All right on the night

The Irish Examiner

By Pól Ó Conghaile

Behind the clockwork-efficiency of the state dinner for Queen Elizabeth lay tales of last-minute mercy flights to Dublin, six-hour dashes across the country with smoked salmon and ‘forever secret’’ ingredients. Pól Ó Conghaile gets the real story

AS DINNERS go, it will take some beating. On May 18, 172 guests — their names reading like a who’s-who of Irish society — filed into Dublin Castle for a black-tie banquet with Queen Elizabeth.

Liam O’Flynn played the pipes, the queen addressed “a Uachtaráin agus a chairde”, and the crowd was wowed by a sensitive speech and a dress embroidered with more than 2,000 hand-sewn shamrocks.

In the headiness of the moment, of course, it was easy to overlook the food on the plate. Organised by the Department of An Taoiseach, the state dinner menu was designed by Ross Lewis of Michelin-starred restaurant Chapter One, and catered by corporate banqueting company, With Taste.

The menu showcased a stellar range of Irish food and producers, and it was only shortly before the event that many suppliers learned they had made the grade.

THE BURREN SMOKEHOUSE

“What an opportunity,” was Birgitta Hedda-Curtain’s reaction when Lewis called her at the Burren Smokehouse, asking if she would smoke some salmon for the occasion. “I was excited but you have to keep yourself contained and get it right. It was a great adventure.”

Birgitta and her husband Peter set up their smokehouse in 1989, and have since watched the Lisdoonvarna-based business grow into one of the most successful smokeries in Ireland. Products are mailed all over the world and, as of this year, are stocked at Fortnum & Mason in London.

As fate would have it, the morning before Lewis phoned, Birgitta had been speaking with one of her salmon suppliers, Barbara Grubb of Dromana House in Cappoquin, about wild salmon.

The window for netting this year’s strictly-controlled quota on the River Blackwater had just opened.

“It was unbelievable,” Birgitta recalls. “I drove three hours down and three hours back to get it. The draft netting season started on May 12, and I brought it to Dublin four days later. It was gorgeous fish. Ross wanted wild salmon because, flavour-wise, it’s the best you can get hold of.”

In total, she smoked eight fish for the state dinner. “It was only the queen’s salmon in the oven. When it came out, I did nothing to it. No vacuum-packing, no pin-boning, nothing. It was virginal. I drove it straight up to Dublin and hand-delivered it to Ross in the catering kitchen.”

When her salmon arrived, Birgitta recalls, the chefs immediately went about trimming it, pin-boning it and taking off the smoked skin. At the state dinner, it was served as a cream in the starter course, along with cured Clare Island salmon, lemon balm jelly, horseradish and wild watercress.

“Ross and I both tasted it, and it was fabulous,” she says. There’s a mischievous reaction when I ask whether the queen enjoyed it. “Of course she did — there wasn’t a spot left on her plate!”

GLENILEN DAIRY FARM

Meanwhile, in Drimoleague, Co Cork, an email pinged into the inbox of the Kingston family, requesting samples of unsalted butter, milk, cream and crème fraîche for a top secret event in Dublin.

“We were told what they were being used for but it was confidential,” recalls Valerie Kingston, who runs Glenilen Dairy Farm with her husband Alan. “We were told not to tell anyone because the suppliers wouldn’t be announced until the dinner was served. It all just added to the buzz.”

Shortly after receiving the samples, Ross Lewis confirmed that Glenilen had made the cut. For Valerie and Alan, it was a highpoint in generations of family farming. They went about assembling the order. Everything went to plan, until a crucial item was left behind.

“The products were to go up on the Friday before the dinner, and everything went up except the butter,” Valerie laughs. “Alan came into me on Saturday morning and said that the butter never went. He thought he was going to have to go all the way up to Dublin with it.

“Thankfully, my brother and sister-in-law had visitors down from Belfast, so we asked would they mind taking the samples up.

“Several phone calls and passwords had to be related, and I think the box even had to be opened to confirm the contents, but everything got delivered anyway.”

Glenilen Farm has come a long way since 1997, when Valerie began making cheesecakes for the local country market.

This year, the family won an annual contract worth €500,000 to supply Tesco UK with its homemade cheesecake, enabling them to hire more staff in the recession.

At the dinner in Dublin Castle, the Kingston’s milk and cream featured in a carageen set west Cork cream served with strawberries, fresh yoghurt mousse and soda bread sugar biscuits, and Irish apple balsamic vinegar meringue.

