluation before being rolled out across the UK Marriott chain, Cardiff and Hollins Hall in Yorkshire are  the first hotels to go online with the menu in their  Zest Restaurants.

Offered the chance to try the menu I went along with a fair degree of scepticism, how local, how seasonal and how organic, genuine commitment or corporate hype?

As a launch event, the chef and Marriott management would be available for discussion and I aimed to get to the heart of the concept.

First impressions were positive the restaurant has a mission statement to source over 80% of ingredients within 60 miles. A large board displayed the suppliers, many of them well known to me, but how many were actually known to the chef?

The chefs, led by Anthony Barnes, who has spent much of his career in South Wales, starting in Chepstow, had been trained at River Cottage Headquarters to deliver local and seasonal dishes.

(L-R) Executive Chef Cardiff Marriott Anthony Barnes, Chef Tutor Gary Richmond River Cottage, Executive Chef Hollins Hall Gary Armitage
On speaking to Anthony it was immediately obvious that he had met with the suppliers, and on their own ground not in a boardroom somewhere. Talking about Ty Mawr he spoke of bouncing over the fields in Phillip's ancient Range Rover to sample vegetables fresh from the ground, an experience I have had in the past, and of meeting Odin the immense but soft Rottweiler.
Clearly here was a team who would be seeking to achieve the aim of producing food from local suppliers and who knew them.
So to the food, the menu is relatively short and that is a good thing, a few dishes 5 starters, 6 mains and 5 desserts with 5 sides. Better to concentrate of a few dishes and do them well than have lots to choose from and anticipate several to be pre-chilled and warmed through in the kitchen. Ingredients of the quality used deserve to be treated well and not unnecessarily over worked.
We chose a Parsley Salad with Crab and a soft boiled egg that was long on flavour and set the tone for a good meal and a Smoked Venison, which came as a carpaccio with Crispy Garlic, Pickled Mushrooms and Winter Leaves. The Venison was from the Welsh Venison Centre just outside Brecon.

Mains were Pulled Slade Farm Pork with a Semolina Pave, think Polenta, Salsa Verde and Carrots - of the rainbow variety, and Slade Farm Lamb with Smashed Celeriac Chilli and Thyme. Sadly the photo of the Lamb was not fit for inclusion but Janet loved the Lamb.

Sides of Honey Glazed Carrots and some more Smashed Celeriac made for a strong meal. Janet was pleased that the chilli was a background taste and did not overpower the dish.

Desserts of Panna Cotta with a spiced Apricot and crisp Biscotti and  an Orange and Almond Pudding with Red Wine Pear and Vanilla Ice Cream finished a very good meal. The milk for the Panna Cotta and the Ice Cream was fro Welsh Organic Milk suppliers Calon Wen and both were made in house.

So what did we make of Zest? On our visit it was clear that the mission statement was met in full and that there was  a strong commitment to developing local menus for all the UK hotels in the Marriott chain.

Hopefully the trial will prove a success and the River Cottage menus will roll out in the months to come.

Zest is in the Marriott Cardiff.


Foodies100 Index of UK Food Blogs
Morphy Richards


Thursday, 26 September 2013

Building for the future

If we are to have a good future in food we have to bring up a new generation of cooks. Not only for the restaurant business but good home cooks too who can serve delicious and nutritious food for healthy families.

At a time when cookery is decreasingly taught in schools, or largely consists of assembling pre-bought ingredients, it is good to see the Food Festivals taking on the challenge.

Abergavenny has a Secondary Schools Challenge - won this year by King Henry VIII School, but I will concentrate on Newport Food Festival and The Celtic Cook Off as brilliant examples.

Since its inception Newport Food Festival has run Teen Chef, in association with the City's Youth Service. Youth Clubs and organisations compete in heats over a period of around three months, with young people designing, sourcing and cooking their menus.

A semi final is held in the Market Hall in Newport a couple of weeks before the actual Food Festival with the winning teams going head to head on the day of the festival.

