Irish Life: The Silk Road and the Kingdom
From a Middle Eastern cookery school to a book on Kerry food producers, it's a colourful world, says Lucinda O'Sullivan
Yotam Ottolenghi is quickly becoming the biggest name in Middle Eastern food, which is hot hot hot. People rave about his cookery books, Plenty and Jerusalem, while his TV programmes with their inspiring use of vegetables and fragrances enticed us in as he languidly dallied around the warm shores of the Mediterranean. For those of you who don't know, Ottolenghi is an Israel-born cookery writer and restaurateur whose father was an Italian-born professor of chemistry and his mother a German-born high school principal - so there are varied culinary influences in his background.
Like many others, he didn't enter into the food world until he was 30, studying first at Tel Aviv University and also working as a sub-editor on the news desk of Haaretz, the oldest daily newspaper in Israel. Moving to Amsterdam and then on to London, he took a six-month course at the Cordon Bleu cookery school there. On leaving, he achieved a job as a pastry chef in the high-end restaurants Kensington Place and Launceston Place, before becoming head pastry chef at Baker & Spice in Chelsea. It was here he met Sami Tamimi, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, and it was a culinary match made in heaven. They became firm friends, have written books together and, with a group of partners, opened their first Ottolenghi deli eatery in 2002 in trendy Notting Hill, going on to now have four branches in London including NOPI in Soho.
I adore Middle Eastern food, with all its fragrant influences and blends of grains and fruits, dates and almonds, cheeses and vine leaves, herbs and spices but, of course, I want more of it in Dublin. For me, the big part of any Middle Eastern meal is their mezze - a selection of small portions of various dishes -and then their desserts such as baklava, which is layers of fine fine filo pastry filled with honey and nuts.
So, I come to Abraham Phelan, who has been doing Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food here for many years in his very popular Silk Road Cafe, located in the Chester Beatty Library in the grounds of Dublin Castle. People arrive daily for Abraham's specialities, including aubergine stuffed with lamb, hummus, falafel, Lebanese pancakes, vegetable moussaka and chicken Tajien, the recipes for which he has generously posted on his website. Phelan, who has over 40 years' experience in cooking Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food, has just opened his new Silk Road Cookery School at the KCR Industrial Estate in Kimmage, where they have also created a food hall and a wonderful kitchen.
With over 40 cookery courses to choose from, designed to suit beginners as well as experienced home cooks, their first cookery class kicks off on Tuesday, with a Middle Eastern Mezze Session. Most of the classes last for two and a half hours and cost €65 but, coming towards Christmas, they are running longer Moroccan and Middle-Eastern Feast sessions at €120. They also have a series of children's classes. The maximum number in each class is 8-10 participants, who will gather around their specially crafted table, made by a carpenter who also has a business in the KCR estate.
"Abraham will be the main teacher here", said manager Rikke Sorensen Callaghan, originally from Denmark, adding, "I will be teaching as well - on the sweeter cake side. Abraham is more on the savoury side and we will have guest teachers as well." They are also very conscious of gluten-free demands from their customers in the cafe and have taken note of this element in their cookery courses. So if you want to know your tabbouleh from your fattoush, you know where to go - and you get to eat the food you cook.
By the way, at the Silk Road Cafe they do a rather novel afternoon tea with a twist. It is influenced by the wonders of the collection at the Chester Beatty Library. There are no finger sandwiches or scones but sweet and savoury treats from more than 15 countries. You get to choose five savoury and five sweet options from their menu, so think of things like falafel, lamb or vegetarian samosas, fish 'n' chip cones, tempura prawns, blini with smoked salmon topped with creme fraiche and dill, followed maybe by madgooga date truffles from Iraq, French macaroons, Castella-Kasutera cake (a Portuguese- Japanese honey cake) and, of course, baklava. The cost is €23 per person and you must book your afternoon tea one week in advance.
TJ O'Connor is one of those great people involved with the training of young people going into the hospitality industry. He is Head of Section, Hotel, Culinary and Tourism Department at the Institute of Technology in Tralee, Co. Kerry. He has just launched The Kerry Food Story, which is a wonderfully comprehensive 68-page book and directory listing over 150 local Kerry food and drink producers.
The publication is funded by the Kerry Local Enterprise Office and is free. The aim of the book is to remind chefs, distributors, hotels, restaurants, retailers and local customers of the wealth of home-grown and home-produced food that Kerry has to offer and to give them the knowledge and a direct way of sourcing it.
"We want to give a strong and vibrant message that Kerry is open for business in relation to food and drink and that we have some of the best producers not just in Ireland, but in the world," says O'Connor.
"Kerry has a magnificent larder of ingredients on its doorstep. We want to show how some of the top chefs in Kerry use their culinary talent and expertise to showcase this produce on the plate."
The book also includes a list of cookery schools, information on farmers' markets and festivals where you can buy produce, and useful Kerry websites to find out everything about local food and drink in the region. And of course, the book includes an extensive listing of producers who are geared up to sell local food and drink products to both businesses and consumers.
"Anyone who wants to buy more local produce and put money back into the local economy should ask for a copy," says TJ.
"The book will be distributed countrywide to all businesses providing food in an effort to encourage them to use local produce to provide people who live in Kerry, and visitors, with a unique experience. It will also be sent to top chefs and food distributors both nationally and internationally."
As well as giving you all the information on Kerry food producers, the featured chefs, who all trained at IT Tralee, share some of their favourite recipes with you.
Dan Browne, a lecturer in Culinary Arts at IT Tralee, shows how to cure Quinlan's mackerel and serves it with vegetables from Manna Organic. His second recipe uses Sean Browne's beef ribs, which he braises slowly in Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne Porter and serves it with an Annascaul black pudding pastie.
Philip Brazil, Head Chef at Sheen Falls Lodge in Kenmare, shares his recipe for roast fillet of cod with Kush mussels from Kenmare Bay and an apricot bread and butter pudding made with Valentia Island milk, Beaufort free-range eggs and Lorge chocolate. Simon Regan of Killarney's Europe Hotel shares his recipe of Ring of Kerry roast loin of lamb using chorizo from On the Wild Side and Dingle goat's cheese beignets. Simon won RAI Best Chef in Kerry 2014.
When Sandra O'Connor opened her Coffee Dock Cafe at Valentia Island, she says she never thought it would become so popular that she would need to train as a chef to expand her menu!
Her recipes in the book make the most of Valentia Island produce, with Valentia king scallops and prawns served with creamy mash enriched with Lee Strand milk and served with tarragon cream sauce.
Her buttermilk panna cotta looks like sunshine on a plate and it's no wonder when it's made with Valentia Island Farmhouse Dairy Buttermilk, Lee Strand Cream and Oilean Chocolate.
Theo Lynch of Allo's Bar & Bistro loves to mix raw and cooked ingredients; he shares his recipe for Fenit Bay crab meat with Ardfert potatoes and aioli in which he uses Cottage Lane eggs.
Caroline Danaher of The Boatyard Restaurant in Dingle also passes on her recipe for her 'From Pier to Platter Tartlet' using Dingle Farmhouse butter, cream and black pepper cream cheese. Patricia Teahan, Head Chef at Carrig Country House, shares her dish of Ballinskelligs duck with Fenit carrot and cumin puree whilst Noel Dennehy of The Moorings in Portmagee cooks fillet of Portmagee Pier hake with Daly's smoked salmon, Cromane mussels and Skellig crab claws.
Don't you just want to get up and head for the Kingdom right now! The book is available in hotels, restaurants and shops throughout Kerry or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. It can also be downloaded on issuu.com