GIY (Grow it Yourself) Weekly Column – November 23rd 2013
Toscana Dublin Restaurants win Good Food Ireland Grow It Yourself Award 2013/2014
by Michael Kelly
Regular readers of this column will know that we’ve been talking a lot in GIY about restaurants and hotels that are going one step further for their customers, linking land to plate in a very real sense by growing their own food. We’re seeing the stirrings of a revolution that might eventually lead to a point where, driven by a passion for the freshest and tastiest ingredients, Dublin and indeed Irish restaurants and cafes will become food producers in their own right. And who knows, perhaps eventually the food grower becomes as valued a member of the team as the head chef.
It’s perhaps fitting that this should be case in the same year that RTE aired a documentary about Myrtle Allen at Ballymaloe House, where under her stewardship, they have been literally walking the walk on this issue since 1964. Just how incredibly groundbreaking she was, is shown by the fact that the mainstream is only now starting to catch up with her almost 50 years later. Undoubtedly the cookery school that her daughter-in-law Darina established nearby has had a tremendous influence in this regard, sending chefs out around the world that have a deep understanding of where food comes from and a love of the freshest, seasonal ingredients. Famously, the first day of the Ballymaloe cookery course involves the trainee chefs being sent to see the compost heap and sow their first seeds. It need not be said that this wasn’t exactly the norm in other catering colleges – but, it just might be in the future.
If Ballymaloe was at the vanguard, others are now embracing the idea that homegrown might indeed be the tastiest/freshest food for chefs to work with and for customers to enjoy. This is happening across the price spectrum from fine dining restaurants such as The Cliff House in Waterford and Mount Falcon in Sligo; restaurants such as Harry’s Restaurant in Donegal and cafes such as Café Rua in Castlebar.
This week, we were delighted to sponsor a brand new GIY award at the 2013 Good Food Ireland Awards. The shortlist included the aforementioned Ballymaloe Cookery School, as well as two other fine country houses that grow their own, Ballyvolane House in north Cork and Rathmullan House in Donegal. Interestingly, it also included restaurants in towns and cities that don’t have much space for food growing, including Café Rua in Castlebar, The Yard in Wexford and Restaurants in Dublin City Centre Forty One on St Stephen’s Green. Needless to say it requires some creativity from the owners or chefs to acquire homegrown food in these circumstances.
The winner of the award was PJ and Dee Betuci’s wonderful Italian restaurant Toscana on Dublin’s Dame St. www.toscanarestaurant.ie PJ is a chef with telltale callouses on his hands from many hours spent in the veg patch at his home in Co. Wicklow. Pasta is made from fresh eggs from their own hens, while regulars are often sent home with a present of a little bag of fresh salad leaves. Restaurant waste is brought back to Wicklow to close the circle of soil fertility, while PJ has been known to stop his car on the way to work to climb a cherry tree in search of ingredients for that night’s dessert. There’s an authenticity then to the tagline on their menus: “Our Passion is Growing”