Chef Gardeners – Sowing the Right Seeds


A new batch of students have just arrived from far and wide to start the January 12 Week Cooking Course. There are 8 nationalities, lots of Irish and British of course but also American, Dutch, Swedish, German, and two girls from India. On the first morning we walk through the farm and sleepy winter gardens and I introduce them to our gardeners and farm manager and remind them that these are the real food heroes who labour day in day out to produce the wonderful indregients they will be fortunate enough to cook with over the next three months. Then we show them how to sow a seed and give each one of the students a seedling which they plant into the soil in the greenhouse. This time it was coriander, which should be ready to use in about six weeks. I know no better way to give students a respect for food and those who produce it than to show them how to sow a seed. As they watch it grow the excitement and anticipation mounts so they are much more likely to respect it when it gets into the kitchen. In an era when the cheapness of food is a major issue and farmers and food producers are being squeezed more and more, I thought Cork vegetable grower Trevor Martin son of Declan Martin of Waterfall Farm in Cork answer to Ella McSweeney on Ear to the Ground on RTE1 recently hit the nail on the head. When asked by Ella ‘what would you say to those who think vegetables could be cheaper?’ he replied ‘People don’t realise there is a lot of expenditure and work that goes on behind the scenes, they should try growing some vegetables themselves and see’

Fortunately more and more people are discovering the reality of what’s involved but also the thrill of growing your own even if it’s only a fresh few herbs or salad leaves.

More and more chefs too are getting in on the act; they too know how vital really good produce is when trying to create the ‘wow factor’ on the plate. Here in Ireland chefs like Paul Flynn of the Tannery in Dungarvan are leading the way and of course Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe House has incorporated produce from the walled garden and greenhouses into the menu ever since it opened 46 years ago.

On a recent trip to New Zealand. I discovered that the big buzz down under is about the new breed of gardener-chefs who have discovered that a kitchen garden makes sound sense for a restaurant both financially and aesthetically. Some like Adam Newell of Zibibbo in Wellington got started because he was frustrated by not being able to source the quality and variety of fresh herbs over the winter period and the sheer cost. He understandably wondered “how hard can it be to grow your own?” so he and his co-owner Anthony Shore invested in a few packets of seeds and now have a ready supply from their own garden and now no longer buy in herbs.

When guests come to Riverstone Kitchen in Oamaru – on the South Island – they can get a preview of the seasonal produce that will feature on the menu as they stroll around the 300 square metre garden before dinner.

Charismatic chef, Jonny Schwass of Restaurant Schwass in Christchurch on the South Island is one of the leaders of the movement. When guests ask where the vegetables come from he can truthfully reply from ‘My Garden’ his wittily named vegetable patch at West Malton where his two business partners spend over 30 hours a week cultivating 150 different varieties of herbs and vegetables. The result was reflected on the plate – and in the attitude of the staff who were just as excited as Jonny about the project – our dinner was vibrant and delicious.  Both waiters and chefs are involved and visit the garden and help with the harvesting twice a week. Jonny reckons that restaurants in general “take more than they give” so this is his way of reconnecting with the earth. Most of the new gardener-chefs like Jonny are growing organically but can’t be bothered with certification –

Also in the Christchurch area, the luxury Otahuna Lodge is a beacon. A century ago it was a grand, virtually self sufficient country estate with its own dairy orchards and kitchen garden. Since becoming a luxury lodge in Tai Tapu – just twenty minutes drive from Christchurch city – it has had a new lease of life and has been taken to even greater heights – a potting shed has been converted into a mushroom house, a paddock is now a fertile kitchen garden, pineapples grow in a hothouse, olive trees have been planted and apples, quince and medlars still come from the original orchard. Pork and beef comes from the estate and home cured prosciutto, bresaola and jars of preserved home grown lemons fill the pantry. It was closed during our visit for post earthquake restoration but should reopen soon.

Two other restaurants on the South Island really impressed me, we loved Jason Innes food so much at Amisfield Winery – 15 minutes drive from central Queenstown, on the way to Arrowtown and Wanaka – that we returned twice. He too has a little fresh herb patch beside the restaurant kitchen and goes to considerable lengths to source terrific produce. Our waitress was a delightful ex Anglo banker from Tipperary!

New Zealand has great fish. Our best fish meal was at the buzzy restaurant Fishbone in Queenstown. Owners – Mark Godden, front of house and Darren Lovell, head chef – have also caught the gardening bug. They have a vegetable patch not far from the restaurant and grow beautiful salad leaves, herbs and some vegetables to compliment their spanking fresh fish and shellfish – there are many others– more and more diners appreciate knowing where their produce comes from and a walk through the garden seems to really whet their appetites.


Monkfish Goujons with Harissa and Coriander Mayonnaise

This is my interpretation of a very moreish snack I tasted in Soul a restaurant on the waterfront in Auckland – they used snapper but monkfish works brilliantly here. Great for a starter or finger food. The beer batter produces a crisp coating for fish sometimes I dispense with the water and just use beer.

Serves 6 to 8

450g (1lb)  trimmed monkfish

Beer Batter

250g (9oz) self raising flour

good pinch of salt

4 fl ozs (110ml) beer

6 – 8 fl ozs (175 – 225ml) cold water

Sieve the flour and salt into a bowl.  Make a well in the centre and gradually whisk in the beer and water until the batter is a light coating consistency.


1 – 2 tablespoons Harissa

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh coriander leaves



First make the mayonnaise, add the Harissa and coarsely chopped coriander. Taste and correct seasoning.

