Sunday, 3 August 2014

Love whorts

Lughnasa (31 July-1 August) is one of the more obscure traditional festivals in Ireland. It leaves very little trace on our collective unconscious, unlike Samhain and Imbolc, which continue to be celebrated as Hallowe'en and St. Brigid's Day respectively. Lughnasa is a more mysterious beast altogether.

The traditions surrounding the event are recounted in Máire MacNeill's seminal work The Festival of Lughnasa. Named after Lugh, a Celtic god of the Tuatha Dé Danann, it was the occasion for feasting, matchmaking and feats of strength and valour at the elaborate Óenach Tailtenn, the legendary games of Tailtiu.

Little remains today of the magnificent celebrations which once surrounded Lughnasa. The Sunday beforehand has long been known as 'Garland Sunday' or 'Reek Sunday'. Today, it is best known as the day when thousands of pilgrims climb Croagh Patrick in County Mayo. In the past, young people would climb hills and pick 'whorts' (whortleberries, also known as 'huckleberries' in the United States). This was a common name given to the wild blueberry or Vaccinium myrtillus, which was also called the bilberry or fraughan (fraochán). These would be baked into a pie or made into a garland as a gift from a girl to her admirer.

This year on Reek Sunday I went on a hike in the Dublin Mountains with the hope of finding these wild berries. As my trusty Collins Gem Food for Free guidebook, written by foraging legend Richard Mabey states: 'Widespread and locally abundant on heaths and moors... The shrub grows low, often largely concealed by dense heather', I feared that I might be on a fools errant. Nevertheless, as it was a beautiful, sunny day, I was looking forward to an enjoyable hike in the mountains in the fresh air.

I won't divulge the exact location of the hill, but it was a fairly energetic walk and it was only by chance that I found a cluster of whort bushes at the crest of the hill. Suffice to say that I was overjoyed. The first taste of the berry is something to remember; they are sweet and tangy like blackberries. To my taste, they are nicer than the cultivated variety.

I found this recipe for blueberry sponge cake, replacing the usual blueberries with my foraged wild whorts.

The cake turned out to be a delicious, perfect with vanilla ice-cream and shared amongst loved ones as a fine way to celebrate Reek Sunday. Happy Lughnasa!


Monday, 7 July 2014

Summer and the Elderflower

In Ireland, we are coming to the end of our elderflower season. For a few precious weeks in June and July, roadsides and hedgerows are alive with a profusion of white blossoms from the elderberry tree (Sambucus nigra).

We will have to wait a few more months before the harvest of juicy black berries are ready to be made into jams, jellies and syrups. In the meantime, the elderflower can be turned into a number of different and delicious recipes.

I had never picked elderflowers before. Like many people, I never saw their use as an ingredient. Though not as multipurpose as the berry, I found a number of recipes to experiment with. After harvesting a bumper crop from along the banks of the Royal Canal in Dublin, I decided to try my spin on some recipes I found online.

The first of these was Elderflower Pancakes. After washing the elderflower heads, I pulled the heads into small branches. I made an ordinary pancake batter; my favourite recipe is as follows:

100g white spelt flour
300g Avonmore Lactose-free milk
1 large organic free range egg
Add elderflower branches to taste

The taste is somewhat sharp and a little acrid, so I recommend serving with honey or syrup. I had mind with Crowe's Organic Bacon and fresh Irish strawberries.

Another handy use for elderflower is Elderflower Cordial:

15-20 elderflower heads
300g caster sugar
3-4 lemons 
600ml water

Wash elderflower heads and remove petals. Melt sugar in boiling water and add syrup to elderflower petals. Add lemon juice leave overnight to infuse and pour into sterilised bottles. Store in fridge for up to six weeks.

Elderflower cordial can be used to make delicious desserts such as elderflower and lemon sorbet. It can also be added to lemon juice, club soda and ice and garnished with mint for a refreshing summer drink.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Why saving seeds might save our food future

It seems fair to say that most of us don't give much of a thought to where our future food supply will come from. In the relative privilege of the Western world, we waste food in appalling amounts, secure in the knowledge that there will always be more. We have cut ourselves off from the sources of our food, selecting the choicest cuts of pre-cleaned, pre-packaged and pre-processed meat, grains and vegetables, not sparing a thought for the labour and resources involved in their production, or what happens to the stuff we don't use. We have been conditioned to expect a neverending supply of food, which has contributed to an unprecedented rise of obesity in Europe. On the other end of the scale is the widespread scourge of malnutrition, which is the largest single contributer to childhood mortality in the world.

