Sunday, May 31, 2015

Amuse Bouche

Today’s food culture has given chefs a platform of influence, including the power, if not the luxury to innovate. As arbiters of taste, we can help inspire a Third Plate, a new way of eating that puts it all together.
That’s a tall order for any chef, not to mention eaters, but it’s an intuitive one as well. Because, as the stories in this book suggest, it always takes the shape of delicious food. Truly great flavor - the kind that produces plain old jaw-dropping wonder - is a powerful lens into the natural world because taste breaks through the delicate things we can't see or perceive. Taste is a soothsayer, a truth teller. And it can be a guide to reimagining our food system, and our diets, from the ground up.

from The Third Plate by Dan Barber

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Amuse Bouche

Before the commander surrendered, an ardent National Socialist and the director of the local Panzerfaust (bazooka) factory, a Herr Bundnis, held an unorthodox dinner party. He invited his closest colleagues to a lavish meal. After the last round of drinks had been served, the room exploded, killing everyone instantly. He had arranged for the room to be rigged with explosives.

from Disobeying Hitler by Randall Hansen.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Highbank Organic Orchards. Hundreds of Apple Trees. Billions of Microbes

Highbank Organic Orchards

Hundreds of Apple Trees. Billions of Microbes
I’m walking through long rows of apple trees, all in blossom, pink and white abound. The grass between is ankle height, lush and liberally populated with white daisies. Lush, but recently topped. Had I been there a week earlier, I would have seen battalions of dandelions.

I am in Kilkenny, in the healthy heart of Highbank Orchards, an organic farm owned and managed by Rod and Julie Calder-Potts.  This is excellent land for farming, recognised as such for many centuries - even the Normans had their eyes on it.  The farm-yard is 17th century, the house is 19th, and the distillery (which I've come to see) is 21st.  

Rod in the new distillery
Now though, on a lovely May evening, all is calm as Rod takes us through the orchard, though not through all its twenty acres. Fourteen of these are mature, planted with quite a few varieties, including Dabinett, Blusher, Bramley and, scattered in among the others, that lovely juicy Katy. Katy is an early apple and has lost its blossoms.

Nothing has been sprayed here for twenty years. It is not that nothing ever threatens the apple trees but they are essentially healthy and can look after themselves. And Rod reckons much of that is down to the microbes in the soil, billions of them, all "working", not necessarily together - some eat one another - but combining to preserve the habitat. They are not disturbed, not traumatized by chemicals, and so the orchards live on and thrive. “Soil health depends on a thriving population of organisms”, says Dan Barber in The Third Plate.
Orchard spirit!
The next big occasion for the orchard is, of course, the harvest. The Calder-Potts keep the apples on the trees for as long as possible, indeed they allow them fall off naturally when fully ripe. Then they are swept up and taken to the nearby yard.

They are transferred then to the apple press, an expensive piece of kit, and the juice is extracted to be used in the delicious products that Highbank now produces: Apple Juice, Apple Juice with Organic Mulled Spices, their famous Orchard Syrup (Ireland's answer to maple syrup and launched in 2010), Highbank Drivers Cider (a delicious, sparkling refreshing non-alcoholic drink), Highbank Proper Cider, and a honeyed Medieval Cider.
Proper cider!
Recently they have moved up the ABV scale with the installation of their little distillery and are making Gins, Pink Flamingo Gin and the premium Crystal Gin. And there’ll be more! We enjoyed the tour of the bright new distillery. It is small. The operation is small-scale, bottling is done by hand. Small yes, but these are top class products.

Highbank is the setting for many events but most notably, from a food point of view, they have hosted the Keith Bohanna Bia Beag series with subjects such as artisan bread, locally roasted coffee, bean to bar chocolate. And, of course, there is the Highbank Christmas Food and Craft Fair.
They are a busy couple and you’ll see them at markets and food festivals all over the country, including most recently, Sheridan’s and Ballymaloe LitFest. Besides, they are involved in promoting good food generally. Kilkenny too is naturally close to their hearts and so we couldn't have had a better guide on a quick Saturday morning run through the marble city than Julie.

