Thursday 14 December 2017

Home sweet home: Catherine Fulvio explains why Judge Judy is her dream dinner guest

She'd spend a lotto win on vegetables, Judge Judy is her dream dinner guest, and she was once asked to become a nun… Our reporter travels to Ballyknocken House and discovers that Catherine Fulvio has more surprises than just the recipes in her new cookbook.

Catherine Fulvio at Ballyknocken. Photo: Naomi Gaffey
Catherine Fulvio at Ballyknocken. Photo: Naomi Gaffey
Catherine Fulvio in the garden at Ballyknocken, Photo: Naomi Gaffey
If she won the Lotto, Catherine Fulvio says she would spend it on vegetables. Photo: Naomi Gaffey

Orla Neligan

Catching up with Catherine Fulvio is a little like trying to have tea with the queen - she is in perpetual mid-flight mode, always coming and going with numerous projects on the go. A cursory look at her professional output is impressive: TV shows, radio slots, cookbooks, magazine features, cooking demos, cookery classes. Today, she has just finished a photoshoot when she bounds into the room apologising for being a few minutes late.

It's been five years since I've seen Fulvio and I'm a little irked. As I catch my appearance in the mirror of the Ballyknocken House sitting room, where I am enjoying some tea and cake and a good dose of that familiar Ballyknocken hospitality, I realise that in that time, I've probably aged about 20 years whereas she is still looking youthful and sprightly, with not a filler in sight. A vision of pared-back glamour and domesticity, she looks exactly the same. Correction: she actually looks younger, radiating a wholesomeness akin to a plant-eating, bone-broth sipping 25-year-old. Grrr.

Fulvio is notoriously secretive about her age. She did whisper it to me some years ago and I've been sworn to secrecy (or she'll "have to kill" me).

But, she is quick to shrug off any compliments in favour of the 'girl next door' shtick. Her easy, down-to-earth demeanour informs everything she does, as do her years spent on the family farm in Ballyknocken, Co Wicklow.

"My style is Irish country farmhouse with an Italian twist," admits Fulvio. Farm to fork is seminal to what she does, having been European Union Ambassador for the Farm to Fork programme. "Where our food comes from is so important. We're lucky here in that we're surrounded by amazing produce, from elderberries in the fields to our own garden, and pear and apple trees."

As the second eldest of four, Catherine along with her siblings Paul, Karl and Eithne, were roped into work on the farm from as early as they can remember. Catherine's mum, who died from cancer when she was 56, ran the guesthouse, while her dad, Charlie, who lives next door but is now retired, managed the dairy farm until the Ballyknocken B&B got so busy he began helping indoors.

"Ballyknocken was a full-board guest house so that meant breakfast, lunch and dinner. My grandmother and mother were fantastic cooks; I'll always remember my grandmother making the soda breads every day. I learnt a lot from them," including churning butter, which Catherine admits was one of her least favourite jobs.

"It was a toss between that or collecting eggs from the hens that scared me to death every morning," she laughs. "I'd stick my hand inside the coop feeling for the eggs while hoping none of them were in there and then 'squawk, squawk', feathers everywhere and me running for the hills."

But the butter making was worse. "We had this old-fashioned churn with paddles. I used to try to get some speed up by turning the handle really fast," she motions rapidly with her arm, "so that I could take my hand off it and give my arm a rest."

At 16, Fulvio decided she'd had enough and, once she had finished her Leaving Cert, escaped to Dublin. "I couldn't wait to get away from the farm to the big smoke and all the parties," she adds with a wry smile. After finishing her degree in German and Irish in UCD, she went to Germany for a year where her curiosity for food stayed with her, and found herself in various bakeries asking for recipes for their traditional breads.

"I loved the Brezeln and would go around to all the bakeries asking them for the recipe. Nobody would give it to me so, being Irish, I made it up myself."

Fulvio, who had turned her back on the family farm and all its traditions, was now tasked to minding two girls in a boarding school convent in Bavaria, run by nuns.

