Monday, 3 December 2012

Even if Cheap passes the test, it shouldn't cut the mustard

Today's The Irish Times has spurred me into blogging life once more. In it there is an article entitled Can a cheap Christmas dinner pass the test?. Four journalists were asked to try an Aldi €25 "festive feast" and report their findings. There was a starter of smoked salmon, the traditional main of turkey and ham with all the trimmings, a desert of plum pudding, a cheese course and chocolates, which fed the four for €103.

All four journalists were impressed with the quality of the meal. They also were happy to note that, other than the bottle of wine, the whole dinner was produced in Ireland. For me it doesn't matter what the outcome was. We know that Aldi sells food cheaply and that the quality of this value food is always improving. I was not surprised when they reported positively on the taste of the food. What I was surprised by was the lauding, yet again, of a cut price supermarket chain that is decimating our country. I realise that this is an expensive time of year for people and that a five course Christmas dinner for €25 a head is a tempting offer. This is not the answer though. If Aldi are managing to sell a 5.5kg turkey for €30 someone is suffering, and you can be sure it's not Aldi. The margins for the producers of these value Irish foods are so tight that their livelihoods can only be sustained by producing enormous amounts. I would advocate the buying of a free range, preferably organic, turkey that is produced locally and is sold by an independent local butcher. This will cost more but would it not be better to keep our streets alive and ensure our butchers and other food sellers don't go out of business because of the impossible-to-compete-with prices of supermarket chains? Would it also not be better if rural Ireland was full of many small, quality, food producers who keep the local economies going and fill our country with activity rather than a small few large scale food producing monopolies? To afford a quality Christmas meal bought form local sellers people might have to sacrifice one or two of the sides or trimmings that Aldi offers. I know I would prefer to spend more on my turkey and veg and forego the cheese course, for example.

This morning, on my mad dash to work, late, I bumped into my local butcher, I hardly recognised him out of his butcher whites! He stopped me to say that he had over charged me the last time I was in and that he'd give me the money off my next meaty purchase. I hadn't even noticed the small over charge but I thought how lovely to have such friendly relations with my local butcher and how essential it is, for the good of our city centre, to support such small businesses who know us by name and remember our credit.

Friday, 26 October 2012

No guessing who's coming to dinner...

I've gone a bit whisk and spatula happy. I've decided to dish up a three courser this evening to mark the A's weekend home from Belfast. As I have to work until 6 all preparations have to be done in advance and so I was beavering away in the kitchen last night and this morning. The menu is almost all taken from Ottolenghi's Plenty and it is as follows:

Marinated roast Romano pepper salad with buffalo mozzarella
Marinated rack of lamb with mint, coriander and honey, served with flatbreads and garlic and chilli broccoli
Lemon meringue tartlets

The lemon meringues are now made and chilling at home, and they're looking good if I may say so! Phew, one course down. It was my first time making a hot sugar meringue. I approached the recipe with trepidation but found that it's actually a straight forward process.

I'll post recipes and photos over the next few days.
The third is a back up!

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Dormant, but not extinct

I have not been the most prolific of bloggers this past while but I still have my head buried in cookery books every day and am always on the lookout for locally sourced foods and quality food businesses. I was glad to read today's article in The Irish Examiner on the shop and cafe in Toon's Bridge (you can read it here). It's comforting to see that these businesses are appreciated and being supported in the press.

I have not been trying out new recipes of late because I have only been cooking for myself and so have been sticking to simple, albeit tasty, dinners and lunches. With the prospect of company this weekend that is all changing and I've been turning the pages of Ottolenghi's Plenty for ideas! Looking forward to producing something more challenging than porridge at the hob!

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Time to discard the Law, not the Fish

I have been following Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Fish Fight and have signed my name to the campaign to change the EU laws that result in over half the fish caught in the North Sea to be thrown back, dead. Everyone should see that such practices are outlandish. Not only is it a waste of perfectly good fish, disrespecting this quality food source, but it is polluting our waters with tonnes of dead fish.

Last week a Wexford trawler owner gave away 130 boxes of fresh monkfish on Kilmore Quay in Co. Wexford, rather than obey the EU rule that  requires over-quota fish to be thrown back in the sea. It was a bold move, and one that I'm sure upset some fishmongers who are trying to make a living, but it was a necessary move to further highlight the urgent need for reform in this industry. The photo in The Irish Times of the boxes of fish on the quayside illustrated just how much is being discarded.

In the UK 50% of the fish consumed is made up of cod, tuna and salmon. This small group of favorites means that other, less popular, fish are the ones being discarded while the trawlers work to make up their quotas with high demand fish types. This is why we should be eating a broader range of fish, to discourage the discarding of perfectly tasty and nutritious fish. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has a helpful guide to buying sustainable fish (here).

