Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Feast Raising for Kilkenny Town of Food

Feast raising - the art of feasting for a good cause. I'm not sure who's genius idea this was, but it is genius.

I got a surprise invite to Kilkenny on the Sunday of the October Bank Holiday weekend for the night. Now, I don't need very much encouragement to come to Kilkenny. My family can trace it's roots before 1774, when my great (I've lost count of how many) grandfather was born here on the 1st of January.

The Night of a Thousand Feasts was an initiative to fund raise for Thomastown, a small town south of Kilkenny City to become the Town of Food. They have started to build an artisan food school and garden here with funding from the Leader Programme as well as from local business, but they need to raise the rest themselves. The idea was that ordinary people as well as businesses (restaurants, cafes and hotels) would throw open their door to feed friends and strangers with the hope that those feasting would contribute a discretionary amount to the fund. Over 2000 thousands feasts were registered from breakfasts to lunches to dinners. For social media purposes the hagtag #1000feasts was used.

It all coincided with the Saveur Kilkenny food festival which takes place on the same weekend so there were lots of food events, food stalls, food talks and banter organised. We met outside the magnificent Kilkenny Castle at noon on the Sunday, where the parade was packed with food stalls and vendors and the smell of barbequed meats wafted with glorious strong coffee from Badger and Dodo and crepes with chocolate sauce. 

We attended one of the banter sessions. A good way to draw breath before a wander around the food stalls and lunch. Lunch was organised in a converted Manchester City bus, The Bula Bus at the back of Billy Byrne's pub. For some reason Kavanagh's poem came into my mind as we walked here, "the bicycles go by in twos and threes - there's a dance in Billy Brennan's barn tonight," -

Photo courtesy of Dee Sewell
A lot of the menu is wild and foraged, cleverly itemised on the menu in red. I really enjoyed my choice of wild mushroom gnocchi. The side of spicy sweet potato fries with a dip were dive-into-delicious. I tasted the venison and damson stir fry noodles as well. This is great food for street food and they do sell at markets as well. 

Wild mushroom gnocchi

Venison and damson noodles
Another wander around the food stalls and a welcome dip into the beer tent for a glass of Metalman Smokescreen with beech smoked malt from Germany. Really liked it. I could quite happily have sat on a bar stool here and people watched but it was onto the Leader tent to talk to some recent start ups.

The start up I was most impressed with was The Inistioge Food Company with their range of beer marinates and spice rubs. I had to be dragged away. Fascinating story and really interesting man. I think he's onto something here. He is not interested in supplying supermarkets as every craft butcher he visits won't touch his product if he does.

We were supposed to stay in Abbey House guesthouse in Jerpoint but there was a problem so we ended up staying in Burley House in Thomastown. It worked out very well because we enjoyed a fabulous breakfast next day.

But the reason for the weekend was the feast. We had no idea until that afternoon where we were all to go. There were fourteen of us in total and we were all assigned different feasts. I'm probably biased but I reckon we pulled the winner. We were to feast in Helen Finnegan's house, owner of Knockdrinna Farmhouse Cheese.

Fifteen people sat around a long table in Helen's new visitor room. We started off with some of her cheese and a pâté Helen had made from smoked trout from Goatsbridge and a new product she has developed recently from cream cheese topped with pesto or a pepper relish. I could quite happily have ensconced myself in the corner and polished off the lot. 

She followed this with a dish made from her own whey-fed, free range pork that I can still taste, it was so delicious. This was served with basmati rice and roasted pumpkin. For dessert what was produced could only be described as breath taking. A tower of profiteroles made by one of her assistants (a qualified pastry chef) filled with coffee and Bailey's and a raspberry meringue roulade. 

The wine and the conversation flowed. A fantastic evening. 

A good night's sleep, a big Irish breakfast and we were off to Goatsbridge Trout Farm for a tour from the indefatigable force that is Mags Kirwan and her husband Ger. We sat and drank coffee waiting until we all arrived to get started. Ger then told us the history of the business and gave us a brief tour. 

Ger explaining the trout life cycle

The trout beds

Trout caviar
I tasted the caviar and was so impressed I bought a jar for Christmas. Go and visit the farm. When people are as enthusiastic and passionate as Mags and Ger are, you know their product is top class and it is. 