She showed us, with pride, restaurants such as Zuni and the Salt Yard, Slice of Heaven and its newly opened cookery school, the food hall at the Kilkenny Design Centre. Then you need something to serve your food in so off we went to Nicholas Mosse in Bennettsbridge, you need some nice lighting while dining and we got that at nearby Moth to a Flame (Larry Kinsella’s hand-made candles) and you also need something nice to look at on your walls and shelves and we found plenty of that at the Bridge Pottery.
Needless to say, the credit card took a bit of a hammering. On the previous afternoon, left to my own devices, I was on the drinks trail! Called to Billy Byrne’s Pub (the Bula Bus and its excellent onboard restaurant is parked in the back) and sipped some nice local beer by Ger Costello and a pale ale from 12 acres.

Of course, I couldn't leave Kilkenny without calling to Le Caveau. Pascal himself was busy on the road but we did take advantage of the reductions for Real Wine Month and went off happy with a couple of his organic wines.

And it was the drink that brought us to Kilkenny in the first place! In Highbank's internet competition earlier in the year, I won a meal at The Strawberry Tree and, in addition, I also won a bottle of Highbank's new Crystal Gin and that was in the car with us as we said au revoir to the Marble City and to two of its outstanding citizens, the Calder-Potts.
Le Caveau (left) and Bennettsbridge (from the Nicholas Mosse pottery)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

All White. All Right.

All White
All Right

Mas des Bressades Cuvée Tradition Costieres de Nimes (AOP) blanc 2013, 13.5%, €14.99 Bubble Brothers

Costieres de Nime, once part of the Languedoc wine region, is now part of the Rhone area. This particular vineyard is between Nimes itself (where denim, de Nimes, was first made!) and Avignon. I was in the region three years ago and noted that the wines, the whites in particular, were quite good and good value as well.

This Tradition (they also do a Cuvée Excellence - might try that next!) is a blend of Roussanne (50%), Grenache blanc (30), Marsanne (10) and Viognier (10). Color is a light honey, bright and translucent. Aromas of white fruit and blossom are quite intense. Exotic fruits for sure but excellent acidity as well. Lovely stuff from initial sip to that long finalé.

The winemaker Cyril Marès set out to maximise fruit and aroma (back label) and I reckon he did well. It is a terrific blend and Highly Recommended.

Velenosi Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi (DOC) Classico 2013, 12%, €16.15 Karwig Wines

Colour here is a beautiful light yellow with greenish hues, and apparently this is typical of the variety. The aromas are quite intense, a mix of floral, fruity and herbal. It is full, with strong agreeable fruit flavors, persistent, and well balanced, with a pleasant finish. Pleasant all round actually and Highly Recommended.

Marques de Riscal Verdejo Rueda 2014, 12.5%, €13.99, widely available including O’Brien’s nationwide and SuperValu nationwide.

This is one of my favourite grapes. Just loved the nose here, intensely aromatic, fruity and herby. You get a mouthful of super flavour, the heady fruit and herb scents still there in the initial burst and longer and then a gorgeous finish. Crisp and fresh, it is just the job for the months ahead, indoors or outdoors, on its own or with your favourite salad. One of the more scented Verdejos, this is Very Highly Recommended.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Taste of the Week. Highbank Crystal Gin

Taste of the Week

Highbank Crystal Gin
This is unique in these parts, a superb Irish produced gin from the apples of Highbank Orchards, owned by Julie and Rod Calder-Potts. It has aromas of the orchard and, not surprisingly, there are also flavours of the orchard.

While most of the usual botanicals are used here, including the essential juniper and other regulars such as dried citrus skins, Highbank also use six botanicals from their organic Kilkenny farm, including lavender and blackcurrant.

Highbank begin, not with bought-in alcohol, but with their own alcohol produced from their own apples. On the next trip through the still, the smallest legal still in Ireland, the botanicals are added. It is small batch production and bottling is by hand.

Local wine merchant Pascal Rossignol (Le Caveau) is impressed: “Caresses your palate with a richness and smoothness of aromas and flavours very rare in spirits.” Couldn't have put it better myself, an unique Irish gin from the rocks of Kilkenny and our Taste of the Week comes in a gorgeous bottle as well.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Have you a recipe that will take you to Paris?

Cono Sur Bloggers Competition 2015
Have you a recipe that will take you to Paris? Maybe to Chile!

