Rachel Allen's Atlantic coastal cook-out
Rachel Allen's latest culinary adventure, along the west coast, wasn't all plain sailing. But, the chef tells Jeananne Craig, the trip reminded her how much she loves Ireland
THE sun didn't always shine during Rachel Allen's recent road trip along Ireland's stunning Atlantic coast, but the chef and writer insists that was all part of the charm.
"When the weather wasn't great, it was wild and dramatic and windy. We had a couple of boat trips that did more than clear out the cobwebs," says Allen, who spent a month journeying along the coast from Cork to Donegal.
She visited numerous foodie locations en route – and each stop-off forms a chapter in her new book, Coast, which is packed full of recipes inspired by her 'culinary odyssey'.
There was Sneem in Kerry, where she met black-pudding-producing butchers; Galway city, to stock up on farmhouse cheese, and Rathmullan House on the shores of Lough Swilly, where Allen sampled some locally brewed Kinnegar beer.
"The characters you meet along the way and their passion is just wonderful," says the author and TV presenter, who teaches at the Ballymaloe Cookery School.
"I also learnt how to free-dive for crabs and went snorkelling, looking at different seaweeds. I was constantly learning."
Allen believes Ireland's gastronomic output in recent years has helped reverse the opinion that it houses a "nation of potato and cabbage eaters".
"Our produce is just the best in the world – when you think of our amazing seafood, our dairy, our meat, because of all our wonderful green grass and our grass-fed animals – it's just fantastic," she enthuses.
"I think it's wonderful now that so many more chefs have confidence in our produce. We're importing less all the time. It's wonderful seeing people going for local produce and really showcasing it wonderfully by doing simple things to it."
Allen took what she learned on her road trip back to share with her pupils at Ballymaloe. The Dubliner was 18 when she enrolled in a course at the school and met now-husband Isaac (son of chef and Ballymaloe founder Darina Allen).
The mum-of-three, whose children range in age from six to 15, admits that despite the long days and distances involved, her journey up the Atlantic coast was "probably easier" than her usual day job.
"We were staying in little hotels, guest houses or bed and breakfasts, so all I had to do was eat an evening meal and collapse into bed," she says with a laugh.
Try these recipes from Coast:
:: IRISH ONION SOUP WITH BLUE CHEESE TOASTS
(Serves four as a starter)
600g onions, peeled and cut into 5mm thick slices
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1L chicken or beef stock
150ml double or regular cream
For the Blue Cheese Toasts:
8 x 1cm thick slices of baguette, white yeast bread or sourdough
75g blue cheese, crumbled
Melt the butter in a saucepan large enough to take the onions. Add the onions, season with salt and pepper and stir. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook for one-and-a-quarter to one-and-a-half hours, until the onions are very deep golden brown. You'll need to stir the onions and scrape the bottom of the saucepan every few minutes while cooking.
When the onions have caramelised, add the stock and bring to the boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the cream, bring to a simmer and season to taste again with salt and pepper, then take off the heat.
When ready to serve, preheat the grill, then toast the bread on both sides and cut into smaller pieces, about 4cm. Pour the hot soup into heatproof bowls and top with the toasted bread. Crumble the blue cheese over the top, place the bowls under the hot grill and cook for one to two minutes until bubbling.
:: RAW BEEROOT, FETA AND AVOCADO SALAD WITH TOASTED ALMONDS AND BALSAMIC DRESSING
(Serves four to six as a starter)
30g whole almonds, cut lengthways into three slices
180g raw beetroot, peeled and sliced on a mandoline or a vegetable peeler 1-2mm thick
One large ripe avocado, halved, stone removed, peeled and flesh cut into about 18 slices
30g watercress, separated into little sprigs
30g red onion, peeled and sliced on a mandoline or vegetable peeler 1-2mm thick
90g feta cheese, crumbled
Few pinches of sea salt flakes
For the balsamic dressing:
1tbsp balsamic vinegar
2tbsp extra virgin olive oil (the best you have)
Pinch of fine salt
Twist of black pepper
Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas mark 6. Combine all the ingredients for the balsamic dressing and set aside.
Put the almonds on a baking tray and cook in the oven for three minutes until golden under the skins. (You can also do this in a frying pan on a medium-high heat.) Set aside.
Arrange the salad ingredients evenly on the plates: a layer of beetroot, about three slices of avocado, sprigs of watercress, red onion slices, crumbled feta, a pinch of sea salt flakes and a scattering of toasted almonds.
Drizzle each plate with a generous one to one-and-a-half teaspoons of dressing and serve immediately.
:: Coast: Recipes Inspired By Ireland's Wild Atlantic Coast by Rachel Allen is published by Harper NonFiction.