My very best dining experiences of 2016—from simple rural café to Michelin-starred restaurant—all shared a common thread, a deeply-held commitment on the part of the relevant chefs to finest, local produce. No mere tokenism, no cynical ticking of the ‘provenance’ box, we’re talking total immersion, terroir colliding with technical ability and creative flair to yield distinctly and uniquely Irish cuisines.
Chef Christine Crowley oversees a bucolic and simple little haven, the Café at the Stephen Pearce Pottery, and she is a fine, honest cook in an empathetic relationship with her produce; not trying to re-invent the wheel, simply trying to make the very best wheel she possibly can and, in an ideal world, a courtyard lunch that lingered on into the late afternoon last summer would never have ended.
There was never any doubting Carmel Somers’ superb palate and consummate culinary skills but the re-location of Good Things Restaurant & Café to Skibbereen, saw her finally landing the venue to match her cooking, Levantine grace notes always adding exotic fizz to her effortlessly elegant classical cooking. Kevin Aherne, chef/proprietor of Sage Midleton, remains one of the original champions of micro-sourcing but his cooking continues to evolve and while it remains technically assured, it now presents on the plate with deceptive, elemental simplicity; the intention, to entertain, not intimidate.
Loam Chef/Proprietor Enda McEvoy’s cusine still strives for a crystalline Nordic-style clarity but it is his ability to concoct astounding flavours unique to, and distinctly of, his locality and his use of sumptuous saturated fats to ennervate a more ascetic canvas that mark him out as one of the very best chefs in Ireland.
Serving wonderful natural wines from Pascal Rossignol (Le Caveau) and with a musical backdrop from DJ John Casey, idás chef/proprietor Kevin Murphy’s Dingle Food Fest dinner event was the dining highlight of the year. Murphy’s culinary asceticism shares Nordic accents with McEvoy but his own especially zealous commitment to the produce of his magical Dingle hinterland is already leading him down different paths and he can now only be compared to the very best chefs in the country.
My favourite cookbook of 2016 was a late arrival from the legendary Shaun Hill, the consummate technician with a gift for innovation who believes all comes to naught if a dish fails the taste test and he is adamant a good chef must first master completely the fundamentals of the craft ever before allowing culinary imagination to take flight. Belfast-born and London-raised, Hill was a classics scholar before becoming a chef and his prose is a further pleasure, deceptively crafted and wryly laconic, not least when delivering a series of his own pithy maxims that serve as chapter headings, for example: Creative thinking is a bad idea if you know nothing; Most poultry is tasteless; Soya beans are best left for cattle feed; and, of course, the title, Salt is Essential (Kyle Books).
Anne and Dan Ahern’s Organic Raw Milk comes in gorgeous little ‘old school’ pint bottles with a bright red foil cap. Sold directly from the farmers’ markets, it is a creamy draught that rolls around the mouth like liquid silk leaving in its wake an impossibly delicious sweetness, a sure sign that lactose is surrendering its place to an infinitely richer fat content. Not only is it a splendid product but also a wonderful example for other farmers of the potential of the ‘direct-to-market’ route in a country where State agricultural policy appears more concerned with the needs of the industrial agri-biz sector than with those of actual farmers.
Only the future will tell whether the Athrú conference on gender equality in the hospitality industry, held last summer in Galway, will leave a lasting legacy but, either way, the ‘conversation’ was one very much worth having and particular kudos to Trish Deseine, Jess Murphy and Maria Canabal and a whole host of other women for their part in putting it all together. A Real Bread Ireland workshop in conjunction with the UCD Archaeology Department, organised by the inimitable Keith Bohanna, Joe Fitzmaurice and Regina Sexton, combined theory and practice to a fascinating degree while a trip to the recently-opened GROW HQ confirmed just what an astonishing year it has been for the splendid GIY Ireland/International. An attractive modernist construction on the outskirts of Waterford city, it hosts a farm shop, cookery school and demo centre and the excellent café & restaurant already makes good use of their own homegrown produce with much more to come as the surrounding newly-planted gardens and orchards evolve and grow.
The only definitive prediction that can be made for the Irish food world in 2017 is that it promises to be wildly unpredictable and that is all down to external forces beyond our control, most immediately, Brexit, which has the potential to cause enormous damage to the industry, from the micro to the macro. Rather than sit around and wait for it to happen, we need to redouble our efforts to support our own local producers. And that’s just for starters.
Factor in environmental factors and the roiling geo-political turmoil, which will continue to have a direct and negative impact on food systems, local and global, and it will be very hard to continue to pretend that the food world is all about cupcakes and very little about conscience. It will be a year when activism comes increasingly to the fore, a year for thinking consciously about our food, ever before we taste it. And that’s no bad thing at all. Happy New Year!
Phorograph: Good Things Restaurant and Cafe, Skibbereen