Catherine Fulvio takes stock (and oysters)
It's been described as Downton Abbey meets Upstairs Downstairs, but according to Catherine Fulvio, a more accurate description of Lords and Ladles (geddit?), the new RTE cookery programme which she's co-hosting, would be "like Two Fat Ladies, except there's three of us." And except two of them aren't ladies. The other two chefs involved are Derry Clarke and Paul Flynn, and with the input of a team of historians the programme also has overtones of the highly successful Who Do you Think You Are? series.
"Basically we go into big old houses and castles and every week the jobs rotate", Catherine explains. "Each week one of us is the host and meets the owner and covers the food history as well as the family history - various wars they fought in, and so on. Another person does the gathering. And another person creates a historical menu; the 'youngest' menu we made was from 1902 and the oldest dated back to the 1600s."
These days a lot of cookery programmes focus on speed and ease of preparation, but in halcyon times, Catherine says, long, involved menus were the order of the day in the big houses of Ireland. "There was a lot of game, rabbit, turkey, as you'd expect. Oysters appeared a lot of times on the menus but interestingly they were mainly used as a seasoning, in stews for instance, to add flavour. What was really weird were the desserts. We had one made from potatoes, which was sweet and had a very odd texture. There was one particular dish that is due a comeback: it was a saddle of venison wrapped in buttered paper. Derry and myself couldn't believe it - the meat was melt-in-the-mouth."
The best TV chefs summon flavours with their words, and Catherine's enthusiasm for food is infectious. Having grown up on the family farm in Ballyknocken, Co Wicklow, she is the embodiment of the vogueish 'fork to farm' maxim. "My own mother had a bed and breakfast and cooked three meals every day, and I grew up in that environment. We grew everything ourselves. I loved it all and accepted it as a way of life."
If the childhood wonder of gathering eggs and baking bread provided her with a grounding in cooking, it was a stint at Ballymaloe that helped hone her skills. After the untimely passing of her mother, which "left the whole family in limbo", she returned home to take over the cooking in the bed and breakfast. She decided to expand the business by converting the old milking parlour into a cookery school.
It seems fitting that a foodie such as Catherine would have married an Italian. She and her Sicilian husband, Claudio, have passed on their love of food to their two children, Charlotte, 11, and Rowan, 9. The day Catherine decided to make a go of things with the cookery school, Charlotte was still a newborn baby. "I was trying to do a cookery demonstration in the dining room and all I could hear was her crying in the background. And I couldn't concentrate. I felt terrible for the poor child. And I looked over at the milking parlour and had the idea to turn it into a cookery school."
In recent years her career has gone from strength to strength, but, she says, if she had to do it all again she might find things more difficult.
"At the start, you have all this incredible drive. I don't know now if I had to do it all again would I have quite the same enthusiasm."
During the boom she noticed that a huge amount of people wanted to make sushi, but that fell away during the recession as people sought out better-value meals.
"Things are coming back now, or so it seems" she says. "People have a little more money. Who knows, maybe sushi might make a comeback too."
Lords and Ladles begins on RTE 1 on June 7 at 6.30pm and runs for six weeks.