Down to earth

DESPITE the war and the Sars scare, 1,200 people winged their way to Montreal recently to attend the annual conference of the International Association of Cooking Professionals.

This networking festival for food writers, cookery school owners, teachers, caterers and chefs is held yearly somewhere on the North American continent.

The fact that there was a record turnout for the 25th Annual conference reflects the fact that in the US, record numbers of people are, buying cookbooks, enrolling for cooking classes, because they want to be able rustle up something delicious for their family and friends.

In this time of fiscal restraint, eating in would appear to be the new Eating out. The exception were the French cooking schools which target the American business they saw their business decimated this year when France took an anti-Iraq war stand.

So what do IACP members do when they get together for a conference?

The answer is pack much more than is physically possible into a few days. Delegates start to network furiously at breakfast from 7.30am onwards each day.

Then there are keynote presentations, this year it was on the Politics of Food, moderated by RW Apple Junior, of the New York Times. A coffee break for more networking, followed by a myriad of simultaneous concurrent workshops on a variety of subjects.

The theme of this year's conference was Le Goût du Terroir, which rather inadequately translates into The Taste of the Soil. The concept of terroir really means much more in French than soil. It denotes an understanding of history and a powerful sense of place. Terroir is all about flavour, provenance and locale.

Several of the sessions dealt with how our food is produced, the farm to table connection and the dilemma of cheap food. Others dealt with topics such as how to make your culinary business grow, what cookbook and magazine editors want today, behind the scenes in a test kitchen, food styling on location, the art of food photography, planning culinary tours.

There were sessions on pairing food with wine, tea with chocolate and Washoku, the harmony of food. Other sessions dealt with specific ingredient: spices, chocolate, farmhouse cheese, duck, foie gras. Or particular cuisines: Sweden, the Philippines, or the Turmeric Trail.

In the midst of it all the great diet debate and a session on trends in the supermarket industry.

Altogether there are 60 sessions over three days, so it is totally impossible to participate or absorb all the information, so one ends up buying the tapes of the sessions one couldn't get to.

In the evenings it was a frenzy of eating out. Montreal is a beautiful city on an island, a mixture of old and new. Downtown bristles with skyscrapers, many seem frivolous, almost perky with playful shapes and uncorporate colours.

The city above ground is mirrored by whole city underground so one can avoid the freezing winters and wander around in coatless comfort just as well because I arrived coatless and full of optimism to be met by the last snow shower of the season. Fortunately, I resisted the impulse to buy a coat two days later the temperature was in the '60s.

Up to relatively recently, the food scene in Montreal was determinedly French, chefs had resisted the food trends sweeping across from America and even Toronto. Cajun, Tex Mex, Franco Asian, Pacific Rim & Cal-Ital came and went in other cities, but the diners of Montreal remained resolute they stuck to their French culinary traditions.

However, in recent years this attitude has changed dramatically after the recession of the early '90s, restaurateurs were forced to re-examine, streamline and experiment.

Immigration continued to grow: Thai, Vietnamese, Moroccan, Turkish, Portuguese, Mexican, Indian, Creole, Greek, Szechuan, Japanese. Innovation and intermingling of styles, ingredients and techniques was inevitable and the culinary landscape all the richer for it.

My best meals were at Milos, a Greek seafood restaurant where the food was so delicious it made me wish I could head for a Greek island.

The interior was just like a taverna in an Aegean fishing port white washed walls, bleached wooden floors, blue tiles, Greek vases and a mouthwatering display of the freshest fish you can imagine.

With the basket of grilled bread came a dish of fragrant olive oil, just as we were about to dip our bread, the waiter snipped some fresh Marjoram into the oil: a simple and truly delicious touch wonderful for restaurant or for home entertaining.

We were a table of avid foodies, so we shared a wide variety of dishes: a starter plate of Taramasalata, Tsatsiki and Kephalotyri cheese in a crispy batter, chargrilled squid, crab cakes, paper thin slices of courgette and aubergine with tsatsiki. There was also a super rocket salad with feta and olive oil balsamic avgotarlio, the salted and pressed mullet roe which I found addictive, and huge shrimps from Lake Messalogi.

After all this, there was no room for main course so we went straight onto pudding. Various halva and filo pastries: the galaktoboureko was particularly delicious. Finally, we nibbled some Greek cheeses and a truly delicious Anthotyro, a soft cheese from Crete which was drizzled with honey and served with candied tangerine peel.

