Award-winning dripping beefs up memorable meal
A celebratory dinner, at Avoca's Fern House Cafe in Kilmacanogue, turned out to be a night to remember, says Lucinda O'Sullivan
It was a bit like the Last Night of the Proms - one of those special nights you don't easily forget.
We were in the amazing Fern House Cafe at Avoca Kilmacanogue, a stunning contemporary take on a vast Victorian fern house, built in the grand style. As one who was dragged around the Botanic Gardens as a child on Sunday afternoons, the Fern House Cafe always transports me back to Glasnevin's magnificent Great Palm House.
We'd been invited, along with many other people in the food industry and media, by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers, and Simon Pratt of Avoca, to a celebratory dinner on the back of the stupendous success of James Whelan's beef dripping - which took the Supreme Champion Award at the Guild of Fine Food's Great Taste Awards 2015 in London.
The beef dripping had been in the top 50 best foods in the UK and Ireland for two years in a row, but this year it won a Golden Fork Award, the highest accolade from the Guild of Fine Food, and was then awarded Supreme Champion, chosen out of 10,000 entries of the most exquisite food and drink made by award-winning producers from all over the UK and Ireland. It's hard to overstate the significance and prestige of the ultimate award being won by an Irish producer in a UK awards system, and it is now on sale in both Harrods and Fortnum & Mason.
Pat Whelan is an extraordinary performer, not only on behalf of his own Clonmel-based butcher's business but also for the Tipperary Food Producers group, which he has championed all the way along.
Charles Campion, the English food critic and judge on the Great Taste Awards, who had lauded the beef dripping, loving the whole idea of getting back to old traditions, had come to Ireland for the celebratory dinner, as had John Ferrand of the Guild of Fine Foods. However, what we didn't know when we arrived at the Fern House was that the sale by the Pratt family of Avoca to Aramark (the US multinational food services company), had been completed that day - which, in retrospect, made the evening all the more poignant.
I first met Pat Whelan in 2011 at a Tipperary Food Producers' long table dinner in Rockwell College. That too was a memorable night, set in the dramatic surroundings of the college refectory, where, in the shadows of big stain-glass windows and statues of the Blessed Virgin raised high on plinths, two long tables running the length of this great hall were filled with some 100 people or more, wining and dining on the best of the Tipperary Food Producers fare.
It was a brilliant night, but the icing on the cake, when it came to atmosphere, was when the waiting staff burst into Nessun Dorma followed by a succession of other operatic favourites. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
It was at this event that Pat Whelan told me that he had been approached to open a shop by Simon Pratt - who, at that time, was on the point of opening the Avoca food hall and restaurant in Monkstown.
It was a completely different venture for Pat, but one which he embraced with gusto. It was also an alignment with Simon Pratt - and their mutual desire to be the best at what they do - which resulted in James Whelan butcher shops now also being in the Avocas in Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue.
The Avoca story itself really is an incredible tale of hard work and enterprise by the Pratt family, who over the years hit the nail on the head of what Irish consumers wanted to eat, wear and have in their homes. Cafes all over the country have tried to emulate the Avoca food formula, but never seem to get it right.
Simon Pratt will remain as managing director, and his siblings (Vanessa and Ivan) and parents (founders Donald and Hillary) will also be involved in the business.
Aramark can bring the brand to the UK and possibly the USA, as well as developing more stores in Ireland - but what everyone is hoping now is that the particular Avoca family formula won't change down the line.
But getting back to the dinner. Charles Campion told the assembled diners he loved the idea that it was simply called 'dripping', rather than something overly exotic, like Lardo di Colonnata, to appeal to more fopish foodies.
It reminded me of once coming across traditional "hairy bacon" wrapped in newspaper, hanging from hooks "maturing", in a very traditional pub in North Cork. The owners were getting a bit of flak from the health inspectors and I said to himself: "If we were in a little village in Italy everyone would be raving about the authenticity of a 'wonderful food tradition'."
We need to appreciate and respect our own traditions.
The sharing menu was suitably rustic with a selection of dishes, attributed to English celebrity chefs, incorporating the dripping.
We kicked off with homemade potato crisps with a caramelised onion dip, lamb sausage rolls with homemade piccalilli and Daniel Boulud's salt cod croquettes. Elizabeth David's classic boeuf bourguignon made from Pat Whelan's fabulous beef was served in great white tureens.
It came with big comforting rissole-style patties of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's colcannon and a gremolata of lemon zest, garlic and parsley. Nigel Slater's roast parsnips with honey, thyme and dripping also featured, as did crunchy hasselback potatoes with parmesan, and Tom Kerridge's warm tomato and onion salad with a beef dressing and sourdough croutons.
We finished off with a lovely caramelised lemon tart with beef dripping shortcrust pastry and washed the whole lot down with superb wines from Mitchell's wine store within Avoca.
Just as the idea for the beef dripping came from Pat's mother Joan, Pat has now developed a new Heritage Cure Ham using a recipe that gives the ham a very distinctive flavour and a hint of smokey hickory undertones. It comes from a recipe he recently came across in his grandfather's diary.
Anyone smell a new entry for the Great Taste Awards 2016?
Guess what we all came home with? A big tub of James Whelan's Beef Dripping.