by Padraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
Ireland’s historical relationship with food has tended to be problematical. Our DNA has tended to be encoded with vague, indistinct memories of famine and fasting leaving us collectively confused about the purpose and meaning of food in our lives. We were less unsure, mind you, about our relationship with a drink as typified by Brendan Behan’s immortal statement “I’m not a writer with a drinking problem. I’m a drinker with a writing problem”. Recent times, however, have witnessed a transformation in our relationship with food and has prompted a remarkable blossoming across the full eco-system from farm to fork. Here are three widely diverse examples of how Ireland’s new love affair with food is turning us into a true Food Nation.
The brainchild of entrepreneur and brand builder Niall Harbison, Lovin Dublin is a very cool destination site with a strong focus on food. Here’s how they describe themselves:
Here at Lovin Dublin we love good food. We also love Dublin. Although a lofty one, our mission is to make Dublin a better city and help Dubliners find the really good stuff that surrounds them on a daily basis. The team here believes that Dublin is up there with Berlin, Melbourne and New York as one of the coolest cities in the world.
Harbison has used his brand building nous to re-imagine the classic lunchtime sandwich, branded now as the LovinBox. Each week a different city restaurant creates a nutritious, delicious lunchtime meal. Details are broadcast on social media on Monday and you place your order for collection on Wednesday at one of 3 locations around the city. You can sign up for a yearly subscription or order each week.
I placed my order and then on Wednesday rode down the Grand Canal cycle path in glorious sunshine to pick up my LovinBox at DogPatchLabs in Barrow Street. Under a steely bus sky, surrounded by the wonderfully eclectic demographics of GoogleLand I wondered whether this was really Dublin as I exchanged the email confirmation on my smartphone for a magnificently branded lunch box. Inside was a delicious Pan Fried Chicked Breast with couscous, toasted pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, a generous serving of rocket and small tubs of fresh herbs, olive oil and lemon and sweet pepper puree from Puruke & Periwig on Dawson Street. It was big enough for two small servings making the €10 investment great value as well as great fun.
Forest Avenue crept onto the bourgeoning restaurant scene in Dublin and, without a huge PR fanfare, quickly captured rave reviews for the astonishing quality of the dining experience. Position-wise it has carved out a brand new niche in that rarefied point of intersection between serious gastronomy, casual tonality and great value. Situated on Sussex Road, around the corner from O’Brien’s pub on Leeson Street, its discreet, under-stated location is directly juxtaposed by the high drama of the overall food experience.
We ate there on Wednesday last and opted for the Tasting Menu. Tables are pre-set with glassware and napkins and cutlery is then delivered to you in its own leather casing – for a second you feel like a doctor about to perform a sophisticated and precise surgery.
To start, 3 or 4 tapas-sized “snacks” are served on small wooden plinths and polished rocks and are a perfect palate teaser for the feast that follows. The menu changes in accordance with what’s fresh and available but we had Beef Tartare followed by a Lamb Broth served over fresh spring vegetables and sweetbreads. Then we chose our main course – scallops, white aspargus, truffle, hazelnuts & charred leek or duck, beetroot, grilled onion, celeriac & tardivo. Dessert (Warm chocolate mousse, rum and hazelnut torte, roasted white chocolate & vanilla ice cream) or Cheese (Ardsallagh goats cheese, candied pecans, bread with Szechuan pepper) and finally Petits Fours brought proceedings to a stunning climax.
Dublin suburbia has benefitted hugely from an influx of Mahattan-style casual dining locations at fair to middling prices – just consider the range in Ranelagh alone – but Forest Ave brings something wonderfully new. It follows a zeitgeist that studiously avoids any levels of pretentiousness and formality and deftly side-steps silly pricing yet its aspirations around food are at a level akin to high end, artistic fine dining. I’m really looking forward to re-visiting on a Sunday morning for brunch.
Foraging at Macreddin
I first encountered Evan Doyle way back in the nineties when The Strawberry Tree was one of a tiny number of good restaurants in Killarney. I remember taking a client to dinner there and wondering whether the pansy flowers served in the tossed salad were really edible! Since then The Strawberry Tree moved to Brooklodge in Wicklow where it forms part of the wider Macreddin village experience which, ultimately, is all about artisan and organic food.
With my SoolNua colleagues, Patrick and Aoife, I joined Site Ireland’s “Eco-Education Day – A Wild Food Experience” hosted in Macreddin by Evan and Clotilde Walenne. This was a morning of textures, tastes and great stories. Seated around a big block table, Evan and Clotilde talked us through the monthly chronology of wild food that starts in February with wild Nettle and ends in November with wild Sloe. We touched, smelled and tasted the dried or cured produce from each month all stored lovingly in kilner jars and bottles. I think the stand out item for most of us was the wild garlic pesto.
Clotilde then set off at a leisurely pace around the surrounding fields and hedgerows pointing out the natural habitat of the different plants, leaves and berries that we’d been introduced to. The whole experience was eye opening both for the rich variety of delicious food stuffs available on “The Long Field” – the 327,258km of common grass verges and hedgerows around Ireland – and for the way it highlighted the profound wisdom of previous generations in Ireland who relied upon the hedgerows for both nutrition and health.
A perfect morning culminated with lunch of wild nettle soup and wild garlic encrusted hake.
Note: The Typo-Psycho Award goes to my great friend Tim Bassett for sparing me the embarrassment of misspelling “palate”. An earlier version of this blog used “Palette” for “Palate”. A generous adult beverage will be purchased for Tim upon our next meeting.