“I suppose it’s the honour of it,” Valerie reflects. “It puts our products and west Cork products on another plain. To be able to say they were fit for the queen … the menus are like gold dust but if we do manage to get a copy I’m going to frame it.”

Though the state dinner was assembled in a matter of weeks, and devoured in a matter of hours, the evening had been generations in the making for many of the producers.

McCARTHY’S BUTCHERS

Take McCarthy’s in Kanturk, the butchers that supplied the black pudding for the canapés.

Today, the business is run by Jack McCarthy and his son Tim, but their story goes back five generations to 1892, when a local baker swapped his dough hook for a meat cleaver.

As the story goes, the baker, Callahan McCarthy, was disappointed with the quality of meat available to him at the time, and vowed to do something about it. Almost 120 years later, McCarthy’s pudding had won a prestigious gold medal at La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Goûte Boudin, and was served to Elizabeth II.

“Everything was hush-hush,” Jack McCarthy recalls.

“Tim made up a special batch of pudding the Saturday night before. I asked him what was in it, and he said it was the same base ingredients as always — local pork, dry-cure bacon, local onions and herbs, butter and cream from North Cork Co-op and Donal Creedon’s Macroom oatmeal.

“I asked him was there anything special added, and he said there was ‘a touch of Cork magic!’. I think he added a drop of Midleton whiskey! I can’t prove it though, because he won’t tell me.”

When he first heard the queen was coming to Ireland, McCarthy says, he was sceptical.

But the proof was in the pudding, and he sees the state dinner as a supreme vote of confidence in Irish produce and suppliers that are fast making a name for themselves on the international stage.

“We’ve got the water, the air, the grass and the environment,” McCarthy says. “It’s pristine. Why we’re being fed by foreigners I don’t know. We should be feeding the world.”

How Irish suppliers served up dishes deemed fit for a queen

The Menu

Cured salmon with Burren smoked salmon cream and lemon balm jelly, horseradish and wild watercress, Kilkenny organic cold pressed rapeseed oil

Rib of Slaney Valley Beef, ox cheek and tongue with smoked champ potato and fried spring cabbage, new season broad beans and carrots with pickled and wild garlic leaf

Carrageen set West Cork cream with Meath strawberries, fresh yoghurt mousse and soda bread sugar biscuits, Irish apple balsamic vinegar meringue

Irish Cheese Plate

Tea and Coffee

Château de Fieuzal, 2005, Graves Pessac-Léognan

Château Lynch-Bages, 1998, Pauillac

The suppliers

Smoked salmon — Birgitta Hedda-Curtin, Burren Smokehouse, Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare
Salmon — Clare Island organic salmon, Clare Island, Co Mayo
Lemon balm — Paul Flynn, The Tannery, Dungarvan, Co Waterford
Organic cold-pressed rapeseed oil — Kitty Colchester, Drumeen Farms, Co Kilkenny
Wild watercress, cabbage, carrots, chive flower and garlic leaf — Denis Healy Farms, Co Wicklow.
Rib of beef — From a Co. Wexford farm, produced by Kettyle Irish Foods, Drumshaw, Lisnaskea, Co Fermanagh.
Ox cheek and tongue — M & K Butchers, Rathcoole, Co Dublin
Black pudding — McCarthy’s of Kanturk, Co Cork
Potatoes and spring onions — McNally family farm, Ring Common, Co Dublin
Butter, milk, cream and crème fraîche — Glenilen Farm, Drimoleague, Co Cork
Irish apple balsamic vinegar and apples — David Llewellyn, Llewellyn Orchard, Lusk, Co Dublin
Strawberries — Pat Clarke, Stamullen, Co Meath
Milk — Cleary family, Glenisk, Tullamore, Co Offaly
Dittys Irish oatmeal biscuits — Robert Ditty, Belfast
Stoneground wholemeal flour — Kells wholemeal, Bennettsbridge, Co Kilkenny
Buttermilk and butter — Cuinneog Ltd Balla, Castlebar, Co Mayo
Glebe Brethan cheese — produced by David Tiernan in Dunleer, Co Louth
Cashel Blue cheese — produced by the Grubb Family in Fethard, Co Tipperary
Milleens cheese — produced by the Steele Family in Milleens on the Beara Peninsula, Co Cork
Knockdrinna cheese — produced by Helen Finnegan in Stoneyford, Co Kilkenny

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