That lovely Renault 4...

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  •  Guild of Food

A little piece we wrote for the Guild of Food Writers magazine, marking (almost!) twenty years of writing about Irish food...

Almost twenty years ago, my wife Sally and I decided to write a book about the sources and producers of Irish food. At the time, I was a barrister working in Dublin, but actually not working very much at all, as the country was deep in recession, and plagued by emigration. My wife, with that autodidacticism so prevalent amongst women, had begun to write some restaurant criticism for one of the Irish broadsheets, despite having no background in journalism.
So, we could use Sally’s six months of experience, I would take a sabattical from my non-existent practice, and a friend with a little publishing house had promised to publish the finished result, so that was that.
All that stood in the way of replicating the success of influences such as Patricia Wells were that we had no money, no transport, and no idea whatsoever about who made Irish speciality food and where they lived and worked. And, the lease of our flat was up. Intelligent people would have been deterred, but there is, mercifully, something so reckless about people in their twenties who have an idea, that obstacles which are so obvious to everyone else, are utterly invisible.
Our lovely bank manager lent us a few grand, and the first thing we did was solve the transport question by buying a Renault 4 for £100. The car wasn’t actually running when we bought it, and when we towed it in to a local mechanic, Malachy, and explained our plans to tour the country in this elegant vehicle in order to write our book, we asked what he recommended.
“Prayer”, he said.
Almost twenty years later, and the journey is still underway. Perhaps it was Malachy who said a little prayer for us as he fixed the car, but something kept the Renault 4 going for 20,000 miles as we met the people who then constituted the embryonic Irish speciality food culture.The hard core of farmhouse cheesemakers had formed an association – Cais – just 5 years before, but otherwise everything about the artisan food sector in Ireland was subterranean. In fact those words which are now so common to describe food cultures – artisan; organic; bio-dynamic; speciality – simply didn’t exist in the vocabulary of hand-made food.
There were no farmer’s markets, and almost no delis and specialist shops. Myrtle Allen’s Ballymaloe House had created a new paradigm in cooking and dining – the country house – but many who copied the idea were exceptionally wan. In Dublin, good places to eat were few, and were concerned more with swankiness and something called “fine dining”, a concept which seems to me to be more to do with snobbery than with good food.
Despite this, we persisted, inspired mainly by the intelligence, creativity and generosity of the people whom we met and wrote about. Had we encountered a bunch of people as dull as the lawyers I had formerly associated with, then I am sure we would have given up. Instead, we met people whose capacious depths are so profound that I find, even having written about many of them for two decades, that I have still only scratched the surface of what drives their creativity.
The first book, “The Irish Food Guide”, appeared in November 1989, and eighteen months later we agreed a sponsorship deal with Bridgestone Tyres, which allowed us to create a new stable of books which we could publish ourselves. So we set up a little company, Estragon Press, which most people continue to refer to as Oestrogen Press. Sometimes it’s hard to make yourself understood.
We are artisan publishers, living and working up a hill in West Cork, our own business a reflection of the very people we write about. What we think we have learnt is that a food culture is indivisible: the chef thinks like the cheesemaker who thinks like the bio-dynamic farmer who thinks like the sausage maker, and all of them are brilliant, and a little crazy. We are seeing the children of the original artisans taking up the reins of business, and bringing commercial savvy and extraordinary optimism and confidence to these enterprises. We write about these people and their foods, their restaurants and their places to stay in the Bridgestone Guides, and in tandem with their growing stature an audience has developed who seem to enjoy the idiosyncracies of our books, so we no longer have to explain why 5-star hotels are usually out, whilst folk who collect sea vegetables by hand around the coast, or who make brawn, or who rear Moile cows, are in.
Above all, we have had a ball. To be able to chart and describe a food culture as it develops from embryo into early adulthood, has been enthralling. We have been allowed to write about sincerity, and goodness, and generosity, which has meant that our own enthusiasm has never diminished.