When I was a kid, we had something at school called the “Cantine”, a self service refectory, subsidized by the State and for a mere £1 or 10 Francs at the time, you could get a three course meal. We didn’t realise then how lucky we were, just more interesting by what was on the menu. Yes, every Monday morning, during the 10 O’clock recess, a sheet of paper would be stapled on the notice board under the giant wooden porch. We gathered around, impatient with the excitement of youth, full of false expectations, a reminder that we were in here for the long haul, most of us against our will. So the menu, knowing what we were going to eat that week, was a little ray of sunshine, our way to cope with the long days ahead even if the week was broken in half, Wednesdays off but a long way to the Saturday’s lunchtime bell, the relieving sound of a long awaited short weekend…
This as to be one of the top 5 of comfort food. Here is the way I make my mashed potatoes. Nearly almost always…
- 5 Large Irish Roosters
- 15cl of milk
- 150g of butter
- 80g of grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- Salt (to taste)
- Cracked black pepper
- 1/4 of a nutmeg grated
- 1 Sprig of rosemary
Well, the important part is to cut ( and peel first) the potatoes into similar sized pieces. Rince them well if you want a clean finish. In a cold pot they go with a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil gently, let them simmer until cooked. ( Check from time to time with the tip of a small knife). I like to put in a bit of rosemary. It’s done? Drain well and back in the pot it goes to dry excess water. Add the butter and all the ingredients but the milk, or at least just a bit of it to start; you don’t want your mash to be too liquid. Add little by little. With a potato masher of your choice, start the operation while it is still quite hot. Elbow grease is what you will need most of now!
You should get a smooth enough finish. Sometimes, I let it cool and transfer it into an oven dish, for a delicious crispy top. Enjoy!
That was it. I finally got there, woken up from an uncomfortable sleep. The nasal call screech from the bus ‘speakerphones announced my arrival to the antechamber of the “Big North West”; after reading all the books, attended conferences and Dervish like audiovisual slide shows. My Bus Eireann ride was laboriously one point turning and reversing into its terminus allocated space; A skilled job well done. While the warning lights and the monotonic Morse code like reverse gear of my ride were still on, I took my green and yellow rucksack as well as a couple of unmatched travelling bags from the hold. It was late and pitch black; no amazing landscape I got drawn to a few months back, just the warning orange beacons of a 45 sitter on wheels, and the olfactory welcome of a turf and coal shandy, spewing from chimneys of the neighbouring terraces. I was only three hundred yards from my friends’ home, a safe house, a warm bed and a line in the proverbial sand that was going to be a brand new life. We all have to begin somewhere; Sligo Town was to be my Starting Blocks and I never looked back.
The mornings that followed were very much like a Groundhog Day but in a good way. Benbulben to my North East, Knocknarea and the Ox Mountain to my West and South were covered with fresh snow; handicapped by the fact that I didn’t drive and therefore, didn’t owe a car, I walked a lot. Like Travis in the iconic movie “Paris – Texas”, I walked. I walked to Queen Maeve’s passing grave, where a North Connacht Farmer (NCF) milk man would crack a few jokes with me, and I walked the 8 kilometres separating me from the Yeats County Capital to the battered shores of Rosses Point. Twenty years old, and already I felt the need to heal or to feed the cravings for a similar Atlantic I had left behind. The ride – for sure – promised to be fun!
I n February 1995, I had to face the fact that all my training as a wildlife campaigner and ornithologist may not be able to put butter and brown bread on the table; I was feeling sorry for myself, tired of scrounging free pints of stouts from the local Francophile elite.
A friend of mine worked as “Front of House” for the – then – cool place to eat Hotel / Restaurant, hanging precariously above the Garavogue River. Basque born, the Head Chef involuntarily built up a team into an avant-garde multicultural crew; they gave me my first taste, quenching a thirst and premiere to my first cooking theatre experience. My “compatriots” stood side by side, very proud of the fact that they managed to negotiate my first wage at £2.00/ hour. You know, when you are so proud, like parents at Christmas, unconsciously holding their waist with their hands… Nice one. I guess I had to take my medicine and start!
I was to become, well at least for a while, the Head Chef’s kitchen porter; that meant, replacing the poor lad that sliced his fingers on the “Ham Machine”. The pots were black with carbon, victims of years of bad treatment from the stove burners. I had no professional points of reference in the field, so I cleaned the pans to their original – or just about – glory. The owner of the hotel gave out to him: “ Chef!!! If you go and buy new pots, I would like to be informed… At least!”. The Chef laughed in a respectful way and pointed out in a French southern accent gobbledegook, that the pots had just been cleaned by the new, yet innocent, temporary kitchen Porter.
