An American, a Finn, an Englishman and an Irishman walk into a food festival…
Last Saturday we rocked up to Ballymaloe in the Insert Title delivery van, not entirely sure what to expect from the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food & Wine. What exactly was a “Literary Festival of Food & Wine”? Would there be books on food and wine? Would there be actual food and wine? Would we get to meet famous chefs? Would I be drunk and well fed, soon? The short answer to all of these questions is “yes”; the long answer is…
Somewhat cranky from our cramped journey up from the city we decided to take an early lunch, have a pint, and take stock of the rest of the day. Journalists must always be hungry for knowledge but never actually hungry. So, like our ancestors before us, we set out in search of vital food, albeit better dressed and a little more discerning in taste.
We found ourselves making a b-line for The Big Shed – which is not just a quirky name to create a false sense of the rustic, it actually was just a really big shed – and were immediately assaulted by a wall of mouth-watering aromas. Artisan breads and cheeses were in the air, spiced meats and curries too, but alas, it was love at first sight when a gentleman crossed my path carrying the BBQ plate.
Before lunch we made a brief tactical sweep of the shed, ensuring that we weren’t missing out on any hidden gems, and were surprised at the variety and quality of craft food available. We split up and reconvened our multicultural menagerie under the rays of our closest star – which was looking brighter than usual – with our haul of goodies.
The Englishman showed his roots and opted for a veal ciabatta from Broughgammon, which was reportedly “tender, moist and full of flavour.”
To The Rocketman went the American, opting for the healthy choice of a tub of varied salads. Her meal consisted of hummus, chickpeas, a beetroot & wheat grain mix, and a number of “blow your head off” pickles. According to the yank, the salad was amazingly delicious, a cut above what you generally expect from a salad, and as filling as a plate of meat.
The Finn, a vegetarian for the most part, patronised the Root & Branch stall, ordering a salad pitta that was devoured in moments and declared a crunchy, short-lived, triumph.
But the undisputed champion of the lunch time culinary rumble was Gubbeen Farmhouse’s spectacular BBQ plate. This mountain of southern style BBQ treats might have seemed a little steep at €10 a plate, but there was enough there to share with your whole family and still have some left over to take home to granny. Smoky ribs, melt in your mouth brisket, delicious pulled pork, and glorious chunks of sausage, were topped off with gherkin, pickled orange, BBQ beans and two slices of sour sough, in case you wanted to make a sandwich (you did). Best enjoyed with a pint of Metal Man Pale Ale under the envious gaze of your loved ones.
Our hunger now sated, we had a mind to take in some of the famous lit fest demonstrations, hopefully ones that included some more booze and food. As luck with have it we were just in time for “Irish Whiskey matched with Farmhouse Cheese, with Seaneen Sullivan.”
Everybody likes cheese, everybody likes whiskey, and, I’m sure if everyone had met Seaneen, they’d like her too. Squished into an intimate corner of The Big Shed we paired various whiskeys and cheeses while listening to this extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic speaker, who displayed such frantic enjoyment of the subject that it was impossible not to be enthralled. Seaneen spoke very highly of Irish whiskey, in particular of single pot still whiskey which she described as “our birth right” and should always be paired with food. The highlights of this visit were the Yellow Spot 12 year – paired with gruyere style cheese, honey and apple – and the Red Breast 21 year – paired with a sumptuous coffee from 3FE Coffee poured over gourmet ice cream – who we would revisit later that day.
Two highly anticipated events that we unfortunately missed, much to the chagrin of the Englishman, were sold out well in advance of the festival and both on the subject of foraging. “Cocktails with Nick Strangeway and the Ballymaloe Gardeners”, was a foraging excursion in the Ballymaloe gardens, followed by a talk on making cocktails with your freshly picked vittles; while “Foraging with Alys Fowler & René Redzepi” was a chance to seek gourmet foraging advice from one of the world’s greatest chefs. We did however manage to catch a glimpse of the Noma Chef, René Redzepi, just kinda walking around the place, eating things, as many of the world famous chefs at the festival did.
With so much to see and do at the festival we were faced with many difficult decisions over which events to attend and which to sadly miss, but, after a pick me up coffee from the Filter coffee stand, we resolved that the responsible thing to do would be to not mix our drinks, and attended another whiskey tasting.
The “Single Pot Still Whiskey Presentation” was an absolutely fascinating presentation with Master Whiskey Distiller, Brian Nation and Master of Maturation (Midleton Distillery) Kevin O’Gorman, as well as the loquacious and oft hilarious whiskey writer, Dave Broom. Single pot still whiskey, in case you didn’t know (I didn’t), is a particular style of whiskey made from a mixed mash of malted barley and unmalted “green” barley in a pot still. It was originally conceived as a way to save money on malted barley tax but ended up producing some unique and complicated new whiskeys. The technique has since fallen into obscurity, despite creating flavours and aromas of whiskey otherwise unobtainable by more common distilling methods.
Brian Nation guided us through the lengthy distillation process and with him we tasted clear (whiskey actually gets its colour from the barrels during maturation) un-matured distillates, the building blocks of their prized Redbreast range. The distillates, somewhat watered down so as not to blind or maim, while initially presenting with an over powering gasoline smell, gave way to more subtle flavours when examined closely; the first presented with a grassy aroma and pear notes while the second introduced the subtle spicy tones that would be integral to the fully matured Redbreast.
Kevin O’Gorman introduced us to the world of Whiskey maturation, a world where casks are a prized and increasingly rare commodity. With him we tried whiskeys flavoured with Midelton distillery’s two key seasoned casks, the Tennessee refill bourbon, which kicked like a mule, and the much sweeter Malaga Sherry Butt, which had a fruity warm finish.
Finally renowned whiskey journalist, Dave Broom, guided us through the main event, the complete Redbreast range, 8 years, 12 years, and the coveted 21 years. The 8 and 12 years were similar in taste – with a superb mouthfeel, light, fruity notes complimented by leather, caramel and a spicy finish – with the 12 feeling like stronger, more refined version of the 8, but the 21 year was a different beast entirely. Carefully matured for 21 years, an age most Irish whiskey never gets to, 21 had almost no smell and yet presented with a burst of flavours on the tongue, changing dynamically as it rolled slowly from the front of the mouth, across the tongue, and then meandered, burning gently, down the gullet. A revelation and the highlight of festival.
A little drowsy after the whiskey tasting with hit the street food stall in an attempt to bolster our energy but only succeeded in forcing our group into a food coma. We decided to cut our losses and call it the end to a great day but resolved to come back next year, this time with a more precise plan of attack in order to maximise our eating and drinking of stuff.
This article was written by Shane Ormond and appeared on his blog: http://inserttitle.ie/still-crazy-ballymaloe-litfest/