FOOD & DRINK : Bally good gubbeen

The appetite does not quicken at the thought of Irish food, traditionally, it seems, based on potatoes and potatoes. But Michael Bateman has found many gastronomic treats in Eire, which he celebrates on St Patrick's Day
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS back in January this year that they celebrated Patrick's Day in Dublin. Patrick Guilbaud's day, that is, for his capital restaurant (of the same name) was acclaimed the best in all Ireland, the first to win two Michelin stars.

Such a distinction symbolises the surge forward of restaurant cooking throughout Ireland (which all the guide books have noted). This recognition of refinement in Irish food has been a long time coming, though they have otherwise enjoyed an enviable reputation for good produce: seafood, lamb, beef, pork, whiskey and stout.

It has been the art of preparing this fine produce that has lagged behind. Traditional Irish cooking - which is, of course, peasant cooking - has never had a high profile, and since the potato famines of the last century (1846-47), the whole notion of traditional cooking has been something of an embarrassment. Dishes of bacon, cabbage and potatoes, oatcakes, pancakes, cockles and mussels, and so on are routinely dismissed. But there are signs of a renaissance, not to mention the birth of a great cheese industry if Brussels midwives can be persuaded not to strangle it in its infancy.

So on the feast day of Ireland's missionary father, St Patrick (about 389-461), let's hear it for Ireland with an A to Z of Irish food.

is for An Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, which promotes their image abroad. This year they have arranged a conference in Dublin, called Horizons, focusing on "traditional food"; there's a competition for the best chef's recipes based on traditional foods, be they drisheen (blood pudding), crubeens (trotters), champ, colcannon or carrageen (see below). Traditional means at least 50 years old; tomatoes qualify, but not stuffed peppers, and certainly not aubergine sandwiches. You couldn't do better than start at Michael's Bistro in Cork, the recipient of Egon Ronay's Irish Food Award last year. Taste Michael Clifford's Clonakilty Black Pudding with flageolet beans, chicken stuffed with Milleen's cheese, his casserole of home-made sausages, or clove-spiced salt beef.

stands for Bally almost everything and everywhere in Ire-land, except Ballykissangel. We'll settle for Ballymaloe, the pioneering country house restaurant in Shana-garry, near Cork started by a farmer's wife, Myrtle Allen. Her dynasty extends into nearby Kinoith where the Ballymaloe Cookery school is run by her daughter-in-law Darina Allen, RTE television cook and author of the comprehensive Traditional Irish Foods (Kyle Cathie pounds 19.99).

is for cheese (and also for a great multitude of Irish foods and dishes, not least carrageen, a sea moss that's bleached on the rocks and then boiled to make jelly-like blancmange puddings).

But cheese: Irish semi-soft and blue cheeses are prized from London to New York. Cashel Blue and Chetwynd Blue are in London's home of good cheese, Neal's Yard. Dean and Deluca, New York's top food shop, stocks the semi- soft Gubbeen and, of course, Milleen's, which was the first of the new- age cheeses. Milleen's was made for the first time more than 20 years ago on the Beara Peninsula by Veronica Steele, the wife of a Trinity College lecturer. She has since passed on her skills to countless farmers' wives through courses at Cork University, setting in train a cottage industry of distinction, though the smallest are now buckling under the heavy hand of Brussels (see EHO).

is for dulse, a seaweed (related to Welsh laver). Let's move on quickly to EHO.

stands for EHOs (that's Environmental Health Officers) acting on behalf of the EU authorities in Brussels who insist on imposing their will on craft cheese-makers. In the interests of safety, the EHOs won't let anyone make cheese from unpasteurised cows' milk. But through centuries of perfecting their craft, cheese-makers have utilised all the bacteria present in raw milk to produce great cheese (they argue that good bacteria overwhelm the potentially harmful). Modern scientists believe it's safer to kill off every batch of milk (pasteurisation is a heat treatment) and begin again with a laboratory-bred starter. The milk, without its former protective shield of bacteria, is now vulnerable and requires the installation of expensive safeguards. The dairy must be insulated, to be kept warm in winter, cool in summer, and so on. For thousands of years a simple cave was adequate.

