Destination Cork, Ireland - for the love of real food

Cork, cultural city of Europe 2009, is also touted as the gourmet capital of Ireland. Of course there is the English Market, a traditional indoor hall and market where homemade bread, patisserie, pasta, chocolate, sauces and condiments etc. are also on display. Locals and tourists alike flock here to buy staples as well as packaged artisan food to bring home. Upstairs at the end is the Farmgate Cafe, serving fresh local sandwiches, pies and quiches.

About 15 minutes' walk from the market, on Washington Street, is the legendary Cafe Paradiso, a vegetarian restaurant. I managed to grab a table at 6 pm on a weekday. The chef and owner, Denis Cotter, is the author of four cookbooks . Hailed as 'the best vegetarian chef in the British Isles' by the Guardian, his Paradiso Seasons (2003) was the winner of the 'Best Vegetarian Cookbook in the World' at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Glancing through his books one cannot but marvel at his passion that was infused throughout. The choice of ingredients and handling are interplays of texture and flavors based on seasons, a true labor of love. His cooking emphasizes local vegetables and artisan cheese products, which is 'elegant and light, a tasteful blend of expensive and common ingredients, years of refinement packed into a style appropriate for the biggest feast days'. Here are the 3 course menu I went for:

Starters
Vegetable sushi with tempura of aubergine and carrot, pickled ginger, wasabi and a soy-ginger dipping sause

Main
Chard leaf timbale of roast tomato.
Grilled haloumi and quinoa with saffron-hazelnut butter
Crisped potato and cumin roast carrots

Dessert
Rosemary set custard with fresh figs, port sauce and pistachio shortbread

You get the picture.

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The next morning I head to Shanagarry, east of Cork to visit the gardens of the Ballymaloe Cookery School. (www.cookingisfun.ie), the only one in the world in the middle of its own 100 acre organic farm. It is open all year but the best time to visit is May to September. The world-renowned cookery school was founded by Darina Allen, grande dame of 'real food' in Ireland, together with her husband in 1983. Now with her daughter-in-law, Rachel, also a TV celebrity cook, the school offers a wide arrays of courses.

It all started fifty years ago when Ivan and Myrtle Allen, parents-in-law of Darina, turned their family home, a couple of miles down the road, into an elegant, cosy country hotel, Ballymaloe House and restaurant. I checked in on a Friday afternoon, for the gourmet hot buffet. I should not have ordered the main as the appetizers were sumptuous, meticulous and varied, featuring freshly caught seafood, homegrown vegetables, fine free range meat and various homemade sauces. With a full stomach I retreated to my lovely room, where a delightful bouquet of Sweet Peas, greeted me.After strolling through the lush green estate grounds and gardens, and having a traditional artisan Irish breakfast, I took a taxi to the Saturday Midleton Farmers Market. (www.midletonfarmersmarket.com).

It was not too big but all local and seasonal produce, farmhouse cheeses, smoked fish, local honey, freshly baked bread, homemade cakes, pies, tarts and biscuits, local potatoes (forget those bland ones from Idaho), wood fired pizzas, free range eggs, local rare breed port etc. were featured. One of the founders is of course Darina Allen, whom I happily met at her Ballymaloe stall. She is indeed a high geared action packed woman. Her award-winning 'Irish Traditional Cooking', and others such as 'Ballymaloe Cookery Course', 'Forgotten Skills of Cooking' etc. just appeals to the readers that she knows it all, from making butter and yogurt, keeping a few hens in the garden (someday I might risk the law of Hong Kong), herb and vegetable gardening, to home-curing and foraging for food in the wild.

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FEAST AND FAST, AND EVERYTHING VERY NICE IN BETWEEN

To maximize culinary delights, besides staying clear of 'twist and ribbons' restaurants and tourist traps, one needs to go for balance and varieties and REAL food. Listen to our bodies.For example, I found one meal feast, one meal skipped, and one meal light work perfectly for me while traveling. I hope it will offset some of my first sin- gluttony.Here are some of the feast as well as 'light' recommendations for Ireland and Amsterdam, where I stayed for a total of 24 days. (4 days' conference on clinical aromatherapy and herbal medicine in Dublin is a little excuse.)

Amsterdam, Netherlands

1) Aan de Amstel (www.aan-de-amstel.nl, in Dutch only)
I bought Yvette van Boven's book 'Homemade' in Swindon bookshop in Hong Kong. It was so full of wit, chic design and mouthwatering recipes from scratch (eg. homemade ginger ale, barbeque sauce etc.) that I decided to try out, not only the recipes, but also her bistro, on the Amstel bank. The food was sublime.

2) De Kas Restaurant and Nursery (www.restaurantdekas.nl)
Perhaps it is the most stylish gourmet 'locavore' restaurant in Netherlands. It is converted from a 1926 municipal greenhouse in 2001 and situated in the Frendenpark. Inspired by the cuisines of the rural Mediterranean, it serves one menu daily depending on the harvest.

3) De Bolhoel
Cafe style vegetarian restaurant.

Galway, Ireland

1) Kirwan's Lane Creative Cuisine (http://www.galway.net/pages/kirwans-lane/)A gem of seafood restaurant in the heart of Galway City.

2) Fisherman's Cottage and restaurant (http://www.southaran.com/)Bed and breakfast and award- winning restaurant in Inisheer, Aran Islands. Cookery courses such as seaweed foraging and vegetarian cooking are offered.

3) Mitchell's (http://www.mitchellsrestaurantclifden.com/)Local and sustainable seafood restaurant.

Dublin, Ireland

1) Avoca Cafe
At the basement of the quirky Avoca store there is a deli, and the cafe is at the top floor which I missed. (http://www.avoca.ie/). Located in many parts of Ireland too.

2) 101 Talbot (http://www.101talbot.ie/)
A modern creative restaurant with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences. Popular with Dublin's artistic and literary set.

3) Cornucopia
A casual wholefood restaurant that serves tasty and healthy food.

So where do we go from here? In order to go for quality food in Hong Kong, I would follow a "Small is beautiful- New Organic" theory in food.

  • Eat (real) food, mostly plants
  • Buy local, seasonal food: farmers' markets, fresh food markets, produce delivered directly from farms, etc.
  • Visit local organic farms and look out for some tell-tale signs of good organic farming practice- eg. soil conditions, composting, water from nearby natural sources, diversified crops in one patch of land, minimal or no use of energy devices like huge fan etc.
  • Support artisan producers and small specialty shops
  • Avoid industrialized, packaged , processed and market-oriented food even if the label says 'organic'
  • Practice home cooking more often
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