Doesn’t seem so long ago since both Irish and English food was considered to be a joke in gastronomic circles, food writers vied with each other to find the opposite of superlatives to describe the over-cooked soggy vegetables and boring menu choices. In French culinary jargon anything described as a l’Anglaise was usually dull or boiled, a l’Irlandaise referred merely to stew.
Nowadays, however, London is on the cutting edge, one of the top food towns in the world. Eating out in the UK has undergone a quiet revolution in recent years pioneered by the Roux Brothers in the early 80’s, followed by Raymond Blanc, Marco Pierre White, Terence Conran and more recently Jamie Oliver.
That’s the pressurised end of the market where 16 hour days are normal and the only thing that really matters is to be anointed by the Michelin Guide. First one star is bestowed on those with a certain style of food and service, no time to rest on ones laurels, push the boys harder for a second star and then eventually the champagne corks pop when the news of the third star comes through. Three stars are awarded to a very few exemplars approved by the exacting and pernickety Michelin inspectors. Many chefs work their guts out for years without hitting their perceived jackpot. Others just decide that’s not a priority, they would rather concentrate on having a more casual atmosphere and throbbing restaurant packed to its gills every night – most, though not all Michelin starred restaurants are ‘temples of gastronomy, not the sort of places you can romp around in your jeans and ‘cardie’.
Nor surprisingly, many young chefs are opting out of the rat race and have decided to go back to basics. Some chefs who were trained in London have decided to head back to their rural roots to cook good food in pubs, hence the explosion of gastro pubs around Britain. I love this type of food, real honest food, using spanking fresh ingredients.
Many of these young chefs are passionate about serving local food – the food of that place. Diana Henry in her new book ‘Gastro Pub’, quotes Andrew Perry at the Star in Yorkshire, he looks around his bar ‘ Over there I can see the farmer who raises my beef, the man who shoots a lot of my game and a local cheese-maker. They provide for me; I feed them; their produce is eaten by everyone who lives round here; its the way it should be.’
Gastro pubs are now an established part of the UK food scene, its hard to remember a time when they didn’t exist, yet its only 12 years since the revolution started. The Eagle in Farringdon Road opened its doors serving gutsy Mediterranean food cooked behind the bar. A blackboard listed the day’s menu which leaned towards Spain and Portugal. Its décor was a mixture of junk shop ‘shabby chic’, modern art and mismatched rickety chairs and china. Chefs Mike Belben and David Eyre created a mix of theatre and raw energy. Bottles of green olive oil, bunches of herbs, bowls of lemons - robust pork and bean stews, caldo verde, chunks of manchego and delicious parchment bread and custard tarts – delicious no-nonsense food.
The influence of the Eagle was astounding. The high spending expense account dining of the 80’s had lost its appeal, so lavishing huge sums of money on food began to seem pretentious and obscene. Regional and peasant food that depended on top quality really fresh ingredients fitted a craving for forgotten flavours.
The trend has continued unabated ever since, even though not all of the gastro pubs have ad hoc interiors and decoration. Many now, like the House in Islington, have bespoke furniture and subtle lighting – the food is not always simple but the influence of the dining pub has spread throughout the country. In London there are many to check out. Diana Henry picked out The Oak in Westbourne Road and The House, but also the best of the rest, not only in London but all over the UK. I was thrilled to see Charles Inkin’s ‘The Felin Fach Griffin’ in Wales singled out because its definitely worth a detour (there are also a few rooms over the pub so try to stay the night).
Northern Ireland and Eire also merit a section – albeit it a little thin. The Ballymore Inn in Ballymore Eustace in Co Kildare and Buggy’s Glencairn Inn in Co Waterford were absolute favourites, but The Cross of Cloyne near us here in Cloyne, Blairs Inn in Blarney, Co Cork, The Purple Heather in Kenmare, Morans on the Weir in Kilcolgan, Co Galway, O’Sullivans in Crookhaven, Mary-Ann’s in Castletownshend, An Sugan in Clonakilty, Kealys in Greencastle, Co Donegal were also singled out among the best. There are lots of others , but my editor says I’m out of space.
The Gastro Pub Cookbook by Diana Henry, published by Mitchell Beazley, €28.40
Conwy mussels with coconut milk and coriander
(From the Felin Fach Griffin)
You can use any mussels for this, and add a little chopped fresh chilli to the shallots if you prefer a spicier version.
knob of butter
1 shallot, finely sliced
450g (1Ib) conwy mussels, in the shell, cleaned
125ml (4floz) coconut milk
salt and pepper
big bunch coriander, roughly chopped
wedges of lime or lemon
Melt the butter in a wide heavy-based pan over a high heat, but ensure the butter does not burn. Add the finely sliced shallot, sweat for about I minute, then add the mussels in I layer -cook in batches if your pan is too small- with about 60ml (4tbsp) water. Cover immediately with a tight-fitting lid.
Cook for 30 seconds, then check to see if any mussels are open. Remove these to a bowl. Replace the lid and cook for another 15 seconds, then check again for opened mussels. Repeat once more, then discard any mussels that remain closed.
Pour the coconut milk into the mussel pan, stir and gently warm through just to simmering point. Check the seasoning.
Return the mussels to the pan, stir and serve immediately in a large bowl, sprinkled with chopped coriander and wedges of lime or lemon on the side.
