Insider View - Simplicity

Hilton ParkLucy Madden longs for simplicity and a celebration of things Irish on our plates – and takes a trip to Belfast

Somewhere out there is a factory where a huge vat brims with an unctuous liquid waiting to be bottled and distributed to a restaurant near you. This ubiquitous thing called sauce appears in swirls, puddles and blobs partnered with just about anything, promiscuous as a serial bigamist.

Chef may have added a sprig of thyme, some pearl barley, a dash of pernod, but we are not fooled. We keep meeting it, this sauce, under fish and meat and poultry, ingredients that are perfectly fine until chef takes out the jar and does the deed. Sometimes this cloying and revealingly shiny liquid appears in the starter and the main course, even in establishments that should know better. What is going on?

Cooking has moved on a lot since the old days, as it must, but not always for the better. We don’t want culinary stagnation, but in many ways that’s what we seem to be getting if my forays into various restaurants are in any way representative.

It’s not just that damned sauce; it’s foam, and shots in glasses and unasked for twiddly bits served on slates. This is fine if you are Ferran Adria of El Bulli, who has no doubt moved on to further esoteric practices now, but that kind of cooking doesn’t necessarily work when executed by lesser mortals. If chefs want to show off their skills, a carefully honed sauce might be a good place to start.

My husband, he who is not known for his own activity in the kitchen, is sharp as a chef’s knife when it comes to knowing what is wrong with the activities of others. He blames the Early Bird menus for the demise in standards. With many restaurants forced into offering cheaper food, quality sourcing (and saucing) is the first casualty. Above everything, this quasi-international food is not what visitors to this country want to eat. This can be shouted from the rooftops, endlessly repeated, but who is listening?

A few years ago I was shocked to see that a well known food critic nominated for one of his top food awards a restaurant specialising in pizza. Do we not have a genuine cuisine that celebrates the island nation (fish everywhere) that we are? Our lovely beef, our pasture fed lamb, even poultry, do these quality food products have to be submerged in foam or decorated with that sauce?

Two of the most exciting food trends that have emerged recently are raw foods and cooking with seaweed, both of which we are well suited to the geography of Ireland. And what of the potato, only recently celebrated internationally in the Year of the Potato?

In a cash-strapped year with not a lot of activity in sight, a highlight was a day out in Belfast. We decided on a city bus tour, wondering, in a patronising kind of way, how it could be stretched to 1 hour 40 minutes as predicted. How wrong that was.

First stop the docks where the Titanic had been built and after that it just got better and better. Through this very northern of cities the bus took us through the decades of hurt, through the Falls and Andersonstown, past the wall, past the Crumlin with its underground passage to the prison, past the angry wall murals.

You could say that we were a busload of the prurient, and that may be right, but each time our bus passed a landmark that registered in our recent consciousness, you could literally feel the frisson as the passengers lurched from side to side so as to miss nothing. I’ve heard that there is a lobby to erase the political wall paintings, but hope this never happens, iconic as they are and so much of their time.

Back at our point of departure, the Jesus Bus was waiting with its fixed smile band of evangelists waving crosses waiting to welcome on board. It was all so wonderfully characterful and somehow so Belfast.

It set me thinking about that sauce and its seen everywhere quality. We don’t visit places to find what we have at home, faux foreign food fads et al. We travel because we want to find what is different. The graffiti on the walls in Belfast was created in hatred and violence but it’s part of our history.

Food and history and architecture and landscape are unique to every country. Can’t we have the confidence to celebrate that?

Together with her husband Johnny, Lucy Madden runs their magnificent 18th century mansion, Hilton Park, Clones, Co Monaghan as a country house which is open to private guests, groups, small weddings and conferences. The restored formal gardens are also open by arrangement. Lucy is a keen organic gardener and also a member of the Irish Food Writers Guild.

Kindly supplied by the respected food service and drinks industry magazine, Hospitality Ireland. Click here to read more about them Hospitality Ireland Magazine

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