"I had to get the girls up for mass every morning at 6am. I'd sit in the back of the church and go to sleep. One morning, a beautiful nun approached me and said, 'Frauline Catherine, we see you every morning at mass and would like to offer you an opportunity to join us.' Me, a nun!" she howls with laughter. Years later when she got married, the nuns sent her a recipe book from the convent along with a wooden spoon for good luck. "I still cook from that book. I actually learnt so much from the nuns, except how to have a life of celibacy," she grins.

Catherine met her Sicilian husband Claudio in a pub in Dublin and credits her time in Sicily with Claudio's extended family for her love and flair for Italian cooking. Tradition, it seems, is not dead in Sicily where the locals shop twice a day for fresh produce and farmers drive their three-wheel vans with their megaphones into town to announce their daily menu.

"It's fantastic to see. The women lower their baskets from their windows and shout out what they want. They're opinionated about food over there," reveals Catherine, "they'll tell you what you should be buying and then they'll tell you if you should have cooked it better." Catherine recalls cooking for Claudio's family - all 18 of them - when her children Charlotte (14) and Rowan (13) were just tiny babies.

She had managed to get her hands on a leg of lamb and had planned a traditional Irish roast dinner with all the trimmings.

"I wasn't going to cook Italian food for Italians." As she was pottering away in the kitchen the doorbell rang. "At least Irish people are polite enough to be half an hour late and can be 'held' in a different room by way of a drink," she laughs. "They were half an hour early, didn't want a drink but wanted to see what I was doing in the kitchen. Oven doors were being opened, fridges examined, the kids weren't dressed, I wasn't dressed. But they still talk about that meal as one of their favourites, so all ended well even finishing up with a private lesson on how to make limoncello from Claudio's cousin."

Although equally passionate about food, Claudio's style of cooking is somewhat different. "He's what I call an assembly chef," says Fulvio, eyebrow cocked. "He buys things half-made and assembles them. I'd cook lentils from scratch whereas he'd buy a tin, cook them with the best olive oil and place a pan-fried fillet of fish on top. It always tastes great, I'm not sure how because I think he's a cheat," she says, laughing.

Much like his relations, Claudio loves a good Irish roast dinner. Her daughter Charlotte, who was eating carpaccio of octopus at the age of four, eats just about everything. Rowan has more of a sweet tooth. Does she encourage them to cook with her?

"I do try. But nowadays it's very hard on parents. We're all so busy. If you're not working, you're ferrying them to sports practice and piano lessons so getting them into the kitchen to cook might feel like another chore. I don't put that pressure on myself. Instead, I make Sunday our family-cooking day. We put the radio on in the kitchen and everyone pitches in."

Home life is important to Fulvio. And despite the illusion of effortlessness, this year in particular she has felt the strains of her busy schedule more than ever. Filming for RTÉ's Lords and Ladles alongside her new TV show Tastes Like Home, which involved a lot of travel, the addition of her usual schedule plus a sixth cookery book has meant more time away from the kids.

"I feel so fortunate to be this busy but slightly overwhelmed at the same time." Part of the problem, she admits, is her lack of time management and the fact that she's 'a terrible chatterbox'. "I regularly get scolded by the TV crew for talking non-stop," she laughs. 

On the subject of her sixth book, A Taste of Home, she is visibly animated, pulling the book onto her lap while offering running commentary on each page. Its premise is still reflective of Catherine's homely farmhouse cooking style but with an Italian bent and a nod to Ballyknocken's much-loved hospitality - there's a whole chapter dedicated to breakfast, which they have been serving up for 50 years. I particularly like the sound of the roasted venison and the shallot and pear tarte tatin and who knew you could be so creative with herbs and salts?

"There are some clever ideas in there but the key is that everything is very do-able and there's recipes for everyday dishes to dinner-party dining. The baked oysters with bacon, for example, is ridiculously easy but not necessarily something you'd have on a Monday night, but works so well if you're having friends for dinner."

So, are there any surprises in the book?

