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FROM FAMINE TO FEAST

IRELAND TODAY – A GOURMET’S PARADISE

At the turn of the ‘80s, I wrote an article, published in the Irish Weekly Examiner. A Chef’s contest took place. It was sponsored by Grant’s of Ireland, and held in conjunction with Bord Failte and the Panel of Chefs. Their plan was ‘to launch a new Irish cuisine’! In my article, I pointed out that ‘the idea was not new, as the new Irish cuisine movement had been in existence already for several years’. Colleagues and friends were angry, and asked me if these people had been asleep all those years. They questioned their motivation, asking if these folk were trying to jump on the bandwagon to take the kudos. However, I saw it differently. It was a national event happening with ‘official’ support, and a step in the right direction - at last. I wrote that ‘I was delighted to find something had finally happened at national and government levels, to recognize and accept the fact that we can produce our own magnificent new Irish cuisine, and establish a reputation for good food, if we were to put our minds to it seriously.’ I congratulated the contest winner Gerry Galvin, from the Vintage Restaurant in Kinsale, and featured his winning recipe ‘Kinsale Baked Brill with Mushroom Pate and Elderflower Cream’. The article ended with ‘my express hope that it would become an annual event’. And, my final comment was: ‘Only then, with time, will Ireland become a recognized gourmet’s paradise, as stressed so often over previous years.


Part Three

The Turning Point
The turning point had finally come. It could only be uphill from then on, and maybe I would see a dream come true. Some of the Pioneers and Mavericks were ready to move forward. Joined by other newcomers, they became the Developers, as I called them; with the long overdue support from Bord Failte. Mostly, they were professional Chefs who owned restaurants or country homes; or worked at leading hotels, as did renowned Chef John Moran, who was at the Imperial Hotel in Cork. Actively, they took on the Irish culinary scene during the Eighties, and expanded the activities for a new Irish cuisine.

The Second Wave – 1980s - The Developers
In the early ‘80s decade, many more culinary activists jumped on board, while others came forward onto the public stage with promotional food activities. Myrtle Allen, of Ballymaloe House, in collaboration with the major Irish organization, Farm Business Development – FBD, ran ‘La Ferme Irlandaise’ – The Irish Farmhouse, in Paris between 1981 – 1985. The project followed her successful Irish food promotions in Brussels, Amsterdam and New York. Myrtle became a propagandist for Irish food in the 1980s, and in 1983, the Allen’s helped their son Tim and his wife Darina Allen to open the Ballymaloe School of cookery.

Henry O’Neill, former owner of Henri’s restaurant in Dublin, became the President of the Restaurant Owners Association from 1983 to 1985. In 1986, the group (formed in 1970), changed its name to the Restaurant Association of Ireland – RAI, and Henry became the driving force behind several major advancements in the Irish food arena. By 1986, the RAI were able to get the Irish government to reduce the VAT – Value Added Tax (sales tax) on restaurants. The crippling tax put on all goods, food and services throughout Ireland, greatly affected the costs of eating out. Thereafter, the restaurants VAT was down from 25% to 10%. It was a great boost, and encouraged more people to eat out.

New plans on the European continent were creating considerable interest by 1986, and affected Ireland too. Since the mid ‘70s, Belgium and France were competitors for recognition as leaders in the culinary field. Both countries were on a par with restaurants that had received Michelin Awards. In 1986, they came together when famous Belgian Chef Pierre Romeyer, founded Euro - Toque, and became the first President of the International European Community of Chefs. Renowned French Chef Paul Bocuse was a founder member too, and became the second President of Euro-Toques in 1990. Myrtle Allen headed the Irish Euro-Toque group, and became the third Euro-Toque President from 1994 – 1997. Today, Euro-Toque is an organization of 2,500 Chefs.

Productive food activities increased across Ireland, especially in the manufacture of up-market Irish cheeses, which became more readily available everywhere. An enterprising group in the Midlands, Lake Shore Foods, situated by Lough Derg, started making a tasty choice of Irish mustards. Another group produced Irish chocolates; and a very clever lady from the northern reaches of Co. Cork, began genetic engineering to grow tomatoes. She launched her project at Ventures ’86, held at the Royal Dublin Society – RDS, in Dublin, and won first prize for her business idea. The three day event was sponsored by the Bank of Ireland, the Regional Colleges, and several other major Irish organizations.

The Irish Food Writers Guild began in 1986, and additional cook books were published by Irish authors. More private estates renovated and opened their beautiful homes. ‘Elegant Ireland’ began its annual publication. Through the organization, individuals or groups could rent a castle or beautiful home for a week or more. The annual book ‘Hidden Ireland’ published its first edition in 1987, and featured many of these elegant properties, too, where the owners welcomed visitors to join the family, enjoy the superb food, and stay overnight. In Kenmare, Co. Kerry, Maura Foley, whose family owned the Purple Heather Bar, opened the Limetree restaurant in 1985, and ran it until 1992. Maura served Irish food, and gained an excellent reputation. By the mid 1980s, RTE TV featured very brief cooking segments in their afternoon program ‘Live at Three’, with Derek Davis and Thelma Mansfield. It was very well received. So, finally in 1989, they produced a home based TV cooking program. ‘Simply Delicious’ featured Darina Allen, who became a household name by the turn of the ‘90s.

