It’s not what you put on the plate but what you leave off it that counts. So said chef Paul Flynn to the five bright young things of the Irish restaurant industry who were watching him prepare the foundation for what was going to be a tasting menu of one-pot cooking (see here for details of the meal itself). Paul was quoting a conversation with a Michelin inspector, which may or may not have taken place while Paul was head chef at London’s Michelin-starred Chez Nico and Nico at Ninety early in his own career.
What you leave out is just as important. We might have said the same of the four day Irish Food Trip we found ourselves at the end of last Thursday, organised by Failte Ireland for the winner and finalists of the Euro-toques Young Chef of the Year Awards 2011. Our whistlestop tour had been chock-full of visits to exemplary Irish artisan producers and meals at top-class restaurants. But for every producer we visited, there were four or five neighbouring producers equally worthy of our attention which we might have visited. And for each of the three counties of Waterford, Kilkenny and Wexford in which our travels were based, there are a good seven or eight more each to visit in this green food-rich island of ours, each with their own local food stories to discover.
Had we not had to stop eating at some point and return home to jobs and families and the likes, we could have spent another couple of days exploring the Taste Kilkenny food trail alone. I would have loved to have visited Helen Finnegan at Knockdrinna Farmhouse Cheese and pick up some of her award-winning cheese at her farm shop in Stoneyford. Or to check out Truffle Fairy’s production kitchen where chocolate truffles are infused with brilliant flavour combinations such as tequila, lemon and salt. Or to discover firsthand the 17th-century origins of Highbank Organic Orchards where one of my favourite Irish products, Highbank Orchard Syrup is produced and sold in the farm shop. Or meet free-range poultry producer Mary Walsh who leading local chef Garrett Byrne of Campagne speaks of with such respect.
Sadly we didn’t have time to visit all these producers. But we did manage to acquaint ourselves with much of their produce, thanks to a stroll around the farmers’ market and two final meals in Kilkenny city.
The first was enjoyed in Campagne, which is not only Kilkenny’s finest but also one of Ireland’s finest restaurants. Chef-proprietor Garrett Byrne headed up the kitchens at Dublin’s Chapter One for several years before returning to his native city to set up Campagne. His partner Brid Hannon leads the lovely front of house team who looked after us with charm and style from the homemade sourdough bread all the way through to the show-stopping dessert. New to the menu and one of the highlights of our whole trip, this cloud-light cheesecake of rhubarb and white chocolate was served with a gorgeously creamy rhubarb ice-cream and a baton of rhubarb with perfect bite. Clean, light and bang on in its play of flavours and textures – which is pretty much how the preceding six courses of our meal had played out too. The middle course of turbot with broad beans and Hollandaise proved to be one of the most popular dishes of the whole trip amongst the young chefs, which goes to show exactly how impressive good honest cooking can be.
Garrett clearly knows that half the battle is in sourcing great ingredients to begin with, which is perhaps why he began our meal with cured Clare Island salmon, one of Ireland’s few products to enjoy PGI status. He knew too to keep the flavours of the cure simple so that the character of the salmon could shine through. The presentation was far from simple, but a carefully constructed play of colour and form featuring tempura of oyster with forest-green samphire, pink-rimmed radish and purple leaves.
Samphire reappeared later in the meal on a beautiful plate of rump and breast of Comeragh mountain lamb and what were possibly the tastiest carrots I’ve ever enjoyed. It was a fitting final main course in a trip which had begun with Monday morning’s visit to the wilds of the Comeragh mountains to meet the black-faced ewes about to give birth to next season’s lambs. We also got to taste local cheesemaker Helen Finnegan’s Kilree, a washed rind goats’ milk cheese that wowed the judges at the recent British Cheese Awards into awarding it Supreme Champion.
Our final meal was an Irish tapas-style lunch at Zuni on Thursday. We had just been to see Goatsbridge Trout Farm (see yesterday’s blog post for details) so were delighted to tuck into Goatsbridge smoked trout scotch eggs topped with Goatsbridge trout caviar and horseradish cream as one of the first round of delicious dishes that Euro-toques chef Maria Raftery treated us to. Zuni was a participant in last year’s innovative Blasta trail, which encouraged visitors to graze their way around the city, enjoying small plates, sharing bowls and grazing boards along the way. It’s a great way to take a little mini tour of local flavours. Other hits on Thursday’s menu included a warm chilli chicken salad featuring Mary Byrne’s Shellumsrath free-range chicken with cashews and root veg crisps; and fluffy fresh Knockdrinna goats’ cheese sandwiched between slivers of beetroot with a raspberry dressing and carmelised walnuts. Clever and gorgeous.
Of course, a great meal is about more than the food on the plate and the service supporting it. The company plays an integral part too. The conversation over that final meal of our Irish Food Trip was spent teasing out the journey we had made together, analysing the favourite meal experiences and what made them work, and picking out the highlight dishes of the trip. These included (but were not limited to) Waterford Castle’s oxtail croquette; Ardkeen’s pork-filled blaa; l’Atmosphere’s fresh blood black pudding; The Tannery’s rabbit, wild garlic, turnip and barley stew, and their braised lamb with ribollita; and Campagne’s turbot and Hollandaise, and their rhubarb and white chocolate cheesecake.
Some of the conversations during the trip had clearly made an impression on the five young chefs too, most particularly the characteristically grounded advice dished out by Paul Flynn during his masterclass demo. Remember that there is room in life for all sorts of good food; that a well-made sandwich can be a thing of beauty too; and that many chefs have sacrificed their lives – some literally – in pursuit of the holy Grail of Michelin approval. Don’t forget to ask yourself what food you’d really like to cook; that no-one else is going to plan your life or career for you; and that without a work-life balance you’ll burn yourself out and be left with nothing. He encouraged the young chefs to take the time to go check out what other chefs were doing; to find and follow their own food heroes; and to never lose the freedom and joy to be found in cooking, even under the immense pressure of getting it spot on for 300 plates a night, six or seven nights a week.
All of his advice was aimed at the young chefs for whom the trip had been designed. But much of it was applicable to so many of us. Don’t forget to look up every now and then from the close-up focus on our own lives and have a look at some of the brilliant stuff going on around us, maybe in our very own village or town or county. Take time out to enjoy some of the joy that great food shared with like-minded folk can bring. Remember what an enormous amount of work goes into producing good food, but that fine food is not necessarily about fine dining and a special sandwich can make for a memorable meal experience. What better way to remind yourself of all of that than to jump in a car and go explore what great food your local area is producing.
Failte Ireland wanted to introduce these young chefs to a taster of what local Irish food can offer. The result of the trip is five new disciples who have gone back to their respective kitchens newly inspired. I was blessed to accompany them on this four-day Irish Food Trip but even a few hours is long enough to curate your very own.
See you on that road sometime?