Catalan Food

One of my favourite cookbooks is Catalan Cuisine by Coleman Andrews. It is worth getting just for his description of La Boqueria which appears at Appendix 1. As he says … just to see, smell, sense the food at La Boqueria – just to get some sort of abstract feel for it in its native state for an hour or two – will teach you a lot about the cooking of this rich and fascinating region, and will help bring Catalan cuisine alive for you. There are those who would say the say about Birkenhead Market.

The books performs a similar job to the market. We all think we know something about Spanish food and what Andrews does is show that there is a distinct style of food and of taste that is special to the particular region, its restaurants and eating places. I have only been to Barcelona once, for a long weekend, and I remember there was something carnal about the place or that might be the way I always feel as I walk around a good Spanish city. One of my favourite recipes in the book is Swordfish (although we tend to use tuna instead) with Raisins and Pine Nuts. The recipe comes from a cookbook that is almost 500 years old and there is something medieval and Moorish about it.

1and a half pounds swordfish or tuna steaks
olive oil
a glass of white wine
juice of one freshly squeezed orange
a tablespoon of lemon juice
18 almonds, blanched and roasted
parsley, mint and marjoram – finely chopped
2 oz sultanas, plumped in warm water
2 oz pine nuts, lightly roasted

Flour the fish lightly in the flour then brown in a frying pan in a small amount of olive oil.

Drain the fish on kitchen paper. Deglaze the pan with the wine, orange and lemon juice and reduce the liquid by half.

Grind the almonds to a paste (a picada) with the herbs moistened with some liquid from the pan, add to the pan along with the sultanas and pine nuts stirring all together. Return the fish, season with salt and pepper and heat through and serve.

Will be eating it with slow cooked crusty rice and some salad from the garden.

Listening to Nilsson.

Van Morrison, chicken, lemon & sage

In 1985 the writers of the NME put together a list of the best albums ever made. I was still too close for comfort to that part of my life when The Wombles were my favourite group and I was slightly surprised to see that they had Marvin Gaye at the top of the list. No matter I went out and bought What’s Going On and now know it for the work of genius it is. Second on the list was Van Morrison and Astral Weeks. Almost thirty years later I cannot remember if I had bought Astral Weeks by that stage. I was a big fan of Moondance and I think that I probably had it. Scary now to think how old the album appeared at the time just 14 years after it had come out and now we are all another 28 years down the line.

I have been listening to it again over the last few weeks and this evening I had it on as I cooked chicken with lemon and sage. It has been a Friday evening and there was that moment when I was able to put the drudge of the week behind, the door was open and I turned it up loud so it could echo a bit round the garden and annoy the neighbours if they were listening.

I cheated with the chicken and it was packs of legs and thighs from the supermarket. Fried in olive oil until brown, add a finely chopped onion and garlic and the juice of 3 lemons. The sage came from the garden. There are two bushes outside the back door – purple and green. They are obviously loving the lousy summer and have gone bonkers over the last few weeks with a profusion of blue flowers. Somewhere nearby there must be a hive full of sage flavoured honey as at any one time there are half a dozen bees at the flowers.

We will have it all with new potatoes and green beans and a plateful of salad. I might try and dig out Moondance to listen to.

Aubergine puree with garlic and yogurt

One day I am going to sit myself down and write a book of recipes of all the things I cook from the vegetables and fruit I buy from the grocers on Oxton Road. There will be a large section on tomatoes and what to do with the boxes they sell for £2.99. Another section will be given over the bags on the 50p shelf, past their best, but now a bargain and difficult to resist. But the largest part of the book will be devoted to the aubergine, the various different ways of cooking it, how to avoid it soaking up too much olive oil (soaking in milk I read the other day) and the endless variety of recipes that are available from the Middle East.

One of my favourite is a puree made with garlic and yogurt. One way or other I have been doing this for 17 years – the first time I did it was for the party I had for my 30th birthday. Most recently I did it last weekend on Saturday night when a large dollop of the puree was placed in the middle of a bowl of tomato soup.

