by Trish Deseine
Hachette Cuisine, 2015
Trish Deseine taught the French to cook in the 1990s. She taught them about their own food at a time when a lot of the more affluent sorts had forsaken their kitchens for the convenience of entertaining with foie gras, toasted brioche and Champagne; or something good from the traiteur.
Such French writers as had become established as culinary authorities were ageing, somewhat forbidding and considered old-fashioned. Trish was Irish, blonde, beautiful and young. Soon she was a best-selling cookbook author and a kind of national treasure.
Born near Belfast into a farming family, she went to school at Belfast Royal Academy in the 1970s and then to university in Edinburgh. She left for Paris in 1987.
Her story is well told on BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme in an episode that you can listen to here: The Food Programme: Trish Deseine goes Home.
Her latest book is a remarkable work, one that brings together the food of Ulster and the rest of the island in a way that has not been done before. In terms of Ulster food, she is the true heir of Florence Irwin, author of The Cookin’ Woman, but with Home (published in France as Mon Irlande) she has achieved something quite unprecedented.
As someone who is equally at home in North Antrim as in West Cork (she lives, some of the time, near Ballydehob these days), and indeed, as in Paris, Trish Deseine is an original. She has broken new ground. Growing up, she recalls, there was no question of heading south to college, or for any other reason. Her background was solidly Ulster Presbyterian. It was after a couple of decades in France that she started to discover the other Ireland.
Mon Irlande was launched in Paris (at the Irish Embassy), while Home was launched in Belfast and in Ballydehob (where I was honoured to cut the metaphorical ribbon) in the basement of Daly's remarkable pub).
In terms of food writing she is, refreshingly, not a purist but a realist. Her approach to food is utterly democratic, rooted in the lives of real people and not the air-brushed idealism of the food snobs. Indeed, a lovely photograph of commercial bread wrappers (including - oh the horror! - Brennan’s) that features across two pages of her book, has ruffled feathers. She may have been crossed off a few Christmas card lists.
The recipe that hit me between the eyes on first opening Home (I don't know how that translates in Mon Irlande) was for Hangover Blaa, which involves just three items: the floury Waterford bap itself, soft Irish butter and a packet of crisps (“ideally Tayto”).
This set, for me, a very comfortable tone. The second recipe upon which I lit was for Baked Apples with Porter Cake Crumbs and Whiskey Custard. Not only does it read deliciously, the picture makes me want to lick the page; I was also transported back to being eight years old, delighted as my mother took stuffed Bramleys from the oven.
For every few recipes as nostalgic, homely and as rooted in place and time as Soup Mix Soup With Bacon Bits, there are dishes from cutting edge chefs like Kevin Aherne of Sage in Midleton (and of the 12 mile menu fame). For example his Beef Carpaccio, Black Pudding, Cracking and Onion. Or Robbie Krawczyk’s Seashore (which involves a ceviche of monkfish, a squid ink emulsion and edible sand).
And then, flicking on, we have the legendary Ulster fry.
In an age when cookbooks are created by teams of faceless and nameless drones for over-exposed celebrities, this is very much a real book. You simply know that it’s born of experience, of a life lived. It’s exuberant in its celebration of pleasures, both simple and complex and, significantly, it’s a thing of beauty.
Yes, it’s a beautiful object. It’s big, it’s weighty, it has wide margins and elegant typography. Above all it’s liberally adorned with the painterly photographs of Deirdre Rooney which, more than any other I’ve seen, use the somewhat, revealing light of Ireland to brilliant effect.
If you buy one food book this year, make sure it’s this one. It’s forty euros exceptionally well spent.