We then moved off to visit some craft people. This part of Kilkenny is a hive of activity and the talent is outstanding. We visited Karen Morgan's procelain first and then on to Jerpoint glass. I have been a fan of Jerpoint for years and have their wine goblets, frosted G&T glasses (well I use them for G&T) and their big glass bowls. But what I coveted most was this fabulous cheese board.

A cheeseboard with attitude
We then went back for a quick tour to Knockdrinna. At this stage we were really behind time, probably due to talking too much, but there you go. 

Helen showed us a quick video and explained how she got into the cheese business. She produces a sheep's milk cheese, a cow's milk - Lavistown and a soft goat's milk style brie. She bought the Lavistown brand and the cows producing the milk for it are organic. I bought some of her cheese in her really well stocked farm shop as well as some Sicilian Coppa and some Lavistown sausages. She gave us a sample of her cream cheese with pesto which is soon to be available in shops. Watch out for it. It's going to be big. 

We went to Cafe Sol for lunch. I was so impressed with this bistro. I had been in the flag ship restaurant in Kilkenny years ago and loved it. Suffice it to say I would have been happy with every plate of food that was put in front of our considerable party. This is the style of restaurant that is really lacking in north Meath/Cavan. 

Spicy prawn warm potato salad with bok choy, garlic and sweet chilli
I had the above dish. It was sublime. The vegetarian option of warm pecan, vegetable and hazelnut roast was so good we all wished we had ordered it. Not often that is said in too many restaurants I'd hazard a guess. 

Then the purpose of all our feasting was then to go and see the actual site in Thomastown which will be the school of food and community gardens. It was a boys' national school that had fallen into serious disrepair. Francis Nesbitt the coordinator of The Town of Food gave us a tour. They had already roughly laid out the gardens and the site for the poly tunnel. The school benefits from huge south facing windows so every room was flooded with natural light even on a murky afternoon. There will be a lecture room, a demonstration kitchen  and a teaching kitchen complete with ovens, work stations, fridges, freezers etc. canteen and chef changing areas. Outside the typical old school shelter has been earmarked as a water harvesting area. 

The school envisages being at the forefront of hands on chef training to supply the shortage being experienced currently. It will also be a community learning facility. It is a really, really fantastic idea and one that should be replicated in every county in the country. 

Before the light faded and to round up an absolutely fabulous weekend we called out to Maidenhall in Bennetsbridge to see Suzanna Crampton's Zwartbles flock and have a cup of tea. I had been here before to do a photography course with Suzanna. She is a brilliant photographer and teacher. We walked around the orchard and she gave us some Catillac pears and Newtown Wonder apples as well as some of her gigot chops and a recipe sheet to try her stew. 

I have her chops defrosting here to cook later and I will take a photo of the finished dish. The lamb is lean and tasty as the flock are raised on lush green Kilkenny grass and finished in her orchards. 

Zwartbles' lamb stew with gnocchi
Then the long drive home to think over a really lovely weekend. Special thanks to Dee Sewell and Susan Fitzgerald of Green and Vibrant Tours for inviting me and working so hard to make it so good. Also to Mags Kirwan who really is a woman to be reckoned with when she gets an idea into her head and everyone else who made our stay so enjoyable. I have always loved Kilkenny but I love it a little bit more because of the passionate, enthusiastic and friendly people I met.


Saturday, 11 October 2014

Smoked Porter Chocolate Cake

Smoked porter chocolate cake 
Having someone in the family who is into craft beer can be a blessing sometimes. I was lying on the couch one evening when a glass of black stuff was passed over with the instruction to taste that. My initial reaction was euw...... But then I asked for another sip. Immediately chocolate cake came to mind. Not sure why, but I was determined to try it.

This recipe uses Beavertown Smog Rocket smoked porter. But any good porter will work as well.

Smoked Porter Chocolate Cake recipe

For the cake
200g butter
125g golden demerara sugar
2 large eggs
150g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
100g good quality chocolate (I used half and half 60 and 52% cocoa solids)
150ml porter
1 tbsp dark cocoa powder

For the topping
250g marscapone
100g white chocolate

Preheat oven to 180 deg. Grease and line a deep round cake tin.

Put porter and chocolate in a bowl over a bain marie to melt slowly. Cream butter and sugar, add eggs, fold in flour, baking powder, cocoa powder. Finally fold in chocolate and porter mix. Whisk until smooth and well combined. Pour into tin and bake for 45 minutes (it cracks like chocolate brownies, don't leave it in for much longer as better slightly underdone than over). Drizzle a couple of tablespoons of porter over it while still in tin and before it cools fully.

