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Mona Wise talks Wild Food with Biddy White Lennon & Evan Doyle

Mona Wise © 18 July 2013.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Food Writing · Interviews ).
WildFood cover

As I sit and type these words, I am scraping the plate and muffin wrapper from one of the recipes in Wild Food (The O’Brien Press) a book written by not one, but two of Ireland’s most exceptional food writer/chefs.

Page 156 – Wild Bilberry Cheesecake Muffins  . . . Buy this book – if for nothing else – this recipe.

I spoke with Biddy White Lennon for almost an hour and she was a delight to chat with about food, family and foraging. Evan, a little more reserved but incredibly quick witted, gave me a run for my money when we discussed culinary education at second level (or lack thereof). He, with his engaging way of imparting wisdom, set me straight.

So how did this book come about? Biddy explained,  “The ‘eating local movement’ has finally reached main stream thinking and foraging has caught on. Evan has been doing this for 25 + years and now people are trying their hand at it. Maybe it is austerity driven. Maybe parents see it as a way to amuse their kids for free. When it comes to eating foraged food there is something so unique and unidentifiable about the flavour. Something that will never be found or experienced in cultivated food.” Evan agreed, “Working on the book with Biddy forced me to put an entire year of foraging on paper. A lot of recipes were written at 1:00 am in the morning because I am working all day at The Strawberry Tree in The BrookLodge Hotel.  I think that people are finally ready to get out there and try new things.”

As a food writer and blogger  myself, I wondered if they felt that the Irish are street smart about food? Are they healthy eaters and have a healthy attitude to their diets, food and food provenance? Biddy told me, “It’s really hard to tell. They are still only teaching the very basic ‘survival’ cookery skills (if at all) at second level. I wonder why the modern movement of food and baking hasn’t encouraged more education? Don’t Mothers still cook at home with their children?”

I interjected here and we chatted for a while about the whole convenience food ‘cooking’ lifestyle that many households have succumbed too, due to both parents working and there being very little time to swan around markets at the weekend. Convenience shopping, purchasing ready-made sauces and pieces of meat with the seasonings soaked in, is still the norm in many busy households.

Oddly enough, families hit a little harder by the recession with one parent at home, might live on a tighter budget but cook from scratch a little more because they have what we all want … more time.

Evan felt that “In general – the Irish are improving and starting to understand. There is still a massive problem with people buying convenience food vs real food. If people would adjust their eating habits to eating what is in season they would be so much better off. Buying fruit when it is in season and at its peak is the cheapest way to source it, and it will taste the best. Strawberries are in season right now in June. We should not be looking for them in December unless they are in a jar – because you bought them in bulk and preserved them.”

They are both preaching to the converted in speaking to me of course, as Ron and I grow most of our own veg and certainly make a valiant effort to eat local and in-season foods all year round, but I am not sure that the majority of people living in Ireland are thinking and shopping along these lines just yet.

There seems to be a commonly held belief today that organic is the ‘only way’, and organic often equals expensive, but as Biddy put it, “Foraging (which is all organic) is free for goodness sake. I think that if you go to a restaurant or shop that sells or serves locally foraged food, then they have to charge a certain price for it because they have done all the work. Businesses that take this seriously have full time (paid staff) foragers on their payroll.” Evan added, “Real organic food is traceable with good animal husbandry being evident. You can be sure your piece of beef lived and died well. Your wild rocket was not sprayed to death and your chicken did not come from a massive clutch of 30,000 indoor-bred birds.

‘We all know that cheaper foods are available, but at what cost do we ingest them? Our health will suffer. Already, the nation is sinking under massive debt and once the obesity epidemic erupts and more people are hospitalised with illness resulting from colon disorders and diabetes, it will be too late to save the nation.

We are starving our children by feeding them processed foods. They are never satisfied because they are not receiving the right nourishment from ‘real’ food.”

