Catching up & soundbites . . .

It’s been a busy couple of months, and as a result the blog has suffered. As a professional writer, blogging is something I only really do if I’m not busy – (the last thing I want to do after a long day writing is write more.) Anyway, with Christmas approaching, I’ve got some down time, so I’m going to post a bit more here.

To start with, here are some clips of interviews I’ve done recently that people might be interested in.

Nick Landers of the FT, on the rise of the celebrity chef

Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall, on cutting his hair

Nigella Lawson, on her love of potatoes.

Like most journalists, I record as much as possible when interviewing people. This makes transcribing interview notes much easier, and also means that I can be sure I’ve represented my interview subjects properly. I’ve been doing this for years, and have enormous amounts of audio data on my main work PC. It only recently occured to me that people might be interested in hearing snippets from there. Most of these are tounge-in-cheek excerpts, but if people are interested then I will consider posting fuller versions of these interviews.

2013 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards

gourmandSo Let’s Go Disco has been shortlisted for the 2013 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. In early December, we were told that we had picked up a couple of awards for Ireland: Best Chef Cookbook and Best Cookbook Design.

Obviously Ireland is a small country and only a handful of food books are published here each year. Internationally though, that’s another story. Gourmand says it estimates around 26,000 food books are published internationally each year.

Today, we were informed that the book goes on to the world awards in the Best Chef category. There are lots and lots of awards given out each year, but the Best Chef category is one of the biggies. Here’s who were up against:

Australia – Origin, Ben Shawry (Murdoch Books)
Colombia- Sal y Dulce, Jorge y Mark Rausch (Gamma)
Ireland – Let’s Go Disco, Martijn Kajuter, Alex Meehan (Cliff Hotel)
Netherlands – Puurst, Jonnie and Therese Boer (Princess)
USA – A Table at le Cirque, Sirio Maccioni , Pamela Fiori (Rizzoli

Take some time to take a look at these books – they all sound excellent. Worthy competition.

We didn’t make it into the final for the Design award, which is a real shame, but the books that did make it into that category are real heavyweights – Sergio Herman’s Epic Sergiology and Sat Bain’s Too Many Chiefs, Only One Indian are just two for example.

To put the awards in perspective – firstly and importantly, they’re free to enter (so you can’t ‘buy’ a prize), and this year books from 171 countries were entered, producing 389 finalists from 86 countries, spread across numerous categories.

A couple of other Irish entrants have made the shortlist in the international competition, so best of luck to them too. They are:

Best TV tie in: The Last Diet, Dr.Eva Orsmond (Gill MacMillan)
Best Asian: Saba: The Cookbook, Taweesak Trakoolwattana, Paul Cadden (Saba Dublin)
Easy Recipe: Ireland – How to feed your family on less than 10 euros a day, Elizabeth Bollard (Orpen)
Best European: Ireland – Get Cooking (Beam Services)

The awards themselves are being held at Carrousel du Louvre, 23 February 2013, in Paris, so wish us luck.

Let’s Go Disco – the launch

So on Wednesday night we had the launch of Let’s Go Disco, with a party at the Cliff Townhouse on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. Excuse me in advance, but there will quite a few superlatives in this blog post – I don’t see a way around them, and if you can’t express pride at a book launch for a book your very proud of, then when can you?

Around 130 people squashed into the dining room of the Townhouse, quaffed saffron-flavoured prosecco, Hendricks gin and tonics made with juniper-flavoured ice cubes and canapés drawn from the recipes in the book. Three large plasma screens showed off high definition pictures from the book, as well as the video clip Shane O’Neill made especially for the occasion, and the book was officially launched by guest of honour Derek Bulmer.

Adriaan Bartels, general manager of the Cliffhouse Hotel in Ardmore gave the introduction, Martijn gave a touching speech about the project and the importance of the team that lie at the heart of the House Restaurant and expressed sadness that James Rehill couldn’t be there to enjoy the evening with his colleagues.

The speeches were then finished off by the legendary Derek Bulmer. For people who don’t know who Derek is, he was the editor in chief of the Michelin Guide for the UK and Ireland for twelve years and worked as an inspector with the Guide for over 30 years. He’s the guy who decided on giving – and taking away – the much coveted stars that mean so much for the chefs and restaurants that have them. Think of any of the big names chefs in the UK or Ireland – the Hestons and Gordons of this world – he’s the guy who had the final say on awarding them their stars.

Michelin is an intriguing institution, and at a time when there seems to be a new restaurant awards taking place every month, the Guide still has a special place. I got a chance to chat to Derek for quite a while, and I could easily see how he was able to maintain his anonymity for so long – he’s a delightful, charming and totally unprepossessing guy. I would never have guessed who he was.