Last week's fish giveaway reminded me of how ridiculous the legislation is and I would like to show my support to Séamus and John O'Flaherty, owners of the Slatees Quest, and its skipper, Jimmy Byrne, who decided to take the Law into their own hands and discard it, rather than the tonnes of fresh monkfish, last Thursday morning.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Ploughing through the Irish farmers

The Irish Ploughing Championships are taking place at the moment. Along with the ploughing competition itself, this is a festival that brings together all who are involved in Irish agriculture, from the farmers to the suppliers of Irish foods to the agricultural advisers and accountants. RTE news last night, reporting from the wet and muddy fields of the championship in Co Wexford, were enthusiastic about the event but revealed that sadly there were now more farmers over 85 years old than under 35 in Ireland. I found this a staggering statistic. Driving through the Irish countryside it is clear that we are still a predominantly agricultural country. I realise that the life of a farmer is a difficult one, with the people willing to spend less and less on the food they eat, and the big food businesses undercutting all of the small food producers so they are left with no choice but to cease farming or to join the small number of big food companies and produce large volumes of poor quality goods.

There was celebration too at the event. The Waterford Blaa has been given EU recognition as a quality local food product, joining a select group of four other Irish food products to have been awarded this protection so far. This is cause for celebration, but it is, hopefully, only the beginning of a rise in popularity for local food products. France, in comparison, has over 250 food products registered, or awaiting registration, in this scheme.

Today's Irish Times, reporting from the championships, gives an account of a man emerging from "the heaving Aldi tent" saying that there was a "hoor of a queue" in there for the free food samples. When are we going to learn that the "heaving queues" in the big supermarkets are directly linked to the rapid decline in the farming population?

Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Death of an (honourable) Salesman

The news on the radio this morning was one tragic story after another, and then the newsreader added a pep to her tone with the line "...and now for some good news".

Rather than put a smile on my face, her final news snippet was the most tragic story of all, made worse because it was feted as a joyous event - Dealz, the discount retailer, has opened it's 17th outlet in the republic of Ireland today. Where do I begin? This is a tragedy on so many levels, a tale without light.

Firstly I suggest that you look at their "grocery" page on their website (here). Jars of hot dogs, tins of "pork luncheon meat", pot noodles, chocolate and biscuits. Do we not care about what our nation is eating? Do we not care about the adverse effects on health caused by a diet of convenience food?

Next, look at the prices. Most items retail at €1.49. How will small independent retailers survive if they are loosing customers to these insanely cheap prices? And how can nutritional food be sold at such a low price? (Obviously it can't, nutrition is not for sale in Dealz).

Thirdly, look at the origin of most of the food. The milk is Bangor Maid milk from Co.Down, the meats are made by Struik Foods, a Dutch company, the sugar is made by Whitworths, a U.K. based company, all products that we produce ourselves in Ireland*. How do we expect our agricultural industry to grow when the opening of a retail outlet that sells mainly imported food products is hailed as a good thing?

Lastly, I refer to Dealz the great employer. Today's opening brings the number of jobs Dealz has created in Ireland to over 490. As I have already stated in Living La Vida Local, it has been shown that for every job created by a supermarket giant, 1.5 jobs are lost locally within 2-3 years. So you see, this is a tragic story. Dealz should not be lauded as a great employer or a positive business that will work for the good of the nation. Dealz, and the likes of Dealz, do nothing but harm everything and everyone in its path, from the customer who is now tucking into a sandwich of slice pan and tinned bacon, to the small local traders who are struggling to survive, to the nations economy.

*I would like to amend this statement. Ireland no longer produces sugar since the closure of the Irish sugar-beet processing factories. The Siúcra brand, although appearing Irish, is now packed in the UK for Nordzucker.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Deanes at Queens

Queens University Belfast is going to be the stomping ground for the A for the the year ahead. To make the distance between us more bearable I've been researching the best eateries in the city for when I visit. All restaurants by Michael Deane have stood out. We were in Belfast at the weekend, checking out the lay of the land, and I earmarked Deanes at Queens for our Monday lunch.

When I say lunch, we hadn't had breakfast and so loitered, light-headedly, about the city before asking for a table at 12.01 (the restaurant opens at 12 and we didn't want to look too eager). The lunch menu is extensive with options on a £6.50 lunch menu, the all-day menu and a specials card. The A ordered the pork belly from the all day menu, served  with braised cheeks, french peas and fondant potatoes. I ordered the duck rillette, also from the all-day menu, which was served with a celeriac slaw, sweet onions and toast. We ordered bread to ease the light-headedness (especially as we had ordered a carafe of white wine as our first imbibement of the day) while waiting or our lunches.

The bread alone was out of this world. There was a soda bread, a white yeast bread with black olives and a rye bread, all of which were delicious and devoured before our lunches arrived, building up our hopes for a sensational meal. We were not disappointed. The A's pork looked fabulous and tasted as good, he reported. I didn't taste his, as that would have meant sacrificing a bite of mine, which I was loath to do. A rillette is almost like a paté but the texture of the meat is more apparent. There were capers in there and the combination of the sweet onions, celeriac and duck on toast was sensational. There wasn't a morsel left on either plate with both of us mopping up every last taste with the remaining toast.

I thought the prices were very reasonable, £7 for my duck and £14 for the A's pork. Deanes at Queens has definitely made the prospect of long distance romancing easier!