WHEN FOOD BLOWS MY MIND
Picture this, one night I’m having a once-in-a-lifetime experience in Liath, a dinner so very special I will talk and talk and talk about it to everyone and anyone willing to listen, and the morning after I’m in my pjs munching on babybel in front of my open fridge, trying to decide what to make for dinner.
I think about food and how it makes me feel far, far too much. Some might call it an obsession but to me it’s an absolute passion. I love it all: the simple, everyday restaurants, the mid-range ones that give you food you could prepare at home if you were bothered, but why bother when they do it better and faster than you would. I love restaurants that serve food inspired by foreign cuisines, where the chefs master a dishes and flavour profiles that I wouldn’t know how to begin to cook at home. I love the higher-end restaurants, and I don’t mean the expensive ones, but the intelligent ones, the ones that concentrate on the quality of the ingredients and the warmth of the service, the ones that prioritise their staff well-being and development, the ones that makes you feel at home and serve you beautiful food. I love the restaurants that put time and effort in sourcing great local ingredients and pay their suppliers promptly. All those things matter to me, and yes, I am a mega nerd and I’m fine with that.
But most of all, I love transformative food experiences. By that I don’t mean a lovely dinner where the staff calls you Sir or Madam, I mean the kind of meal that shakes you to your soft core, turns you upside down, and changes how you think about food altogether. Food that plays with your taste buds and with your mind! It’s rare but it happens and when it does, it turns me upside down.
I don’t care if the room is fancy and the music soft, I don’t care about the colour of your walls and the cut of your waiter’s uniform. What makes me really tick is if I go home with my mind blown. If you’ve shown me something I didn’t know could exist, if you’ve taught me a new trick or shared something I didn’t realise food could do. This is what truly excites me and will keep me thinking about a dinner or a bite or whatever it was for a long time to come. It brings me such joys that those memories are with me, years and sometimes decades later, as vivid in my mind as the day I experienced them.
Have you ever had such an experience? So far most of mine have been in Ireland. It’s not not to say they’re not to be found elsewhere but I’m not overly well travelled and here, my experiences are deeply enhanced by all I know about Irish food. I ask a lot of questions and I’ve found that in Ireland producers and chefs are always willing to chat to you and share their knowledge. I’ve abused that a lot and I regret none of it.
It happened to me twice before I got to Ireland, both in my early teenage years when I started taking an interest in how to cook and what made good food. Before that I’d happily have eaten butter and ketchup sandwiches at my mam’s great consternation.
There was this one summer where a new stall appeared at our local market (every Thursdays and Sundays come sun, rain or snow), it was a man who owned a small farm and he grew tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces and potatoes. He had one particular type of tomato that was sold on the vine when in those days it wasn’t really the done thing you know? My mam bought a small paper bag full of them and it is the first time I can remember my mouth watering from the smell of something as simple as a tomato. I didn’t know they could smell so strong, you know the smell I mean, the smell of the plant more so than the tomatoes. That tangy, woody, fresh but musky pervasive smell great tomatoes can have. A smell that smells nothing like they taste. When we got home my mam peeled the tomatoes and served them as a salad, chopped medium with a vinaigrette made with salt, pepper, red wine vinegar and olive oil. That tomato salad would sit in a bowl for a few hours at room temperature and the tomatoes would release their juice and by the time you were ready to eat the salad would nearly be more sauce than tomatoes and you would eat it with your face in your plate and lots of fresh bread in your hand. As an adult, I’ve only come close to that experience in a restaurant once. It was in Luna, in Dublin, the old Luna mind you, not the weird one that’s open now and nothing like the original. They used to have a tomato starter with charred bread and it was a dead ringer for that salad. It had the texture and the flavour down to a pat. I had a real moment when I ate there.
The second food shock I had was when my mam took us to visit the French Antilles, Guadeloupe and Martinique to be precise,#two glorious islands near Jamaica. That’s where my grand-dad was bord and raised and my mam wanted us to have an idea of our roots. What stayed with me to this day is how fruits can and should taste when they are picked and eaten when ripe. Mangos, bananas, pineapple, coconuts, and mad sour plums. They will stay with me until the day I die.