Cut the monkfish into fingers, no larger than 1cm (1/3in) square and 7 ½ cm (3in) long. To serve: heat the oil in a deep fry to 180°C. Dip the Goujons one at a time into the batter, shake off excess batter, and cook just a few at a time (test one first to check the seasoning)

Drain well on kitchen paper. Serve immediately in a basket or on a plate with a bowl of Harissa mayonnaise.


Makes 100g (3 1/2oz)

10 dried red chillies, soaked in warm water for 20 minutes

5 fresh red chillies

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Deseed and roughly chop the dried and fresh chillies.  Put in a food processor with the garlic, cumin, coriander, salt and olive oil.  Whizz until smooth. 

Store in a jar with a layer of olive oil over the top.  It will keep for 3 months.


Spiced Cauliflower Florets with Aoili


Lots of cauliflower in restaurants in different guises – this little recipe is cheap, cheerful, utterly delicious, filling and seasonal. Here you can omit the cumin entirely if you prefer, the cauliflower fritters will still be delicious.


Serves 8 approximately

1 medium cauliflower divided into florets

2 free range eggs

200g (7oz) white flour

125g (4 ½ oz) Parmesan, Desmond, Gabriel or Coolea

125g (4 ½ oz) fine bread crumbs

salt and freshly ground pepper and freshly ground cumin

Aioli (garlic mayonnaise)

Trim the cauliflower leaves and stalks, save and use for cauliflower cheese. Divide cauliflower florets into nice size pieces to pick up.

Bring 1.2 litres (2 pints) water to the boil, add 2 teaspoons of salt. Add the cauliflower florets (do in batches if necessary). Bring back to the boil, cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove and refresh under cold water, drain very well.

Make the Aoili and add a teaspoon of freshly ground cumin. Taste, correct seasoning. To serve, heat oil in a deep fry or in a frying pan with 2.5cm (1 in) oil over a medium heat. Dip the florets in flour well seasoned with salt and freshly gound pepper and a little freshly roasted ground cumin. Dip in well beaten egg and first finely grated Parmesan or better still Desmond, Gabriel or mature Coolea – our beautiful Irish cheese. Fry the cauliflower fritters a few at a time in the hot oil, drain on kitchen paper. Serve immediately with a bowl of Aoili to dip.


Pork Belly with Green and Black Olive Tapenade

Inspired by a dish I ate at Amisfield Winery near Queenstown on the South Island of New Zealand.

Serves 6 – 8

1 x 2.2kg (5lb) pork belly with crackling

rocket leaves

green and black olive Tapenade (see recipe)

flakes of sea salt

Score the pork at 5mm (¼in) intervals. Sprinkle both the rind and flesh side with salt and allow to season for 2 – 3 hours. Wash and dry well. Preheat the oven to 180°C/350ºF/gas mark 4.  Put the pork, skin side up on a chopping board, season with Maldon sea salt and cracked black pepper.  Pour 1cm (1/2 inch) water into a roasting tin and roast the joint on a wire rack in the roasting tin.  Allow 25-28 minutes per 450g (1lb). Baste with the rendered pork fat every now and then.

Meanwhile make the Green and Black Tapenade.


Green and Black Olive Tapenade

75g (3oz) black olives, stoned Kalamata

75g (3oz) green olives, Picholine

2 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

2 anchovies

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Put the olives, garlic, anchovies and olive oil into a food processor and whizz for a few seconds – just long enough to chop the olives fairly coarsely: it shouldn’t be a puree.

Cut a slice of belly 5cm (2in) thick. Choose a rectangular plate if possible. Scatter a few rocket leaves along the plate and lay the piece of pork on top. Drizzle some Tapenade along the plate. Sprinkle the pork with a few flakes of sea salt and serve.



Jason Innes from Amisfield Winery served a do-it-yourself Affrogata on a round plate in a cappuccino cup and saucer, a scoop of vanilla ice-cream and a shot of espresso on the side. The diner pours the steaming coffee over the ice cream and tucks in – simple and sublime.


Homemade Vanilla Ice-cream

Serves 6-8

This ice-cream is very rich and very delicious, made on an egg mousse base with softly-whipped cream and flavourings added. Ice-creams made in this way have a smooth texture and do not need further whisking during the freezing period. They should not be served frozen hard. Remove from the freezer at least 10 minutes before serving.

50g (2oz) sugar

100ml (4fl oz) water

2 egg yolks, preferably free-range and organic

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

600ml (1pint) softly whipped cream

Put the egg yolks into a bowl and whisk until light and fluffy (keep the whites for meringues). Combine the sugar and water in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan, stir over heat until the sugar is completely dissolved, then remove the spoon and boil the syrup until it reaches the ‘thread’ stage, 106-113°C (236°F). It will look thick and syrupy; when a metal spoon is dipped in, the last drops of syrup will form thin threads. Pour this boiling syrup in a steady stream onto the egg yolks, whisking all the time. Add vanilla extract and continue to whisk until it becomes a thick creamy white mousse. Fold the softly-whipped cream into the mousse, pour into a bowl, cover and freeze.




These dark evenings are just perfect to rummage through seed catalogues, and plan your raised bed or vegetable plot, however small. The GIY (Grow it Yourself) Ireland website is also a great resource tons of great advice and tips from both experienced growers and bewildered beginners. Michael Kelly founder of the GIY (Grow it Yourself) movement in Ireland will speak at Cork Free Choice Consumer Group monthly event on self sufficiency, sustainability and how to get good food from the back garden. Crawford Gallery Café Thursday 27th January 7:30pm. The entrance of €6.00 includes tea/coffee.

Food Writing Course with Ross Golden Bannon (editor Food and Wine Magazine)- Saturday 19th February 2011 – 9:30am to 5:00pm learn all about the many different styles of food writing (both contemporary and historical) and lots of practical tips including how to best get your work published. 021 4646785

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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