So – roast 3 aubergines. You are best doing this over a barbeque. But if it not lit they will do just as well under a hot grill. Remember to prick them otherwise they may burst. Don’t be timid with the heat. The skin should be charred. Turn them every so often until they feel soft and giving to the press of your fingers. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.

Whilst they are cooling take a large bowl and crush some cloves of garlic with sea salt in the bottom of the bowl. I use a wooden pestle to do this. The number of cloves will depend on how aggressive you like your garlic.

Take each aubergine and slit the skin with a knife. Use a spoon to scoop out the flesh adding this to the bowl with the garlic. Stir the aubergine into the garlic – again using the wooden pestle to form a smooth puree. Add about one third of a tub of Total Greek Yogurt (500gr) and a good glug of olive oil. Stir until all well amalgamated. Check for seasoning and if necessary add salt and pepper. It is now ready to eat.

Cheese, Bantry Market and a perfect lunch

Bantry had become a fairy-tale place, the sort you could talk about but never reach. When they had first come to Reenmore they were always saying “When we go to Bantry”. But in the last weeks no one had mentioned it. It was a splendid idea to go to Bantry.
It was – always allowing for the terror of driving with Aunt Dymphna – a lovely ride into Bantry. It was impossible to believe it was the same journey which had so terrified them on the night they had arrived. It was an unlucky day to have chosen to go to Bantry for there had been a fair so they continually met cattle being driven to new homes.
“Fools!” Aunt Dymphna roared at the men in charge as, without slowing down, she zigzagged her Austin round bullocks. “Leave those creatures to look after themselves. Never interfere, they have more sense than you have.”
Every house and cottage had a dog on the watch that afternoon who dashed out at the car. The children were of course ready for them and hung out of the windows yelling, “We’re going to Bantry,” and as usual the system worked.
The Growing Summer by Noel Streatfield
Noel Streatfield, the author of Ballet Shoes, stayed at the Cottage as a guest of Lady Rachel Leigh-White during the 1960’s.  According to the cottage log these were the days before water and electricity were fitted and I suspect there was “help” in The Butter House, the small white house opposite, leaving the two ladies to sit out and watch the water and weather and go fishing for the occasional lobster.
The Growing Summer deals with the experiences of four children from London obliged to spend a summer with their eccentric Great-Aunt Dymphna in West Cork. The children are left to fend for themselves and the book deals with their dismay at this, having to find and cook eggs, and then tells of how they cope. The story is of their experiences and the understanding they come to with their Aunt and the place.
Towards the end of the book the children go on a trip to Bantry to buy presents. The journey would not have been so different then from the journey we take now. There are more houses and cars on the roads, less cattle and the dogs don’t come rushing out to bark at all the cars that go past. But the farmhouses that stood then are still there and the curve shape and bend of the hills and road are the same with the ever-present blue grey of the water of both Dunmanus and Bantry Bays in the background. I hope that Aunt Dymphna’s route took the children over to the north side of the Sheep’s Head where there is a greater distance between the farmhouses and the road rolls and twists giving over to a view of the complete bulk of Bantry Bay and Glengarriff sinking into the mist on the horizon.
Bantry can be unprepossessing, but on a Friday there is a market and amongst the tractor seats, the chain saws, spanners and plastic toys there will be an old man with big bent hands and an old grey jacket, trousers tucked into his dirty boots, selling some rough looking chickens out of a cardboard box.  For a large part of the market there are no stalls but simply people who appear to have spent the evening before rummaging in a shed and have produced the contents for sale. Last year I picked up a black and battered frying pan which does well for bread and will do for my next paella on a beach and this year an original Penguin in its orange cover of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, the black phoenix rising on the front.
Moving up to the head of Wolfe Tone Square, past the fortune teller’s caravan, the cheap watches and tapes of Irish music the atmosphere starts to change, there is a greengrocer, ladies selling cakes, a Frenchman making crepes, a stall selling handmade soap and another selling sweets and on the corner of the Square, opposite the Information Centre, a stall selling fish, langoustines by the kilo, good fresh piles of fish still glistening with the sea, monkfish, hake and brill, a knobbly turbot and expensive black sole. Stand in the queue for fifteen or twenty minutes and listen to the chat, smart ladies come specially to buy the fish and ask anxiously to make sure he will be there the following week and what he will have, watch as the man slices and fillets and don’t forget to ask for a bag of bones when you buy your fish to make up a stock for fish soup.
And it is then into the food part of the market proper. There are three or four regulars amongst them including two food heroes, be it by Rick Stein or anyone’s definition.