In 1988, the RAI went a step further to help their members. Henry O’Neill was now at the helm as the Chief Executive Officer – CEO. The RAI persuaded the Irish government to introduce a special restaurant license, which was not financially prohibitive. At a once off payment of 3000.00 Irish Punts, and a nominal annual fee, it was a great improvement on the Pub license at 100,000.00 Irish Punts. This move had a phenomenal effect on the Irish food scene, and the Irish way of life.

In ‘86, I was one of the people invited to participate at the Ventures ’86 event. All participants were fully sponsored by the organizers, and the objective was to showcase Ireland’s entrepreneurs, and their potential business ideas. I had a stand, where my colleagues and I promoted the ‘Intofruit’ - Gift baskets of fruit project, which was launched nationwide, to create interest in fruit throughout Ireland. ‘Intofruit’ won the innovative prize presented by ‘U’ Magazine at the three-day show. By that stage, I had diversified into promotional activities; continued with the journalism – restaurant reviews and articles on the new Irish cuisine; worked on another cook book; and was initiating moves to pioneer another ‘Culinary Arts’ idea, planned at a worldwide level. The seeds of Cordon d’Or – Gold Ribbon, the ‘Culinary Arts’ Accolade of the 21st Century were sown. My two daughters, who are American citizens, moved to Florida in ’86, after they finished school in Ireland; and plans were in the pipeline to follow them by the end of the decade. My work and activities as the Pioneer and Founder of the new Irish cuisine movement was done. Ireland was now in the interim decade. I called it The Second Wave. The Developers had become very active on the Irish culinary scene, with plans to expand the new Irish cuisine.

The Consolidators: The Third Wave – 1990s
Culinary activities reached a crescendo in Ireland by the early ‘90s. The Irish Government could no longer ignore what had occurred on the food scene across the nation. An awareness of the immense financial potential and employment opportunities brought about a complete change in their attitudes. In December 1994, they established An Bord Bia, the Food Board. Bord Failte too, had finally accepted the connection between good food and tourism. They became aware that the critical ingredients of successful tourism came, not alone from hotels and sightseeing attractions, but also from all aspects of the nation’s food, which visitors have to eat, and enjoy. It was the period of The Third Wave, and the ‘Consolidators’ had come on board. The future of the Irish culinary scene and the new Irish cuisine was now secure.

In the wake of Bord Bia’s involvement, and the ensuing policies enacted; interest in, and activity on the Irish culinary scene intensified. Major government financial resources became available to help draw attention to Irish food. Expansion of culinary activities flourished both at home and overseas, through well-organized promotions, education and training schemes, publicity, marketing and sales. The Irish cheese industry became one of the great success stories of the culinary food revolution. It started out with one major advantage – rich creamy Irish milk. It was very hard to resist the daily pint bottle that came with three inches of delicious fresh cream at the top. Employment opportunities increased extensively everywhere, and helped stem the tide of emigration, which had increased dramatically throughout the Eighties.

Thereafter, the Irish food scene burgeoned. As the culinary activities escalated, Ireland became swamped with many more individuals and groups moving in on the crest of the wave. There was a proliferation of good restaurants nationwide; several food study centers; and many more fashionable cooking schools, offering a combined vacation with courses in cookery. Popular annual Irish Food Guides became available. Georgina Campbell’s Jameson Guide, and John and Sally McKenna’s Bridgestone Guide featured Ireland’s 100 Best Restaurants. Listed among the hundreds of restaurants found throughout Ireland by the ‘90s was Packie’s in Kenmare, Co. Kerry, opened by Maura Foley in 1992. Both Guides featured an incredible choice of places where one could have a delicious Irish meal, or stay overnight at a castle, an elegant Irish home or a Five star hotel.

The Irish Government decided to overhaul, reorganize and amalgamate several government agencies. New ones were established, while others were revamped, and emerged under a new umbrella. Bord Glas (1990), who dealt with horticulture and labor intensive farming methods, became responsible for overseeing a growing trend in organic farming. By the end of the decade, every aspect of the culinary scene, ranging from food development to hygiene control was covered. The Directive for these new groups, was to assist in developing both the culinary scene and tourism, which were finally recognized are being inextricably intertwined.

The food processing industry, which was virtually non existent in the early ‘70s, had developed to the extent whereby, Kerry Foods, once a small Cooperative in 1972, was now one of the largest and annual sales in excess of Euros 3 billion. Artisan producers of specialty foods, and home grown organic products were found across the country.

International food publications began to take a greater interest in Irish food, and many articles appeared worldwide on the new Irish cuisine and food activities across the country. Several more Irish cookbooks appeared during the ‘90s decade, and greater interest in food was seen everywhere. My book, ‘Cooking Irish Style’, published by Mercier Press appeared in 1990, just before we left Ireland and relocated to St. Petersburg, Florida.