We won the Irish section of this competition last season and had a ball at the final in Paris, just pipped for the Grand Prize which was a trip to Chile. Cono Sur are doing it all again this year and it looks bigger and better than ever. Entries will open on June 4th, so stay tuned. But you don't have to wait until next week to start thinking up your recipe to match one of their brilliant Single Vineyard wines. In the meantime, take a look at our night on the Seine.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Strawberry Tree. Prize and Surprise.

Strawberry Tree. Prize and Surprise.

Your salad in a tin. Your berry soda hidden among daisies. Your cheese just 90 minutes old.

Last Thursday, I enjoyed the superb Organic and Wild Food Tasting Menu at Strawberry Tree restaurant in Macreddin Village, County Wicklow. For close on three hours, we enjoyed the culinary adventure, ten courses in all, a staggering array of delightful dishes.

Though we had read the menu in advance, each course had an element of surprise. And the dinner itself (plus a bottle of their Irish Crystal Gin) was a prize that I won in an online competition by Kilkenny’s Highbank Orchard, Ireland’s only organic orchard. So I was on a winner for the night!

Wild duck crackers (left) and 90 day cheese
As we made the short way from our room in the Brooklodge Hotel, also part of the Macreddin village, we met the hens on the lawn, a reminder that this is Ireland's only certified organic restaurant. It is also rather plush with gold framed mirrors a dominant feature.

Eight courses were detailed on the menu (and so too were all their suppliers). Our first plate was a “surprise from the local fields”, a wild duck cracker with a mushroom foam and mushroom dust. Delicate and delectable, a tasty surprise indeed.
Smoked salmon

Then we were on to a smooth and tangy Field and Farm, their own fresh 90 minute old cheese (made 90 minutes before service), Baby greens and rapeseed oil. Sea and Shore was next, their own Smokehouse wild salmon, wild seagreens, laverbread and cod’s roe spread. This was a quite a plate, a superb one too.

Wood and Field followed, this a Wild Leaf Salad, fermented garlic, pickled ramson seeds and more. The surprise here was that your salad came in a tin that you shook yourself to mix the elements and then spread onto to your plate that had been prepared with the garlic and seeds. We happily crunched our way through this completely delicious mix and then took a break for five minutes, the first of a few.

Salad in a tin!
Apples featured strongly in Hedgerow and Orchard which was Wild Crab Apple and Dabinett, Three Ways: Spiced, Chilled and Mulled. Instructions were to start with the spiced and that was followed quickly with the chilled to modify the hot spice. And then we finished with the calming mulled Highbank Orchard cider. A super trio.

And there followed yet another surprise insertion and a really gorgeous one, a wild venison consommé topped with a beetroot foam. Quite a flavour sensation to sip the hot venison soup through the beetroot as both flavours came together so well. Simple idea but a superb duo.

Wild venison consommé
Time then for the main events. First up was the inventive Sea and Wood: Pan Fried John Dory, Hogweed, Ground Elder, and their own Pancetta. Once again all the elements gelled together so well and the greens proved a marvellous match with the fish. By the way, everything cooked here on the night was done to perfection and the presentations were excellent.

The Farmer and the Butcher were not to be left out, of course, and they gave us 35 Day Aged Seared Beef Sirloin, slow cooked shin, horseradish cream, Butternut squash and jus. I think that jus contained some bone marrow. In any event, the dish was perfect, a beautiful mix of meat and veg, every element playing a part, nothing superfluous.

Apple three ways
John Dory and, below, filet

We had been taking the odd break and now called another one, the better to enjoy the wine. Hard enough to pick one to match everything here but we were very happy with the performance of the Sepp Moser Gruner Veltliner 2011 (biodynamic).

And now we were on to a sweeter drink, another surprise. This was called Just the Hedgerow, a real wild berry soda. The surprise was that it came, both bottles and their glass straws, in a wine box full of grass and daisies. But we found the bottles (not too difficult!) - the soda included some sloe gin - and enjoyed them, a bit of delicious fun, another treat from the vast repertoire here.

