10 years ago my editor asked me to take over the ‘food news’ section. It was a pleasure to do this as I have a passion for Irish cuisine and a deep grá for these farmers, fisherman, growers, producers, who work both on land and sea to produce some of the finest food that Ireland has to offer. can be found anywhere in the world.
Likewise, I revere the heroes of Irish hospitality, the women and men who serve those same superb produce with an empathetic creativity that now means you can eat world-class food all over the country.
With a regular “news and events” column, it can sometimes be difficult to maintain compelling copy when delivering what can often be a litany of times, dates and details, so to inject some fun , I mentioned The Menu, a gregarious bon vivant (ok, maybe my alter ego) writing in flowery and gloriously exaggerated prose.
But what did readers think?
About a year later I was invited to a foodie event in West Cork. Late in the evening, I was approached by an older woman in the bar at The West Cork hotel.
“Are you the menu? she asked in a very suspicious tone. I confessed that I knew at least the same thing.
“God,” she said, “you’re an awful piece of shit, but I love it!”
I’ve had many similar encounters over the years, acknowledging, beneath every waffle, my core message that Irish food is some of the best in the world.
How time has passed – an entire decade has seemingly passed in the cleaning of a single plate. But what a decade it has been for Irish cuisine, more turbulent than most in its long and storied history, and during which The Menu has put away a lot of very fabulous food.
The very first column was published on March 26, 2012 and recreated the wonderful scene that is Dungarvan Square, just after dawn on Sunday morning at the West Waterford Festival, as merchants settled in for the grand finale of one of Ireland’s top food festivals. That morning, The Menu prepared a breakfast of free-range Woodside Farm pork sausages and bacon and local free-range eggs, in cast-iron pans in a Volcano mobile pizza oven, all eaten in fresh baps from Barron’s Bakery – a pretty perfect encapsulation of all that is glorious of Irish cuisine, its producers and The Menu’s overriding commitment to the same.
The following week featured the first ‘special of the day’, where the menu features a premium food item, invariably Irish, with one or two very special exceptions and it has been a particular privilege and pleasure to bring food items from world class to worldwide attention, many of these same producers have since become good friends. There have been over 500 products featured since then, some now home staples, others fallen by the wayside, but The Menu enjoyed eating all of them.
Many of these products come from Irish Farmers’ Markets, which The Menu says are the universities of Irish food production, places to truly experience and enjoy the best of Irish cuisine.
The very first was an orange macaroon, from the Treat Petite stand of Sylvia and John McCormack, then a mainstay of the Mahon Point Farmers Market. John was actually a grandson of the famous singer, Count John McCormack, and founded Capt America’s in Dublin in the 1970s. A great character and a very warm and kind-hearted man, he sadly passed away too soon many years later. late and is always fondly remembered.
Noreen and Martin Conroy’s singular approach to breeding and their unwavering commitment to raising rare breed free-range pigs continue to produce the finest pork products in the country.
Tom and Jacinta Clancy of Ballycotton Free Range have produced some of the most splendid eggs and poultry to grace The Menu’s table, though the struggles and struggles of this obscure sector of small independent poultry producers illustrate much of what is wrong with the current situation. industrial model of Irish agriculture.
One day The Menu spotted a young woman behind a small camping table as he was leaving Mahon Market. In front of her were two bowls of mushrooms: picked chanterelles and shiitake mushrooms; she had cultivated the latter herself.
The wife was Lucy Deegan and she and her husband Mark Cribben have since grown Ballyhoura Mushrooms into an internationally renowned food brand, growing world-class mushrooms, which they supplement with fabulous wild mushrooms collected by Mark, as well as their range of highly innovative and national products. and internationally award-winning mushroom products. Their superb produce has become a feature of some of the country’s finest restaurant menus, many with Michelin stars, dramatically changing our perception of what constitutes contemporary Irish cuisine.
In 2016, The Menu began giving out its own annual food prizes, The Munchies, the best of the past year. Categories include: Food Emporium; Cookbook/Food Book; food organization; Farmers Market; Product; and food hero.
It’s no coincidence that three of The Menu’s food heroes of the year are women: Myrtle Allen, Veronica Steele, creator of Milleens Cheese, and Darina Allen; and The Menu would claim that this trio had a more profound impact on the world of Irish cooking than virtually all the men put together.
The food organization award has celebrated superb contributors to Irish food activism, including GIY International, Bia Food Initiative (now part of FoodCloud) and Talamh Beo, but one looms particularly high in the affections of The Menu: Real Bread Ireland, which grew into a 32-county organization with over 100 member bakers and cemented a culture of baking and eating real bread that transformed the national breadbasket.
The brutal impact of the pandemic on Irish hospitality needs no further explanation today – it has been a long way on these pages – and there will be continued fallout and casualties for some time to come. . During the worst months of the lockdowns, The Menu turned into a one-stop-shop to support all lockdown attempts – believing that this estimable news outlet had sold many newspapers over the years thanks to the successes of Irish hospitality and now was the time to repay that debt.
Truth be told, The Menu has often wondered if this is anything more than a token gesture in the face of such a tsunami of destruction and mayhem, but, an ever optimistic soul, he clings to the belief that while there will never be a return to the old ‘normal’, the experience of surviving Covid will make Irish food production and hospitality stronger and more sustainable in the future.
Once again The Menu was to be found in a public forum arguing that, no, Irish food did not ‘start’ in the last ten or 15 years, as so many younger generations seem to believe.
Since Myrtle Allen first opened Ballymaloe House in 1963, it has been possible to eat superb, seasonal, local and fresh Irish produce, cooked to world class standards in typical Irish style. Certainly, in the decades leading up to the turn of the century, these establishments serving such dishes across the country were very often isolated culinary beacons shrouded in darkness.
But over the past 10 or 15 years we have finally ignored the guilt, linked to starvation and then inflicted by the Church, which frowned upon visible displays of pleasure, especially when it came to eating and the celebration good food and good food is finally becoming part of our national culture.
Since then, Irish hospitality has evolved at an exponential rate and 80% of visitors to these shores say they are “blown away” by the quality of Irish cuisine, according to research by Fáilte Ireland.
And while the internationally acclaimed Michelin Guide should never, ever be taken as the sole arbiter of the quality of a nation’s cuisine, it is a recognizable and quantifiable standard, for better or for worse. . In 1974 there were three stars in the country, all in Co Cork. In 2012, when The Menu started, there were five Michelin-starred restaurants in the country and Patrick Guilbaud held two stars. In 2022, there are now 21 starred restaurants in Ireland, including four double starred restaurants.
There will be more and Chapter One and Aimsir have a very real possibility of becoming Ireland’s first three star restaurant in the years to come.
And, in time, according to The Menu, Ireland will gain an international reputation as a foodie hotspot as the world finally realizes what it has always believed, that it really is, really hard to top the food. and Irish hospitality at its best.