Remove from tin and cool on a wire rack. Melt the white chocolate in a bain marie and whisk into the marscapone.

I deliberately reduced the amount of sugar in the cake as I wanted the taste of the porter and the chocolate to shine. The white chocolate in the marscapone balances it perfectly.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Autumnal Apple Cake

Apple pear and almond cake

Tis' the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Trust Keats to sum it up so succinctly. Lots of lovely home grown varieties of apples and pears abound. These red purple skinned apples are so pretty. They are called Spartan. The pears are Conference. I love getting varieties of fruit and vegetables different than the bog standard offerings in supermarkets. Give me a knarly, knobbly, nicely coloured apple with flavour anyday over those green watery tasteless excuses for apples.

Spartan apples and Conference pears

Apple Pear and Almond Cake Recipe
250g butter
250g sugar
4 eggs
150g self raising flour
75g ground almonds
30g flaked almonds
light brown demerara sugar to sprinkle
300g red apples and pears not peeled just cored and sliced

Preheat oven to 160C fan. Cream butter and sugar, add eggs with a tablespoon of sieved flour if curdling. Fold in sieved flour and finally ground almonds. Using a lined roasting tin, spoon out half the cake mixture. Scatter half the apples and pears. Dollop the rest of the cake mixture on top. Spread the rest of the apples and pears and push some down into the cake mixture. Sprinkle with light brown granulated sugar and the flaked almonds.

Bake for one hour. Allow to cool in tin. Remove and cut into chunks. Stores well due to the ground almonds in an air tight tin.

fresh out of oven

Serve as is or with warmed with whipped cream or custard. 


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Water Water Everywhere

There's been lots of talk lately about water, water charges and water meters. Understandably, there is also lots of confusion but one thing is sure, no one is going to pour water down the drain anymore.

I have a shallow bore well here, hand dug probably in the early 70's. If I open it I get vertigo. It's pretty amazing really that they dug to that depth by hand and lined it with stone.  However, in the last few dry summers we have had to be very careful with water usage. About three years ago it almost ran dry but we were able to run a series of hoses up through the field and fill it from a deep bore well down in the yard.

Shallow bore hand dug well (30 foot)
This year the well has dipped below the level of the foot valve and the pump has got airlocked several times. Yesterday was the latest. We have had so little rain all summer and even this past spring. This September has been the dryest on record. We tried the old hose trick but almost ran the deep bore well dry.

I have had to get very clever about water conservation as a result. We haven't used the dishwasher or washing machine now for about 6 weeks. Absolutely no water is wasted. Everything is recycled. 

After a while it becomes second nature. Here are some water saving tips.

1. Only flush the loo when absolutely necessary. Go by the old adage "if it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down."

2. Wash up dishes in a washing up bowl with minimal washing up liquid. I went out and bought a smaller bowl than the one I already had. If you don't foam up to the moon, you won't have to rinse so much and let's face it, no one wants to be eating washing up liquid.

3. After the washing up is done, use the water in the bowl to soak your dishcloth by adding some bleach or use it to water containers or house plants. If you haven't used lots of washing up liquid you won't kill the plants.

4. Spend minimal time in the shower. Wash and go.

5. Get out of the habit of running the tap. Ever. If you are waiting for it to get hot, fill a kettle with it or a bucket.

6. Hand wash "smalls" in a bucket by leaving to soak over night and giving them a quick rinse next day. Spin in your washing machine. This leaves a bit more space for a big wash. Obviously, if you have small children this may be difficult but for adults it's not.

7. Only put on the dishwasher and the washing machine when full. Use shorter "economy" cycles.

8. Install water butts in your garden. I use mine for drinking water for all the animals here and if there is any left for watering plants. Leave buckets at various intervals outside. You will be amazed how much water you will collect.

Clean water is a precious commodity. Clean water pumped into your house costs money. I have had to pay electricity and pump maintenance for years now. As a result I have clean, flouride free water which I value and appreciate.

People argue that they already pay taxes which should go towards this utility. Yes, they do. But I pay tax as well and I don't get water so why should my tax pay for those that do? By that argument I should get a tax rebate.

If you follow some or all of the tips above you will save money and stop pouring water or money down the drain. And you won't be contributing to massive salaries for the board of Irish Water.