is for fadge. A potato cake. You think that's a funny name? Turn to P for Potato.

is for griskins. From the Viking word griss, maybe, meaning young pig. Pork steak trimmings, crisped till golden (see Ham).

is for ham and pork, and especially for the big rashers of juicy, well- cured bacon that are the soul of the Irish breakfast. Some superb craftsmen of the profession live on, for the time being - the famous McCarren's of Cavan, for example.

is for Irish Coffee, otherwise known as Gaelic Coffee, that brilliant visual allusion to a creamy glass of stout. Warm a glass. Add a measure of Irish whiskey and two teaspoons of soft brown sugar. Half fill with strong black coffee. Pour chilled, softly whipped cream over the back of a spoon so it floats on top of the coffee. Don't stir. Drink the hot coffee through the cold cream.

is for Jamoud, Anne-Marie, and her partner Guillemot, Martin, an everyday story of a cheese-making couple. Oh, no, not cheese again. Call it a consumer story, then. Anne-Marie, a teacher, and Martin, an agricultural advisor, moved to West Cork and started making a range of 18 delicious cheeses, selling them in Cork's lovely covered market. Then the EHOs stepped in and said, sorry, no more cheese from unpasteurised cows' milk. "We can make cheese from pasteurised milk; who can't? But it's not interesting," they say. "It requires no skill."

To an outcry from local consumers, Anne-Marie and Martin gave up their stall. Philippa O'Kelly, the food writer on the Cork Examiner, speaks for them. Why can't they choose the food they want? If it's allegedly unsafe, put a health warning on it, and let the consumer decide whether or not to take the risk. "Most of us would rather buy from a cheese-maker we know than one we don't."

The good news is that the couple is returning to the market with a stall selling goats' cheese, which is acid and not subject to the same strictures as cows' milk. And they will sell organic veg. "We put manure on our vegetables," says Mr Guillemot. "Soon they will want to stop that."

is for knees, on which the Irish beef industry is staggering from a pounds 100m fine imposed by the EU for irregularities uncovered in 1990-91. Ivan Yates, the agriculture minister, has promised "rigorous, relentless, ruthless pursuit" of those responsible. Irregularities include alleged use of illegal hormone growth-promoters such as clenbuterol, otherwise known as angel dust. Bally angel dust.

is for limpets. Not much eaten today, not eaten at all, actually, though archaeological sites indicate they were staples of the Irish diet 9,000 years ago. As were all shellfish.

is for the McKennas, Sally and John, without whose witty and informed Bridgestone Restaurant Guides a holiday in Ireland would be simply unthinkable.

is for nettles, which make a lovely spring soup. Sweat chopped potatoes, onions and leeks in butter for 10 minutes till soft (a paper "lid" will keep in the steam). Add stock and cook till vegetables disintegrate. Add chopped nettle leaves, simmer a couple more minutes only. Add cream or milk. Serve hot. (Rough measurements for 6 people: 300g/10oz potatoes, 110g/4oz each of onions and leeks, 1.2 litres/ 2 pints stock; 110-175g/4 to 6oz young nettle leaves, 300ml/12 pint cream or milk, seasoning, butter).

is for oysters and other inimitable offerings from the Irish seafood larder: the sweetest lobsters, the fattest scallops, juicy cockles and mussels alive, alive-o. Modern oyster farming is a tremendous success story, now that they breed the prolific, disease-resistant Pacific type rather than the traditional native (which is available too in smaller numbers). The most famous are West Cork's Rossmore oysters, Kenmare and Galway. The Galway Inter-national Oyster Festival is held in September. (In May there's the Bantry Mussel Festival.)

