Jan 182010
Gordon Ramsay

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Another late one – this from the 30/12/2009.

Sometimes it seems as if celebrity chefs have managed to hijack more of our television airwaves than any other genre in TV history, and Christmas week it’s worse than ever. Cooking programmes are great… but wall-to-wall recipes and a surfeit of inflated egos is enough to turn anybody’s stomach. With some, like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, I appreciate the food and the ethos and philosophy behind it, but could probably do without the lame one-liners.

Others like Jamie Oliver come up with great recipes that really are easy to cook at home, if you can endure the cheeky-chappy facade. Actually, as I type this I have a Jamie Oliver Christmas jerk ham joint in the oven. Yum!

Even with Gordon Ramsey, who is perhaps the most egotistical of the bunch, you have to appreciate his consummate skill in the kitchen, and his unequivocal passion for great food, despite his caustic language and bullying, autocratic style.

TV chefs span the gamut, from the sublime to the truly ridiculous. The week before Christmas, for example, I was unfortunate enough to land on "The Hairy Bikers" while channel flicking… they were cooking up the twelve-days-of-Christmas, which sounds like a pretty solid concept for a festive cooking show, until you realise that this is "The Hairy Bikers", and that they’re insisting on spicing things up by punctuating the actual cooking with assorted seasonal pranks. This included cavorting across the stage in leotards with the cast of Lord of the Dance. It was enough to make anyone lose their appetite.

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Nov 232009
Fresh vegetables are common in a healthy diet.

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The girls came off the school bus beaming from ear-to-ear, waving little booklets at us and talking nineteen-to-the-dozen.

Their conversation… if you can call a one-directional avalanche of competing phrases tumbling from three over-excited youngsters a conversation… revolved around fruit and veg. School was introducing a new programme called Food Dudes and they explained that for the next sixteen days they would be trying different fresh fruit and veg in school, and getting “prizes” for eating it. Sure enough, the next day they came home having tried some cucumber (no challenge there then… the girls love cucumber, and regularly devour vast quantities of the stuff), and eager to show us their food dude trinket.

To date they’ve collected a wrist-band watch, a plastic drink bottle, fridge magnets, a pencil case, a pedometer, a rubber (eraser), twirly straws and other bits of paraphernalia for trying an assortment of fresh foods. They’re also keeping a food diary detailing all of the fruit and veg varieties they eat at home and at school every day for the sixteen days — which they’ve stuck on the fridge using their Food Dudes fridge magnets and fill in diligently every evening before bed.

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Oct 202009
  * Description: Coffee cortado (An latte...

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I drink too much coffee! There’s no getting around it… it’s true. I have a penchant for the black-stuff that is simply undeniable.

My wife has been campaigning to get me to reduce my caffeine intake for quite some time, and part of me knows that she’s right. And in fairness I have… I’m now having only two to three mugs of the stuff a day instead of the six or seven that I used to consume. But… and it’s a big but… the three mugs I do have are VERY strong neat espresso, made in one of those stove-top coffee pots. It’s great stuff… but apparently I’m still drinking too much of it.

Or am I…?

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Oct 122009
Amethyst Deceiver

Image by Dave W Clarke via Flickr

Amethyst deceiver is an ominous name for a fungus… and the purple colour, while pretty, does little to suggest that this mushroom is anything other than seriously poisonous. The truth is that it’s not only harmless, but is also edible and apparently tastes quite good. Looking at it, you’d swear blind it was deadly… but that’s the trouble with fungi… they’re tricky little so-and-sos.

On Sunday we went to the Irish Natural Forestry Foundation’s (INFF) headquarters at Manch Estate, near Dunmanway in West Cork, for their second-last open day of the season. The estate is open to the public on the first Sunday of the month from March to November. These open days involve talks on sustainable native forestry, a chance to see craftsman utilise traditional woodland skills like charcoal making, wood-turning, woven hazel fence construction, gate making, birch broom making and more. There are also activities to keep the kids occupied, like woodland "treasure hunts" and nature art. But the highlights are the guided walks along the 20km of woodland, meadow and riverbank of the estate.

This month Cork nature writer and fungus aficionado Damien Enright was leading a walk dubbed "Fungi in the Woods". We love looking for fungi. We also love the concept of foraging for wild food, be it picking blackberries, catching fish or whatever. So far though we haven’t had the courage to combine the two — other than the odd occasion when we come across a patch of field mushrooms.

