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Last Monday, the 12th September, we hosted a dinner for Food&Wine magazine, a showcase event you might call it. We’re always a bit nervous about getting involved with things like that, our natural instinct being to just let them pass by and carry on doing what we do day by day, week by week and season by season. But there was something irresistible about the timing of this one, given that it gave us a chance to do a showcase dinner at a prefect time of the growing season. Well, it would have been perfect if the summer that never happened wasn’t one of the weirdest growing seasons in recent memory. Still, it hit a couple of unpredictable highs. One was the artichokes. I’ve written here before about Ultan Walsh’s artichokes, particularly when he moved his crop from one part of the field to another in 2010.
Well, that smart idea went up the Swanee when the ferocious winter killed off most of the plants. Undaunted, Ultan decide to get better, feistier seed and, in an act of ferocious faith, planted an even bigger area of artichokes last Spring. Here’s a thing about artichokes I didn’t know, or knew but forgot – the first year you plant them they crop in late summer, then subsequently revert to being spring vegetables. Honestly, you’d have to be a dedicated farmer to keep up with that kind of carry-on, so it’s as well we have one on board. Chefs can hardly figure out what’s going on in the next five minutes, so it’s as well someone else is managing the source. The upshot of the artichoke transplant and resowing meant we had a supply of beauties through August and September, and Food& Wine caught the last of the picking.
We braised the artichokes in white wine and stock and served them with a citrus aioli, mint oil, paprika-flavoured walnut crumb and the first of the autumn crop of borlotti beans from…where else but the mecca that is Gortnanain Farm.
The lucky crowd of forty diners also got the tail-end of the summer squash flower season. For years now, Ultan has been growing various squash plants especially for their flowers for Paradiso, moving from courgettes through a couple of other experiments before settling on a squash whose name I can never hold in my brain for more than five minutes. It’s Italian, bullet-shaped, like an elongated yellow pattypan or scallopini, and it produces the best flowers for cooking – pretty, large, firm and possibly tasting of the sweet nectar of summer sunshine. The miracle is that the plants produce beautiful flowers even in Irish summers. We stuffed them with Knockalara fresh cheese made from summer-grazed sheep’s milk in Cappoquin, fried them in a delicate tempura batter and served them on a little pile of basil-scented scallopini with a sauce that tasted of complex sweet and acidic sunshine but consisted only of sungold tomatoes slowly cooked for hours. Nothing else. I learned that from the man who grows them, add nothing and let them speak for themselves. If ever there was a dish that expressed the beauty of summer in Ireland, it is that one. Plants gather up the precious minutes of warmth and light and make sunshine from scarcity, like children holidaying near windy beaches in Kerry or West Cork.
That was followed by a dish focussed on chanterelle and hedgehog mushrooms gathered on the hills in the Cork-Tipp-Limerick border country by the intrepid forager family headed up by a woman who can only be known by the name of Mary Mushrooms. The long version of the story would take pages, the short version is Mary was at the train station in Cork when she said she would be with the quantity of mushrooms she promised, and wearing a spectacular hat she made herself, probably while waiting for the damn things to grow in this most peculiar of summers. We cooked them in a butter flavoured with reduced cider, cinnamon, nutmeg and a hint of clove, and plopped them over a timbale of potato and the last of the summer chard leaves, with some grilled figs on the side.
The last course was blackberries, was always going to be, given the time of year, a curd tart served with a simple ice cream of buffalo ricotta made by Sean Ferry – he of the legendary Gabriel and Desmond cheese – with milk from Johnny Lynch’s‘s herd of buffalo near Macroom. Buffalo in Macroom? Why not, it’s rebel country, no better place for them.
For the kitchen, and the dining room too, it was an interesting and reflective way to spend a Monday night, a way to say this is what we do and this is now, this moment in our work. Tomorrow will be different, and next week it will be autumn, the summer produce gone and so we will have to adjust our minds and our work to new ingredients. Leeks, pumpkins and roots are on the horizon and Paradiso is looking forward to the changes they bring. It was an extra day’s work for everyone involved but one that we all embraced as a way to pass from one season to the next.
Next year, we plan to host similar seasonal tasting dinners at peak times of each season. There will be one special evening in spring, summer, autumn and winter. Keep an eye out here for announcements about dates, or sign up to the mailing list to get advance notice of dates.
Posted on: 15 September 2011