Darina Allen: 'If I was on a desert island, I'd want the nostalgia of champ'
Sunday 25 March 2012
My earliest food memory... My mother baking her own soda bread, which she would do as part of her everyday routine. I remember being just old enough to see up over the table and watching her quick and light hand movements as she worked. She would always give me a little bit of dough to make my own cistín, or "little cake", and I would cut a cross in it as she did, then prick the four corners to let the fairies out. That is very important; otherwise the fairies will jinx your bread.
My store-cupboard essentials... Porridge, because it's such a wonderful thing with which to start the day – there's a fantastic organic oatmeal made in County Westmeath that I buy. Also, Maldon sea salt, pickled lemons and lots of good honeys and vinegars. On the [Ballymaloe] farm where I live and run my cookery school, there are lots of beautiful leaves growing, so it seems fitting to serve them with a really good dressing, but whereas people are very aware of using extra-virgin olive oil, they don't necessarily think about the quality of vinegar they're using in the same way. I love Forum wine vinegars from Spain.
My favourite cookbook... It sounds corny, but I love my mother-in-law's original The Ballymaloe Cookbook, which is still in print after 30 years or so. I love the little mixture of stories – which obviously have extra resonances for me, as I know many of the fields and people she's referring to – every recipe works, and it has that same timelessness as Elizabeth David's books. Also, anything by Skye Gyngell: she has been over to Ballymaloe to give classes, and I love the freshness and excitement of her cooking. Knowing her food and having an insight into how she works, I can really hear her voice running through her books.
The kitchen gadget I couldn't live without... A pestle and mortar. We buy a lot of spices whole here, and I love grinding them. It's not a question of being virtuous, it's just that as you soon as you begin grinding, you can smell them and start getting excited by the flavour possibilities, which you miss by just putting them in the whizzer. Although the smooth, cream ones you normally see in kitchen shops would drive you to drink, because they have no friction. I have several types, but my favourite is my Mexican molcajete: it's made from lava rock and it has got little carving of a pig's head on the side, which looks awfully naff but allows you to grip with the left hand while grinding with the right
My top table...Noma [in Copenhagen], which I went to for the first time before Christmas. I was totally blown away: it provides such a celebration of plants and vegetables and foraged ingredients. But it's not just the food; it's the whole experience. When you enter, you're immediately greeted by the chefs, and they'll also serve the food to your table and talk to you about the dishes, which enhances the experience for the customer and is also a marvellous opportunity for them to get feedback. In fact, though, every single, lunch, dinner, brunch or coffee I had in Copenhagen was fantastically good: it feels like the whole centre of the gastronomic universe has shifted over to Scandinavia now.
My desert-island dish... A bowl of champ. If I was on a desert island, I would be feeling very nostalgic, and that would provide me with the comforting taste of both my childhood and my country. And, as is tradition, I would have to have a well of Irish butter melting in the centre of it, into which I could dip every mouthful.
The strangest thing I've ever eaten... Tarantulas, which I recently ate in Phnom Penh in Cambodia. They were crisply fried with lime and chilli and they were actually fine when you got over what you were eating, and concentrated on the flavour. Not mind-blowing, but I wouldn't mind having them again.
Darina Allen is a chef and the owner of Ballymaloe cookery school in County Cork (cookingisfun.ie). A revised edition of her classic 'Irish Traditional Cooking' is out now, published by Kyle Books, priced £25
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