Frank Krawcsyk, dark bushy beard and well worn Slow Food apron, “the sausage man”, always used to be on the corner next to the fish man, but this last year his stall had moved up the High Street. Of course they are more than sausages. They are probably the best sausages to be had in the whole of Ireland. They are all made by Mr Krawcsyk along with the pates and rillete, brawn and chocolate cake that he sells. He is a one man band and because of the rules that surround the availability of food for public consumption he is only able to sell at the farmers market, from a stand barely bigger than a Punch’n’Judy theatre, and to a few brave restaurants. Most of his living is made from what he sells at the two or three farmers markets he goes to each week which does not leave much time for making the sausages and other food that he sells. Talk to him for a while and he will tell you of the battles he has had with the authorities to be allowed to continue selling his sausages (these are the best sausages in Ireland!) and the difficulties there are in making it pay. This is despite numerous newspaper and magazine articles extolling the virtues of what he makes and how he goes about it and Rick Stein labelling him one of the top Food Heroes. There is something heroic in the dedication to the cause of good food and sausages that brings him there. For the last couple of years he has been organising full day demonstrations; an opportunity go to where he works and watch as he uses every single part of a pg to produce a huge range of pork delicacies. No doubt a fine day out for all.
So there you have it, someone making good solid food, some of the best that can be had, slowly being forced away from what he does by the strictures, that largely come from a misplaced paranoia around the production of food. The same strictures that give rise to the cheap tasteless chicken that fills the supermarket shelves, and encourages food so long as it is neatly wrapped up, easily dealt with, clean and safe.
So go along to his stall and ask a few questions; taste his sausages and salamis, the rich fatty peppery flat taste on the tongue; unctuous rillette, either pork or duck, the meat cooked slowly in its own fat and then shredded and mixed with flavourings to be spread on hard bread. When you have chewed and tasted buy a selection, each wrapped and carefully weighed.
Next is the stall from the Real Olive Oil Company from the English Market in Cork, always on the corner on the left leading up the High Street. Eight or so half barrels filled with olives in all varieties and colours, the differing shades of green, smooth and black, black wrinkled, brown and purple and green again, spiced with lemon, garlic and chilli and the best flecked with orange nasturtium flowers. More barrels of creamy fresh feta and mozzarella and others with artichokes, vine leaves stuffed with rice, and dried tomatoes soaked in olive oil, big, fat Greek butter beans cooked with tomato. And next to them plain unadorned bottles of half a dozen different types of olive oil from Spain, Italy and France, baskets of fat garlic, glass jars filled with smoked almonds, pine nuts and pistachios, baskets of purple lavender flowers.
There is always an awkward queue around the stall, regulars, there every week with chat and putting themselves to the front. Tourists amazed at all this there in Bantry and eager to buy but not sure of the pecking order and me buying too much because it is all there; greasy bags of olives to take back to the Cottage and try to eat over the next seven days before the market is there again.
Move up the High Street and the next stall is selling cheese. 
Jane Grigson had all this to say on Irish cheese in 1984.
Thinking that Ireland was short of cheese, I brought one over from T’yn Grug for the Allens at Ballymaloe. They were politely grateful, but I need not have bothered. Their Sunday evening table was covered with Irish cheeses. Later in Dublin, in the cheese shop of the Powerscourt Townhouse market, the first thing I saw as I walked in was a row of them – cheese from Milleens; soft goats’ cheeses from Wendy and Brian Macdonald in Wicklow and so on.
We went to visit Veronica and Norman Steele on the north side of the Beara Peninsula at Milleens. Rhododendrons and thick greenery at first, pines and glimpses of water. At Dareen gardens, a coast road turns off right down past the cottage where the fish producing O’Connors live. A creek runs in at that point, a path goes down to their boat and in the distance their shellfish rafts rest on the sea; we thought of dinner to come at Kenmare, with their mussels, their oysters and, above all, their sea urchins.
On to Milleens. A flaming car in the middle of the road watched by the sad owner and his parents. No one in sight, village two miles away. Gradually people emerge from nowhere, ambling along, chatting, drawn to the smoke and flames. At last, we get by.
We struggle up the right stony muddied lane and we find two philosophers in Wellington boots, teacher and pupil, both young, turned herdsman and cheesemaker and not regretting it. Straight off the lane, you step up into the orderly, sweet – smelling cheese room, the dairy. Then into the living – room where cheeses were set out on a long table, with a long bench and a view over the sea, over the great inlet like some Galician ria that jags in to the town of Kenmare on this rough shredded fringe of Ireland.
The Steeles began in 1978 with one cow, three gallons of milk a day. Now they have twelve friesians, two kerries and fifty gallons of milk a day. They make two kinds of cheese, Beara which is a cooked curd cheese, a big yellowish cheese, and the flatter Milleens. They export all over the place, to Germany, America and England. With one helper, they have a business they can manage, a life they like – but they could sell ten times as much.
They are keen to spread the idea of Irish cheese. With the chairman, Patrick Berridge, they are amongst the most active members of the Irish Cheese Producers’ Association, which is now thirty strong. Veronica Steele has no craft secrets, but passes everything on that she can.