We are very grateful that Derek agreed to write the foreword to Let’s Go Disco, as it’s the first time he’s done that. Since he retired from the Guide two years ago, he’s been free to talk about his experiences and give interviews but amazingly he said nobody else had asked him to write a foreword.

In his speech he talked at length about his experiences in Ireland, as he came here three times a year for twenty years, racking up significant mileage driving around Ireland and dining incognito. He maintains a fondness for this country and had some very interesting things to say.

So that’s it, the book has been launched and is available to buy. I’ve updated the page on my website dedicated to the book with some photos and details on where it can be bought – for the record you can get it at receiption at the Townhouse in Dublin and the Cliffhouse in Ardmore or from the Cliffhouse website here.

Some preview copies of the book went out in digital form a few weeks ago so there will probably be some reviews or comment in the press about it. I’ll post these up as I find them and try to maintain a web presence for the book going forward. On Twitter, the hashtag #letsgodisco has seen a fair bit of activity in the last few days so if you’re interested, you can go check that out.

Otherwise, please buy a copy and enjoy it.

A bluffer’s guide to game

Published in The Sunday Business Post Magazine on September 23rd, 2012. By Alex Meehan
Venison, pheasant, grouse, snipe: for food lovers, the reappearance of game is one of the highlights of autumn. It’s already popping up on restaurant menus around the country and will become a more frequent menu choice over the next couple of weeks.

You can also find wild and farmed game at an increasing of specialist food shops, including Fallon & Byrne on Wicklow Street in Dublin city centre. According to Tom Meenaghan, executive chef in charge of Fallon & Byrne’s restaurant, game is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, most notably because a growing segment of the market is getting back in touch with the idea of seasonality.

“In general, we can now pretty much get whatever we want to eat, whenever we want it and while the convenience of that is great, it takes some of the fun and anticipation out of our diets,” he says.

“But for a lot of people interested in game, the fact that it’s a seasonal product is part of its appeal. They look forward to the season starting and getting more variety in their diets.”

Fallon & Byrne starts to offer game in September and it remains a feature of their butcher’s counter through to the start of February each year. Their game is sourced from Irish estates including Slane Castle and Dromoland Castle, as well as from suppliers in the UK and France.

“We prefer to offer Irish when we can, but it’s typically harder to source. At the start of the season, you tend to pay a little more for game because it’s still scarce so there’s a premium. As more game comes in, supply catches up with demand and it becomes a little cheaper.”

For people interested in preparing game at home but unsure of where to start, Meenaghan offers the following advice.

“First, find a knowledgeable butcher or supplier. The average butcher’s counter in a supermarket won’t want to know if you ask questions so you need someone who will give advice on how to prepare and cook the various kinds of game they offer.”

“Secondly, don’t be afraid to try something new. A lot of people are used to eating the same kinds of meats all the time – lamb, pork, chicken and beef – and have an idea that game is very strongly flavoured but this isn’t necessarily the case,” he says.

While people may have an idea that game needs to be aged to the point of near rancidity, or until ‘high’ as it’s known, the reality is that game typically isn’t aged anywhere near as long as it used to be.

“Venison for example is now usually sold aged only six to ten days – it doesn’t hang around. Traditionally that would have been anything up to three weeks. Same with pheasant, which was traditionally always served ‘high’ but people don’t want that anymore. Tastes change and people like lighter textures and flavours today,” says Meenaghan

Finding a source for truly wild game is often quite difficult, but aficionados insist that going wild is the best way to enjoy a truly Irish eating experience.

“Conventional non-game meats are all produced in a controlled environment, on a farm where their diet and health is strictly controlled. Wild game is just that, wild. It’s not held in captivity and can roam and fly wherever it wants,” says Michael Healy of Wild Irish Game, a supplier of wild game to the Irish retail and restaurant trade.

“Their diet is whatever they can forage for themselves. Deer in the mountains for example eat a diet which is as close to organic as you can get. Obviously, it’s not certified that way because they can roam onto farm lands and eat crops which aren’t organic, but they’re as close as makes no difference.”

“They eat an extremely natural diet. The same with wild birds — pigeons feed on berries for part of the year then move onto clover and right now they’re feeding mostly off standing crops and grains,” he says.

Healy doesn’t hunt himself, saying he has no interest in shooting animals for sport and that his business is strictly food orientated. He has spent 20 years building up a network of suppliers who meet Irish and European legal and food standards.

“Most of our game comes from Wicklow – almost every game species appears in abundance in Wicklow with the exception of woodcock and snipe which are more widespread on the west coast of Ireland. We buy from commercial producers such as pheasant and wild duck produced on large estates, from individual hunters and from state parks such as from the Wicklow Mountains National Park and from Coillte when it culls to control deer numbers.”

According to Healy, the modern market for game was helped a lot by the boom years of the Celtic tiger, when game was widely served in Irish restaurants. While demand has slowed compared to then, it’s still growing.

