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A slowly simmering affair

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SHARED PASSION: Clodagh and Sebastiano are involved in the Slow Food Movement, which stresses the importance of family
members preparing meals jointly and then sitting around together enjoying the meal

SHARED PASSION: Clodagh and Sebastiano are involved in the Slow Food Movement, which stresses the importance of family members preparing meals jointly and then sitting around together enjoying the meal

SHARED PASSION: Clodagh and Sebastiano are involved in the Slow Food Movement, which stresses the importance of family members preparing meals jointly and then sitting around together enjoying the meal

While they are both heavily involved in the Slow Food Movement, it would be fair to say that the relationship between celebrity chef Clodagh McKenna and her partner, Sebastiano Sardo, was a bit of a slow-burner in its own way.

It took several years from when they first met in 2002 to becoming a couple in 2006. Clodagh had actually initially developed a really good friendship with Sebastiano's identical twin brother, Renato, as he was advising her on her first big event -- the organisation of the Slow Food Festival, in West Cork.

"Renato couldn't come to the festival, so he sent Sebastiano instead, because they thought that most people wouldn't know the difference," chuckles Clodagh, who grew up in Montenotte in Cork.

The following year, the pair met at a conference in Naples, where they had a "little fling", and they kept in touch through work after that. It was when Clodagh went to Italy with her friend Regina for two weeks in 2005, and visited Sebastiano's home in Bra near Turin for New Year, that they realised there was something between them.

"I was attracted to Clodagh, as she's very good-looking, and we clicked quite immediately," says Sebastiano. "I was quite a merciless singleton, and maybe a bit spoiled, and wasn't thinking of getting involved in a relationship at the time. We've had some good arguments, because I suppose I wasn't used to giving explanations to anyone initially. I really admire the fact Clodagh is much more focused than me, but not in a tough way. She moves you towards her goals, in a way that you don't even know you're being moved."

In some ways, it was no surprise that Clodagh ended up living abroad, as between the ages of 11 and 18, she spent the whole of every summer travelling around France with her exchange friend, Anne Rosanne, and her parents, both of whom were college professors.

After school, she went to the Sorbonne in Paris to study French politics, literature and culture, and then got an academic scholarship to New York University, to do a business degree with marketing.

"I was always a bit of a free spirit, and loved the thought of being away," says Clodagh, who is the youngest of four. "My mother, Irene, is a bit of a free spirit herself, and she went back to study law when I was a teenager. She encouraged me to go and explore to see what I could do."

After college, Clodagh returned to Ireland, with a tentative idea of setting up a chain of coffee shops, but realised that she needed to learn about food.

"I remember crying on the stairs about it, so Mum got a loan from the credit union for me to do the Ballymaloe cookery course," she says. "I loved it immediately; loved making things and learning about food, and the touch of food and feeling of cooking. I felt there was something maternal about creating meals for people, and I enjoyed learning about Irish producers, as I hadn't even thought of food culture in Ireland up to then."

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Clodagh was invited to stay on as a chef for three years at Ballymaloe, and started running the Ballymaloe stall at the farmers' market in Midleton. This led her to working on the markets full-time, and setting up markets by herself. Since then, Clodagh has written books and newspaper columns on food, and her first book, The Irish Farmer's Market Cookbook, was published last November. She regularly appears on TV, with a current RTE 1 series, Fresh from the Farmers' Market, and is the spokesperson for Aga cookers in Ireland for 2007/2008, creating many recipes especially for Agas.

She got involved in the Slow Food movement through Giana Ferguson of Gubbeen Cheese, although she admits to being a bit hesitant at first, thinking it was an exclusive food club.

"Giana gave me carte blanche to run Slow Food in Cork," she says. "While there are other important dimensions, like education and knowing where your food has come from, to me, Slow Food is a philosophy. It's about looking at the importance of families preparing dinner together, and sitting around the table at six o'clock every day and enjoying it together."

Sebastiano grew up in Bra, home of the Slow Food Movement, with his mother Irene, Renato, and younger brother Stefano. He was immersed in its ethos from early on, as his father Piero is a famous cheesemonger in Italy, and one of the founders of the movement.

After school, Sebastiano went to study law, and worked as a lawyer in Modena for three years, but returned to Bra when he realised he preferred to work in the area of food. He is now a food consultant, and is known as the "The Database", because of his extensive knowledge of Slow Food producers and products all over Europe.

Apart from wanting to live with Sebastiano in Italy, Clodagh felt that she knew the Irish food industry inside out, and relished the challenge of living in another food culture where she could have the opportunity to develop herself further as the kind of food writer that she wants to be.

She and Sebastiano are now living in a beautiful apartment in the centre of Turin, and are working together on several food festivals, including one in Earl's Court in London. They come regularly to Ireland for work, and are planning to write a series of food and travel guides, starting with Ireland and Italy.

"Sebastiano is so easygoing, and is quite the opposite of me because I'm quite demanding in a relationship," says Clodagh, with a smile. "I'm very energetic and want to be doing things all the time, but he's so laid back and has a wonderful way of thinking about life and people.

"He has the same perspective on food as me, and we both think that really good food should be available to everyone. I'm working with Supervalu on it, and he's working on projects in Italy.

"And we both hate food snobbery, and would prefer to spend €20 at an osteria, rather than €300 on a Michelin-starred meal."

www.clodaghmckenna.com


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