The world of snacks and treats was thrown into a state of frenzy this week as Tayto, the iconic Irish crisp, teamed up with Butlers Chocolate to produce a limited edition Tayto Cheese and Onion Milk Chocolate Bar. Of course it initially causes a small wrinkle in the brain as you try to imagine the two together and for many the first response will cause us to wrinkle up our noses as well. The thing is that this combination of salty savoury and richly sweet together isn’t so unusual. Neither is mixing crisps and chocolate revolutionary; just google chocolate covered crisps and there are hundreds of recipes all over the internet. Several years ago I discovered the chocolate covered crisp in the States. A department store called Neiman Marcus was (and still is) doing this with a thin-ish chocolate covered crisp presented in a tall Pringle like tin. They were given to me as a gift and I remember biting into the first one with a little trepidation. They were fine, the classic combination of salty and sweet with a creamy chocolate and a little crunch provided by the crisp. If I’m honest I wouldn’t go out of my way to get them again but I wouldn’t refuse one if it crossed my path.
With the Easter blowout over and spring (hopefully by the time you read this) in full swing properly with longer evenings, it’s time to freshen our plates and our palates once more. It must have been one of the coldest Easters on record and if not, it certainly felt like it. Despite all the lovely spring recipes in the magazines and pastel coloured Easter baking booklets that fell out of the papers last week, it was distinctly hot beefy stew weather rather than the lighter ideas they were promoting for this time of year.
As a nation we like to talk about the weather it is our ‘got to’ ice breaker for any and every occasion. It is strange that we have such a fascination with the elements given that we live in a relatively moderate climate and extremes are unusual. However, this winter has been one of them. It has been very difficult to watch as the farmers in the North of Ireland struggle against high walls of compacted snow. It’s lambing season, but one seriously hampered by the weather and, sad to say, in some situations completely annihilated. It seems so wrong to see little lambs with snow all around when they should be lolloping around green, dewy fields.
It’s that time of year again when all over the world there will be people dying everything they can get their hands on green. Others will be decorating anything that moves with a shamrock, while various statues and national monuments abroad will be lit brightly in a Halloween-ish hue. We, in the real Ireland, shall look on with great amusement and for our own efforts the business community will wash their vans and trucks, chuck a bit of bunting at them and drive them through the obligatory, usually wet, St Patrick’s Day parades in towns and villages all over the country. Why is it that people abroad ‘do’ our national day so much better than ourselves; it is a true paradox. They take it so much more seriously. They seem to respect it and celebrate it with a degree of enthusiasm that we just can’t seem to muster. It is nothing short of a phenomenon – there is no other little country in the world that gets such global recognition for its patron saint.
If we’ve never met then I can say with some degree of certainty that no one would ever choose to use the word ‘dainty’ in a description of me. The food I like and enjoy also falls into the more robust category. For example I like meaty, rustic, slow cooked one pots that are drenched in flavour. I’m rather partial to the idea of being the overarching creator in the kitchen, where I constantly adjust to taste with a pinch of this or a smidge of that until the bubbling meaty gravy sings on my taste buds. I always follow some vague cooking principles from my head but I add my own twists here and there. As I sample and savour the juices it usually elicits an audible ‘Oh yes’ or ‘Lovely’ to myself, which heralds an even greater taste sensation when we finally get to the actual ‘meat on a plate’ moment. I also enjoy succulent joints of meat and luscious pies accompanied by in season vegetables. While I’m fond of the new and always keen to try it, I’m not ashamed to say that I love the traditional and in particular old dishes that have undergone a modern make over. My point in sharing these insights is really to emphasise that my subject this week is not an obvious fit for me. Cooking and serving food in small portions in little pots is something I didn’t think I’d ever particularly enjoy and yet here I am extolling the virtues of ……….wait for it……..the ramekin!
I happened to be in London in October 2010 when The Savoy Hotel, situated on the Strand, reopened its doors after almost three years of extensive renovations. Sad to say I wasn’t in London for the opening, I was just there at the same time. It opened to much fanfare and local media coverage and I did have a stroll through out of interest in that first week. It oozed old world elegance with magnificent sparkling chandeliers reflecting off the seemingly vast acres of art deco floor tiles dotted with tastefully upholstered furniture and punctuated with giant vases of blooms. And yet the understated opulence was inviting and welcoming; I didn’t want to leave.
If there are positives to be taken from the current financial climate then for butchers it has to be the renewed interest in the cheaper and less regarded cuts of meat. I’m quite thrilled by this because in our more affluent years we gradually lost out on so much when it came to taste and flavour as we turned our noses up at some of the cheaper cuts of meat. I am also conscious of the environmental impact we made when we disregarded so much of an animal that was perfectly good for human consumption, purely on the basis of our arrogance and perceived sophistication which really boiled down to nothing less than ignorance.
There’s a tremendous beauty in the English language. We, unlike some of our European neighbours, have been blessed with an abundant tongue based on rich, ancient foundations. We have an instrument of expression that when used correctly can work incredible magic. Words can make us fall in love, do things we don’t want to do, create mental pictures or even stir up emotions we didn’t even know existed. There is power in words and yet we are often lazy, assuming that some subjects don’t deserve a richer word currency. Sad to say, recent recruitment advertising that I have seen for butchers is a perfect example. It looks like there are openings for apprentice butchers in many parts of Ireland which is great news, including my own business, exposing the fact that there is not a lack of jobs in the industry, but a lack of skills. However looking at the distinctly dull and lifeless call to arms, I can see many approaching just because there’s a paying job at the end of it. I caution that a paying job is never a good driving factor for a life in this world.
I got to work at breaking light the other day in order to write before the mayhem of the day began. As I walked along the leaves crunched beneath my feet and my breath hit the air in little visible white clouds. It was cold, dry and very festive; perfect Christmassy weather. Who wouldn’t like shopping and planning for Christmas on such a day? I’m convinced it’s the rain that stops us enjoying the chaos of the season. Rain always brings out the angry drivers, the frustrated parents and hungry children. It’s the permanent threat of a shower that has largely curtailed the growth of street food in this country. However as it is the run up to Christmas many places have put it up to the elements and Christmas markets and experiences have sprung up all over the place. We seem to have finally borrowed a little festive spirit from our mainland European neighbours.
If there is one berry we associate with Christmas it has to be cranberries. Maybe it’s because they have been on my mind that I am suddenly coming across so many recipes, sweet and savoury that call for the little fleshy fruit in all its various forms; fresh, dried and frozen. For some reason I believe cranberries to be a very adult fruit as they were never on my radar as a child. The gravy with the turkey on Christmas day always interested me more than the obligatory little silver bowl of jewel coloured cranberry sauce that sat in the middle of the table. With its dainty little spoon jauntily sticking out, my child’s brain was suspicious of putting ‘jam’ on my meat! Irish children of the 1970s were still largely unschooled in the pleasures of sweet and sour or sweet and savoury as food partners. Our love affair with all things Asian, Eastern and European means today’s children are much more open to such things.
How about giving a Christmas gift this year that would benefit for a lifetime? Thanks to award winning James Whelan Butchers at the Avoca Food Market in Monkstown, it’s now possible with the launch of the January evening Butchery Courses. Choose from three evenings in January 2013 for this inspired informative lesson that is the perfect gift for food lovers, leaving them with knowledge they will enjoy for a lifetime.