The funnier side of my job was to prepare the vegetables, for lunch and dinner. I had to peel, slice and chop carrots and parsnips. My mission was to make them absolutely tasteless to the diners. I did salt them though, which angered the chef. Little did I know then, Irish people used to salt their food before tasting it; he told me that my carrots were perfect, but I had to be ready for some serious complaints. Wah?
The day after I was given the task of making “mashed potatoes”. I was standing there, sink all clean, spud peeler in my right hand, apron wrapped up around me like an apprenticed Shogun. Bring it on! “No need, no need!” said the Captain, “we have a machine for that!”. The heavy metal robot like was able to wash and peel potatoes… This was stuff of Science Fiction to me! All I had to do was to chop and boil them (no salt? Come on guys!!!), drain them, put them in the bread mixer, add heaps of margarine and a “little bit” of white pepper. White pepper… Yes… A “little bit” of White pepper… Ach sure, a little bit extra for luck won’t hurt right? The only pepper I knew at that stage was whole green and in brine, quite inoffensive, or cracked black, in a stew, on a rare piece of steak or on Emmental cubes for the aperitif. You get the hit, then the taste; the white pepper, gives you the taste, then the long, long, long hit. I guess I found out the hard way… So did the poor people in the dining room below…
Last Saturday, I visited my local butchers, like a modern yet nonchalant hunter and gatherer, I was getting my weekly food shopping of course, but also having an opportunity – an excuse – for a bit of craíc and banter, a chance to catch up with the local news (some might call it “gossip”, but I will not lower myself to that level… Anyway, keep that for yourself, I’ll tell you later…).
I got taken by their latest creation, a Pork and Apple burger. I didn’t want to just put it in a bun; after all, a lot of effort went into designing this dish. The previous night I had made some lovely mash potatoes, with some grated Coolea cheese from Cork, a two year old Irish Gouda if you prefer, sweet and parmesan like somewhat. That was half the battle…
For the sauce, I decided to do a creamy apple juice sauce. I had a small bottle of Karmine apple juice from Tipperary, “The Apple Farm”. It is sweet with a hint of tart, perfect for a family dish like this; its execution is actually quite easy, just a bit of preparation will go a long way. It is also a great wink to both Brittany and Ireland: they love their apples, in whichever form they come into. Pictures and recipes below.
Get yourself ready…
And the final result, ready to eat!
For the mash
- 2 nice potatoes per person
- 150 g of Coolea cheese (or aged gouda)
- black pepper
- grated nutmeg
For the mash
Peel, wash and cut the potatoes, put them in a pot of salted water and boil gently until cooked. Put through a sieve, back in the pot to remove excess water. Add the butter (the more the creamier, taste is your judgement) and the milk, gradually while you mash. If it’s a bit too thick, add a bit more. Smooth? Mill some black pepper and some freshly grated nutmeg. While it is still hot, grate the Coolea Cheese and stir inside the mash. You can serve it from the pot or bake in the oven later for a extra crispiness!
For The Sauce
- 1 onion chopped
- 1 garlic clove crushed
- 1 leaf of sage
- 1 splash of balsamic vinegar
- 1 splash of soya sauce
- 1 organic chicken/ veg stock (20 cl glass is enough)
- 15cl of Apple Juice (Artisan, farmhouse, the commercial stuff is too sweet)
- 25 cl of fresh cream
In a pan with olive or rapeseed oil, sweat the onions and garlic with a bit of salt. Throw in the sage leaf (optional). Put in the equivalent of 2 tbsp of balsamic and soya sauce, let it reduce, the apple juice, let it reduce, the stock, let it reduce. Pass the whole thing through a sieve (remember to place a bowl underneath… I’ve been there!) and the sauce back in the pan; discard the onions etc… Back on the hob with a bit of fresh cream, keep stirring and reduce again until smooth and a little bit thicker.
For the Pork Burgers…
Well, in a hot oiled pan, few minutes on each side, I just get the colour done on the pan and I finish them for 10 minutes in a hot oven. Serve with a bit of blanched broccoli, green/ French beans and enjoy with a glass of farmhouse cider but a Burgundy Chardonnay would work quite well too!