Find your berry soda!
 The main dessert was called simply The Wood: a wild sorrel lemon curd, meringue crust, shortbread biscuit. You wouldn't normally expect to find wood sorrel in a dessert but by that stage we were prepared to trust the Strawberry Tree (and they trust Anna’s Desserts). And that trust was repaid with the sweetest spoonfuls! Terrific finish to a memorable meal. Great service too, informative, chatty and time for a joke or two as well.
The Strawberry Tree Tasting Menu €75.00
Sepp Moser Gruner Veltliner €37.00

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Amuse Bouche

‘Ag, sit, Benedict. I’m going to have some tea. Would you like a glass of milk?’
‘Yes, please.’ He loved the fresh, creamy milk from the farm. In the house up the hill, they had semi-skimmed milk from the supermarket on account of Baba watching his cholesterol and Mama watching her hips, and it just wasn’t as nice.

from When Hoopoes go to Heaven by Gaile Parkin

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Gin. The Garden Spirit. With Desmond Payne

Gin. The Garden Spirit
With Desmond Payne
The Beefeater London Garden gin

As they left, she bribed the barman to part with a full bottle of Booth’s gin.

On the road back.., he asked, “What’s so special? One gin is much the same as another.”
“No, it’s not. You just take a sniff.”
She uncorked the bottle and wafted it under his nose as he drove.
“See? It’s sort of flowery and oily at the same time. Reminds me of home. God knows why. It’s as though they’d mingled summer and autumn - summer scents and autumn drizzle. A bit of England in a bottle.”

This extract from A Lily of the Field by John Lawton came to mind both before and during Desmond Payne’s illuminating chat on Gin, The Garden Spirit, one of the excellent events held in the Drinks Theatre during the Ballymaloe LitFest at the weekend. The link with the title is obvious and, during his talk cum tasting, he introduced us to his own garden gin.

Before all that though, Desmond himself, Master Gin Distiller at Beefeaters, was introduced to the audience by Rory Allen, Des’s first cousin and boyhood companion. 
Rory took advantage of his time in the spotlight to tell us about the shed which is, each May, converted into the Drinks Theatre. It started life in the 1950s as a pig shed, with openings out on to the yard. Grain was stored on the top floor and the whole structure turned out to be a play-room for the kids and it seems the pigs had a good time too. Later, the building saw life as a grading store for potatoes. “So, this theatre is its third life!”, he said.

Desmond’s life is gin and he took us through five variations of it, the gin that is, all from Beefeaters. He said gin was of much more complex make-up than the other spirits, whiskey from grain, cognac from grape, rum from sugarcane. The neutral alcohol that gin is made from can come from various products (grain, grape, apple etc) but to make the gin you need to add flavour.

“Juniper has to be in gin, it is the only essential.” But juniper plus what? Lots of new gins are using botanicals never before used “but you must have a balance of flavours”. More botanicals may be added for complexity, variety and style.

It is a very versatile drink, a good mixer; no one drinks gin on its own. Gin and tonic is a marriage that works but there are many more ways to mix. At present, there is a revival in cocktails, some fantastic ones nowadays. Gin is right back in fashion. Some gin bars in Spain have up to 300 brands (and 50 tonics) on offer and new distilleries are popping up everywhere. He added a note of caution. There are new gins coming out sometimes that try too hard. “You can't change everything at once!”

Having a laugh, cousins Rory Allen (left) and Desmond Payne
London Dry Gin is not necessarily from London, it is a method and it can be made anywhere in the world. “You can't add anything (except water) after the distillation, nothing to change the flavour.”

The Dutch were the first to add flavour and that was juniper. Irishman Aeneas Coffey’s continuous still (from 1820) meant a clean alcohol and from then the distillers could get to work “on enhancement rather than disguise”!
Desmond has been making gin, first at Plymouth and then at Beefeater, for 47 years but it was just seven years ago that he was given the nod and asked to make a gin. His new input was tea which, aided by its molecular structure, “works really well”. And he had a tip. “Steep everything for 24 hours.” We would soon get to his tea gin.

