Sunday, 24 October 2010

Savour Kilkenny - Foodcamp and the importance of eating local

Bring your own lunch and some to share at foodcamp
Im just back from a trip to Kilkenny after spending a fantastic few days at Savour Kilkenny and on Friday at foodcamp. A first for Ireland, Foodcamp was organised to allow chefs, foodies, farmers, food prodcuers and all those involved in food boards to get together in the one place. 20 different sessions were held over the day, all in a spirit of not advertising but sharing best practices, ideas and inspiration. Unfortunately sessions were held across 4 different rooms which meant it was almost impossible to decide which to attend and as a result I missed some fascinating sessions. The ones I most missed were on Honey by Philip McCabe and Lucy from's talk on health tips for foodies.

Those that I caught were fantastic and some of the many things I jotted down during the sessions and panel  included some of these facts:

  • More than 15% of the worlds baby food is produced in Ireland
  • now gets over 40million visitors per month, up more than 60% since the beginning of the year
  • 78% of us trust peer recommendations most. 
  • Marketing through Social media is the most efficient (and cheapest) way of marketing when done right
  • Most Irish artisan producers have had a 20-30% increase in business since last year (despite all the doom and gloom)
  • In 2007 41% of Irish people considered the term "local food" as food from Ireland, now that number is only 10% with almost half considering it as food from their own neighbourhoods
  • With over 15 million acres of land for fishing accesible to Irish fishers we export more than 80% of it out of Ireland. 
  • Delia Smiths favourite blue cheese is Cashel blue (completely random fact from John McKenna)
There was such a positive message from all speakers and a real sense that people were trying to innovate, find new ways of marketing cooperatively and trying to make life better for all Irish food producers. Wendy  spoke about bringing up her 6 kids on a farm and inspiring her youngest and his friends to look forward to their lives as farmers. She also spoke about the movement of women innovating on farms around Ireland, something I remember a lot from all the female farmers who started cheesmaking when things were tough talking about while at Ballymaloe.
prized mushrooms
Sally McKenna of Bridgestone guides and Donal Doherty of Harrys restaurant spoke about the importance of social media in building food businesses and some fascinating stories of small producers who have done just this. Donal showed a slightly obscene video on how to catch razor clams and I was lucky enough to win some amazing mushrooms including a massive cep that he had picked on his mushroom hunt. I cant wait to get these to a frying pan with butter!

One other talk I attended was by two lovely food bloggers Caroline and Kristen  who were announcing the new Irishfoodbloggers association. Im looking forward to getting my teeth stuck into this website!

All in all the key message I took from the day was the importance of supporting local Irish food producers as spending money locally on food produced locally is one of the key ways of getting our economy growing again. Needless to say no further encouragement was needed and I came home with a nice piece of smoked trout from Goatsbridge along with some lovely Knockdrinna goats cheese.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Vietnam - Saigon cookery school

I have tried to get a cookery class in on a few of my last holidays and every time this has ended up as one of the best bits of my holiday. Even if you arent crazy about food its a brilliant way of meeting people, getting to understand the ingredients and methods used in what you have been eating while away, staying in from the maddening humidity and in this case also getting to see ingredients that would be far too intimidating to buy and try out in a hotel room!

In Ho Chi Minh City we visited the Vietnam Cookery Center. As we were there during the rainy season the class we went to on a Saturday was fairly quiet and there was only four of us that met our teacher and translator early in the morning at the Ben Thanh market. The other half of the class were an American couple living in Manila, one half of which was the incredibly talented and lovely Abby Mott.

I really enjoyed the market trip because despite being in the same market a few times over the previous few days there were parts that I felt intimidated by visiting and although I really wanted to know what some of the fruit and veg were I knew that they wouldnt be able to explain them to me. Having a guide walk us around was great, even if the teacher wasnt buying that much within the market itself. 
Millions of dried shrimp

As we walked through the market we were shown as many mountains of dried shrimp as mountains of rice, dried fish and fruit. In visiting the meat section of the market we saw how every single piece of each animal was used (no pictures here as it was far too close to my breakfast) including the tails and ears.


The back part of the market was probably the most interesting as there were little stalls that sold the ingredients just for the one thing that you were making much like all of the restaurants we had seen that only serve one meal,  like everything you need for making Pho or the herbs used with Banh Xeo alone. There were stalls that sold nothing but a variety of eggs, including unlaid eggs which took me a while to figure out. 

Unlaid eggs
There was also a large fish section to the market which was divided into further sections for freshwater and saltwater fish. This seemed to be the only part of the market where there was a distinction between the different areas and the reasoning we were given was due to Bird flu strangely enough. 

Most of the work was being done by women in this part of the market, whether it was skinning frogs, shelling clams or knocking out and scaling fish. I couldnt help but feel that if we had such an impressive market in Dublin that I would have felt any less gob-smacked by how everyone went about their daily business. 

I would love someone to prepare mis en place for me at home!

Once we got to the school we sat and had tea before going to our perfectly prepared workspaces with these perfect arrangement of mis en place in little bowls. Almost all of these little bowls were used in each of the 3 recipes we made. If I remember correctly there were shallots, spring onions, soy, lime juice, tamarind paste, fish sauce, chicken stock granules, chopped chillies, garlic, salt, pepper and sugar. 