Chargrilled aubergine salad with mature Ardrahan cheese
(from the Ballymore Inn)
If you can't find mature Ardrahan but want to stick to an Irish cheese, try Milleens or Gubbeen. If you can't get any of these, try Italian taleggio. Serve this salad as soon as you've cooked the vegetables, as their warmth slightly melts
75ml (5tbsp) balsamic vinegar
2 medium aubergines
salt and pepper
10 cherry tomatoes
2 handfuls of salad leaves - rocket, watercress and lamb's lettuce
55g (2oz) Ardrahan cheese, cut into small chunks
For the dressing
2.5g ( ½ tsp) cumin seeds
60ml (4tbsp) extra virgin olive
juice of ½ small lemon
1 clove garlic, very finely chopped
To make the dressing, heat the cumin seeds in a dry pan and toast them for about 30 seconds. Grind. Mix with the other dressing ingredients.
For the salad, in a small saucepan bring the balsamic vinegar to the boil and reduce by half. Set aside.
Cut the aubergines into 1cm (½ inch) slices. Brush with olive oil and season well. Heat a cast-iron griddle pan and cook the aubergines on both sides until they are coloured and quite soft. Put them in a bowl.
Halve the tomatoes and place them, cut side down, on the hot pan for 1-2 minutes to slightly soften and heat them. Add these to the aubergine.
Pour half of the dressing onto the vegetables. Dress the salad leaves with the other half.
To serve, place the salad leaves on a large plate ( or divide between 4 smaller ones), and top with the aubergines and tomatoes. Scatter the Ardrahan cheese over this and drizzle on the reduced balsamic vinegar.
Braised rabbit with cider, rosemary and cream
(From the Fox Inn in Dorset)
You can use chicken joints instead of rabbit if you prefer, but if you do you should reduce the cooking time to about 40 minutes. You may have to remove the chicken and reduce the sauce to thicken it, adding it back to warm through.
2 rabbits, cut into joints, ie legs removed, ribcage discarded and body chopped into 2 pieces
sunflower oil, for frying
unsalted butter, for frying
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
425ml (¾ pint) Blackthorn cider
710ml (1¼ pints) double cream
4 sprigs rosemary
15ml (1tbsp) wholegrain mustard
2 bay leaves
30ml (2tbsp) finely chopped parsley
salt and pepper to serve
4 deep-fried bay leaves or
parsley sprigs (optional)
In a frying pan, heat a little oil and a knob of butter. Fry the joints of rabbit until golden brown. Remove from the pan and set aside.
In the same pan, add the garlic and onions and fry until softened but not coloured. Transfer the onion mix to a heavy-bottomed pan, add the rabbit, cover with the cider and cream, then add the rosemary, wholegrain mustard and bay leaves and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down, cover and, stirring occasionally, cook on a very low heat for about I½ hours, or until the rabbit is tender. Just before serving add the parsley, and season to taste.
Serve a front and back leg and half of the body to each person. Garnish
with a sprig of parsley or a bay leaf quickly deep-fried in vegetable oil, until dark green but not brown.
Pear tarte tatin
(From The House in London)
People get nervous about making tarte tatin and think it's best left to restaurants. In fact, it's pretty simple -you don't even have to make any pastry. Just make sure that the butter and sugar are properly caramelized, but not burnt, and leave the tart for about 5 minutes to cool slightly before turning it out, though don't leave it for longer or it will start to stick.
3-4 large, firm William pears, peeled
8Og (2¾oz) unsalted butter 1OOg (3¾oz) caster sugar
1 sheet ready-made puff pastry
whipped cream or creme fraiche
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Halve the pears lengthways and remove the cores. Place the butter and sugar in a 18cm (7 inch) pan that can go on the stove-top and in the oven. Lay the pears on top, outer surface down.
Put the pan on a medium heat to melt the butter and sugar, then cook until the sugar caramelizes -but do not burn! Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
Rollout the pastry to 6mm (¼ inch) thick. Cut out a 20cm (8 inch) circle and cover the pears, tucking the pastry under at the sides. Bake for about 25 minutes.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Turn out onto a plate and serve with whipped cream or creme fraiche.
Fool proof food
Oven Toasted Cheese
When my children were small this superior toasted cheese often saved the day if they were ravenously hungry. It is made from ingredients one would nearly always have to hand.
2 slices of white bread
1 egg, preferably free range
4 ozs (110g) grated Irish cheddar cheese
2-1 teaspoon English mustard
salt and freshly ground pepper
Butter the bread and place the buttered side down on a baking sheet. Whisk the egg in a bowl with a fork, add the grated cheese and the mustard and season well with salt and freshly ground pepper. Spread this mixture onto the slices of bread and bake in a hot oven 230C/450F/regulo 8 for 15 minutes approx. or until puffy and golden on top.
Note: a teaspoon of chopped chives or a tiny dice of crispy bacon is also delicious added to the above.
Bridgestone Guides for 2004 have just been published – 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland and 100 Best Places to Stay in Ireland 2004 - bridgestoneguides.com
Cork Free Choice Consumer Group - Champagne Reception and Christmas Dinner on Thursday 27th November at The Crawford Gallery Café – Tickets from Crawford Gallery or Caroline Robinson at 021-7330178
British Cheese Awards - This September the British Cheese Awards celebrated its 10th anniversary – 774 cheeses were entered into the awards, 55 of these were from Ireland - Jeffa Gill’s Durrus won the Eugene Burns trophy for Best Irish Cheese, St Tola, St Killian, Ardrahan and Gubbeen all won medals in their categories.
More Awards – The Georgina Campbell Jameson Guide recognises quality throughout Ireland - here are just a few of the winners -
Jameson International Hospitality Award – Mark Nolan of Dromoland Castle Hotel in Co Clare
Jameson Restaurant of the Year – The Tannery in Dungarvan
BIM Seafood Restaurant of the Year – The Custom House in Baltimore, Co Cork
IHF Happy Heart Eat Out Award – The Farmgate Café, English Market, Cork