Other good meals at Anise and Toque, but the most memorable was at Pied de Couchon where chef Martin Picard serves truly authentic French peasant food, comforting bourgeois dishes with an edge of wit and sophistication.

The look is rustic, sleek with hewn wood tables, brick oven and industrial chic ladies room. This restaurant is not for the faint-hearted, certainly not a destination for vegetarians; the emphasis is on meat and not the wimpish cuts, the restaurant challenges its customers.

Pig's trotters, lamb shanks, pig's ears, beef cheek, a wonderful pot au feu, home cured meats, rillettes, terrines all the dishes, home-made. The menu also included some Quebec specialities, a comforting poutine chips smothered with gravy with cheese nuggets and a delicious sugar tart-brilliant food and seriously hunky waiters.

On a tour of old Montreal we visited the not-to-be-missed Montreal institution, Schwartz charcuterie, to sample the best smoked meats (Romanian style) and liver sandwiches, served with pickles and coleslaw.

Schwartz's salt the brisket for eight days and then smoke it for 7-8 hours real Montreal Hebrew deli food. Then on to sample bagels in Fairmont and from there to Chinatown to see Johnny Chin himself quite a character make Dragons beard cookies.

We all crammed into his tiny shop, while we watched he took a blob of warm semi solid corn syrup, tossed it in corn flour then folded and refolded like a conjurer so fast we could scarcely see what he did.

Within seconds the blob of sugar was transformed into strings of sugar, like the finest spaghetti 13 pulls resulted in 8,192 strands. Then he pulled off little pieces and wrapped them around sugar peanuts, chocolate and coconut sesame. The result Dragons Beard cookies which you pop into your mouth all in one go, the strand of sugar coating melting on your tongue, then just chew the delicious filling a magic little confection not to be missed, if and when you get to Montreal.

Top tips

LOTS of chefs are incorporating ham hocks into their menus cheap and delicious. Ham hocks could be substituted in the Jambon Persillee recipe available from pork butchers and from several stalls in the English Market in Cork.

New Everyone is talking about the new Good Things Café in Durrus in West Cork. (027-61426). Chef/owner Carmel Somers knew Jane Grigson, worked with Sally Clarke in London and at Markwicks in Bristol. Creative, contemporary cooking, using the finest West Cork artisan ingredients.

Open 11-5 for lunch, coffee, teas and snacks but plans to open for dinner in June, closed Tuesday and Wednesday during May. The Café is in what was formerly the Butterfly House.

In season Rhubarb is really in full season now and the first Irish strawberries have just come on the market. Make a Rhubarb and Strawberry Compote or tarts and pies while the rhubarb is still at its best. As a very special luxury look out for seakale, a country house vegetable, rarely found in shops, but inquire from your local Farmers Market, or better still go along to the garden centre and ask for it.

Cook simply in boiling salted water and serve with Hollandaise sauce sublime!

Jambon Persille - Jellied Ham with parsley

Serves 12-16

A nice piece of ham or oyster cut bacon, about 6 lbs (2.7kg)

600ml dry white wine

½ onions, stuck with 1 clove each

2 carrots

1 stick celery

1 small bay leaf

few sprigs of thyme

10 peppercorns

parsley stalks (keep the leaves for later)

4-5 teasp. approx. gelatine

2 ozs (55g) parsley

Soak the ham or gammon in cold water overnight or at least for a few hours, discard the soaking water, cover with fresh water and blanch and refresh three or perhaps four times, depending on how salty the ham or bacon is.

Put back in the saucepan, add the wine and remaining ingredients, except gelatin. Then add enough cold water to cover the meat.

Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 2-22 hours depending on the blanching time a skewer should go through easily.

Remove the ham, strain the liquid through a fine sieve or one lined with muslin, degrease and allow to cool.

Cut the ham into 1 inch (2.5cm) cubes approx. Measure the liquid and allow 4 teaspoons of gelatine for each pint you won't need much more than a pint.

Put 4 tablespoons of the cooking liquid into a small bowl, sprinkle on 4 rounded teaspoons of gelatine and allow to sponge for a few minutes while you bring a small saucepan of water to the boil.

Put the bowl into the simmering water to dissolve the gelatine. When the gelatine is clear add a little of the measured liquid, stir well and then mix with the remainder, finally stirring in the finely chopped parsley.

Pour the liquid over the ham and then fill into an oiled bowl or terrine (it should be about 4 inches (10 cm) deep. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

In France it is traditionally made in a round bottomed bowl but it could be made in a rectangular terrine also. Serve in slices with summer salads.

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