But first up was the Beefeater Original Gin, “a classic London Gin” with a citrus nose, an initial orange flavour on the palate followed by a little kick of juniper and on the finish a hint of liquorice. He revealed the classic recipe: juniper, coriander, orange & lemon peel, angelica, liquorice, almond and orris. Beefeaters go to a lot of trouble to get their juniper, going through some 200 samples from the shrub each year. They work on a two year stock.
The line-up, the original at left
Tonic, or the lack of it in Japan, was the inspiration for his Herbal Tea Gin, the Beefeater 24. Quinine, because it had medicinal properties, is not allowed in tonic in Japan. But Des saw tea all around him there and thought he might add it to the list of botanicals for his new gin variation.
“Not much tea but it changes the way the flavours work. No big citrus on the nose in this one but a little bit of tea fragrance. It has a soft beginning on the palate, then that juniper kick, followed by the softer tannins of the tea.” Personally, I thought is was a little smoother.

“I was on a roll now. Let us do a summer gin.” And he did, some dried red flowers picked up on a trip through the far east the inspiration. This was Hibiscus and he also used Elderflower and Blackcurrant leaf (a sense of smell from his childhood, probably running around the bushes in Ballymaloe under the watchful eye of Aunt Myrtle, who was in the audience).

“The aromas are toned down. Soft notes on the palate but definitely floral. Summer drinking as a party punch and it works fine with tonic.”

With summer gone, the Beefeater Winter Gin was just behind. More spice notes for sure, including Cinnamon, Nutmeg even Pine shoots. “Drink it with hot apple juice,” Desmond advised. “There is a great bunch of flavours on the palate and it is a gin that works well with Thai food.”

One man, five gins.
We finished, as we began, in the garden. An ancient herbal garden in a London park was the inspiration for the Beefeater London Garden Gin. “Thyme is a strong flavour, more on the palate than on the nose though. It is soft but that thyme is certainly there.”
So there you have it, a snapshot of just one brand! Then we were on to questions, mainly about tonic, the worst and the best. Desmond agreed with a US visitors that “the tonic out of the gun in the US was pretty vile”. He didn't exactly name his favourite gin but revealed that a recent UK tasting of some seven gins saw Schweppes come out on top. “Tonic is important,” he emphasised. “It is worth persevering to get the best.”

What is your favourite cocktail was the final question. Not too much hesitation here. “Negroni,” he answered. “One third gin, one third Campari, one third Vermouth rosso, garnished with orange peel.” Cheers Desmond!

Taste of the Week. Le Lolo's Steak Sandwich

Taste of the Week
Le Lolo's Steak Sandwich
Le Lolo at The Big Shed last Friday night.

Lots of great tastes at the Ballymaloe LitFest. But one of the first stands out. And that was the the Steak Sandwich from Le Lolo Kitchen in the Big Shed at the Friday night opening party. No time to take a photo, no inclination either, just had to pop it in the mouth! Anyhow, photo in the open cardboard tray might not have looked very well. But it tasted brilliantly. Lauren and his team were rushed off their feet but this was cooked to perfection (medium), the bun was also tender and the mushrooms and salad were also spot on. A great feed. Catch Le Lolo Kitchen at festivals and markets. Maybe take a trip to see him at Mahon Point Farmers Market today and try our Taste of the Week.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Catch the Cornstore Early Bird

Catch the Cornstore Early Bird
Found myself in town about six o’clock one evening last week and started thinking Early Bird. And then started thinking Cornstore - it was just around the corner and they do a great value early bird there, three course for twenty five euro. This menu is available Sunday to Thursday all night and up to 6.30pm Friday and Saturday.

Had sampled it on launch and enjoyed it. It was just as good this time and we had just the meal we wanted. Seems popular too. We were there early but the Cornstore was rapidly filling up by the time we were on dessert.

Dessert, by the way, was the one course that we ordered the same, with some encouragement from the friendly staff! This was the Chocolate and Caramel Eclairs with Vanilla Ice-cream and it lived up to the sweet promise. Other desserts on the night were Rhubarb & LIme Posset, Fruit Salad (with Raspberry Sorbet) and Bakewell Tart with Creme Anglaise.
Clockwise from top left: Calamari, Hake, Flat-iron steak and Quinoa salad.

CL had started with the Quinoa Salad with roast red pepper and cherry tomatoes, baby gem, sugarsnap and tender-stem broccoli, mixed seeds and apple cider dressing. She enjoyed it all: the colours, the flavours, the textures. My Peppered Calamari with tomato and cucumber salsa didn't look quite as dramatic but I certainly enjoyed it, its lively flavours and differing textures.

Others Starters available were Soup of the Day, Toonsbridge Mozzarella, Duck Parfait.

