Laying a love of food online

IT’S SUNDAY.

It’s supposed to be a day of rest. But all over Ireland, office workers, PR agents, freelance journalists and stay-at-home mothers are cooking up a storm, and blogging and tweeting about their efforts.

Pain perdu covered in fresh strawberries, almonds and icing sugar for brunch. Surf and Turf salad with Dublin Bay prawns, chilli flakes and a honey and mustard dressing for lunch. Need a recipe? Log on to any of the 400 Irish food blogs and you’ll be inspired.

Since the establishment of the Irish Food Bloggers Association (IFBA) in 2010, the number of Irish food bloggers has swiftly expanded. The IFBA currently has 400 registered users, 2500 Twitter followers and 1100 Facebook friends.

“We wanted an opportunity to get together with like-minded people and to do more eating,” says Caroline Hennessy, who founded the IFBA with Kristen Jensen, a fellow food blogger.

“We started with 20 people and it’s just grown. We’re fascinated to have all these food bloggers.

“We never thought it would have such a life beyond itself. It’s good to have an association to let everybody know about events that are happening.”

And now many of these weekend foodies are publishing books based on their blogs. Niamh Shields has just published her first book, Comfort and Spice, and Lilly Higgins, sister of Irish comedienne Maeve, will publish a cookbook in October. And of course, there’s Kitchen Hero Donal Skehan, who now has two cookbooks, regular newspaper columns, and a television cookery programme.

Niamh Shields, www.eatlikeagirl.com

Niamh Shields, 34, from Dungarvan in Co Waterford, whizzes around London on her bike, attending supper clubs, photographing food, as well as travelling all over the world in search of new recipes and travel experiences.

Her blog, Eat Like A Girl, receives 4000 hits per day, and her cookbook, Comfort and Spice, was published in September.

Inspired by Charlie Brown and his lemonade stands, Shields sold cakes to her neighbours as a child. As well as whipping up lemon meringue pies and Turkish delight.

“I figured out really early that if I made cakes or sweets I wouldn’t get into trouble if I ate them,” says Shields.

Having studied science in university, Shields worked as an editor for a scientific publishing company for five years, before renouncing her day job to go travelling, and has lived in London for the past nine years.

“I had been talking about starting a blog for years. One day, after a really bad day at work, I came home and started my blog. And a month later, The Guardian linked me. It snowballed from there. There weren’t many food bloggers out there at the time,” says Shields.

“It was an accident. I really love what I do and met some brilliant people. It’s really opened up a whole new world for me. Many of my friends had started to have children and my social life was getting a bit bereft, and the cooking has brought a whole new social scene.”

Shields subsequently set up a market stall in Covent Garden where she showcased the best of Irish food, including home-made cucumber pickle, soda bread, Kerrygold butter, smoked salmon, and Waterford blahs (bread buns) filled with roast pork shoulder.

“I’m intensely proud of Irish food. I think it’s intensely underrated abroad. People abroad think all we do is stews and soda bread. We have such brilliant fish, cheese produced by artisan producers, fruit juices, beers. People abroad just don’t know this,” she says.

“In London, apart from Irish pubs and Corrigan’s, there are no other Irish restaurants, which I find amazing.”

Eatlikeagirl is a mixture of food and travel writing, with restaurant and café reviews too. “Lots of people want to cook but are slightly afraid of it,” continues Shields. “Everyone eats and can eat well. For example, for my dinner tonight, I bought a piece of wild salmon for £4 (€4.6) from the fishmongers, I’m going to make fresh aioli with wild salmon and green beans and it’ll take me 20 minutes tops, for a healthy, lovely fresh meal. It’s so easy.

“I’m always thinking about food. I had brown shrimp in a restaurant recently, and the next morning, the first thought that popped into my head was how to set about recreating the dish. I had to go off on my bike to the fishmongers to get it.

