Our first weekend of the year under canvas couldn’t exactly be called an unqualified success. We did actually remember to pack the sleeping bags (and Anzac Biscuit morale) but, despite such forethought, it wasn’t exactly the weather for camping in the west of Ireland. The heavens opened early on Sunday morning, raining us off Achill Island and we had to retreat to an old-school bed & breakfast in Westport back on mainland Mayo. At least we managed to have a cold, but fine, Friday night breaking our journey at the ever-reliable Lough Ree campsite in Ballykerran, near Athlone before moving on to the beautiful-on-a-fine-evening Seal Caves Park in Dugort on the north side of Achill Island. We cooked dinner outdoors on our little gas burner – a typical simple one-pot camping meal of Clonakilty Black Pudding, roughly chopped mushrooms and baked beans – and drank red wine in the still-warm late evening sunshine, feeling like summer had finally arrived.
With the unfamiliar sun putting on a show this past Sunday, it wasn’t a day to be spent indoors so the Boyfriend and I headed out to Dún Laoghaire for a walk. As we wandered along the seafront, I had to make the inevitable detour to the People’s Park for the Sunday market (check out Caitriona’s photos of a market in February here).
If you’re interested in learning about cooking, last week’s final RTÉ Winter Food radio programme focused on cookery schools in Ireland and abroad. I haven’t yet embarked on any cookery classes here but I very much enjoyed the few that I did in New Zealand at the Mediterranean Food Company and with cookery teacher extraordinaire Judith Cullen.
In London there is a wonderful shop called Books for Cooks. A bookshop, filled with – what else – cookbooks, it is situated at 4 Blenheim Crescent in Notting Hill and is the kind of place that Sunday supplements wax lyrical about. As does anyone who visits the shop. It is small, not so very wide, and has bookshelves from floor to ceiling, crammed with hundreds upon hundreds books of amazing dishes, foods, ingredients, people. There is a cosy, albeit battered, couch in the middle of the floor, right between a piled-high table and a low shelf – just the place to sit and leaf through one of the many books that will take you on a journey to far off lands or reveal more about your own culinary surroundings. All this, and I haven’t yet got to the best bit.
Last week I was running for a film preview screening at 10.30am but, in dire need of caffeine, I took a few minutes to grab a take-away coffee at the Butlers Irish Chocolate Café on Henry Street. I’ve been a huge fan of these cafés ever since they opened in Dublin – not so much for the coffee that they serve, but for the free chocolate that you get alongside it! It’s a great way to test your way through the range but, although I had carefully studied the display and chosen a double chocolate chocolate for later consumption, at that moment in time I needed something a little more filling. There was a tempting-looking display of muffins, brownies and cookies and, nestled amidst them, a large, simple oatmeal cookie. Always a fan of the oatmeal cookie, I added one of those to my order and legged it down the street to Screen 1 in the Savoy and the Tristan and Isolde preview (not great, don’t bother).
In the Irish Times Magazine last Saturday there was a feature on Country Choice‘s Peter Ward. Prestigious American foodie magazine Saveur is about to publish an edition extolling the virtues of Ireland’s artisanal food industry. One of the people mentioned in their “detailed who’s who of artisanal food in Ireland” is Peter, who has brought Saveur editor Colman Andrews to Nenagh several times over the last few years. Coleman celebrated the St Patrick’s weekend by coming to Ireland to cook with Peter and his wife, Mary, at a Slow Food Seasonal Irish Spring Produce meal in Country Choice and he has now marked Ireland as a destination for “gastrotourists”. All I’ll say is that they’re in for a lot of disappointment if they go anywhere off the trail as marked out by Georgina Campbell and the McKennas‘ good food guides.
One of the big advantages of being settled back in Dublin, with book shelves once again, is having all my old cookbooks to pore over and rediscover. Although I did manage to build up a fair collection in New Zealand, it couldn’t really compare to my beloved older stacks of books by Nigel Slater, Darina Allen, Tamasin Day-Lewis, Nigella Lawson and my ancient copies of the Paula Daly-written McDonnell’s Cook Books. The first and second books in this series, bought from saving up the tokens on Stork Margarine packets, were two of the first cookbooks owned by my mother.
Although the huge green-lipped New Zealand monsters nearly put me off mussels for life – too big and way too chewy! – last week I tried cooking Irish mussels for the first time. Coming home from work one evening I nipped in to a local shop called Donnybrook Fair to pick up some essential supper supplies. Walking past the seafood counter down the back, a big sack of navy-shelled mussels caught my eye, along with the price – €2.99 a kilo. Instantly, all thoughts of cheese on toast went out the window as I got a kilo of the mussels, picking up a length of crusty French bread and a bottle of sauvignon blanc en route to the checkout.