Whether a finalist or not each competitor will have gained knowledge and skills that will serve them well in future life.

The competition is hugely supported by Hywel Jones, Michelin Starred at Lucknam Park and a Newport boy himself. Hywel mentors and judges both the semi final and final, sharing his immense knowledge of food and kindling enthusiasm amongst the competitors.

But it goes further, the winning team go to Lucknam Park for a morning in the kitchen with Hywel and his team before having lunch in the restaurant. This year Hywel is cooking the Food Festival Supper and will have one of the winners of the first Teen Chef in his brigade on the evening. As in previous years students from Coleg Gwent will also join the brigade gaining valuable experience of prepping and cooking in a restaurant environment.

Education and training are also high on the agenda in the Celtic Cook Off. Held during, but parallel to West Cork Food Week, the Cook Off is organised at the West Cork Hotel by a small group of local producers and enthusiasts. Chefs from the six Celtic Nations and Regions cook off against each other for the title.

There is, however, a big emphasis on skills and knowledge for younger cooks.

A secondary Schools Cookery Competition takes place in the Mercy Heights School and one of the competing chefs is the judge - this year it was Welsh Chef Gareth Johns from the Wynnstay in Machynlleth. Gareth reported that the standard of cooking was high and the winners thoroughly deserved their title.

On the evening of the Cook Off last year's winning chef cooks a dinner, Gary O'Hanlon Of Viewmount House won last year, and the previous years Schools champions join the winner to prep an element of the dinner.

About to enjoy my breakfast I was delighted to see Gary with the winners poring over the recipe and order of work for their contribution, an Apricot, Date and Organic Blueberry Compote to accompany the Cheese Plate. They went into the kitchen and made the dish and a little more to spare.

On the evening of the Cook Off the two girls started the night by giving a quick demo to the 200 or so in the audience, and passed around tasters! What a great experience for 16 year olds and what a learning experience.

During the day of the competition trainees from Catering Colleges come to the hotel and have Master Classes from the competing chefs and make canap├ęs for the audience as well as acting as Sous Chefs during prep and on the night. Again a learning opportunity for them.


Similarly to Hywel Jones inviting the winners of Teen Chef to his restaurant the winner of the Celtic Cook Off invites the Schools Competition winner.

Two great initiatives to get more young people involved with food and two which have made a real difference to young lives.

Foodies100 Index of UK Food Blogs
Morphy Richards


Friday, 30 August 2013

Myrtle Allen, an absolute Icon of food and hospitality

Shortly to celebrate her 90th birthday Myrtle Allen has been described as the single most important figure in Irish Food.

Whilst that is true it doesn't mention her huge impact and influence on the Hospitality Industry  as well.

The story of Myrtle Allen's rise to prominence is well documented, the young farmers wife, living in a house that was too large and in parts almost derelict, and transforming it to a Must GO destination - one of the "500 places to visit before you die".

That is true, but it again doesn't tell the half.

Living on a farm where food was plentiful and with  large room, Myrtle set up a restaurant, advertising in the local evening paper but without giving the actual address just a telephone number. To her amazement people came and word spread. From a small beginning Ballymaloe House got a good reputation and gradually the restaurant "The Yeats Room" allowed restoration of the house and creation of guest rooms.

It is Myrtle's strong beliefs that allowed the blossoming of the restaurant and hotel to its current high status.

Food is quite simple, but always cooked to the highest standards, as local as possible and always seasonal. Not for Myrtle airlifted Asparagus in January, no it will be Potato, Carrot, Cabbage or Kale and Leeks.  Simple vegetables but full of flavour. Giles Coren waxed lyrical about a boiled potato that he had on one visit, "floury perfection with butter melting into the potato like teenagers in the back row" was how he described it in an article now sadly marooned behind the Times paywall.

Yes the food is simple, but by eating seasonally and locally you get every ingredient at its peak and sensitive cooking enhances them rather than trying to change them.

That is the secret of Myrtle's success and cooking style. A style that has seen Michelin Stars awarded and which keeps Ballymaloe House on top of its game after many years.