We feel safe from such problems, and why wouldn't we? There's always a Tesco, or a Supervalu, or a Dunnes Stores open nearby when we need to nip out for a bottle of milk or a sliced pan. It seems impossible to imagine that issues like peak oil and global warming might impact our shores, but the warnings are dire. Climate change will undoubtedly alter the hydrologic cycle, which has the potential to irrevocably undermine food security.

Earlier this year, the EU implemented a new directive entitled 'On the production and making available on the market of plant reproductive material (plant reproductive material law)', which aims to limit the sale of unlicenced seeds. The consequences of this law are frightening. It threatens biodiversity and the large variety of vegetables and fruits that are available by decreasing the number of heritage seeds in circulation. Large seed producers will benefit over small co-operatives, farmers and gardeners, many of whom rely on sharing seeds which might fall outside the EU's strict definitions.

Due to lobbying by food campaigners, a last-minute loophole was placed into the directive:

Article 14(1) shall not apply to plant reproductive material where all of the following conditions are fulfilled:
(a) it is made available on the market in small quantities by persons other than professional operators, or by professional operators employing no more than ten persons and whose annual turnover or balance sheet total does not exceed EUR 2 million;
(b) it is labelled with the indication 'niche market material'. 
At first glance this looks like a success, but the since when did our collective seed heritage and future biodiversity become 'niche'? Surely, this is something that effects everyone.

Irish Seed Savers is a non-governmental organisation that was founded in 1991 in order to maintain a bank of traditional Irish seed varieties, many of which are not commercially available. Thanks to the insertion of the above mentioned codicle, this group would not seem to be threatened by the EU directive. However, this law is part of a larger pattern, one which threatens the campaign to preserve our seed heritage. Recently, Irish Seed Savers announced that cuts in necessary grants from the Department of Agriculture have endangered their ability to continue to function. This is a damning indictment of the Government's attitude towards our future food security.

It's time for us, growers and consumers alike, to understand the role we have to play. Reducing the obscene amount of food that we wast is one crucial step. Tesco has just pledged to amend their current wasteful policies which mean that 40% of the apples on display end up being thrown out,  and just under half of bakery items are discarded. We also have to change the way we look at food. Fruit and vegetables that aren't visually attractive never make it into the stores, often ending up being dumped or fed to animals. Public pressure on supermarkets to stop these wasteful practices is the only way to get them to budge.

We also have to realise that preserving seeds, whether from vegetables bought in the supermarket - tomatoes peppers, potato tubers, apples and so on - or from the plants that we grow, is an important step in guaranteeing our own food independence. Nothing less than our own survival is at stake.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Indigenous Irish bread

Bread is referred to as the 'staff of life' and so it is in Ireland, where bread has been an integral part of the national diet for millenia. In early Irish law, wheat meal was the most highly prized type of flour. Because Irish wheat was traditionally low in protein and gluten, yeast never played a role in traditional Irish bread-making. Irish bread seems to have been unleavened until relatively recently. In the 19th century, bicarbonate of soda first became available, creating the most quintessential Irish bread - soda bread.

Buttermilk left over from churning is an essential part of soda bread. The lactic acid contained within it reacts with the bicarbonate of soda to create carbon dioxide bubbles. Unlike yeast bread, this method does not require kneading. As well as the savoury loaf, sweetened fruit breads such as barmbrack can be made using raisins, sultanas and spices. Types of griddle cake known as soda farls are popular in Ulster, where bread dough is flattened into a circular shape before being cut into four pieces and fried on a dry pan.

Though soda bread is the most recognisable form of Irish bread, there are a number of yeast breads associated with Ireland. The changeover from soda to yeast can be credited to (or blamed on) the Irish Yeast Company, run out of an unassuming and rather tumbledown building in College Street in Dublin. It was started in 1890 and supplied many of the bakeries in Ireland with yeast for much of the 20th century. This period saw a transformation from soda baking to yeast, which was imported from England. During this time, a range of new bread recipes appeared which have become inextricably linked with Irish cuisine. Ireland has also been beset with an epidemic of caeliac disease, probably due to the modern addiction to high-protein, high-gluten white flour, imported from countries like Germany and Canada.
Batch bread - also known as turnover loaf - is characterised by is fluffy, chewy texture and hard baked brown crust. It gets its name from the tradition of baking it in batches, and the cutting the loaves up after baking. This resulted in the bread having a crunchy, crumbly crust on top, but not on the sides.