Our menu for the day consisted of
  • Spring rolls with mushroom, pork, crab meat and prawn and a fish dipping sauce
  • Sour Clam soup with dill
  • Caramelized pork served in a clay pot with rice steamed in coconut juice
The recipes all had such a delicate balance of flavours and textures and were enough to convince me that the simplicity of everything I tasted over the few weeks had a real complexity behind it that one day in cookery school was never going to teach. 

This is the last of my posts on my holiday in Vietnam but if you would like to see some more pictures you can review some more here  and you can enter my competition to win some coffee from Vietnam here

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Ngon Lam Viet Nam

Before I went to Vietnam a lot of people told me that I wouldnt want to see so much as a grain of rice for months afterwards. For those not so keen on rice this definitely wasnt the case. Theres plenty to eat that is not rice, as long as you are keen on noodles!

The food, like the coffee was fabulous and addictive in its freshness.

The minute we hit the hotel the first stop was Pho 2000 a speciality pho shop that was seriously and very rightly proud of serving Pho to Bill Clinton on his visit to Ho Chi Minh city. Even veggie daughter Chelsea had some pho at the time, although after a few weeks in Vietnam Im pretty sure that there was no such thing as a vegetarian pho and that all pho is made with a good stock using plenty of bones!

Pho is almost always served with plates of fresh herbs, chillies, lime wedges and bean sprouts. Its an incredibly tasty and complexly flavoured broth with rice noodles and meat. Saying this, after having almost a bowl of this a day the quality varies massively, its all down to that initial stock and the spices that are used in the making. When I asked at the cookery school we visited about pho recipes I was told that it would take 3 days of teaching to learn how to prepare the perfect stock No surprise then that a lot of places that serve pho (and many other places for that matter) serve only one or two dishes in total.

One of the places I was most excited to visit in Saigon was Com Nieu Sai Gon which came heavily recommended by Anthony Bourdain on his show . This place was the first and only place that I tasted Ban Xeo, which had been much recommended before going to Vietnam. When the plate arrived I didnt have a notion that what you are meant to do is wrap the pancake stuffed with bean sprouts, bits of pork, shrimp in the many different leaves to the right before dipping in fish sauce. What cant be seen in the picture is the very fat rat that crawled out from behind our table after our first few bites. I didnt get to finish the Ban Xeo but wasnt crazily keen on trying them again after seeing the rat.

The best thing we did foodwise was take a 4 day motorbike trip up through the central highlands in Vietnam. Once we got out on the road every bite we ate was very local and extremely fresh. We saw fruit and veg grow on either side of the road for 200 odd kilometres every day.

The picture on the left is of the food that was brought to our table at a truck stop miles away from anywhere. The bits that I remember from this were chicken cooked in a clay pot with lemongrass and chili, morning glory, an omelet, a veg soup with beetroot and some fried pork - all amazing.

This trip was where we also had one of our more interesting restaurant visits with our guides. We had absolutely no idea what we were going to as we walked down an alleyway between houses to a building that looked like it had been built in someones garden. The only thing we knew is that chances were we wouldnt be getting a menu.
Soon after we arrived a little gas burner was brought out with plates of seasoned goat meat with lettuce leaves, sliced green banana, starfruit slices, cucumber, tomatoes, loads of fresh herbs and rice paper pancakes.

Little bowls were brought out with fish sauce, birds eye chillies and satay sauce for dipping.

Our guides fried up the goat and instructed us on how to dampen the pancake, what to add and how to roll (one of my better specimens above). There is always something quite fun about making your own dinner and having plates of such fresh ingredients to chose from made this my tastiest as well as most fun meal washed down with quite a lot of banana rice wine.

As I quickly learned to say "Ngon lam" (pronounced mon lamb) - that was delicious.

The best however was yet to come.  I was fairly squeamish about this so Im going to put these photos behind that little "read more" link down there. Whether or not you read on, dont forget to enter the competition to win some Vietnamese coffee!

Friday, 8 October 2010

Vietnam competition - Coffee

Drinking coffee is not recommendable as a cure for jetlag but not drinking coffee is almost impossible when in Vietnam, the second largest producer of coffee in the world, where it appears to be grown on almost every bit of spare land.

Coffee is almost always served in one of these little phin filters. It has a small chamber for coffee and water and sits on top of a second filter. It is almost always served in a glass so you can watch the coffee drip down which can take anything up to 5 or 6 minutes, or as the Trung Nguyen descriptions explain at a rate of approximately 65 drops per minute (I havent tried counting).

Coffee in Vietnam is thick and strong and almost chocolatey in taste and texture when served alone. When served with condensed milk it becomes something almost magical as the sweetness and slightly caramelized flavour add to the depth and richness.

Mostly I drank the coffee with ice (ca phe sua da - something I learned how to say before I could say hello in Vietnamese!) which tastes not far off the best coffee ice-cream that you could imagine. It is however equally good without the ice. Strangely it was normally served with a glass of iced tea for you to enjoy while you wait for the coffee to drip.

To win some very fantastic Trung Nguyen coffee and one of their stainless steel phin filters (much nicer than those pictured) you just need to leave a comment telling me about your favourite foodie holiday destination. Ill be chosing a winner at random on the first of November across the answers left here and on facebook.

This competition is now closed. Congratulations to Mair who entered over on facebook. The prize will be on its way to her within the next few days