Darina Allen became a Celebrity Chef, and appeared in several television cooking programs on RTE throughout the ‘90s. Her cookbooks were published. And, after Phyl O’Kelly passed away, Darina became the cookery writer for the Irish Examiner newspaper (formerly called the Cork Examiner). Regina Sexton, who specialized in the early history of Irish food from past centuries, came to the fore in the ‘90s, when she hosted a successful television series on the subject on RTE.

In 1999, Georgina Campbell’s Guide, sponsored by Bord Bia and Jameson Irish Whiskey, began the annual Irish Awards of Excellence. These Awards are presented to several people and groups from the culinary arena and the tourism scene throughout Ireland, including Chef of the Year, Restaurant, Hotel and Guesthouse of the Year.

Two important major developments in the culinary educational field occurred during The Third Wave. Remember the Cathal Brugha Street College of Catering mentioned earlier? It was established in 1951 to replace St. Mary’s College of Domestic Science (1941). In 1993, they became one of six colleges that amalgamated, and became the Dublin Institute of Technology - DIT. In 1998, DIT began to award its own Degrees. Students can now obtain a BA (Hons) Degree in the Culinary Arts. The other item of interest involved The Baltimore International College in Maryland, USA. They connected with Virginia Park in Co. Cavan, Ireland. Currently their Hospitality and Culinary Degree students can spend part of their practical training period at the Park Hotel situated in the beautiful grounds of Virginia Park.

However, with all the activity and excitement on the Irish culinary front in the years before the 20th Century ended, there came an unexpected side effect too, when something unforeseen occurred.

A Culinary Myth
Several of the Mavericks and Pioneers have stood the course of time; and over the years, have expanded their culinary work to encompass development and consolidation activities too. Some continue to be involved, while others have moved on, retired, or are no longer with us. The efforts of the Mavericks and Pioneers to develop and build the solid foundations for the new Irish culinary scene should not be forgotten or overlooked. This has happened unfortunately, and, with few exceptions, attempts to eclipse the early work and contributions of some mavericks and pioneers, has become par for the course today.

A Culinary Myth began in the ‘90s. It spread and took a firm hold by the turn of the century, whereby, it is now firmly believed across the globe, that ‘Ireland’s Culinary Renaissance, and moves to initiate changes on the Irish food scene and develop a new Irish cuisine, only began during ‘80s decade’.

No one knows where this idea originated, or how it took hold and became accepted as fact; but this erroneous information repeatedly appears in Irish and international publications, books and publicity materials, and is heard on radio and TV. It seems that the media, visitors and younger generations of Irish people firmly believe that some individuals and groups were ‘solely responsible for recognizing the potential of Irish food and a new Irish cuisine, long before any of their peers, and these people were the first to do something about it in the 1980s’ . Not true! The foundations were laid earlier, when initial steps were taken during the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s by the Mavericks. This ground work was followed with the considerable efforts made by the Pioneers, to establish the foundations of the new Irish culinary scene and the new Irish cuisine during the ‘70s. A culinary revolution, like any activity that brings about major changes, does not happen overnight. In this instance, its roots went back many decades. It began very slowly during and after WW2, and gained some ground in the ‘60s. Nationwide interest took off in the ‘70s, when additional culinary activities developed in the Irish culinary arena, and included the beginnings of the new Irish cuisine movement. Expansion of the new Irish cuisine and other culinary work and accomplishments increased during the ‘80s, reaching a crescendo in the ‘90s. Everyone involved did their part, and in their own culinary spheres, made very valuable and extensive contributions to the Irish cuisine scene. No one person or group can claim the credit.

There are many people on the scene in Ireland and elsewhere today, who cannot be blamed for these misconceptions, as they were children prior to the 1980s; while tourists, foreign journalists and book authors believe what they read or are told. However, there are some folk still out there, who know the truth, but make little attempt to correct the misconceptions. Perhaps it is easier to ignore or forget the past, and allow newcomers to believe the changes only really began in the 1980s. Then, when the media or authors publish their articles and books with these incorrect facts, the real truth gets lost in the mists of time, and the course of history is altered. Modern day hype takes over, and misinformation becomes accepted as fact. The Culinary Myth has to stop here. Credibility, integrity and honesty call for the truth to be recognized and acknowledged, with the real facts put into their correct perspective.

From the outset, no single individual or group was solely responsible for what has occurred on the food scene in Ireland today. Nor should any one person or group try to take all credit and kudos, merely by being before the public eye in recent years. It was always ‘a collective effort’, spread out over more than half a century, wherein everyone involved, at different periods of time in those years, played a pivotal role in changing the face of Irish cuisine. The Mavericks and Pioneers, Developers and Consolidators, ALL played a hand taking Ireland forward towards the final outcome - A Gourmet’s Paradise.

Continued in Part 4>>

 

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