Recently I was invited back to my home county, Laois to an event to raise awareness of the burgeoning food scene. The day-long conference was entitled Connect 2 Laois Food Futures. The idea – to nurture start-ups and further support established food businesses in the county. For the past year local food and drink producers have beenÂ Â availing of specialist training, mentoring and encouragement. A variety of speakers including James Bourke, Domini Kemp, Colin Jepson, and Paddy Oâ€™Connell shared their expertise brilliantly but what really blew me away was the variety and quality of producers and artisan foods now produced within the county, much of it organic or chemical free. Kevin Scully of The Merry Mill told me that he is Irelandâ€™s first producer of organic gluten free oats, all grown, harvested and milled on his farm in Vicarstown.
I found absolutely, beautiful salad greens on Rachel Hardimanâ€™s Seven Acres stall, all grown on from organic seed without any harmful chemicals and in ways that actively promotes soil fertility and respect the environment. This entrepreneurial family also do vegetables boxes, sauces and condiments and sell seedlings ready to transplant.
Hazel Refal and Heather Vaughan have spent months developing numerous vegetarian products for their company Run On Pulses. They make a Lentil pie, a Chickpea spinach stew and three type of burgers all made from a variety of pulses. Iâ€™m very wary of this type of product having tasted some less then appetising examples but each of these were deliciously spiced and really good.
Jimmy Mulhall of Coolanaule farm, well known and hugely respected on the organic food scene tells me that he is the only certified organic producer selling organic meat in the Dublin Farmers Markets. His ever growing numbers of customers are so grateful to be able to get organic beef, lamb and pork and poultry.
Michael Onalimi inspired sauces from The Jungle Food Co also impressed me greatly as did the Invis â€“ a Veg, who have created a mixture of gratedÂ vegetables to entice children to try and enjoy a greater variety of vegetables.
Castlewood Organic Farm and Shop was another pioneer on the Laois food scene as was Helen Gee who established Geeâ€™s jams in 1998 in Abbeyleix and is now supported by her son Clive. Several chocolatiers tempted me with their handmade chocolates, Apoena, Coco Couture…
Home bakers, Agaboe Farm Foods and Kelly Loves Cakes had many temptations.
There was Rossmore ice-cream made from milk from their own herd of Â Friesian cows.
Pigs On The Green had free-range pork from outdoor pigs reared on their own farm. They too do a range of sausages and dry cure rashers, so no excuse not to have a brilliant real Irish breakfast in any hotel cafÃ© or B&B in County Laois.
Free range eggs from Grantstown Family Farm in Ballacolla. Irish Pietmontese beef also has quite a following for their Bord Bia approved beef.
Paddy Oâ€™Connellâ€™s range of Paddy Oâ€™s granolas and breakfast cereals made with Irish grown oats are now sold country wide as is their flax seed, the only certified organic flax seed company in Ireland.
Lots of drinks too, a variety of milks from The Village Dairy. Artisan beers from 12 Acres Brewing Company, in Ballykilcavan and Cream liqueurÂ and gin from Sean Teach Ltd.
I loved the Elderflower Cordials and Elderberry from Richmont Cordial Company
The Skinny Chef from Portlaoise was justifiably proud of his range of pesto sauces and chutney. Can you imagine all of that and more products in development all proudly displayed in the ballroom at the Heritage Killenard Hotel nearÂ Portarlington, Co Laois.
Now a few recipes inspired by the gastronomic revolution in County Laois, Cork watch outâ€¦..
Spring Green Salad with Ballymaloe French Dressing
A salad of Organic Leaves from Seven Acres Farm
For this salad, use a selection of lettuces and salad leaves, e.g. Butterhead, Iceberg, Raddichio, Endive, Chicory, Watercress, Buckler leaf, Sorrel, Rocket leaves and Purslane.Â Tips of purple sprouting broccoli are also delicious and if you feel like something more robust, use some finely-shredded Savoy cabbage and maybe a few shreds of red cabbage also.
2fl ozs (50ml) red wine vinegar
6fl ozs (150ml) olive oil or a mixture of olive and other oils. eg. sunflower and arachide
1 level teaspoon mustard (Dijon or English)
1 large clove of garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons honey
1 scallion or small spring onion
sprig of parsley
sprig of watercress
1 level teaspoon salt
few grinds of pepper
First, make the dressing.
Put all the ingredients into a blender and run at medium speed for 1 minute approximately or mix oil and vinegar in a bowl, add mustard, salt, freshly ground pepper and mashed garlic and honey. Chop the parsley, spring onion and watercress finely and add in. Whisk before serving.
Wash and dry the lettuces and other leaves very carefully in a large sink of cold water.Â If large tear into bite sized pieces and put into a deep salad bowl.Â Cover with cling film and refrigerate if not to be served immediately.Â Just before serving toss with a little dressing – just enough to make the leaves glisten.Â Serve immediately.
Note:Â Green Salad must not be dressed until just before serving, otherwise it will be tired and unappetising.
A brilliant way to serve chicken â€“ faster to cook and basis for a myriad of different flavours â€“ fresh spices, chilies â€¦.
1 free-range organic chicken
salt and freshly ground pepper
chopped rosemary or thyme leaves
extra virgin olive oil or butter
a few cloves of garlic
Insert a heavy chopping knife into the cavity of the chicken from the back end to the neck. Press down sharply to cut through the backbone. Alternatively place the chicken breast side down on the chopping board, using poultry shears cut along the entire length of the backbone as close to the centre as possible.