I hit the jackpot with my mains: Braised Flat-iron steak with Mushroom Ravioli, braised carrot and pan jus. This comes from the Chuck section of the animal and is not your usual steak. It is served as a “cube” of tender pieces and easily and pleasurably dispatched. CL too made a great choice, a really tasty dish this Roast Hake on Wild Garlic Risotto with tomato vinaigrette.

Just to give you an idea of choice, the Others mains available were Roast Chicken supreme, Cornstore Aged Beef Burger, Thai Green Vegetable Curry, and Aged Beef Fillet Medallions (€3 extra). I had the medallions on a previous visit and they are well worth the supplement.

Jancis Robinson and New World’s New Wave

Jancis Robinson and New World’s New Wave
Wine on the Move, Fresher and Lighter

The Drinks Theatre at Ballymaloe’s annual LitFest was packed for Saturday’s talk and tasting by Jancis Robinson. The Master of Wine’s talk was entitled Wine’s New Wave - Lighter and Fresher. Jancis, quite deliberately, had chosen mainly New World wines and those from areas that were previously best known for “monster wines”, those big in fruit and alcohol! It was acknowledged that parts of the Old World had been producing this lighter style for quite a while.

Ballymaloe’s Colm McCan welcomed Jancis and she replied saying she was very comfortable, really at home, in the converted tractor shed as she was brought up in a small village herself.

Over recent years, while doing research for her various books, she received reports from all over the world, “from people with their fingers on the pulse”, of a trend towards lighter fresher wines.

The move is to make wines “that express the vineyard”, in a trend towards “single vineyard, even small plot, wines”. The first wine was a Californian Chardonnay 2012, from Sandhi in the new appellation of Santa Rita Hills. This comes from a high-ish site, 200-500 feet. ‘It is almost Chablis like in its acidity,” she said. “But the aim here is for balance.” It was a good start.

Next stop was Stellenbosch, South Africa and a Mourvedre Rosé, Cape Coral 2014. “Not for keeping,” she warned! This lovely pale salmon pink is soft and gentle, bone dry and low in acidity. “Good for food, especially aioli.”

The winemaker here, she told us, has had Southern Rhone experience and uses biodynamic viticulture. "Sounds potty but it seems to produce the goods. The vines look healthier and the soil is also healthy. People all over the world are much more interested in local vines, recuperating older ones”. In response to a question by beer ace Garrett Oliver, Jancis said that all the interesting wine in the world is craft wine.

On then to a couple of Pinot Noirs, the first a Chilean 2012, the Clos Fous by Pucalan, weighing in at 14.5%. Not quite light maybe but beautifully balanced, lovely texture and “satin smoothness, right amount of acidity. A complete steal at ten pounds!”. The vineyard is north of Santiago and “very influenced by the cool ocean”.

The Sonoma County Littorai 2012 will cost you about seven times as much. “This is biodynamic and has the hallmarks of freshness and acidity and this was a very good vintage after the disaster of 2011. More complex, more Burgundian and its lovely texture caresses the palate - think I'll swallow that!” I think we all followed suit.

Now let us hop over to Australia and the BK Wines Syrah 2014 from the Adelaide Hills, “a wine of recreation, rather than contemplation” and chosen more “as an interesting example rather than a fine wine. This is the type served up by the bucket in wine bars.”

Okay then. There would be a good Australian to finish on but first the one nod to the old world: a 2013 Garnacha from a high altitude (550-650 metres)  in Mentrida. “This is a new style in Spain, made from up to fifty year old vines. You can smell the sweetness of the Garnacha plus you have masses of natural acidity and a fresh stoniness”.

Many of us here in Ireland appreciate the excellent wines made by Cullen in Margaret River in Western Australia and Jancis produced a winner to finish on: the Diana Madeline 2009, a Bordeaux blend (including 88% Cabernet Sauvignon). “The Cullens were early adopters of bio-dynamic in Australia and this is an Australian classic, the best balanced Bordeaux out of Australia. It is very fragrant, you have that savoury note at the end, a wine of real quality.”

So now you know. If that new wave washes you up on the beautiful beaches of the Margaret River, just head to over to the Cullens. Then again, it might be easier just to check where Liberty Wines distribute them here.