I’ve been cooking since I was 7 years old….well since I was 4 years old if you count the mud pies I used to make and feed to skinny Alfred up the road…many times, because poor Alfred could be re-convinced each time I presented them to him that they were chocolate. Not something I’m terribly proud of today. If only he could taste what I create now to make amends!
I arrived in Ireland, at the age of 19 in 1979 on an exchange programme to Trinity College, Dublin to study music. It was a week after Pope John Paul II visited. The place was still buzzing from him having kissed the Irish soil, told the children of Ireland he ‘ laaaahved’ them, and his photograph was hanging everywhere. Sometimes with the extra addition of a miniature red disco light for handy-out on the spot, instant altar praying!
As a foodie, I smelled Dublin before I saw it. In fact if I think of anywhere I have visited my smell and food memories are the first thing that come to mind. I was then, therefore, certain that all my advisors back home in California were wrong. As long as there was pizza, and here I was, I could smell it with my own nose, I’d be ok. So I made my way to No. 5 over the cobblestones, and was enchanted with the (several) flights of wooden stairs, the small faculty and the intimate community that made up the music department. Before that day ended, I also discovered that there wasn’t any pizza…that what I thought was the yeasty pastry base of my ‘saviour pizza’ was actually the Guinness that was being brewed. This was at least a small concession, as I soon grew to love that glass of black stuff too…especially the complimentary ones served out to me in O’Donoghues pub when I was playing tin whistle in the sessions! (I say glass, because in 1979 a lot of publicans wouldn’t serve a female a pint….I am NOT lying to all of you under the age of 40 reading this!!)
Having been raised in Southern California, it was a huge shock to me to arrive in a place that was so devoid of the food I was accustomed to. I had been a vegetarian up until a couple months before I left– changing my dietary habits because so many had informed me of the cuisine available here, that it would be a VERY difficult life should I intend to remain vegetarian. They also told me I’d go mad with the lack of international cuisine. They were partly right, but because I was lucky enough to land an au pair job with a family living in Rathgar- that had lived in Southern California ,and who were also foodies, I had an ‘in’ to what was better and what was worse. There was a massive recession on. My scholarship money didn’t last very long here each month, especially when I was giving in to a craving for, perhaps an avocado…which, if I could find one, would set me back at least Ir £ 2.00. (I often paid three times that in ‘Here Today’ on South Anne Street). When I purchased one, I would retreat into a corner….slowly savouring, and sharing with NO ONE!!
But there were things about the food in Ireland that I really began to appreciate. Very soon, I realised that I knew where my food was coming from. The milk was delivered to the door in milk bottles. It was my job to bring them in the house as soon as I awoke— before the birds poked holes in the tops of the foil lids and robbed the best part…the very thick cream that surfaced to the top. The woman of the house, where I was au pair, was partial to a thing I had never experienced…Jersey milk. At this point in time, I very much miss the same! Oh how thick and yummy that product was. We had nothing like that in California, nor did we have yellow butter…really yellow butter, made that way by the (very green) grass the cows were eating. When we went to the butcher shop, a cow was very much a cow…carcass on display- hanging in the ice-cold shop. There were lambs, rabbits, pig’s heads, cow’s tongues. If you were eating meat (and I didn’t encounter any vegetarians that year!!), you knew it was meat. Most of the butcher shops had their own abattoirs, some had their own farms…all of them were Craft Butchers. I remember the first time I was in charge of cooking a roast chicken for the family, and having to chop the feet off the chicken first. It freaked me out, I have to admit, but when I tasted the chicken (and it was truly a REAL chicken), I got over it! The vegetables were covered in dirt on display in the shops, but the flavour was like those we grew ourselves back home. Everything had a FLAVOUR. The cuisine was basic and simple, but if cooked properly, was delicious.
It was a long time ago. Let me just tell you about a few things that happened in 1979 to make me feel even older and to give you a perspective on how much things have changed since then. Michael Jackson launched his first breakthrough (adult) album, ‘Off the Wall’, while Pink Floyd released their album ‘The Wall’. Margaret Thatcher was elected for the first time as Prime Minister, Lord Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA, ‘Trivial Pursuits’ was launched, There was a postal strike for 4 months that year (I just couldn’t get my head around that one!!), Jack Lynch resigned as Taoiseach and leader of the Fianna Fail party and Charles Haughey took over the same two positions. The Sony Walkman was launched (that was a biggie), Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize and every time you passed a petrol station there was a queue due to petrol shortages because of the crisis in the Middle East. The first PC wasn’t launched until 2 years later (IBM 1981). And the first cell phone wasn’t invented for another 9 years. That should put it in perspective. (God I feel VERY old!!)
