So what colour comes to mind when you think of Ireland? It’s got to be green, right? After all Ireland is known as the “emerald isle”. And I don’t think it got this moniker because emeralds are naturally found there. No no no – it’s the grass, and clover, and all manner of crops that make Ireland such a green place. And of course the rain helps as well! So now imagine your typical Irish grassy field… what do you see? Probably not just an empty green field. Cows, perhaps? Definitely cows – lots and lots of cows. You probably know that Ireland has a thriving cheese industry (not surprising given all those cows), but did you know that Ireland is the biggest exporter of beef in the Northern Hemisphere? Yes, the NORTHERN HEMISPHERE. Given that Ireland is not exactly what you would call a massive sprawling country, that’s saying something!
So why my sudden preoccupation with Ireland, its grass, and cows? Well, the other day I spent some time on Irish soil without even leaving the UK. I attended a food styling and photography workshop at the Irish Embassy in London, which was sponsored by the Ambassador of Ireland and Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board). The idea was to bring a bunch of food bloggers together, give them a lesson in food styling and photography by someone who really knows what he’s doing, and then let them loose to practice what they’d learned with a bunch of Irish products (and then hopefully write about the event). Oh yes, and of course there would be some nice food to taste as well. Sound good so far?
There were about 20 food bloggers in attendance, and as we waited for the talk to begin we were treated to drinks and canapés… As I had not had dinner, I was liking that! The keynote speaker was Alastair Hendy, a man who cooks, writes about food, travels (often letting his stomach plan the itinerary), and does food styling and photography for various publications. AND he appears to be making a living doing this. Ok, so he’s pretty much living my dream life! He was an interesting and witty speaker, and he really does take killer photographs. I felt woefully inadequate when he was talking about things like ASA/ISO, shutter speeds, aperture size/depth of field. I just use a Canon point and shoot! Really though, I do need to invest in a better camera when the finances permit. Then I’ll really be able to put to use what I learned and dazzle you all with my shots!
After Alastair’s talk we split into groups to put what we’d just learned into action. There were 4 food stations – drinks, dairy, chocolate & sweets, seafood. I gravitated towards the dairy table, as there were (among other things) some lovely smelly cheeses there. Yes, I let my nose make the decision for me. It was really interesting to see different people’s approaches to food photography and styling. Some people were right in there with props & coloured paper, fancy lenses & tripods, and basically looked like professionals. I definitely had a few “I’m not worthy” moments. Others held back a bit. I even saw at least one other point and shoot camera – hey, we were making the best of what we had! I like to think it forces us to be more artistic…
Anyway, let me tell you about the produce itself. Because really that’s why we were there – to see some of Ireland’s best products showcased, and to photograph and write about them. I’ll admit now that I haven’t had a lot of exposure to Irish foodstuffs. I went to Ireland once 15 years ago, but I don’t think that really counts. That evening there was some lovely seafood (which makes sense given that Ireland is a big Island), lots of candy & chocolates (I hadn’t realised Ireland was such a producer of sweet stuff), lots of preserves and honeys (I brought home an interesting honey with blueberries in it), teas, alcoholic drinks, oats, Christmas puddings, and of course the dairy products. Now we’re back to the cows. I would have liked to have tasted some of the beef, but that was not to be.
But the cheeses. Oh my, the cheeses. Of all Irish products I guess it is the cheeses that I’ve had the most exposure to. However, I’d forgotten how good they were! That evening there was a selection of 6-7 cheeses including some lovely, creamy cashel blue, mellow Andrahan, and what threatens to become one of my favourite ever cheeses – Coolea. If you like a nice aged parmesan, vintage cheddar or aged Gouda, you will like Coolea. It basically is an aged Gouda. When I was told that the large wedge on the board was called Coolea I knew I’d had it once before – I’d bought some several years ago at Paxton & Whitfield in London. However, I couldn’t remember what it tasted like. Then I had a taste. Oh man was it good. Butterscotchy and smooth, with little salt crystals in it. I was lucky enough to be able to take a good sized chunk of it home, however less than a week later there’s not much of it left! I must speak to our local cheesemonger and get some in Oxford.
So what did I take away from this event? Well, there appears to be some nice food coming out of Ireland, but I would say that you don’t see much of it outside of London. It would be great to get more of it into some shops up my way. The cheese – I will try and use more Irish cheese on cheese boards we do for work functions, because there really is some quality cheese coming out of Ireland. The candy – let’s just say the boy and the girl were most pleased to receive some of the complimentary gifts I brought home. The jelly beans I sampled on the coach home certainly hit the spot… The preserves – I brought home honey with blueberries and blackberry jam. I love blackberry jam but it’s actually not that easy to find in shops so I was quite happy to have some of that. And the honey with blueberries – I had some the next morning on a piece of sourdough toast. Really really nice. There’s something rather special about purple honey with little chewy blueberries in it.
It was great that evening to see Anne, Bron, Jeanne, Pascale , and other bloggers I’d met during my brief attendance at FBC10. It was a lovely evening out – learning something new, tasting some nice food, talking about food, and forging new friendships. I’ve had much worse evenings!
Last but not least, many thanks to FoodMatters for pulling it all together.