My mam was not an overly adventurous shopper or cook. As kids we would have eaten simple french fare and there would have always been a bit of babybel or boursin in the fridge. I didn’t know great cheese growing up, it would have been out of our budget and so I mostly grew up on industrial dairy. Nothing wrong with that, until you take into consideration the sheer beigeness of UHT milk. To call it milk even is an insult to the cows of the land. It is liquid and vaguely white and there ends the resemblance. Imagine my shock when I came to Ireland and I was handed a glass of fresh milk from the fridge. And guys, it tasted of the farm and you all took it for granted. My “milk” would sit for month in the press under the sink because it didn’t even need to be refrigerated. Yours goes off after a few days because it is alive and it is natural. The transformative experience came later though. It came the first time I went to Airfield Estate (which I now live very close too by “total” coincidence). They gave me a glass of fresh milk from the Jersey cow they keep on the estate, and then they showed me how you can make butter from the cream that floats at the top of that milk. It was truly mind blowing. How did I not know butter could be this creamy? How did I not know that milk could be so fat you had to break the top with a spoon. How did I not know it could taste like grass? To date, I haven’t tasted anything remotely as good as the dairy we get in this country. It may seem dramatic to ye, but truly, that glass of milk and that spread of butter in Airfield were some of the best things I’ve ever eaten or drank. I now buy the milk regularly and keep the cream to cook with. Pure delicious milky goodness.
There was a time when I thought I wasn’t mad about Indian food, looking back I realised I was simply ignorant and simply had never had good Indian food. Enters Karan Mittal who happened to have just started the first time I walked into Ananda. That day, I discovered that in fact, I did like ginger and that Indian food is varied in a way that you could spend your life exploring it. That day I also realised that great Indian food is incredibly delicate. That feeling of pure discovery, of something brand new (to me, obviously) is something that is akin to travel by mouth really and it transports you. If you know me, you will know that Indian cuisine is one of my top choices and I have developed a palate and appreciation that know no bound.
This first time joy was replicated once, in 3 Leaves, when I ate my first pani puri. I would try and and describe pani puri, but honestly, you have to try it to believe it.
Finally, I went to Liath in October last year and in April this year. October sent me reeling, April made me speechless. On both occasions, I had so many questions. Did you know you could poach big root vegs in butter? The techniques are minute and scientific and ever so precise. Should you wish, Chef Damien Grey will kind kindly talk you through the varying stages each ingredients go through to put together dishes that are incredibly complex and yet make total sense. It is cerebral food, it is incredible in the mouth but if you’re that way inclined (clearly I am) it keeps you thinking for a long time. The fact is, I didn’t know you could do what the mad things they do to food and still keep it glorious and it made me utterly giddy. I know I make it all sound very dramatic, but this kind of food is Art. And art is Art when it makes you feel. That full dinner is 3 hours and 22 courses (I think) of unbridled joy. It’s a massive high.
I asked Chef how to come down from that meal, what way to start cooking again. I wanted to be careful as I felt the next meal after this one would have to be thought about carefully. You have to be mindful when something is so special, you want to somehow preserve it. He gave me one instruction, he said “think about your dish and then remove one ingredient from it”.
He also explained that if you want to improve your home cooking, there is one simple thing we can all do, and that is think about textures more.
Between minding the textures and cooking with less ingredients, I ended up settling on an old classic and made confit duck legs and garlic spuds. I was careful to crisp the duck legs and cook the potatoes until they were nice and soft and served a tossed romaine on the side because it has body and doesn’t melt into the vinaigrette. Normally, I would put garlic in with the spuds at the start and then grate some fresh garlic at the very end. This time I did myself sweet violence and held back on the last minute garlic. Chef was right.
So there you have it, a string of consciousness and a peek inside my head and what really makes me tick when it comes to food.