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Book Reviews - The Country Cooking of Ireland by Colman Andrews

The Country Cooking of Ireland by Colman AndrewsThe Country Cooking of Ireland by Colman Andrews, with photographs by Christopher Hirscheimer, Foreword by Darina Allen (Chronicle Books, hardback 384pp, US$50, €40).

An impressive book by any standards, this beautifully produced coffee table tome weighs in at 2.3kg and – thanks to Christopher Hirscheimer’s stunning photography – presents an extremely appealing, mainly rural, view of Ireland and the simple excellence that is our food culture at its best.

Despite its size and weight, it’s an engaging as well as an informative read, successfully setting the renewed Irish respect for quality produce and simple cooking into a balanced historical perspective, with carefully selected recipes illustrating the point.

Colman Andrews, co-founder and former editor of Saveur magazine, is one of America’s best known and most highly respected food writers and – despite the home market promotion generated by the marketing association Good Food Ireland launches in Dublin and Cork - this comes across very much as a book written by an American for Americans with, for example, detailed references to ingredients and their availability or recommended substitutions.

It was four years in the making, and the time and care taken with research shows in many ways, with meticulous references to a wide range of sources (including, much to my surprise, some of my own books – although not Good Food From Ireland, which might have been the most useful) and a tightly packed Acknowledgments page citing the many people who shared their experience, knowledge, advice, anecdotes and recipes with him along the way.

It is good to see key personalities of Ireland’s food world showcased so effectively on the world stage – not only high profile communicators such as Myrtle and Darina Allen (Ballymaloe House), Peter Ward of Country Choice in Nenagh, and our most famous producers – the cheesemakers, smokers, butchers and growers who have built up the reserves of quality that have brought this small country to the attention of a food writer with international standing – but also less-sung heroes who have made vital contributions.

How good to be reminded of the pioneering work of Gerry Galvin at The Vintage in Kinsale in the 1970s, for example, and also his later work at Drimcong House in Co Galway and with Euro-Toques - which, strangely, does not seem to mentioned at all, although there’s no doubting the organisation’s continuing importance in bringing like-minded chefs together to support local producers and create the improving situation we enjoy today.

Similarly, although mentioned briefly, many would have expected John and Sally McKenna’s contribution to be acknowledged more prominently as their independent recognition of and support for artisan producers (which was ahead of the marketing association Good Food Ireland by many a country mile) has been a great encouragement to many small food businesses over the last 20 years.

Colman AndrewsThe selection of around 250 recipes for the book must have been quite a challenge and it’s interesting to see how the balance has been achieved, with old recipes woven in beside the snippets of folklore, literary quotations and history that set the food in context, and newer ones illustrating the way that today’s younger cooks and chefs interpret traditional themes – rather noticeable reliance on a clutch of TV chefs might surprise some readers, but this is understandable as American readers are likely to identify with them because they tend to be active representatives of the Irish food scene abroad, attending and cooking for events as well as having a presence in the media.

Darina Allen’s Foreword is especially interesting because she has, of course, been the main pioneer in this area herself, with books such as the definitive 1996 Country Cooking: Traditional & Wholesome Recipes From Ireland, a massive undertaking with a Foreword by food historian Regina Sexton and now quite hard to source, and the more accessible Irish Traditional Cooking – over 300 recipes from Ireland’s Heritage.

But Darina rightly acknowledges the value of an outside view, saying “Colman, more clearly than most, can see the evolution and the revolution that has taken place in Irish food and transmits it here in a clear and charming way. Colman’s tasteful curatorial eye is observant and eclectic, almost magpie-like; he has chosen the best and most interesting sweetmeats to present.”

And she puts her finger on the particular interest of the book which is not really the recipes, excellent as they may be, but “…the delightfully interwoven snippets of country life he’s captured in his historical research, interviews with artisans, and vignettes of country house hotels… Colman, with his global perspective and vast knowledge of different food cultures, has looked in and seen how we are, and this book is an unprecedented celebration of what he’s observed.”

The Country Cooking of Ireland by Colman Andrews is available from bookshops, online from Good Food Ireland (€40 +€10 p&p within Ireland) and, of course, from Amazon – where a popular purchase, apparently, is the duo of The Country Cooking of Ireland and Darina Allen’s recently published Forgotten Skills of Cooking; the pair comes in at around €47 including postage, making it extremely good value.

SAMPLE RECIPE

Brocka SaladFried Cooleeney Cheese with Beet Salad

This is a popular dish at Brocka on the Water * in Ballinderry, County Tipperary. Cooleeney cheese, made by the Maher family in Moyne, near the Tipperary town of Thurles, is often available in the United States (see Sources, page 369). Camembert may be substituted.

Click for recipe

[*See also listing for Brocka on the Water in Georgina Campbell’s Ireland/Waterways Ireland 2010 “Taste of the Waterways” guide, which is just out.]

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