“We still see a lot of game sold in restaurants, particularly the better ones, and we’re seeing retail demand driven by retail outlets in Dublin like Donnybrook Fair, Cavistons in Glasthule, Molloys in Donnybrook, Lawlors in Rathmines, Buckley’s in Moore St and so on. Superquinn also stocks our game in the run up to Christmas.”

When it comes to cooking, Fallon & Byrne’s Tom Meenaghan suggests that venison is the easiest game meat for the complete beginner.

“The thing to remember with venison, and with most game in fact, is that it’s very low in fat. That makes it super healthy but it has a drawback for the chef – you can’t overcook it or it will dry right out. It has to be served medium rare, or cooked in a liquid to keep it moist.”

“Loin of venison is easy to cook but it can be very expensive – comparable to fillet of beef. Instead, start with a slow cooked haunch of venison or a venison stew. Make a stew in the same way you might make a beef stew – with onions, carrots, red wine and mushrooms but use venison instead of beef and perhaps add in some juniper berries, which go particularly well with venison. You could even marinate the venison in red wine for a couple of days first to make it really tender,” he says.

When it comes to game birds, a key technique to remember is that layering strips of bacon on top of the birds can provide some extra fat to keep the breasts moist. Like all poultry, it’s usually better to detach the legs and cook them separately as they tend to require a little more time.

“Game birds tend to have very thin skins and not much fat content, so it can be hard to get the breast meat just right.”

The two classic ways or preparing game birds includes confiting them and roasting them. Because of the low fat content, slow cooking pheasant in goose fat produces a meltingly tender texture to the flesh. This can then be crisped up before serving in a pan for a really tasty dish.

“You can also roast game birds very successful. We do it in the restaurant by popping the whole birds into a pan breast-side down with a bit of oil and a knob of butter and searing them off for a few minutes on each breast. This takes four or five minutes, then you turn them right-side up again and put the pan into the oven.”

“After 15 or 20 minutes, depending on the size of the birds you take them out, detach the legs and put them back in while the meat rests. Small pigeons take only five or maybe eight minutes from start to finish with this method, because you can serve them rare. Pheasant needs to be cooked a bit more but needs to be moist. “

The classic accompaniments for game include all the things associated with the autumn and winter larder – root vegetables roasted or mashed, potatoes and celeriac and fruit based sauces such as plum or cranberry all work very well.

PANEL: What’s in season?

From August to early February – snipe
From early September to early February – venison
From early September to early February – partridge
From September to late January – wild duck
From September to late February – wild hare
From early September to late January – grouse

From late September to early February – woodcock
From early October to early February – pheasant

PANEL: Matching game to wine
By David Gallagher, Fallon & Byrne sommelier

Grouse or woodcock have a very strong, gamey-flavour that can cope with a full-flavoured red wine. Just avoid big tannic wines. A Northern Rhône wine such as Yves Cuilleron’s St Joseph (€32.95) would be a great match.

Wild Mallard duck has far more flavour than your average duck and so it needs a more flavoursome wine to match. An Australian Shiraz such as the delicious Turkey Flat Shiraz, Grenache, Mouvedre from the Barossa Valley (€29.95) should fit the bill.

Roast pheasant works very well with light, fruity varieties like pinot noir, especially those from North America or New Zealand. A delicious match would be the juicy Firesteed Pinot Noir from Oregon, USA (€20.95).

Venison is rich with a gamey flavour but is very lean. If you are roasting it try a red Burgundy such as the Givry Champ Nalot (€22.95) or if you are using it in a casserole, a beefier wine such as French Malbec like Cedre Heritage (€13.95) would work a treat. If you want to spoil yourself try the Chateau Du Cedre (€21.95).

Rabbit is normally paired with a lighter red such as a Côtes du Rhône, Chinon or Beaujolais, but something liked jugged rabbit can take a stronger flavour well. Try Alpha Zeta “A” Amarone (€31.95).

Guinea fowl is dark and more flavoursome than chicken, with a slight gamey taste. A rich, creamy white burgundy such as Olivier Leflaive’s St Romain (€28.95) is probably the best match.

Quail is a delicate bird with a fuller flavour that your average chicken, again this would be best with a full bodied white, this time why not try a good basic Bourgogne Blanc from Vincent Girardin (€18.95).

Culture night demonstration video

Had a hectic day on Friday – myself and my martial arts group performed an ’embu’ or public demonstration in Dublin city as part of Culture Night. We did it three times during the evening, for around 150 people each time.


South Frederick Street was stuffed and it generally seems to have been well received. We were also filmed by RTE News and appeared live at 6pm and prerecorded at 9pm on Friday. The Irish Times and a few other papers mentioned us on Saturday as well. Which was nice.

We were joined by some fantastic taiko Japanese style drummers to provide a pounding back beat. All in all, I think it went pretty well.