The stall has a dozen cheeses for sale, all made locally,  all made within a 30 mile radius of where I was standing; Durrus, Milleen, Gubbeen, Gabriel, Desmond and others such as Carrigbyrne and Cashel. The cheeses benefiting from the thick wet air which makes the grass green and creates the atmosphere for the moulds which do so much to add flavour to cheese as it blooms and ripens.
Durrus Cheese made in the hills on the back-road from Durrus to Bantry up behind the churches. Drive up around there and you will come across a battered sign for the farmhouse. The cheese is made by Jeffa Gill since 1979 when she started with a large pan on the farm kitchen stove using milk from her eight cows. It is a rind washed semi-soft non pasteurised cow’s milk farmhouse cheese; whilst it matures selected moulds on the rind contribute to its colour of yellow and a hint of coral pink.
If you have time, and sufficient appetite, it is worth shopping around for some different ‘best before’ dates to give you an idea of how differences can occur within the same type or make of cheese. Each different date will mean that the cheese has aged for another week or so and will also mean that the cheese will take on the slight variations that come from the quality of the grass, the time of year and the amount of rain that has fallen.
Durrus is perhaps the pre-eminent cheese from Cork. It is the one cheese that can sometimes be seen in a good deli in England and so it is possible to buy it outside of Ireland if you look hard enough. But each summer there is a real thrill in pulling the familiar greaseproof paper off the first round of Durrus and putting your nose to the heady aroma of good fresh cheese.
But the best smell is the first whiff of a well used farmyard, cow shit and rotting grass, that comes from a Gubbeen; the unmistakeable waft of greenery freshly turned to manure.
When I had thoughts of opening a deli concentrating on the sale of cheese from West Cork I invited myself to Gubbeen farmhouse in anticipation that soon I would be doing great business with them taking the cheese and the other good foodstuffs of West Cork to of the plates of Birkenhead. I introduced myself to Fingal Ferguson at the Farmers Market in Schull and got a mobile number from him and the half suggestion that I should come along to the farmhouse. 
Gubbeen cheese is made by Gianna Ferguson from the milk that comes from the cows that have fed off the grass from the land the Fergusons have farmed for five generations. She has been making the cheese since 1973 spurred on by the example set by Milleen.  Son, Fingal was born in 1975 and has, it seems, always been  experimenting and messing about with sausages although it is only over the last few years that the business has become more serious, almost over the time we have been coming to the farmer’s market in Bantry and have watched as the Gubbeen stall has increased in size as the range of produce for sale has grown.
The farmhouse is on the coast road out of Schull. I am not sure if I could find it now. Drive out of Schull there is an old road sign, still working in miles, that takes you left to Goleen along the coast road. Spend time in West Cork and visit a few places and you start to realise that off the main roads there are all the smaller roads that lead to unexpected places hidden totally away from the rest of the world. I had been told that the farmhouse was a certain distance on the left going down the road. Of course I missed the left turn, losing track of the miles and turns to and fro to before I found myself driving up what could only be the drive to the farmhouse.