The turnover loaf is differentiated from batch bread by its boot-like shape and was particularly associated with Dublin. In Thomas Street there were bakeries which specialised in turnover loaves - a testment to its popularity with the Dublin clientele. Many Irish children remember eating it spread with butter and sprinkled with sugar as a particular treat.

Blaa is a white roll which is particularly associated with Waterford. It resembles a bap, except that it is square in shape and has a characteristic chewy consistency and crunchy exterior. They can be eaten plain with butter or with any kind of sandwich filling, or as a breakfast roll.

The Woodstock Café in Phibsborough occasionally serves a burger with a blaa as burger bun. While the origin of the blaa is disputed, it has become a staple Waterford export, and part of a growing appreciation for the indigenous bread of Ireland.

Monday, 10 June 2013

The search for the guilt-free sausage

Since the end of my decade-long flirtation with vegetarianism over a year ago, it seems fair to say that I've become something of a meat-freak. With the zeal of a true convert, I began to enjoy bacon and beef once more, secure in the knowledge that Irish meat was - on the whole - safer and less ethically shady than meat produced some other countries. (Let's skip over the whole horsemeat scandal for a second.) Abstaining from meat was a health choice, rather than a moral one, so my decision to backslide into carnivorism was due - among other reasons - to my interest in Ireland's indigenous food culture.

However, as someone concerned with what she eats, and anxious to promote a sustainable food economy, I can no longer deny that eating meat is a potentially unsafe practice. Let's not kid ourselves, if you're eating meat in this country, it's likely you've been eating animals fed on GM grain. According to GM-Free Ireland, Ireland is the EU's highest importer of genetically modified animal feed.

The stealthy creep of GM feed into our diets has been ongoing for years. A huge boon to the GM campaign in Ireland was the Irish Government's go-ahead to Teagasc's field trial of GM potatoes. This has been accompanied by the media's mindless parroting of biotech PR (complete with distasteful evocations of the Famine). Public ignorance and apathy concerning the issue has been encouraged by the deep pockets of biotechnology companies which has helped fund a ceaseless barrage of pro-GM propaganda in the media.   

What has been less widely talked about is the fact that something like 80% of the world's animal feed supply comes from genetically modified maize and soya. Due to EU legislation, it is not required to label products derived from GMO feedstuffs. Many supermarkets believe that complying with these regulations is sufficient to allay people's justifiable concerns about GM. In a recent correspondence with Superquinn's Customer Service Co-ordinator concerning their meat labelling policy, I received the following response:

'Superquinn operates a robust traceability system and has led the way in assuring our customers of the safety of our food products for many years. All of our meat is of Irish origin, operating to strict standards endorsed by the Bord Bia quality assurance scheme. All of our products are clearly labelled and we have a GM policy that all our supplier comply [sic] with. All of our products comply with EU GM labelling requirements.'

As a result, large sections of the public believe that the food they eat is GMO-free, whereas much of the time it is nothing of the sort. The claim by GMO supporters that animals fed on GM feed are safe for human consumption is in serious doubt. As the report 'GMO Myths and Truths' shows, not only is GM feed detectable in the animals that consume it, it has been shown to survive in the blood of pregnant women who consume it, as well as the blood supply to their foetuses.

How can we avoid consuming meat tainted by GM? Well, we can avoid eating meat altogether. Vegetarianism is still a safe option in Ireland, where GM crops are not currentlygrown (apart from Teagasc's ridiculous experiment). If you are unwilling to take that route, then contact your meat supplier, whether it is your local butcher, supermarket or farm. Demand clearer labelling so that you can choose whether or not you want to eat meat raised on GM feed. Contact the government and let them know that GM feed is not acceptable, that claims of traceability and transparency must include the feed that animals are reared on.