is for potatoes. There are myriad ways of serving them - and nearly all of them mashed. Champ is mashed potatoes with spring onions, or nettles, or leeks, parsley, peas, even dulse. Cally is similar, and so is bruisy, made with nettles. Colcannon is mashed potato and cabbage. And pandy is well, basically, mashed potatoes. Time was that farm labourers ate nothing else but potatoes - three to six kilos a day, boiled in their skins - but it's a nutritious feast with added butter and buttermilk. Ivan Allen, Ballymaloe's owner (see above), tells of one of their girls who slipped away to London, and came back three weeks later. "If you'd taken all the trouble to go London, why didn't you stay longer?" he asked her. "I couldn't eat the potatoes," she said.

is for Quinn as in Quinnsworth and Superquinn, the mighty Irish supermarket chains. There are no Sainsbury's in Ireland, as yet, and only two M & S food stores.

is for the 'r' in the month you don't need to observe when eating Irish oysters, since they are all of the Pacific variety.

is for spotted dog, soda bread with raisins. Soda bread is one of Ireland's greatest gifts to gastronomy, but it's a gift with strings attached, as it is impossible, unfortunately, to make more than a ghostly shadow of it outside Ireland. You need coarse, freshly stoneground Irish flour and Irish buttermilk, for sure, and possibly Irish baking powder and Irish water. Maybe you also need to cook it on the hearth over a peat fire in a three-legged iron bastible (the country oven).

is for Theodora Fitzgibbon, who compiled the enduring, best-selling book on Irish food, A Taste of Ireland. Its photographic archive was lovingly researched by her husband, George Morrison. The novelist Maeve Binchy, who writes the foreword of the present edition, recalls a surreal tale of her early relationship with the Irish food writer. When working for the Irish Times, she was one day searching for a picture to accompany Mrs Fitzgibbon's veal casserole recipe. From her file she chose what seemed to depict a casserole with knives and forks sticking out of it. "That evening, watching the television news I saw an item about Dr Christian Barnard and my blood ran cold. I knew now where I had seen that picture before. It was not a casserole. It was a picture of open heart surgery. What I had thought was a knife and fork was in fact a clamp and forceps." She only just saved the day, racing to the office and substituting a picture of a boiled egg. She wrote: 'Why be content with a boiled egg on a winter evening, when you could have tasty veal casserole?"

is for Ulster, where tastes in food are no different from those in the south, except that we haven't mentioned boxty. It's a dish made with potatoes (grated, raw) and potatoes (mashed, cooked) with a little flour, and baked or griddled:

"Boxty on the griddle/ boxty in the pan/ if you don't eat boxty/ you'll never get your man."

Simply delicious piping hot and smothered in butter.

is for the very good grain crops that are grown in Ireland - the wonderful wheat that makes the soda bread and the robust oatmeal for creamy porridge. And let us not forget the barley which, when roasted, produces the inimitable flavours of Guinness and Murphy's, and when distilled gives us the Irish whiskeys: Jameson's, Bush-mills, and the upmarket Midleton Very Rare.

is for woodcock and wild game, of which Ireland has bountiful supplies. In fact Patrick Guilbaud in Dublin says he needs to import nothing more than foie gras, truffles, Chalon ducks and olive oil. "Ireland is the tops for game, meat, shellfish," he says. "If you buy the best ingredients there's nothing left to do with them - except cook."

is for eggs-certificate, or the certification that farmers must have in order to sell their eggs to the shops. Fresh free-range eggs from the farmer, Darina Allen says, were once the glory of the land. The farmer is still allowed to sell on the farm, but not to shops.

"But the egg industry produces eggs that they warn us may be unsafe if eaten raw. I'm outraged to be told I can't use eggs in hollandaise sauces, in ice-cream. Why shouldn't we be allowed to buy from people we know and take the risk? And why should you feel you're doing something illegal, buying good food?"

is for yellowman, a candy so curious it has never caught on far from its origins in Ballycastle, County Antrim, where it is made just once a year for Lammas Fair in August. I've eaten it. It's a brittle toffee made with golden syrup, brown sugar, butter, vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. I'm sorry to say that my children thought it was the end.

really is the end. For more information about excellent Irish cheeses (or indeed any Irish food products) write to or telephone: Irish Food Board (An Bord Bia), 2 Tavistock Place, London WCIH 9RA (0171 833 1251). !

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