Irish food – from farm to fine dining
“Irish fine dining. How many ways can you serve potatoes?”
This was KP’s reaction and just about everyone else to whom I mentioned ‘Irish’ and ‘fine dining’ in the same sentence. It seems that Irish food may have an image problem, which is strange given the export of ‘the Irish pub’ to every corner of the globe. Doesn’t a place where you go to have a great ‘craic’ need good food as well as drink? After the death of the Celtic Tiger (as Ireland’s economic boom between 1995 – 2008 was called), small artisan food producers have been an important part of the recovery, but, given my very unscientific straw poll of people’s reactions, there’s still a long way to go with positive PR for Irish food. However, I was lucky enough to meet two people recently, both doing a sterling job of flying the Irish culinary flag in very different ways.
Irish dining with finesse – The D Bar and Grill
Somehow missing the main entrance, we ended up weaving our way through the dimly-lit, cavernous McGettingan’s Irish Pub on the Sheik Zayed Road, before finding the stairs leading upwards to The D Bar and Grill (named for Dublin and Dubai). It was a brighter, calmer atmosphere with caramel-coloured leather studded chairs, polished wood and plush carpet; like entering an exclusive gentleman’s club albeit one where striking chandelier drip from the ceiling, stone pediments form a background to hundreds of gleaming wine glasses and an ornate harp stands in pride of place. Opulence meets armchairs.
This is Chef Richard Stratton’s newest venture. He made his name at the Mount Juliet Country Estate, in County Kilkenny, over a decade ago, creating international dishes with local produce including seasonal vegetables from the Estate gardens. However, he is no country bumpkin and I suspect the only wellies to have graced Richard’s feet are Hunter by Jimmy Choo. With a penchant for fashion as well as food, there’s not a glimpse of chef’s whites on his personal website, only discreet tattoos. He’s come full circle via haute-cuisine of the Capital Club and The Fairmont, full-on bling meets Italian at the Cavalli Club, (all in Dubai) to a celebration of Irish ingredients at The D.
The menu is simple in tone, leek, potato and thyme soup, onion tart tatin with spiced apple, Ballycotton hake with melted leeks and brown shrimp butter, Barnsley lamb and devilled kidneys (with a smattering of luxury – Tsarskaya oysters, foie gras with sweetbreads). Presentation is immaculate. A perfectly-formed miniature amuse bouche of seafood arrived, before our starters of beetroot vodka gravlax and Ballydehob crab scotch eggs with avocado and aioli. The soft citrus notes of a Chablis were a good match. We both chose ‘signatures’ from the menu.
There is something so seductive about an individual pie and my steak and kidney pudding with a suet crust came in a gleaming copper saucepan, along with parsnip chips and Savoy cabbage. Extra melting soft kidney lay beneath the cabbage, all in all a voluptuous, comforting plateful. Real soda bread (if it’s permissible to mop up the gravy when fine dining) would have suited me more than the elegant wafer perched on the dish and KP’s shoulder of lamb tortellini, Irish stew style – two open shells of pasta filled with a rich stew in a pool of broth – cried out for dunking. The sauces of both were savoury and rich enough not to be overpowered by the Australian Shiraz we drank with them. Delicate presentation didn’t mean delicate portions and a refreshing sloe gin and tonic sorbet paved the way for pudding. Chocolate fondant was perfect in taste and hot, molten-centred texture, with slightly bitter Guinness ice cream; KP’s blackberry and apple Eton mess an extravagance of meringue, cream and fruit. We decline Irish coffees (it’s a school night) and are introduced to Richard for a tour of the restaurant.
Richard scoured reclamation yards and the Irish cheese selection (including the divine Cashel Blue) is housed in a small room fronted by stone-work rescued from Dublin university announcing ‘Laboratory’. Sourcing most of his ingredients from Ireland (oysters, lobster, crab and beef flown in every four days), Richard prepares them with innovation and finesse for fine dining while retaining the authentic flavours of the classic dishes. If this is the face of modern Irish cooking I want to eat more of it.
Fine Irish produce with a smile
Rachel Allen rarely stops smiling. She looks as though she is having the best time in the world as she chops, folds and stirs, as relaxed as though she’s in her own kitchen at home. And home is near the Ballymaloe cookery school where Rachel arrived to learn cookery from the legendary Darina Allen, ended up staying to teach with her and eventually married her son Isaac. I met Rachel first at Abu Dhabi Gourmet and then at the Emirates Festival of Literature. Both times she made a version of Irish soda bread, both times it looked so easy – about five minutes to make and an hour to bake – and tasted delicious.
I asked Rachel what defines Irish cuisine. She said that Ireland hasn’t got a huge canon of dishes unlike more ancient cuisines such as France, in fact there are only about forty traditional recipes in all. However, the produce from this green and fertile land (she often mentions how much it rains) is of the best quality. In fact the philosophy of the cookery school is simple and reflects this:
We believe that the finest food comes from the finest ingredients. We teach using the best we can grow, rear or obtain locally. Our farm is organic and we use endeavour to use as much organic produce as we can in the school.
I wanted to share Rachel’s view of Irish food with you and took a video; sadly it came out with very low sound but I’m sharing it with you anyway so you can get an idea of how warm and friendly she is. I waited for her to finish answering questions from another couple first, but she asked all the questions putting them at their ease and teasing out details of their lives. By the end of her presentation we all wanted to go to Ballymaloe to collect eggs from the hens, make cheese and bake soda bread.
I’ve used Rachel’s basic white soda bread recipe a few times already – it’s fantastic for feeding hungry teens at short notice. She used laban instead of buttermilk when she was in the U.A.E. and it works well. To mix the flour and the wet ingredients together she recommends putting your hand in a claw shape and stirring round and round in one direction until it comes together and a dough forms. You do not want to knead the dough to work the gluten (as there is no yeast). A wet dough gives superior results (a lighter-textured loaf) but I hate the stickiness on my hands so used my dough scraper to fold it all together on the work surface. This worked well for me but use whichever method appeals. I also make some little ‘scones’ studded with chocolate chips and a little orange juice and zest.
So what are these 40 traditional Irish recipes? Here are some highlights:
- Barmbrack – a fruited tea loaf
- Boxty – grated raw potatoes cooked as a pancake on the griddle
- Champ – mashed potatoes combined with butter, milk and spring onions (scallions)
- Coddle – a braised dish of sausages, bacon (rashers), potato and onions
- Colcannon – mashed potatoes combined with butter, milk and kale or cabbage
- Farls – potatoes cakes made with mash cooked on a griddle
- Irish stew – a slow cooked stew with lamb (or mutton), onions and potatoes. Some versions include carrots, pearl barley and parsley.
- Soda bread – made without yeast (with fruit it’s called Spotted Dog)
I’m sure I’ve missed out some classics here. Please let me know what I’ve left out. What do you think of Irish cooking (and the concept of Irish fine dining)?
P.S. Just to show how nice Rachel Allen really is:
What a lovely piece, thanks so much Sally. See you in UAE again soon.—
Rachel Allen (@rachelallen1) March 19, 2013
Related articles and links
- The D Bar and Grill
- Rachel Allen’s soda bread recipe
- Wheaten soda bread with stout, oats and molasses for St Patrick’s day (missfoodwise.com)
- Rachel’s Irish Family Food by Rachel Allen – New Cookbook (thekitchn.com)
- The Tradition of Irish Soda Bread (whenlifegivesyouchocolate.com)
Disclosure: We were guests of The D Bar and Grill; my opinions are my own.