The place was idyllic. A large farmhouse bathed in sun and the surrounding countryside. I was able to find Fingal from the sound of music coming from one of sheds (all articles I have reads about the place mention the music – the first time I bought something off the stall from …who served me had a couple of Johnny Cash albums he had picked up from the market – a very solid start to a relationship!) and despite being busy and my lack of credentials he showed me round. At the time I really believed I was on the cusp of making the break that would lead to my opening up of my own food shop specialising in the cheeses and food of West Cork. Looking back now there is a tinge of guilt from the assurances I gave that I was not some fly by night hopeful on a dream of living the life. Five years down the line I have still not made the break and sometimes I wonder how much hope still lingers … but back to the idyll… I was taken on a romp through the farmhouse to see the pigs, the rooms where the cheeses were stacked up ready to mature, into the dense black treacly beauty of the smoke room and a wander back past Clovis’ garden where the herbs and salads are taken for The Good Things Café. Fingal talking all the time about his mother the cheese, the fattening of the pigs, using Jane Grigson’s recipes for his sausages and the difficulties of getting things right so as to be able to sell this food to the public.
Gubbeen always have a stall to themselves at the market. There are variations of the cheese that come smoked and aged. There is a danger with smoked cheese the smokiness overpowers but they manage to avoid this. They keep the smoking gentle so that it simply adds another layer of flavour rather than being the flavour. The old cheese is harder and more full-bodied. They also sell the full selection of sausages, salamis, chorizo, venison flavoured with red wine and brandy cured and smoked meats, bacon smoked and unsmoked, some flavoured with maple syrup, made from the pigs fed on the whey left over from the cheese.
Milleen  is made on that part of the Beara Peninsula that is part of Cork. We have never been onto the Beara. It is a massive lump of rock stuck out into the Atlantic. Looking it over from the hills of the Sheep’s Head it always looks empty and dark, heavy and forbidding. As you can tell from the extract from Jane Grigson, Milleen was one of the first Irish cheeses to come through. It started as a process of trial and error which culminated in the evening one of the cheeses was wrapped up and sent to a local restaurant where it was the highlight of the evening. From that beginning it is now one of the holy three cheeses that also includes Durrus and Gubbeen.
It is a soft cheese with a yellow almost pink rind. Veronica Steele talks of the climate and the 100% humidity that mean that moulds rather than bacteria are the determining factor in giving flavour to the cheese.
And then we bought a farm and a cow. Her name was Brisket and she only had one horn. She lost the other one gadding down a hill. tail-waving, full of the joys of Spring. Her brakes must have failed. We had to put Stockholm tar on the hole right through the hot Summer. And all the milk she had. At least three gallons a day. Wonder of wonders and what to do with it all. And then remembering those marvelous cheddars. So for two years I made cheddars. They were never as good as the ones in Castletownbere had been but they were infinitely better than the sweaty vac-packed bits. Very little control at first but each failed batch spurred me on to achieve, I was hooked. Once I had four little cheddars on a sunny windowsill outside, airing themselves and Prince, the dog, stole them and buried them in the garden. They were nasty and sour and over salted anyway. Those were the days.
So one day Norman said, ‘Why don’t you try making a soft cheese for a change’. So I did. It was a quare hawk alright. Wild, weird, and wonderful. Never to be repeated. You can never step twice into the same stream. Now while this was all going on we had a mighty vegetable garden full of fresh spinach and courgette’s and french beans, and little peas, and all the sorts of things you couldn’t buy in a shop for love or money. And we would sell the superfluity to a friend who was a chef in a restaurant and took great pains with her ingredients. She would badger the fishermen for the pick of their catch and come on a Monday morning with her sacks to root through our treasure house of a garden for the freshest and the bestest. Now I was no mean cook myself and would have ready each Monday for her batches of yogurt, plain and choc-nut, quiches, game pies (Made with hare and cream – beautiful), pork pies, all adorned with pastry leaves and rosettes as light and delicious as you can imagine, and fish pies, and, my specialty, gateau St Honore – those were the days.
