I’m posting late today, after a marathon 24 hours of air travel from Ireland, via Heathrow and LAX. I just returned from a five-day trip, meeting Ireland’s top food stars and sampling their outstanding fare.
If you’re imagining boiled dinners or corned beef and cabbage, think again. Today, the best of Irish cooking is sophisticated and vibrant, and easily holds its own on the world stage.
It starts with the ingredients. Talented chefs are creating an authentic cuisine using native ingredients from the land and sea – organic vegetables hand-picked from their own gardens, local lamb and fresh-caught seafood. They are supported by artisan food producers who smoke, churn, cure and age to enhance foods further.
Then there’s the butter and cheeses, made possible by Ireland’s incredibly rich, green grass. Ireland isn’t known as the Emerald Isle for nothing. Cows grazing on pastureland produce milk so rich in beta-carotene it turns butter a natural gold.
Irish butter and cheese is how I happen to be on this culinary adventure. For the past five years, I have worked as the US PR representative for the Irish Dairy Board, the marketing and selling cooperative created by Ireland’s small dairy farmer co-ops and creameries to export dairy products around the world. The butter and cheeses are sold under the Kerrygold brand and they’re widely available in the US. Having started Special Fork as a business with my son David, Kerrygold is the only client I continue to work with from my original PR business.
Our goal in taking food media to Ireland is to show them first-hand the quality of the cooking and the food ingredients of Ireland, including Kerrygold butter and cheeses. We meet with farmers and dairy producers, as well as the people who can tell the Irish culinary story by their stellar accomplishments. Here are some of them:
Darina Allen, the indefatigable founder of the world-famous Ballymaloe Cookery School is the heart and soul of Irish cooking, having shaped its contemporary foundation – food built on organic, sustainable agriculture, starting with the 100 acres or organic farmland under cultivation around the school. The school offers afternoon demos, short courses and 12-week certificate programs. Darina wants people to get back to embracing the underlying basics of food, so in addition to traditional culinary classes, there are classes on butchering, charcuterie, sausage making, and foraging and students learn to plant crops as part of their culinary education. We took a tour with Darina of the immaculate grounds and produce gardens. Darina also was influential in the founding of the Middleton Farmers’ Market, an outlet for farmers and small food producers to sell local seasonal produce to consumers.
Vivacious and radiant Rachel Allen, Darina Allen’s daughter-in-law, is the contemporary face of Irish cooking on TV. Acclaimed in Ireland and the UK, she now has two cooking shows in the US, one on American Public Television and the other on the Cooking Channel. Rachel and her husband Isaac hosted a luncheon for our media group at their spectacular home, with its a remarkable sea view.
Paul Flynn is one of Ireland’s top chefs who cooks modern Irish food at his restaurant, The Tannery. An early rising star talent who was head chef at 23 of a two-Michelin-star restaurant in London, Paul returned home to Dugarvan to find his own culinary roots. Today Paul has evolved his cooking into a simpler but sophisticated style, exploring ways to layer flavors. He has opened a light and airy cooking school down the street from the Tannery with its own elegant dining room, where guest can learn to cook, then enjoy the results. You can overnight at the Tannery’s guest house.
Warm and gracious, Mary Burns is an icon in the cheese world as the maker of a washed rind farmhouse cheese called Ardrahan. To be called “farmhouse,” cheese must be made with the milk from the farmer’s own cows on the premises of the farmhouse. Mary now handcrafts a second, deliciously creamy farmhouse cheese for Kerrygold called Duhallow. We had a sumptuous lunch at Mary’s traditional Irish home and toured the immaculate little factory adjacent to the pastures where Mary’s Friesian herds graze.
Peter Foynes is the director of the Cork Butter Museum, probably the only museum of its kind in the world. Peter establishes the foundation of Irish food and culture through Ireland’s long history with cattle. He traces how butter became the signature food item of the nation. The museum records the history of Irish butter through remarkable artifacts, from the 56-pound keg of 1,000 year-old butter, to butter-making tools, ancient to modern.
If going to Ireland is not in your plans, the next best thing is to experience the food and culture through reading and cooking. For a book that captures the energy and spirit of Irish cooking and its rich history, try The Country Cooking of Ireland by Colman Andrews, winner of the James Beard Foundation Awards for cookbook of the year and top international cookbook
If you’d like to cook contemporary Irish dishes, try any of the well-researched books by Margaret Johnson. Her delicious recipes will inspire you.
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