They won Cookbook of the Year for their compilation of recipes inspired by local ingredients. James Kavanagh and William Murray – the duo behind Currabinny – will have the same focus on Irish produce in their new ‘Weekend’ food column, writes Esther McCarthy.
In the fledgling days of their romance, James Kavanagh and William Murray would bond and find common ground in stories of homemade pasta and elderflower cordial and home-grown vegetables.
Both men grew up in family environments that were steeped in a love of food and cooking — a passion that they carried into their own adult lives.
It was during a trip to Ballymaloe in East Cork — where William did the three-month cookery course and James was working in his former life in public relations — that they realised they wanted to spend their working lives in the food business.
“I was doing PR for Barry’s Tea and Kerrygold at the time,” says James. “Kerrygold were sponsoring the Ballymaloe Lit Fest. We found ourselves in this food world at the same time and it’s very attractive. You’re seeing one of the Allens chase a chicken or somebody pulling ruby chard out of the ground and that’s just a lovely world to be in. I think we both decided this was for us. We were always cooking at home, going to farmers’ markets and seeing what we could grab and then experimenting at home.”
The couple, who first met almost seven years ago, started to sow the very early seeds of their young brand, Currabinny, in the most organic of ways, cooking batches of biscuits, breads and savouries in a rented kitchen and bringing them to local markets in Dublin. “We don’t drive so we’d get taxis with big vats of curries to the markets!” laughed James. “It was tough but it was great because we were getting feedback straight away from people who were eating our stuff.”
When we meet in the Phibsborough, Dublin home which they share with their cat Diana, their love of the conviviality of food is obvious. The kitchen and dining area is the heart of their home. We have proper tea out of a pot and flourless dark chocolate and sea salt cake on vintage plates, homemade from their Currabinny cookbook.
The book is a beauty to behold, packed with the best of Irish seasonal products in recipes given a novel and contemporary touch. It’s lovely to see recipes from two of the most significant figures in their lives — their mothers — featured.
William’s mother Breda’s fish pie recipe evokes strong memories for him of growing up in Currabinny, while James’ mum, Margaret, would start an office stampede when she dropped by once a week to his former workplace with a tray of her potato gratin, which also features.
For William, growing up in the pretty Co Cork region of Currabinny — which inspired the business’ name — meant food was part and parcel of everyday life.
“Currabinny is a place that is slightly isolated. We’re basically like a big long cul-de-sac, in a peninsula jutting out into the harbour,” says William. “It’s almost an island and everyone has a boat and how you get to the shop is by boat. If there’s a storm, if there’s anything like that you’re kind of stuck there basically. And because of that I think there was a great relationship with growing your own food when I was growing up.
"So there was a lot of eating in each other’s houses and there was a lot of people like Patrick O’Hara in the book, who makes his own elderflower cordial. I remember he used to bring us into the kitchen as kids and we’d all get to stir the pot of elderflower. And another neighbour grows strawberries and raspberries.”
James, who will be doing the Ballymaloe three-month course later this spring, and William first clicked when they met on an online dating site and they’ve been together ever since. “When we first met he didn’t have a picture on his profile. But I noticed he had really good grammar and that actually attracted me to him!” laughs James. “He had his apostrophes in the right places.
“We moved in together actually quite quickly. My housemate was moving out and he was moving up to Dublin and I needed someone to move in. He needed somewhere to live. So we decided, we were actually only going out a few months but will we just try this? We got on really well, we’ve lived together for six years. Then pretty much a year or two after that we set up Currabinny. So we moved quite fast.” James, the brother of well-known martial arts coach John Kavanagh, has a very prolific online presence, with almost 125,000 Instagram followers. It was while sharing funny videos of him scaring William on Snapchat that people would notice what they were cooking.
“That’s kind of how the following started. We were cooking a lot at home. People were interested in me scaring William but also interested in what we were making so that kind of gave us a bit of confidence to go out there and people would ask questions. Would you ever sell at a market? Would you ever start a food blog? Would you ever do private catering? It kind of gave us the kick to get serious. We were like: ‘Hang on there’s an appetite for what we’re doing, a literal appetite.’ So we got we decided let’s start selling food at markets, see how that goes.” After getting a positive reaction at markets, they expanded into catering.
“Our first kind of public dinner was this supper in Teeling, the whiskey distillery. We had two long tables, 60 people altogether and we did a three-course meal.”
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The publication of their cookbook in recent months has been greatly received. With recipes like turkey burgers with chanterelles and gruyere, and asparagus and smoked rainbow trout with a herb sauce, it would inspire the most reluctant of cooks, and give good ones the motivation to take it to the next level.
Their new column for The Irish Examiner Weekend will focus on seasonality, taking one great ingredient that’s in season and building a theme around it. “Our first column is about cabbage,” said William. “There’s something wonderful about kind of recapturing something like cabbage which is so Irish in a way. We want to reclaim these ingredients and show that they are exciting and also they’re cheap and you can get them anywhere.” According to James, they love to work with traditional dishes but reinvent them with a new ingredient.
“There’s a beetroot hummus but there’s seaweed in there. We have a traditional pesto but we have an Irish farmhouse cheese instead of Italian cheese. We always wanted to add a twist to very traditional food which we love. We’re big fans of butter and cream and that’s one thing we’re not, we’re not preachy with our foods. We’re not nutritionists and we don’t want to teach people how to eat. We eat for pleasure.” William agrees.
“There was an overwhelming amount of cookbooks out there that were either diet plans or very niche ways of eating. We really wanted to stay away from that. We didn’t want any ingredients to be demonised. We wanted to keep it all about taste and seasonality - if we had anything to preach it would be eat as much as possible with the seasons and eat locally, things that are full of nutrients and good things and that aren’t ruined by overproduction or pesticides.” Both men have many plans in store as they continue to grow the Currabinny brand. One great dream for them both is to open a café in Dublin, hopefully this year.
They feel it is the natural next step for them to have a place with a sense of community.
“We always wanted to cafe because we love the idea of there being a home and a base and a face,” says William.
However, in a city where costs are high, rents rapidly rising and big-name brands and chains are expanding, finding the right home for their café has proved to be quite a challenge.
“When you try and find somewhere you often find out that someone else’s interested and they can outbid you and rent and rates are also an incredibly expensive thing to have to deal with,” says James. “The market doesn’t favour independents at all. It’s quite a hard thing to tap into. City planners don’t seem to favour the very things that are the soul of a city, which are independents, which are markets.”