"Loads," she emphasises. "The venison is a particular favourite inspired by a recipe I did for Lords and Ladles. It was wrapped in butter parchment and cooked on an open fire. I tweaked it to include a chorizo stuffing, the meat is so tender, it's delicious." Other favourites include the Ballyknocken drop scones, the curried mussel soup, strawberry and balsamic jam, lamb wellington and the antipasti platter which, she admits, she'd make for her ultimate dinner party guest, Judge Judy.

"Judge Judy?" I repeat, incredulous.

"She seems like she'd be good craic," offers Fulvio in defence. OK, so what menu would she prepare for the judge?

"I like the communal nature of the antipasti platter and it gives the chef a bit of a break in terms of cooking. I'd follow that with something Irish like the baked trout with fennel, lime and wasabi sauce and I reckon she'd get a kick out of my 'perfect fools' for dessert - a combination of gooseberry and elderflower and blackberry and rosemary fools."

A flick through her latest culinary instalment and it's clear that while she touches on her love of Italian food, this cookbook is more intimate and nostalgic, a return to her roots.

"It is definitely a reflection of me and my home. The recipes aren't aimed at any particular market. It's really the story of Ballyknocken and how we cook here."

The recipes are inspired from her passion for foraging and growing her own produce plus her of love of flavour with the humble vegetables standing to attention.

"Growing up in the '70s in Ireland, it is clear now how much of an afterthought vegetables were, usually boiled and left on the side of the plate. I think they should be treated as a separate dish, they need their own flavours and attention," she adds a little too emphatically.

So passionate is her love of vegetables that if she were to win the lottery, she wouldn't be splashing her cash on luxury yachts or villas. Instead, she would invest in a farm for proper full-scale vegetable and fruit production; her ultimate dream to distribute the produce into schools so children can get the benefit.

But in case you thought she was too wholesome to be true, it is probably fair to disclose she has an addiction to dark chocolate, cries during just about every movie she watches, doesn't believe in food fads or dieting and is terrible at camogie and the piano accordion.

Luckily, she's good at plenty of other things. Anyone who has seen Fulvio on TV will attest to her affability, which is evident both on and off the screen. Her warm, funny and natural ability to engage the viewer keeps you riveted.

The latest venture, Tastes Like Home, which airs on RTÉ this November, has her travelling around the globe meeting Irish people who live abroad and cooking a family favourite from home using local ingredients. She's just returned from Dubai where she stocked up on enough saffron from the spice market to last her a few years. She's sampled some authentic maple from a tree farm in Canada and had the best doughnuts she's every tasted in Portland, Oregon.

"I'd fly across the world for these doughnuts," she remarks seriously.

Is there anything she wouldn't eat? "Turkey testicles," said without hesitation. It sounds like an I'm a Celebrity Get me Out of Here challenge. "It was. The guy said they tasted like pâté but they really didn't," she adds.

Our conversation meanders into the 'challenging food' area and she recalls a story of an American lady who, when asked by Fulvio to chop some carrots at one of her cookery classes, told her it wasn't a carrot, they only came in small round circles.

"Growing up on a farm I assumed everyone knew how to cook. What I realise is that we are very lucky in Ireland in that we're closer to our food sources and we have a love, understanding and willingness to experiment with food. When it comes to food, you get out what you put in."

Her food philosophy falls in line with that of her business outlook: nothing comes easy. "Hard work is how you make money and try to be compassionate and kind - you get back what you give out."

I'm assuming she doesn't believe in luck then?

"There's an element of that," she admits as she remembers her first foray into TV when Lucinda O'Sullivan chose her alongside six other chefs to cook on live television to help promote her book. "I was out of my comfort zone completely but it's a sort of sliding doors moment when you think, if I hadn't done that, would I have this? You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable."

She is certainly secure now and if she had to give her younger self some advice it would be to believe in oneself and be confident in what you're doing.

"That and wait until you're 18 to do the Leaving," she hoots with laughter. "Oh, and be nice. My mother always used to say that."

Mothers know best.

Photography by Naomi Gaffey

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