I wondered if they felt that there is a food revolution happening in Ireland? Are we matching the standards in the UK and Europe? Evan believes that “for yonks there has been evidence of a food revolution in Ireland but it is not evolving too fast. The government needs to implement a ‘Green Public Procurement’ law, which would ensure all schools/colleges and hospitals would purchase local and organic foods, thereby providing the healthiest supply of food to the unwell and to our future leaders of this country, our children.” That said, he told me, “There is currently something underway which will be a massive step forward for our kids. This year, ten trail schools will take on a new module in the second half of transition year, where students will be taught real cookery skills, in a kitchen with real (euro-toque) chefs.”

Good food is all about education, and I asked these two chefs if they felt that cooking with a relative was a way develop and create family food traditions. Biddy told me, “I always always cooked with my son. My bible has been a book called The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency by John Seymour. I have turned to it so many times over the years and every one should have a copy. We were raised in the city but had a summer shack on the outskirts where our parents used to send us. They gave us money for food but we would rather forage for free food and spend the money on Ginger Beer back then. Whatever you do, do it together as a family, the foraging, the cooking and the eating.”

Evan agreed, “Taking my kids out to a restaurant always cost a small fortune, because they ate everything, so cooking with them at home was the norm. Don’t put words into your children’s mouths. If you find yourself stating ‘little Johnny won’t eat …’ stop what you are doing and let the child taste the food. Hunger is always the best sauce. Stop cooking several different meals for everyone in the house. Just make ‘one dinner’ and sit down and eat it together – every day.”

We ended here on a somewhat sad note. I was sad my time chatting with them both had come to an end. I was sad to discover that Evan’s restaurant (The Strawberry Tree) is still the only organic restaurant in the country (when there are 100 + in Italy and 70+ in France).  I was sad that I lived on the west coast and they on the lower east side of the island because they were so warm and chatty I would have loved to have had supper with them to hash out some of the bigger topics we tried to  steer clear of like why Chefs are still putting foam on plates and when might the sauce skid mark die out . . .soon we hope; and how we might manage to re-name Veal, which got a bad rap 20 years ago but is now standing out in the field and might be one of the best pieces of meat available to us in Ireland … were we not exporting it all to the continent.

Their beautiful book ‘Wild Food’ is the perfect marriage between food writer Biddy White Lennon and her good friend and colleague Chef Evan Doyle. The book comes (hardback) in a handy 196mm x 130mm size, small enough to fit in your bag and tote with you when you foray into foraging.

(c) Mona Wise

A native Galway girl, Móna Wise spent 15 years in the United States where she met and married her husband, Chef Ron Wise. Wise and her husband’s first cookbook ‘The Chef & I. A Nourishing Narrative’ (May 2012) depicts their life together and the many wonderful meals they have shared with their friends and family. They also co-write a weekly column for The Sunday Times, and Mona has a popular food and review blog at www.wisewords.ie

Read Mona’s article about building a writing career from a blog, here: Mona Wise, Blogging to Success

About Wild Food

Wild Food is a fantastic new guide to foraging which reveals the secrets of how to identify, pick, preserve and cook the most common wild foods that grow in our hedgerows and woodlands and on our hillsides and seashores. Packed with helpful tips and advice on gathering, preparing and cooking foraged foods, this combined field guide and cookbook was inspired by the growing interest in wild food and foraging in Ireland today and is the perfect introduction to harvesting nature’s bounty. It includes:

  • Where to look, what it looks like, how to pick.
  • A guide to foraging through the seasons: nettle, dillisk, carrageen, garlic, sea beet, samphire, St George’s mushrooms, sorrel, hawthorn, elderflower, sea lettuce, strawberries, chanterelles, bilberries, field mushrooms, blackberries, damsons, ceps, elderberries, hazelnuts, rose hips, sloes and more.
  • How to prepare and preserve your foraged finds.
  • Over 60 delicious recipe ideas, including tempting treats from The Strawberry Tree at The BrookLodge Hotel.
  • Traditional uses for common wild foods.
  • Great gift ideas for family and friends and lots more.

Read Interview chronologically.