Open the bird out as much as possible.Â Slash each chicken leg two or three times with a sharp knife. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, sprinkle with chopped rosemary or thyme and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Transfer to a roasting tin. Turn skin side upwards and tuck the whole garlic cloves underneath. Roast on the barbeque or in a preheated oven 180ÂºC/350ÂºF/Gas Mark 4 for 40 minutes approximately.
Note: Cook the chicken on a wire rack over a roasting tin of roast potatoes or vegetables.
Carve and serve hot with a good salad of organic leaves and a herb mayonnaise.
Good things to serve with spatchcock chicken:
Vedura mista and homemade mayonnaise and basil pesto
Roasted Fennell, Potatoes, Pickled Lemon, Saffron and Yoghurt
Garbanzada (Chickpea Stew)
A fantastic one-pot chickpea dish for a party â€¦..
Serves 10-12 as a tapa
1lb (450g) dried chickpeas
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 red pepper, diced into 1/2 inch (1cm) dice
1 green pepper, diced into 1/2 inch (1cm) dice
6 cloves of garlic, cut in half
8 whole black peppercorns
225ml (8fl ozs) medium dry sherry
175g (6ozs) streaky pork in the piece, rind on
175g (6ozs) streaky bacon in the piece, rind on
175g (6ozs) cooking chorizo
175g (6ozs) morcilla or black pudding
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 tablespoon homemade tomato purÃ©e
1 large sprig of thyme
2 bay leaves
1.5-1.8 litres (2 1/2 â€“ 3 pints) homemade chicken stock
Soak the chickpeas in plenty of cold water overnight. Next day, heat the olive oil in a saucepan, add the onion, peppers, garlic and whole peppercorns.Â Cook over a medium heat for 2-3 minutes.Â Add the sherry and allow to boil.Â Put in the pork, bacon, chorizo and morcilla.Â Add the smoked paprika, tomato purÃ©e, thyme and bay leaves.Â Stir to mix.Â Strain the chickpeas and add to the pot.Â Next add the 1.5 litres (2 1/2 pints) chicken stock.Â Cover, bring to the boil and cook for 1 hour.Â Remove the lid and cook for a further 30 minutes or until the chickpeas are cooked.Â When the chickpeas are tender, remove the meats.Â Take the rind off the bacon and pork, discard and cut the meat into chunks.Â Peel the chorizo and morcilla and cut into slices.Â Mix everything together and serve in little dishes with crusty bread.
Jersey Milk Ice-Cream with Rose Cottage berries
There is the world of difference when one uses fresh vanilla bean pods to flavour the whole milk. Scrape out the seeds so the ice-cream is flecked with vanilla. Most processed foods use fake vanilla or vanilla essence â€“ not at all the same thing.
Makes 1 pint
This is wonderfully rich ice-cream
1/2 vanilla bean (pod)
6fl oz (175ml) whole milk
4 organic egg yolks
2 1/2oz (62g) sugar
6fl oz (175ml) rich cream, cold
Fresh berries in season from Rose Cottage
Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds into a heavy saucepan.Â Add the bean pod and the milk.Â Â Heat to just below the boiling point and remove from the heat.Â Â Cover and allow to steep for 10 minutes.Â Remove the bean pod and scrape again to release every bit of flavour.Â Add the scrapings to the milk and discard the pod.
Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together.Â Add warm milk gradually, stirring constantly until all the milk is added.Â Return to the saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the custard coats the back of a spoon (170Âº-175Âº).
Pour the cream into a large bowl.Â Strain the custard into the cream.
Mix well, then chill thoroughly and freeze.
Freeze according to the directions of your ice-cream machine.
Serve with Rose Cottage Summer berries in season or poached quamqkuatsÂ at the moment.
110g (4oz) chocolate
24-30 sweet paper cases
110g (4oz) best quality dark chocolate
150ml (5fl oz) cream
1/4 â€“ 1/2 tablespoon rum or orange liqueur
Crushed praline or crystallized violets or unsweetened cocoa powder.
First make the chocolate cases. Melt the chocolate until smooth in a very low oven or in a bowl over simmering water. Put 2 paper cases together and spread melted chocolate evenly over the inside of the paper case with the back of a teaspoon. Check that there are no ‘see through’ patches when you holdÂ them up to the light, if there are, spread a little more chocolate in that area, stand the paper cases in deep bun tins to keep the sides upright. Chill until they set hard, carefully peel the paper off the cases (it is a good idea to do a few extra cases to allow for accidents!).
Put the cream in a heavy-bottomed, preferably stainless steel saucepan and bring it almost to the boil. Remove from the heat and add the chopped chocolate. With a wooden spoon, stir the chocolate into the cream until it is completely melted. Transfer the chocolate cream to the bowl of a food mixer and allow it to cool to room temperature. Add the liqueur and whisk until it is just stiff enough to pipe.
To Assemble: Using a piping bag and a 3/8 inch star nozzle pipe a rosette of the mixture into peeled chocolate cases. Decorate each one with a little crushed praline or a crystallized violet leaf or a dusting of unsweetened cocoa powder.
Ballymaloe Chocolates with Raspberries
Put a little blob of whipped cream and some raspberry coulis into each chocolate case.Â Top with a fresh raspberry and maybe a little leaf of fresh mint.
Sueâ€™s Hazelnut Whirls
Place one toasted hazelnut in each of the chocolate cases.Â Pipe a rosette of ganache on top.Â Dust with unsweetened cocoa powder.