In the meantime, organic meat seems to be the safest option. The growth of organic meat over the last decade has meant that organic beef and chicken are growing more freely available. However, suppliers of non-GM pork in Ireland seem be rarer than hen's teeth. It helps to know your farmer, as they will be able to tell you where they source their feed. Unfortunately for those who live in Dublin, John Downey's Organic Butchers in Terenure no longer supply organic sausages. Luckily, Coolanowle Meat Suppliers in Carlow supply organic pork, lamb, beef and chicken. You can order online, or if you are slightly scared of their delivery charges, you can catch them on Sundays in Dún Laoghaire Food Market.

Their sausages can vary in taste quality. The first time I tried them, they were delicious, but the second time I was slightly disappointed. However, their bacon, white pudding and diced lamb are second to none.

If you think organic meat is too expensive in these times, well, I would suggest that good health and peace of mind are worth paying a little extra for.

Friday, 29 March 2013

In praise of Ardrahan

Ardrahan is a semi-soft, washed-rind cheese. It has been produced by the Burns family on their farm in Kanturk, Co. Cork since the 1980's. It has a mild, nutty flavour that favours those like myself, for whom soft cheeses can be a bit stinky and uninviting. Ardrahan is made from vegetarian rennet and contains only 25% fat, which lessens the guilt I feel when scoffing it.

I first fell in love with it last Christmas, when I tried them spread over Digestive biscuits. The sweetness of the biscuits and the slight saltiness of the cheese was just heaven. I have also discovered that it goes wonderfully in omelettes, such as this one that I discovered today:

  • 5 free range eggs
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 2 medium potatoes
  • handful of spinach
  • splash of milk
  • seasoning
  • Ardrahan cheese to taste
Preheat oven to 200C. Mix eggs and milk and season. Fry the onions in a little olive oil until soft. Add potatoes and soften, followed by the spinach for a few seconds. Add the egg mixture and the cheese and place in the oven for 10 minutes.

The omelette is deliciously fluffy and creamy - the Ardrahan adding a nice savoury contrast to the eggs - and has become my all-time favourite omelette recipe.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The horsemeat scandal and the future of the meat industry

The horsemeat scandal rumbles on, with revelations that food producers Nestlé and Bird's Eye have joined Findus in recalling beef products found positive for containing horse meat. Despite these companies playing down the food safety implications of the issue, the controversy seems to widen every day, drawing in increasing numbers of food suppliers. This furore has raised alarming questions about the safety of meat products and the trustworthiness of major producers, in addition to animal welfare issues.

The scandal has swept across Europe, affecting countries like France, Italy and Germany. The latter country seems to view the issue less seriously than others; its Development Minister Dirk Niebel suggesting that the tainted meat be given to the poor. His comment that 'We can't just throw away good food' underlines a fundamental misunderstanding around this matter, that it is just a few regulatory authorities getting in a tizzy over mislabelling. The human health implications are disturbing. While there is nothing inherently unsafe about consuming horsemeat, the animals involved were not raised to be eaten. Horses are frequently dosed with the anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone, which has it has been known to cause aplastic anaemia in humans

What this controversy will mean for the meat industry in Europe is as yet unclear. What is clear is the urgent need for improved traceability at all stages of meat production and processing. French President Françoise Hollande has called for compulsory labelling and full traceability of meat used in processed food on a European level. The lacklustre response from the Irish Government and fact that several Irish producers have been implicated have led to calls for a sea change in the meat industry. However, it was the Food Safety of Ireland's tracing system that brought this matter to light to begin with, exposing some major flaws in meat safety and accountability criteria among European producers.

What we need is stricter adherence to the laws that already exist, and to me, the best way to achieve this is to process Irish meat in Irish factories for consumption at home and abroad. On average, Ireland exports 216,000 head of cattle per year, a practice which is not only cruel and stressful for the animals, but helps prevent a fully-fledged meat production industry from developing in Ireland.

Ireland has ancient associations with cattle and herding. It is internationally renowned for producing quality grass-fed beef, and this reputation may be materially damaged by this fiasco, which may not be a public health scare, but is certainly public relations disaster. An end to live exports would mean a massive boost to the economy in Ireland. Instead of sending our resources overseas, we should be adding value to them right here in Ireland. In doing so, we would create a food industry that would not only create jobs in farming, processing and packing, it would boost other service industries like delis, butchers, restaurants and local supermarkets, not to mention ancillary industries. Profit would remain in Ireland. Jobs would be created. Communities would thrive.

When animals are slaughtered and processed far from where they were reared, accountability and oversight is often absent. This is why scandals like this one happened, and may well happen again.