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Sep 242009

Me rescuing Guster the woodpigeon from a watery fate Guster the wood pigeon was dead. There were no two ways about it… this was an ex-pigeon, a pigeon that had ceased to be.

The girls were sad… especially the little one. In the twenty minutes or so since they’d met (and named) Guster they’d grown quite attached to him.

When we found him Guster was in pretty bad shape. He was flapping about in the shallows of an inlet just off the path at Rineen Woods near Unionhall. He’d been attacked by a predator, probably a fox, and had feathers missing from his back and shoulders to reveal bare skin and some nasty looking puncture wounds. Floundering helplessly in the water, struggling to keep his head above the surface, he was a forlorn sight.

I sized up the situation as the girls pleaded with me to save him.

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Jun 042009
Making cheese and cucumber sandwiches

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Ah the humble sandwich.

It comes in many shapes and forms, using different varieties of bread combined with a dizzying array of fillings that span the gamut of texture and flavour. With countless options, there’s literally a sandwich for everyone. It’s the staple of family picnics, and the stalwart of childhood nutrition that is the school lunch.

Yes, despite originally being considered as "man’s food" to be shared during late night gaming and drinking sessions, the 19th century namesake of the 4th Earl of Sandwich has, over the years, migrated across the social spectrum to become the mainstay of children’s lunch boxes around the country and around the world. Which is all well and good, but filling my daughters’ lunch boxes has evolved into one of the most trying parts of the daily grind.

School lunches have become the bane of my weekday mornings, and constructing them in the early morning tends to bring forth a tirade of under-the-breath expletives than wouldn’t be out of place in a Gordon Ramsay kitchen.

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Mar 052009
A magnificent West Cork Beach

A magnificent West Cork Beach

We went to the beach on Sunday one Sunday a couple of weeks ago (taken me ages to post this.. :-().

As I watched the children running across the sand, and the sunlight (that’s right, sunlight) catching spray from the breaking waves I had to consciously remind myself that it was still only February. February in West Cork can be a pretty bleak affair, but today it was absolutely glorious.

I have no doubt that the fickle nature of Ireland’s climate means winter will re-assert her miserable grip again before finally giving up — but for a few days at least spring was most definitely in the air.

That’s one of the best things about living in the heart of West Cork: you get to really make the most of the good days. Out in the garden, down on the beach, up in the woods — you can take advantage of the great outdoors on those all-too-rare occasions when the outdoors in Ireland really is great.

We spent an invigorating few hours on the beach, letting the sea breeze blow away the cobwebs of a soggy winter. It’s amazing how a bracing walk (or an all-out-run in the kids’ case) in the fresh air can raise your spirits, and we were all on top form when we got back to the car, not to mention starving.

There’s something about being near the sea that piques the appetite like nothing else. All that sea air and activity is great, but it doesn’t half make you hungry. Stomachs rumbling, we decided to have lunch out for a change, and headed for Gossip.

Gossip is an unpretentious little bistro-style restaurant on the square in Rosscarbery. The premises has housed a variety of ventures over recent years, but it’s latest incarnation is something of a rarity in today’s Ireland: a restaurant serving good food that offers excellent value.

Elegant contemporary fixtures and fittings combine with exposed stone walls that hint at the building’s history to deliver a comfortable, informal dining atmosphere ideal for families. The staff are extremely pleasant and helpful — another rare find in the Irish hospitality industry today. They immediately put three tables together to make sure our party of five wasn’t cramped.

On Sundays a selection of newspapers adorns a table in the centre of the restaurant for patrons to pick up and read at their leisure. The menu offers a range of bistro-style fare that, while nothing out of the ordinary, includes dishes that will appeal to meat lovers, fish lovers and vegetarians alike. There’s also a large specials board to introduce a bit of variety, including the ubiquitous “Roast of the Day” — the staple Irish meat and two veg.

But the best thing about the menu is the kids’ selection. There are the usual XXXX and chips for those who want them, but you can also order them half portions of anything on the menu — including the full roast dinner — for just €5.

Our three went for roast beef, with mash, roast potato, veg and Yorkshire pudding. I had the steak and ale pie and my wife went for the monkfish. The food while not exceptional, was good, portions were hearty, and you can’t argue with the value. All five of us were well fed, with excellent service, in pleasant surroundings for €38.