That philosophy is carried through to the hotel, which feels as though you were a house guest at a Country House Weekend. And that is what you are.

Ballymaloe offers a totally relaxing experience, and it doesn't matter what your status, you are a guest and treated as such. Friendly staff, comfortable rooms, roaring fires in Winter, croquet on the lawn and a feeling of belonging.

Breakfast is all that you could wish for, from the Porridge with local cream and honey, home made Muesli, the fullest of Irish breakfasts, home made Yoghurt with fruit coulis, Jams and Marmalades, several breads topped up from the oven as the meal progresses, warm Scones and good Tea or Coffee. Often Mrs Allen will pop in for her own breakfast, it is after all her home!

Lunch is a choice of locally sourced main courses, often from Ballycotton the local harbour, or a farm in the locality all served with Ballymaloe's own vegetables from the farm, the walled garden or the Cookery School. And then there are the desserts!

Served from a Dessert Trolley, and when did you last see one of those? A wide range but always including Ice Cream and a Meringue and generous portions to boot. The Meringue is a perennial and sums up some of Myrtle's philosophy. "We use a lot of egg yolks, and rather than waste the whites there is always a Meringue", often a frozen Meringue Roulade.

Dinner is 5 courses, again following the local and seasonal path. Portions are not huge, but there is always the offer of a second helping, or the chance to try one of the other mains, and of course fresh vegetables.

Perhaps the best meals are those dinners offered buffet style where a total cornucopia of Cork foods are available and the family help serve them. Combined with a legendary wine list Ballymaloe House offers THE best.

Myrtle Allen wrote one of the definitive books on Irish Cookery

with her recipes that are still in use today at the House, and which set the style for the transformation of Irish Food, which did not have a great reputation despite having some of the finest produce in the world.

Myrtle also employed a young Darina O'Connell, then fresh out of hotel school and, perhaps unwittingly, started the great Allen/Ballymaloe dynasty that lies at the heart of modern Irish Food.

Darina learned well from Myrtle, married her son Timmy and took on Kinoith Farm in Shanagarry before setting up Ballymaloe Cookery School with her brother Rory, who had himself been head chef at Ballymaloe House for 10 years.

This year Ballymaloe Cookery School celebrates its 30th Birthday, 30 years in which it has produced some of the rising stars of the Irish and UK food scene and gained an international reputation to rival that of Ballymaloe House.
The House has continued to grow, but in a sensible and structured way under Myrtle's guidance. Most recently out buildings were converted to The Grain Store a multi purpose space for events and conferences, weddings and meals.

This has allowed a greater range of events to take place. Already very successful Wine Weekends and Music Weeks were held but The Grain Store allowed the inaugural Ballymaloe Literary Festival to take place.

Attended by some of the major figures worldwide from Food and Food Writing, many of whom came to spend time with Myrtle who had been amongst their influences.

But it is Myrtle and Ballymaloe House that inspire so many. As a student at Ballymaloe Cookery School I remember that we were all really excited to visit the House, to look around the kitchens and rooms, have Afternoon Tea and to meet Mrs Allen and hear her words of advice for aspiring chefs and food industry workers.

She did not let us down, telling us of her beliefs, and how we could best achieve our own ambitions.

Myrtle inspired us in the way that she has generations of eager food entrants, and encouraged us to do our best and to treat ingredients well to get the bet out of them.

What she did not tell us was that she would be one of the panel assessing our practical cookery exam, and we did not find out until someone spotted her in the school waiting to taste and mark!

I have to say that having Myrtle Allen's signature on my certificate is one of the proudest moments of my life. To be validated by an icon is beyond measure.

So Myrtle Allen is an icon, her influence spans years and continents and her legacy will last for many years to come.

I am pleased that  RTE will be broadcasting a tribute to her on Tuesday. If you aren't in Ireland to watch live you will have to catch up on RTEplayer, but whatever you do don't miss it.

Foodies100 Index of UK Food Blogs
Morphy Richards