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We Irish have had a fraught relationship with food for far too long. Generations were raised to see it as a crime to leave even the tiniest morsel on our plates. Instead of being encouraged to develop a taste for good food, we were told to consider ourselves lucky to have any food at all.
Is this a legacy of our past? For centuries, British landlords exported the finest Irish meats, butters and grains abroad and we subsisted on the leftovers, which amounted to little more than potatoes. When the blight struck and those potatoes failed, millions suffered in the resulting famine. From then on, we learned that what matters is not the quality of the food you eat but that you have any food to eat in the first place.
Thanks to the people introduced in these pages and many others like them, this is finally changing. We are learning to appreciate our food producers who make farmhouse cheeses and butters, cure meat, smoke fish and harvest vegetables that are among the best in the world. We are beginning to take pride in Irish food.
Donal Skehan is Ireland’s answer to Jamie Oliver. This self-taught cook shares Jamie’s passion for home-cooked food and through his food blog, cookbooks and soon-to-be-launched TV series, he is inspiring Irish people to follow his example.
“I believe everyone can learn how to cook,” says Donal. “Here in Ireland we have such wonderful produce. We should be proud of it and, even more importantly, we should make good use of it.”
Twenty-five-year-old Donal was raised in what he calls “a foodie family” in Howth, County Dublin. His parents ran a fruit and vegetable business, where he helped out from a young age. Members of his extended family also had an interest in food. His grandmother was renowned for her baking. Two uncles trained at the Ballymaloe Cookery School and his aunt Erica Ryan is one of Ireland’s best-known food stylists.
It wasn’t long before Donal took an interest in food too. “I remember the thrill of flipping my first pancakes,” he says. “Pancakes and cakes were what I made as a child but when I hit my teens, I took over my mum’s side of the kitchen and started making hearty home-cooked food.”
This is the type of food he continues to make today and it’s what you’ll find on the blog he started in 2007. Chicken hotpot, roast garlic shepherd’s pie and rhubarb crumble are some of the dishes you’ll find at www.donalskehan.com.
The popularity of his blog earned Donal a book deal. His first book got great reviews. He has just released his second – Kitchen Hero – and he is about to launch his TV show of the same name.
He thinks his success is due to the simplicity of his cooking. “People can be intimidated by books written by chefs,” he says. “My food is simple. It’s the type of food you can throw together at the end of a long day’s work.”
Although it may sound as though he was destined for a career in food, Donal first ventured into the world of music. He even had two Irish number one hits with his band ‘Industry.’
“Music and food were my main interests and I always knew I would pursue one or the other,” he laughs. “I grabbed the chance to sing when it came along but I knew my singing wasn’t as good as my cooking. I’d eventually come back to food.”
He continued to blog while touring with his band and four years later, he couldn’t be more thrilled to be involved in the Irish food scene.
“Irish food is incredibly inspiring at the moment,” he says. “The snobbery has gone and now we value what we have. Chefs are cooking with local, seasonal produce. We are going back to the roots of Irish food.”
Through his collaboration with Bórd Bia (the Irish Food Board), Donal has discovered that there is also a growing interest in Irish food abroad.
“I cooked a dish of Cashel Blue cheese and black pudding for 700 people in Paris in March,” says Donal. “They lapped it up. For the French, who are so informed about food, to be that interested in Irish food says a lot. It shows we really should be proud.”
Peter Ward is fanatical about food. Surrounded by farmhouse butters and cheeses, his wife’s homemade jams and all sorts of delicacies, it seems he thinks of little else.
“The excellence of Irish food is our oldest commodity,” states Peter. “Think of our milk products, black puddings and seafood. All of these compare with the best in the world.”
Peter should know what he is talking about given that he has devoted his life to food. Growing up in Navan, he lived in a house “where what was on the table was more important than the type of car in the drive.”