“As my cooking has evolved, I don’t really use cookbooks anymore. I like the ones with stories, though, like Denis Cotter’s cookbooks, and it’s always nice to get ideas about particular pairings of food,” says Shields.

“I enjoy blogging and that comes across. I’d like the blog to be a positive, joyful place.”

Clare Kleinedler, www.anamericaninireland.com

Two years ago, Clare Kleindler, 38, was living in Los Angeles, trailing stars such as Lindsay Lohan in Chateau Marmont, and writing for a high-profile celebrity magazine. And then she renounced it all to live in Drogheda and start a food blog.

“I was looking for a change. I’d been living in LA for a long time. I did travel journalism, and every time I went somewhere new, I’d be looking at the place, wondering if I could live there,” says Kleinedler, who had some friends living in Drogheda.

“Lots of people tend to do this stuff when they’re younger, but I wasn’t scared. I had a built-in support network. I wasn’t aware of Ireland’s economic standing at the time, I hadn’t done my research. I was just excited about living in a new place.

“The first year was such a learning experience, I had never experienced anywhere like it before. Small-town living was a total culture shock,” says Kleinedler, whose recipes often match what is happening in her life each day.

Her first-year impressions of Ireland are hilarious. She’s bemused by the never-ending tea-drinking and biscuit-eating, the hard Irish water plays havoc with her hair, she can’t understand most people, and the weather really gets her down.

“It’s my cultural diary about food, but also about my life here, it’s a good outlet for me,” says Kleinedler, whose main focus on her blog is providing healthy recipes using fresh ingredients.

“I’m constantly inspired by the beautiful produce here. It’s like something out of a food commercial here — the grass is green, the sheep and cows are happy. Here it really does seem like you can easily trace your food.

“There were only 33 food bloggers when I moved here. Now, after the formation of the IFBA, there are over 300 food bloggers here in Ireland. It’s nice because we know each other and get together and hang out. It was a great way for me to meet people,” she says.

“The community of food bloggers is really special. In LA, the food blogging scene by 2010 was full-on. People were getting book deals all over the place, and there were thousands of food bloggers. Here, food is still starting to come to the forefront with food festivals and farmers markets, and it’s great to see how enthusiastic everyone is, nobody’s jaded.”

Half-Japanese, half-American, Kleinedler has now moved to Dublin and is currently celebrating her first anniversary with her Irish boyfriend, who she met after five months in Drogheda. She is also beginning a job as a food critic for a Dublin magazine. She is currently writing a book proposal based on her blog for her literary agent.

Aoife Ryan, www.babaduck.com

Aoife Ryan, 39, established her blog, Babaduck, as a way of helping her best friend to learn to cook.

“My best friend would ring me every single night asking me to give her a few ideas for something to cook. I’d have to ring her back and guide her through it.”

When she lost her job 18 months ago, Ryan decided to start a blog. “I decided that I could either turn to day-time TV or cook. I had much more time to cook. I cooked every day because I was at home every day.”

Ryan provides step-by-step photographs of all the recipes in preparation. “Cookery books are gorgeous and pretty, but the food has been styled and you may only see the end product. I think you need to see it looks horrific before it goes into the oven.”

Ryan, who works in event management, spends every Sunday cooking, photographing and writing on her blog. And treats her co-workers to the spoils on Monday. “If I don’t show up with food on Monday, they revolt,” she says.

Babaduck receives up to 140 hits per day.

“I always liked cooking and my mum and dad are very good cooks. My husband loves eating, but he couldn’t cook if his life depended on it, so I started making him grown-up food,’ says Ryan, who is looking forward to celebrating her 40th birthday in San Francisco, where the highlight of the trip will be a visit to noted restaurant Chez Panisse.

“I love writing the blog. Friends of mine who never cooked before have started cooking because of it. It’s really encouraging that people are reading it, people from all over the world.

“Blogging really does keep me out of trouble. You’re always looking for new ideas. It’s just interesting.”

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