Last weekend, team SFT were excited to attend the Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine, a new festival in the grounds of the legendary Ballymaloe House and Cookery School, in West Cork. 
Founded by doyenne of the Irish food movement, Darina Allen, the weekend of workshops, debates, tastings, cookery demonstrations and guided foraging walks, played host to a stellar line-up of international food writers and former cookery school students.

Diana Kennedy, Joanna Blythman, Sandor Katz and Ben Reade in conversation at Ballymaloe

Speakers such as Ben Reade, from the Nordic Food Lab, Sandor Katz, pioneering fermentation activist, René Redzepi, head chef of Noma, and Diana Kennedy, proudly named the Mick Jagger of Mexican Food and still sparky at 91, came from across the globe. As Darina fondly told us, nobody invited had said no, with those who couldn’t make the date promising to attend next year. The large numbers of inspirational authors and chefs were a credit to Ballymaloe’s international reputation, and gave the festival a special atmosphere; part public event, part food movement reunion of friends. 
The number of prominent speakers only serves to highlight the love and high-regard held for both Darina, and her brother, Rory O’ Connell. Darina is a tireless ambassador for Irish food both at home and abroad, a longstanding food writer, TV chef, head of the Slow Food Movement in Ireland, and patron of the Irish Seed Savers. The motivation behind the cookery school, festival, and much more of her work, stems from her desire to help people reclaim food, empowering them through the provision of forgotten skills and knowledge.

Inside the kitchen at Ottolenghi pop-up dinnerSure enough, the festival attendees were a well fed crowd, but the calibre of the discussions and workshops proved that this was not simply a gastronomic jolly. Instead, the festival focused on the potential of literature to help preserve our food memories; to document recipes and safeguard traditions. Practical workshops ranged from bio-char charcoal making, to seed saving, to cooperage (cask-making) and ‘bog butter’, made on-site for the first time in 250 years. Cookery demonstrations came from Yotam Ottolenghi, Rene Redzepi and Rowley Leigh. Discussions asked: What’s driving new interest in old techniques? What does the future of food publishing look like? and can we divide fats into good and bad? Gastronomic musings from authors such as Simon Hopkinson and Tom Parker-Bowles lightened the tone, and reminded us that the revolution will be delicious!

The wide range of subjects discussed demonstrated just how fundamental and far reaching food can be. In the words of René Redzepi, ‘food is the last true analogue experience.’ In a world where everything is becoming increasingly downloadable, food is the last bastion of the tangible, direct, and purely sensory. 
Although much of the line-up centred on the celebration of waning, forgotten or artisanal skills, this was by no means a simple celebration of the old ways of doing things. Whilst it was definitely charming that the book shop scribbled down customer’s bank details in pencil to be later processed elsewhere, the inclusion of Noma and the Nordic Food Lab created challenging conversations about the role of old techniques versus modernist culinary invention. We debated the role of insects as a sustainable future source of protein, and challenged the chefs with claims that the sous-vide method strips chefs of the incentive to learn to perfectly poach fish (Diana Kennedy) – or that non-stick pans mean that we no longer remember how to oil a skillet (Joanna Blythman).

Fertile ground at Ballymaloe

The take-home message was that we need to look to old knowledge of diets, cooking and preservation techniques to create a viable blueprint for a sane and progressive style of food production. Any supposed divide between science and craft was proven arbitrary, with the general consensus being that we can harness the power of science to create quality and consistency of results, whilst utilising the skills of our ancestors to nourish ourselves and the bacteria we depend on.

 For us, the Ballymaloe Literary festival did a superb job of connecting food to bigger food system issues, and reinforcing the importance of the community and culture that good food helps to create. To say that this festival has huge potential for growth would be an understatement, and with sponsors already committed for the next 3 years, we’d advise you get your 2015 tickets sharpish.