Culture night Japanese martial arts exhibition

So it’s ‘Culture Night’ this coming Friday, and my martial arts group will be giving a series of short public demonstrations of the Bujinkan Dojo martial arts in the city centre.

According to their website: “Culture Night is a night of entertainment, discovery and adventure in Dublin and across 34 towns, cities and counties in Ireland. Arts and cultural organisations will open their doors until late with hundreds of free events, tours, talks and performances for you, your family and friends to enjoy.”

We’ll be doing our thing on South Frederick’s Street at 6:30pm, 7:30pm and 8:30pm, with each demo lasting around 10 minutes.

You can find out more about the specific event we are taking part in here.

There is a Facebook event page for the evening as well, so you can give the organiser’s a head’s up that your thinking of coming along.

So if you’re free come along and say hello.

#cookbook2012

I’ve been working on a book project for the last year or so with Dutch-born chef Martijn Kajuiter of the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, County Waterford. Martijn is an exceptional chef, and his restaurant is one of the most innovative and significant in the country – it was awarded a Michelin star in 2009 and has kept it in successive years, as well as being awarded three AA Rosettes. His food is exciting and progressive as well as being firmly rooted in a very well established repoirtoire of classic methodology.

While not exactly a secret, we haven’t discussed the book publicly over the last year, because the immediate nature of social media would have meant the world was bored stupid by the idea of it, months before it came out. Instead we decided to keep quiet until it made sense to not keep quiet about it.

I still don’t want to say too much about it yet, because The Cliff House is preparing to launch the book and so it’s up to them to publicise it and release images and extracts to the public. However, now that the publication date is drawing near it’s nice to be able to start to acknowledge the book’s existence.

First of all, there are two editions of the book – a normal version and a special edition that has already sold out. (It was mentioned by Martijn casually on Twitter and within 24 hours, all 100 copies had sold out, and there is now a waiting list of over 30 people in case any more come up.)

But of the normal version, what can I say?

Well. the first and most significant thing is the price – €45.

The book is being self published and we’re quite proud to have been able to keep the cost relatively low, given the amount of work and the quality of the finish that’s gone into it. It might not seem low to someone used to buying mass-market food books, but it’s really not expensive for a book like this. It’s not uncommon for self published books of this kind to sell for €100 or €200 and it’s not hard to see why once you start making them.

In our case, there have been multiple photo shoots, spread out over the course of a year in order to shoot dishes in season and at their best. The photography has been presented on high quality paper in a hard back book wrapped in a truly gorgeous cover. The design work has been created from scratch by an excellent design agency and enormous attention to detail has gone into each detail of how the book has been created. Literally every aspect of it has been thought about, considered, explored and decided upon.

The book is currently scheduled to be available in the third week of October. I’ll post more information here as it’s appropriate, along with links to where you can buy the book and perhaps also some of the unused photography and behind-the-scenes material generated during the year we spent working on the project.

New look website

I’ve given the blog a bit of a spring cleaning, and finally gotten around to moving it to my own domain.

I registered http://www.alexmeehan.com around six years ago and never actually got around to doing anything with it. It’s had a ‘site coming soon’ notice on it since then. Quite sad really. So I’ve ‘reskinned’ it and set it up as a full website, with the blog part at the centre and with some other pages that will allow people who need (and who I want) to find me to get in touch. The image on the front page was taken on a balmy hot Tokyo night this summer by my friend Paul Morrin.

So have a look around, kick the tyres and see what you think. It’s a work in progress, but for now it seems servicable.

Alex

Electric Picnic 2012

So my first Electric Picnic has come and gone, and before too much time passes, I want to put down some thoughts. First up, it was the first time I’ve camped at a Festival since 1992 (Feile 92!) and while it was great fun, I have no idea why people over the age of 23 or so think camping is a good idea. I seem to be in a minority on this one, as everyone I was with seemed to love it. Anyway . . .

It’s a really impressive festival, with so much going on that actually, you really could spend three days being fully entertained by talks and events without ever seeing a band. I spent most of the weekend at the Theatre of Food tent. (See pics below). But as a big Cure fan, the fact the band was headlining was a big deal for me. They turned in a set that was 3hrs 20mins long, and played virtually all their singles. A smashing night, made all the more fun by getting to hook up with some of the band members beforehand. They say don’t meet your idols, but in my case, it turned out fine. The Cure seem to be a great bunch of guys. I had a brief conversation with keyboard player Roger O’Donnell (clang!!! ha ha!)  about this, remarking how nice it was to grow up with a band’s music as a semi-permanent fixture in your life, without finding out the people behind the tunes have turned into right wing tories. In the case of the Cure, a nicer bunch of rational, liberal leftie atheists you couldn’t hope to meet.

So Electric Picnic was a blast for me. Would I go back? Definitely, but I think I’d probably opt for a B&B instead of a tent.