Book Review - The Pleasures of the Table, Rediscovering Theodora FitzGibbon by Donal Skehan

The Pleasures of the Table, Rediscovering Theodora Fitzgibbon by Donal SkehanGeorgina Campbell

The Pleasures of the Table, Rediscovering Theodora FitzGibbon. Over 150 classic dishes from Ireland’s much-loved food writer selected and photographed by Donal Skehan (Gill & Macmillan hardback, with photographs by Donal Skehan, €24.99).

A sort of Irish ‘Julie & Julia’, the aim of this new collection of recipes from the late Theodora FitzGibbon’s many books is to introduce the Irish grande dame of cookery writing in the 1970s and ‘80s to a new generation. And this it should achieve very well, thanks to the choice of one of Ireland’s most popular young TV cooks and writers, the charismatic Donal Skehan, to perform the introduction.

Donal’s keenly observed introductory remarks show his appreciation of this strong, unconventional and glamorous woman, and how much he relished the job - which included being ‘interviewed’ by her husband, the film-maker and archivist George Morrison, who must have approved of the ‘young man’ undertaking the project, as he not only supplied the wonderfully evocative images of Theodora that are sprinkled through the book, but also let Donal into the ‘three key components’ of a good food photograph. Whether by coincidence or as a result of this useful advice, Donal’s photography of a selection of the recipes (handsomely styled by Sharon Hearne-Smith) is a highlight of the book.

Donal’s introduction, and the tributes from diverse figures ranging from George Morrison to Darina Allen and Mary O’Rourke, put this dominant figure of Irish cookery into context with reference to her extensive travelling (mainly with her father and her first husband, the writer Constantine FitzGibbon), and a bohemian life in which she rubbed shoulders with the cultural giants of the day and had many opportunities to explore the food of other countries.

In Ireland she was perhaps mainly defined by her role as The Irish Times cookery writer and this is highlighted in the tributes, although - this being a feel good book - the manner of her departure from the paper is not mentioned. Those of us who knew her at the time were saddened by the lack of respect afforded to her, after providing avidly-followed contributions over two decades. Her peers showed their support in a practical manner, however, by making her the inaugural President of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild on its formation in 1990 - and you will find a portrait of her in the Dublin Writers’ Museum.

As to the recipes themselves - which are presented without comment, pretty much as they would have appeared in previous publications - Donal has chosen them well to give a true representation of her style.

Theodora FitzgibbonMany are not ‘her’ recipes but European classics popular at the time (and none the worse for that), but the more interesting ones are Irish, from books such as A Taste of Ireland (1968) and Irish Traditional Food (1983), and she deserves particular credit for championing Irish country cooking and Irish food history at a time when so many were muttering about there being ‘no such thing as Irish cuisine’ and looking to international recipes for inspiration.

A Taste of Ireland was my own first cookery book on arrival in Belfast as a student and many of its simple, wholesome and inexpensive dishes became favourites in our house when it was my turn to cook, notably Dublin Coddle. Many people say they don’t like coddle - and I admit to having developed a more attractive version, dubbed Campbell’s Coddle, as boiled sausages and bacon do not appeal to everyone - but, as always with very simple dishes, it is the quality of the basic ingredients that make all the difference.

Strangely, however - and in direct contrast to Myrtle Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookbook (shortly to be re-issued), which was first published in 1977 - there is virtually no reference to provenance in Theodora’s recipes.

This attractive book is necessarily a mere sampling of Theodora’s work - and her most remarkable contribution was not Irish at all, but the encyclopaedic reference work, Food of the Western World.

For me, at least, it will not, as suggested, ‘replace her old cookbooks and the cut-out yellowed clippings from her column years ago’, but it is another one that I am very happy to add to the collection.

Mackerel with GooseberriesSAMPLE RECIPE: Mackerel with Gooseberries - goosberries being the first soft fruit of the year, this unusual variation on the classic fish and fruit combination is perfect for early summer.

“Grilled or fried mackerel served with a gooseberry sauce is well known and very good, as the acid gooseberry cuts the oily flavour of the fish. But it can also be baked with gooseberries in cider.”

4 mackerel, cleaned and filleted
225 g (8 oz) gooseberries
2 tablespoons brown sugar or to taste
pinch ground nutmeg
approx. 300 ml (1/2 pint) cider

Top and tail the gooseberries, then mix well with the sugar and nutmeg.

Put a layer of mackerel in an ovenproof dish and cover with the gooseberries, then put the remaining layer of mackerel over the top. Sprinkle with salt and pour the cider over.

Cover and bake at 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4 for about 40 minutes.

Serves 2-4.

13th September 2023
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