Recently several members of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild took part in a couple of innovative events. Chefs led field trips, workshops, master classes in knife skills, and demonstrations of their individual methods of turning food from sea and land onto the restaurant plate. It proved informative, great fun and provided a chance hone our own knife skills in an enchanting way.
The special qualities of Mountain Lamb were revealed on one of the few dry days in June. Michael Quinn, at the helm for many years at Waterford Castle Hotel, brought us up the Comeragh Mountains to learn about William Drohan & Aidan Dunwoody’s black-faced mountain lamb. William had just been awarded the Food Hero Award at the Irish Restaurant of the Year Awards 2012.
William and his family are the sixth generation to farm sheep that graze on mountain commonage rights. The blackface sheep are a tough, hardy breed introduced into Ireland a couple of centuries ago to graze rough hill land. Unlike lowland breeds who herd together and don’t take a lot of exercise blackfaces spread out across the highest mountains and walk a lot to graze from an extensive menu of wild grasses, herbage and shrubs. This gives them their uniquely complex flavour, their lean flesh, and their seasonal availability. Lambing later and growing more slowly the first of the milk-fed lambs come into season in late July, running right through to February for the more mature lambs. William supplies lots of restaurants and they can also be bought online at fair prices. See www.comeraghmountainlamb.ie for more information.
Back in Waterford Castle, located on a tiny island just three minutes in a ferry from the mainland, we enjoyed a great tasting menu dinner of local foods (Michael Quinn thinks local when it comes to sourcing food). After a suitably late night, we assembled next morning in front of a lamb carcass for the knife skills element.
Assuring us a whole lamb could be boned for the restaurant table in 20 minutes Michael, over two hours, showed us in fine detail how to produce ‘chef-style’ cuts. It’s a world away from butchers’ style. Inspiring is the only word for it. At home, attempting to practice what I had learned, it took me half an hour just to bone and roll a shoulder! (For more info about this multi- award winning establishment on: www.waterfordcastle.ie.)
Sean Smith was the chef showing off his knife skills at the second event at the Cliff Town House in Dublin. Nestling in an oversized ice bucket where the restaurant oysters are normally kept were a fair-sized cod, a large turbot and a huge organic salmon from Co Mayo’s Clare Island (the nearest thing to the virtually unavailable wild salmon).
First Sean explained in some detail how to know if fish is really fresh. It was a shock then when Sean decided that one of the horrendously expensive fish delivered a few hours before was simply not fresh and would be returned and credit demanded. If a good customer and respected chef finds it hard to get fresh fish as promised, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Sean is a good communicator and we learned quite a few tricks of the trade as he flashed his knife and in no time at all had boned and filleted the turbot and salmon into various cuts to suit a number of classic dishes which he cooked up on a pan and a gas ring.
The Cliff Town House is a sister restaurant to the Michelin-starred Cliff House Hotel and Restaurant in Co Waterford. It has an all-day menu running from small bites to the full à la carte monty.