But it was a short time ago as far as what has happened in the world of food. So much has happened in Ireland in that short amount of time. Some of it most welcome. In 1979 there were very few restaurants (the good ones would have been outside my financial realms to experience). If I caved, and went to La Caprice for a plate of pasta because I needed an injection of garlic and the atmosphere of a restaurant to make me feel human again, I had to slum it for the rest of the month. There was one place I sniffed out fairly soon ..it was on South Anne Street and it served real coffee….not the ‘real’ coffee we have today (that’s a whole other blog in itself), but it wasn’t instant coffee, and it was friendly, and it was fun. It was fun, because the owner, who’s name I believe was Mario, allowed students to sit in there for hours even if all they had was a coffee. And I discovered that Mario served pizza too:-). It was the closest thing I was going to get to what I had previously had as pizza. The name of the establishment was the Coffee Inn. I sheltered there for a good part of many a day, and he always greeted me with a smile, and he usually had a (bathroom tumbler) glass of wine going while he sat in the back booth conducting his restaurant business. There was a wee hatch window that opened and closed when the food was ready. It saved my life. Then there was Solomon Grundy’s in a basement on Suffolk Street, opposite Mc Cullough Piggotts music shop. I have to say, that was my first introduction to tinned sweet corn being spooned all over anything you ordered. It was trendy. (Thankfully, not anymore). But there was a lovely perk to eating in Grundy’s, and that was the phone that was broken. Just quickly I will mention that very few people had phones, and if you wanted to have a landline installed in your home it took over a year to have it done. ***I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP!!***. So ringing home involved reversing charges (whilst not pressing button ‘A’!!) and I didn’t really NEED to ring home, but seeing as their phone was broken, and one could ring anywhere they wanted for FREE…I did so regularly there! They copped it eventually, so we changed our eating haunt to The Granary. God, I’m getting maudlin here….must move on to the point I want to make.
It was another 4 years before Darina Allen opened the Ballymaloe Cookery School, and another 10 years before we had L’Ecrivain, (Derry & Sallyanne Clarke), Thornton’s (Kevin Thornton) or Erriseask House (Stefan Matz). Farmhouse Cheeses and other produce began to multiply on the shelves of good food stores at a rapid rate, and all of a sudden Ireland was developing quite a food culture. A food culture that the public were beginning to fancy big time. This was helped along hugely by John and Sally McKenna (at the time, Bridgestone Guides) as well as plentiful restaurant reviews, television shows and an economy that began to boom.
In 1993 my then partner, now husband, and myself took out a lease in an old rectory outside Carlow town and opened Danette’s Feast restaurant, fulfilling a life-time dream of mine. We did this by sourcing all the best of Irish produce, grown and nurtured by people who were/are incredibly passionate about their product and what they do to make it special. Without them, the food that we put on the plate would have been second rate. At about the same time came the fictional creature with whiskers and claws (big claws). People stopped cooking because they were so busy working to pay off the 100 per cent mortgages they were granted. Convenience food became commonplace and a lot of that food was not food at all, and it still isn’t.
On the one hand I rejoice in the wonderful chefs, producers and shop keepers who love their food, and on the other I have seen the tasteless, mass-produced , chemically injected products – made popular in American culture- invade this precious green island that I love to my bones. As I now produce my own range of sauces (Danette’s Magic) for supply to good food shops, I see the synthetic jars in super markets that too many buy. On a majorly good point, I can now purchase my beloved Mexican food products in Ireland from Picado Mexican Pantry either in person or online, on the other hand there are totally crap fajita kits lining the shelves of supermarkets masquerading as Mexican food.
As I approach my 35th St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, I hope people will weigh up the pros of keeping our REAL food culture vital , and rejoice in the fact that no matter where they are in Ireland, they are no longer than 20 minutes away from beautiful, wild countryside. Let’s keep it wild….and most of all, personal.