We’ll certainly be going back to Gossip soon, and if you fancy giving it a whirl, they are running a special for the whole of Lent — one child eats for free with each paying adult. They’ve also got a colouring competition on for the children — with a prize of a meal for two at the restaurant for mum and dad. Well worth a visit.

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Dec 122008
Delia Smith

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“Oh no, that programme’s terrible,” uttered one of the twins as we settled down in front of the fire for an evening of family telly. On screen, Rachel Allen, doyenne of Irish culinary television, was strutting her Nigela-esque stuff, showing the nation how to blind bake the quintessentially perfect pastry case.

Curious, I asked what my daughter found so bad about the programme. “Well, it makes you so hungry,” came the reply. I guess you can’t argue with that; the new series is all about baking.

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and baking, it has to be said, is very close to my heart. Eating it that is, not actually doing it. I’m lucky, because I happen to be married to an excellent baker, and it’s winter. Winter means the oven on the range is always hot, and there’s usually something yummy on offer in the kitchen.

So you’d think Rachel Allen’s new series would appeal to me… and it does on one level. It’s a good, wholesome programme that we can enjoy at a decent hour with the children, and yes, some of the recipes look mouthwatering. Television that passes on practical information, and real skills that you can use is to be applauded.

But there’s another aspect to the programme that tarnishes its superficial appeal. It’s a problem that afflicts many such programmes – Nigela Lawson’s are a prime example, as was the last series of iconic celebrity cook Delia Smith, and in other genres things like “Location, location, location”. It’s the gradual erosion of content to make way for the presenters’ expanding egos.

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Sep 242008

Frida the baby ferret It was 4:30pm on a Friday afternoon. I was sitting in the office about to start writing this column when one of the twins burst in.

“Dad, can we take the ferrets for a walk?” she asked. I looked out of the window. For once the sun was shining. You’d be amazed at how quickly I can move when a viable opportunity to avoid work presents itself. I was out of the door in a flash, the laptop and the column forgotten.

We’ve had the ferrets for just over two years now… and they really are wonderful pets. They’re so much more fun than alternative small animal options: rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters.

Ferrets are naturally playful, inquisitive and affectionate. They ‘re predators… and like all predators (cats, dogs, lions, etc.) they get their energy in small, high-value doses. That means that, when they’re not sleeping (and they can sleep for up to 16 out of every 24 hours… which, I must admit, makes me a bit envious), they spend most of their time playing and exploring to hone their hunting skills. Compare that to a guinea pig, for example, which needs to spend every waking hour chewing frantically just to stay alive, and you’ll start to see what I mean.

A slightly more mature Frida exploring my desk And then there’s instinctive behaviour: when a herbivore hears a sudden noise it’s primary instinct is to flee, but a carnivore’s natural instinct is to investigate a potential meal. Both are thinking of lunch… it’s just that one is looking for its lunch while the other wants to avoid becoming lunch. So, guinea pigs, rabbits, et-al spend all their time running away, while ferrets tend to run towards strange sounds and actually engage in active play. When was the last time your guinea pig played chase with a feather on a string?

As for the supposedly vicious nature of these marvelous mustelids, I have to say it’s mostly a myth. Yes, they have the arsenal to inflict a nasty bite… but then so does your average dog, cat and even the aforementioned rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters if mistreated. Vicious ferrets are, by and large, mistreated ferrets, and as a general rule they won’t bite unless seriously provoked.

I went out to their large hutch/enclosure to fit their leads and harnesses (matching little red and black numbers) and after a bit of squirming, wriggling (the ferrets) and cursing (me) we were ready to go. Walking with ferrets is a slow process – especially when you’re heading down a country lane. They keep diving into the hedgerow investigating smells – mice, rabbits, rats, foxes, badgers and whatever else has crossed the path the night before. Their leads get tangled in the undergrowth and progress is… well, let’s call it gradual.

At this time of year that’s ideal, because ambling slowly along a hedgerow thick with brambles gives you ample opportunity to pick out the best of the blackberries. The crop this year is, admittedly, not spectacular – spoiled by rain and lack of sunshine – but there are enough around to make picking them worthwhile as you wait for a stray ferret to emerge from a hole in a drystone wall.

That night, as the bread machine beeped to tell me the jam was ready to pour into jars, I found myself smiling involuntarily. This is what country living is all about (strange looks from local farmers while walking the ferrets notwithstanding). There are a few things I miss about living in the city – largely involving more convenient access to products and services – but by and large the country wins hands down. At this stage I wouldn’t move back to the city for diamonds….