So there was this soft cheese beginning to run. We wrapped up about twelve ounces of it and away it went with the vegetables and the pies and all the other good things to Sneem and the Blue Bull restaurant where it made its debut. Not just any old debut, because, as luck would have it, guess who was having dinner there that very same night? Attracted no doubt by Annie’s growing reputation and being a pal of the manager’s, Declan Ryan of the Arbutus Lodge Hotel in Cork had ventured forth to sample the delights of Sneem and the greatest delight of them all just happened to be our humble cheese . The first, the one and only, Irish Farmhouse Cheese. At last, the real thing after so long. Rumor has it that there was a full eclipse of the Sun and earth tremors when the first Milleens was presented on an Irish cheese board.
Planning the deli I sent out emails to all of the cheese producers listed above together with anyone else to do with food in West Cork; very few of them responded, but then they probably get lots of emails from people who have little or no idea of what they are doing but do know that they want to open up a deli in Birkenhead selling Irish cheese. I did get a response from a nice lady on the Beara who was happy to sell me her honey and I also got a response from Bill Hogan who makes Desmond and Jesmond cheese. He said he would be more than happy to sell me some of their cheese and thought that he could probably put some in the post to me, particularly if the cheeses were sent over out of the summer months.
The two cheese are different from most of the other Cork cheeses being hard, Swiss type cheeses which make a good substitute for Parmesan.
So what makes the perfect lunch.
Having bought a selection of cheeses, sausages and pate, take them all home. Send somebody up to the pub for a couple of pints of Murphy’s. Unwrap the cheeses and set them out on a large wooded cheese board. Ideally this needs to be done an hour or so before your are due to eat. Slice up the sausages from Gubbeen and Frank Krawczyk and arrange neatly on a plate. Take everything else out of its bag and wrapper, the olives, some spiced and hot with chilli, others mixed with mouth puckering lemon, a couple of artichoke hearts cut into quarters, vine leaves stuffed with rice, small red peppers stuffed with a light tuna paste, a bowl of creamy Greek butter beans mixed with creamier feta, and put on a selection of the china blue dishes. Cut up the tomatoes you have bought from the organic veg stall and put on a plate, sprinkling them with a drop of oil, salt and pepper, and perhaps a very few thin  slices of garlic, wash the salad and put in a bowl, chop up the bread and take it all out to the table in the corner. Send the somebody back up to the pub with the empty glasses for a refill and sit down in the sun to eat the food. The sun is not essential, so long as it is dry eat outside with friends and family enjoying the grey waters of the bay as they move against the wind and sky.
Before going to Ireland I knew nothing about its food. My good eating holidays had been in France, Spain and Italy. I worried about Ireland because I thought that whilst the holiday would be great I would have to miss out on the good food. But over the years, and perhaps because the food had to be found and then appreciated, it became apparent that on the doorstep in Cork there was readily available a whole host of good food.
And it is the cheese that seems to form the basis and is then the inspiration for all that is available. This idea summed up by Gubbeen – from grass to cattle to milk to cheese and whey to pigs and herbs to cured meat.
…and the music, well Christy Moore used to live in the hills behind the Cottage and he complimented the somebody once on “the precious load” being carried from the pub… so some Christy Moore in the kitchen .