Back to the future for organic food

THE culinary choices facing US President Richard Nixon that October night in Kilfrush House, Co Limerick, were not confined to whether he wished to have his Waterville potatoes boiled or baked.

He and his wife, Patricia, were the guests for two days and nights of his wealthy Irish-American friends, Mr and Ms John A Mulcahy, ahead of a State visit in Dublin. The menu for the dinner party guests, who included taoiseach Jack Lynch and his wife Maureen, and the future US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, featured the best of Irish food and beverage.

William Rogers, the then US Secretary of State, his country’s Ambassador to Ireland John D Moore and General James Hughes, military aide to Nixon, were also among the guests.

There, too, was presidential aide Bob Haldeman, who would become a key figure in the Watergate scandal, which would result nearly four years later in Nixon becoming the first US president to resign from office.

All were spoiled with the dinner menu choices. For starters, they could opt for Irish smoked salmon, Clew Bay oysters, Aran scallop soup, or consomme with sherry. Options for the main course were steamed Comeragh salmon with Hollandaise sauce, Cecilstown pigeon crust pie, boiled Limerick bacon and cabbage, Springhill lamb ctew and roast fillet of Irish beef.

Tossed green salad with spinach, deep-dish apple pie and a cheese board selection were among the dessert choices.

Irish coffee was the recommended after-dinner aperitif in what was a wonderful showcase for the country’s wholesome produce on a menu that seems as appetising today as it must have been on Oct 1970.

The inclusion of baked or boiled Waterville potatoes was a gesture by Mulcahy to the Co Kerry coastal town where he developed a challenging championship golf course. And rarely was Irish food and beverage accorded such security as they were that night by the US Secret Service.

Zeta Hayes, manager of Kilfrush House at the time, recalled on an RTÉ Radio 1 documentary, The Forgotten Visit, first broadcast in 2010, that there were even two agents in the kitchen tasting the food.

She explained on the programme, compiled by Pat O’Mahony, with production supervision by Liam O’Brien, that two other agents guarded access to the wine cellar and would not allow anybody enter.

A security net was also thrown around the property, the birthplace of John Gubbins, Brutee House, who bred two Epsom Derby winners, Galteemore (1897) and Ardpatrick (1902).

Jack Mulcahy, a native of Dungarvan, Co Waterford, was into horse-racing, but the quality and choice of the food served was more likely a subject for discussion across the dinner table.

Much has changed since, but the ability of the Irish to produce quality produce continues. Agri-food exports in 2012 exceeded €9bn for the first time and are on course to reach the Government target of €12bn by 2020. The term ‘organic’ was not widely used in relation to Irish food production at the time of Nixon’s visit, but in reality the term covered much of the produce that was grown on Irish farms and gardens.

It was an era when potatoes and vegetables for the household dinner, which was generally eaten in what is now known as lunch time, were dug up in the back gardens that morning.

Trout came fresh from the local river, ripe apples were taken from trees in the haggard and little was heard about food scares, traceability, or consumer demands.

That era and the formal dinner that Jack Mulcahy hosted in Kilfrush, were recalled over a 10-day period recently with three separate occurrences that are linked in varying degrees with quality Irish food and drink.

The Government launched an action plan for the organic farming sector, the last of Nixon’s tapes from his White House days were made public in Washington and Kilfrush Estate was reported to have been bought by Quatari interests.

A great variety of organic foods is now being produced and processed in Ireland, including meat, seafood, fruit, vegetables, eggs, grains, cereals, nuts, seeds, dairy products, and cooking oils.

Weekly farmers markets are held in towns and cities and supermarkets provide shelf space for organic produce. Yet the organic sector in Ireland is still small in relation to agriculture as a whole. It has some 1,639 operators covering some over 52,000 hectares of land.

The plan, launched by Minister of State Tom Hayes, is geared towards increasing that figure, promoting awareness of the potential for exports and developing it as a sustainable outlet for Irish organic produce as supplies become available. He said the Government’s target of 5% of land area under organic production, set out in the Food Harvest 2020 Report, is a challenging one — the current figure is 1.2%.

Mr Hayes said the action plan is a very important element in this process and one he hoped all stakeholders will embrace.

Forty-three years have now passed since Jack Mulcahy gave Irish food a high profile at that Kilfrush House dinner in honour of his friend President Richard Nixon.

But the thinking behind that visionary gesture is even more relevant today with growing consumer demands for quality food and guaranteed traceability from farm to fork.

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