The best thing about being back in Ireland is Christmas in winter. Somehow – although my readers from the other side of the world may not agree! – cold long nights and short wet days make me feel Christmasy. It’s that whole feeling of getting indoors and battening down the hatches for the miserable weather. Perfect for Christmas preparations! And driving home for Christmas surely isn’t the same unless you arrive late, on the evening before Christmas Eve, to see the house lit up with all the lights on and there’s lots of tasty smells coming out of the kitchen.
After my appetite had been well whetted by Denis Cotter’s A Paradiso Year: Autumn and Winter Cooking, I decided that it was time to return to Café Paradiso itself and last weekend I went down to Cork. All my nights were tied up but Saturday lunchtime was designated Paradiso-time and who better to share it than my Sister, who lives in Cork, and the Canadian friend that I met in New Zealand. Both the girls are waitresses – one in the nearby Liberty Grill, the other in Cork’s famous Jacobs on the Mall – so Café Paradiso wasn’t getting the most uncritical audience.
Back at work in Ireland, I have access to a much faster internet connection than I was used to – meaning lots more scope for radio listening! I’m still tuning in regularly to Eat Feed but it is particularly nice to discovered an Irish radio show called Winter Food. It’s presented by Slow Food activist – and editor of the very useful Slow Food Ireland Guide to Producers – Clodagh McKenna and I’m listening to her fascinating Irish farmhouse cheese episode, including a pasteurised versus un-pasteurised debate, at the moment. The whole series is archived online and it’s well worth a listen. You’ll also find an article by Clodagh McKenna on Farmer’s Markets here.
New Zealand cafés do fantastic salads and whenever my tastebuds need a kick and I’m looking for an unusual salad recipe, I turn to former café owner (now cookbook writer) Julie Le Clerc or one of Mark McDonough’s Zarbo books. Zarbo is the name of a popular Auckland-based delicatessen, fresh food store and café but its name is familiar throughout New Zealand from being emblazoned on its own range of dressings, marinades, rubs and chutneys. The shop also stocks an exceptional range of imported food products, meaning – if you’re in Auckand, of course – that you’ll never be stuck for any of the ingredients mentioned in Zarbo Zest.
After all the debate about Rachel Allen, I felt that I just had to watch her show! Last night I was home alone at my lovely friends’ house (being a bag lady makes you realise how good your friends are) and I decided I was going to take the plunge and actually turn on the television for myself.
While I was meandering around the Galway branch of Sheridans on my recent trip to the capital of the West, I came across some beautifully packaged chocolate from a Limerick company called Cocoa Bean. The blocks first caught my eye as I thought they looked more like gorgeous notebooks than chocolate bars. And then I looked at the flavourings…oh, they were truly mouthwatering! From spice, rose and pistachio to star anise and earl grey tea, they just sounded like my kind of (dark) chocolate. But, what with the chocolates not having any prices on them (always a bad move, when you’ve to actually ask the price of the product) and having to purchase food for dinner, I forgetfully managed to leave without grabbing a few bars to test drive.
A couple of days after I arrived back in Ireland my foodie cousin called round with a thoughtful bag of kitchen basics for me. Pasta, rice – my favourite basmati – olive oil and balsamic vinegar, a bottle of wine and, piling luxury upon practicality, two bars of Green & Black’s organic Fair Trade chocolate.
To my sorrow I must admit that I have only once eaten in Denis Cotter’s award-winning Café Paradiso restaurant in Cork. But that one time, nearly ten years ago now, was mostly memorable for my first taste of polenta. My sociologist student friend felt it was deeply ironic that I should be writing my thesis on the Irish Famine at the time and eating what was known in 1840s Ireland as “Peel’s Brimstone” – the Indian meal imported by British Prime Minister Robert Peel to help the starving Irish. All irony aside, that day I fell in love with Denis Cotter’s cooking and a return trip is long on the cards.