Extreme Greens with Sally and John McKenna

On a wet, blustery beach neighbouring Ballymaloe House with leading commentators on Irish food, Sally and John McKenna, we spent some hours learning how to eat the shoreline. The McKenna’s are experts on all things food related, having authored ‘All the best Places to Eat, Shop and Stay in Ireland’ and won countless food writing awards. Sally also blogs about wild food and foraging and recently published Extreme Greens, a guide to understanding seaweed, and the reason for our excursion.

 We congregated at low tide, and with two members of the Noma crew in tow, and set-off across the rocks to survey Ireland’s rich offering of over 150 seaweeds.

Collecting seaweedUnlike mushroom foraging there are no enemies in disguise with seaweed, just some varieties that are more preferable to the palate. Serrated wrack, carrageen moss and dulse were all abundant and delicious, whilst pepper dulse, “the truffle of the sea,” was worth the risk of an encounter with customs as we smuggled it home. The Butter Vikings were also with us, and had used some of the extraordinary pepper dulse to produce a beautiful, rich, earthy truffled butter that we agreed would be stupendous melted a-top a well-cooked steak.

Sally McKenna

Knowing the marine environment, and how seaweed grows is key to successful foraging and understanding how to harvest sustainably. We were taught to avoid pulling seaweed up from its “hold fast,” the lower part which roots it to the rock and instead to cut a small patch, say, a branch of seaweed, from each plant, avoiding the destruction of any habitats and the wider ecosystem. 
Sally held that seaweed provides 10 times more calcium than milk, 50 times more iron than spinach, and umpteen times more vitamin C than orange juice . Its role as one of the first documented umami foods, and relative abundance on our shores, means that seaweed really is a food worth taking seriously. It can be eaten raw or boiled, and your imagination seems to be the limit to the way it can be served.

Fermenting fruit from Sandor Katz

A definite highlight of the weekend was a 2-hour fermentation demonstration by an enthusiastic Sandor Katz, who did a remarkable job of keeping the crowds engaged on a noisy and difficult stage. To an outsider, it might have seemed like we were stood in a cold barn watching a man grate cabbage, but Sandor’s practical information and enthusiastic advocacy made us feel that, really, we were learning the secret to a long, healthy and happy life.
 We discussed kraut to kimchi, yogurts to pickles, and were especially interested in the alcoholic results of fermenting fruit. One of our favourite new ideas was for fruit kimchi – a twist on the traditional Korean fermented vegetable side-dish that can be spicy, sweet and sour all at the same time, and eaten with pretty much everything. This version includes fermented fruit, adding sweetness and just a little bit of alcohol into the mix. Sandor is far from recipe orientated, so use your gut instinct rather than treating the recipe as gospel. 
Here’s how to make a start:

Use roughly equal parts of vegetables and fruit, 1 kilo of produce will fill a 1 litre jar.

1) Any fruit will do, preferably seasonal. Although apples can get a bit mealy. Sandor suggests plums, pears, grapes, berries, pineapples or bananas. Chop into strips or chunks of no more than 1cm thick.

2) Kimchi vegetable suggestions: 1 small head cabbage, 1 red pepper, 4-5 radishes, 4 carrots. Typically in kimchi, vegetables (not fruit or spices) are soaked in brine for a few hours first, then the excess brine is poured off. Use a brine with salt content of 1.5% of the vegetable’s weight and enough water to cover.

3) Crush the fruit and veg until enough juices have come out to cover them within the kilner jar. You only want air gaps at the top of the kilner.

4) Add chili peppers, ginger, garlic, and shallots or leeks or onions.

5) Add around 1.5% salt, or salt to taste.

6) Add all ingredients to a kilner jar, seal the lid and let ferment for less than a week at room temperature. Start tasting after 3 days as fruit sugars will ferment away fast. 

If you get any mould on the top of your jar do not fear, spoon it off. The area below that has not been exposed to air will be fine and safe to eat!

Images by Joleen Cronin

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