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Kevin Myers: We are blessed with wonderful raw foodstuffs. Enjoy them for therein lies a certain road to recovery
ian o b
IT was an average Irish April morning. Hail and rain lashed my car, as if it was a mutineer tied to a mainmast, while a raging inland-sea washed across the N7 near Citywest. On BBC 'Women's Hour', Rachel Allen was urging her listeners to buy Irish butter.
With time to kill, I popped into the Avoca Handweavers craftshop and restaurant, and was soon eating a superb early lunch. Avoca has prospered throughout the recession, simply because its food is always outstanding. And it struck me while I happily feasted there, how very much better things are these days, and how luck0y we remain, despite all our stupidity and our greed; and much of this improvement is due to the Allens.
It's 26 years since Myrtle Allen rose at the inaugural meeting in Brussels of European chefs, Eurotoque, and electrified them with her talk of the need to return to basics. Turning to the organising committee, she pointed scornfully at the capsules of condensed milk that had been served with the coffee: "How dare you do this at such a gathering? Have you absolutely NO sense of why we are here?" Translators paled before her wrath: thesauruses were plundered to capture her rage: a broken food-commissioner impaled himself on the nearest Delors. Myrtle's husband Ivan merely smiled serenely.
The almost totally-forgotten Ivan was the founder of the great dynasty: the Allen key. The embodiment of the strong silent male, his forte was growing vegetables. He did so in an era in which most Irish people boiled cabbages for an hour, or turned carrots into an orange pus, and Irish cooking was to cuisine what Joe Stalin was to human rights. Not content with a famine when there was no food, we apparently had to create one when it was plentiful: children with rickets, in a sea of vitamins. So if there is to be a human start-point to the revolution in Irish cuisine, let it be with the modest, stoic Ivan, who knew his onions.
He married the wondrous Myrtle Hill, his great and glorious and irresistible wife (and now widow), who always acknowledged her debt to him. And their son Tim in turn married Darina O'Connell, whose son Isaac married Rachel O'Neill, who became Rachel Allen: and in that Ballymaloe DNA you can see much of the evolution of Irish cooking into what it is today. Let us honour other great women too: the late Maureen Gilletlie, of Hunters' Hotel in Wicklow, Veronica Steele, the pioneer cheesemaker of Cork, who inspired so many of our brilliant Irish cheeses, Phena O'Boyle, who pioneered the campaign for Irish seafood, and Georgina O'Sullivan of Bord Bia, later the culinary dynamo behind the legendary Ballymore Inn.
That electric November morning 26 years ago, Myrtle spoke of the vital need to respect the raw bounty of the Irish countryside. And this is what we actually now do, far more so than we did then. Yes, I know you don't visit this space to hear boundless, gibbering enthusiasm: you come in search of misanthropic spleen and columnar curmudgeonliness. But sometimes, I must reveal the Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm that is my true inner-self.
Our often ghastly weather is actually extraordinarily good at producing luscious grass, and when that grass is fully grown it is called lamb-cutlets or roast beef, or Cashel Blue or Kerrygold, and these have the beating of any meat or cheese or butter, anywhere.
First-class restaurants have emerged in the most improbable places. The Brown Bear, in Two Mile House in Kildare, offers superb, authentic French cuisine at absurdly low prices. The Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, Waterford, has a sensationally good restaurant that is easily superior in terms of both food and service -- bear with me here, please, for this is how I choose to spend my money -- to any of the score of Michelin-starred restaurants in which I have eaten in France. And finally, Irish pub food in places like the Lord Bagenal in Leighlinbridge in Carlow is invariably excellent in quality and value.
However, an appallingly ignorant phobia has recently gripped the Irish people. It is a fear of the fat in meat. Get this into your fat head. The fat in meat is not the reason for the epidemic of obesity. We were eating fat in meat when people were healthy and thin. Eating animal fat does not make you obese. No: it's that toxic diet of carbohydrates and sugars -- as in those evilly misleading "low fat" cereals -- which causes obesity. The body converts these into fat, which it lodges in your various bottoms, chins and bellies. The marbling or edging of fat in meat not merely does NOT make you overweight, but adds the essential flavours. You should DEMAND fat in your meat from your butchers, and then lustily devour it, for having made you happy, it will then mostly pass on, undigested.
We are blessed with really wonderful raw foodstuffs in Ireland. Enjoy them, for in that great food, lies just one certain road to recovery.
(A happy column for once; he must be back on the bottle).
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