Developing a taste for digital delights

Dublin-based food and wine writer Ernie Whalley set up www.forkncork.com as early as 2002 to collate his archive of published content; Donal Skehan started blogging in 2007, and was one of the first Irish food bloggers to publish a cookbook just two years later.

Developing a taste for digital delights

When Caroline Hennessy set up the Irish Food Bloggers Association with Kristin Jensen in 2010, they had 30 members; now there are almost 400 on the blogroll

FOOD writing used to know its place: books, magazine, and newspapers. It was linear. Food writers wrote, sent the copy to their editors, and — hey presto — words made it into inky print that you actually had to go to a shop and buy. No longer. With the advent of digital media, food writing has moved into a different era. Now, there are blogs, online magazines, videos, apps and websites. There are more recipes available through your computer, tablet, or phone than you could cook in one lifetime, And all of it free.

While it was possible to have your own website in the mid-1990s, unless you were a techie it wasn’t easy to make it work. Early food sites, like Condé Nast’s Epicurious, which incorporated content from Bon Appétit and Gourmet, were run in a similar way to those food magazines; authorative content, tested recipes but, like the printed page, the content was static; it informed but did not interact.

When self-publishing tool blogger.com launched in 1999, it was the start of a whole new world. People were able to set up simple web logs — blogs — that they could regularly update with their thoughts, ideas and pictures, without ever needing to go near an editor. Readers did not just consume content, they interacted with it by leaving comments and developing communities around individual bloggers. It wasn’t long before food lovers grabbed the opportunity and ran with it. The playing field was suddenly levelled. Cookbook writers, chefs, critics and the gleeful home cook could all sit at the same virtual table and their unmediated writing was available to any reader with an internet connection.

This democratisation meant than anyone, of any skill level, could have a say. While Dublin-based food and wine writer Ernie Whalley set up www.forkncork.com as early as 2002 to collate his archive of published content, being online didn’t necessarily mean that you had to be in print.

Donal Skehan, who started blogging in 2007, was one of the first Irish food bloggers to cross that line, publishing a cookbook just two years later. He now works across a variety of platforms. His television series Kitchen Hero: HomeCooked recently returned to our screens with tie-in book due to be launched this autumn, he still continues to blog and has just launched Feast: A Dinner Journal, a lavishly illustrated online and print magazine.

For Skehan it’s very simple. “Without blogging I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. It made my career, opened doors for me.” He acknowledges that driven people make their own opportunities but digital media gives them the space to do their own thing, citing Feast as an example: “You wake up every day and you decide what you are going to do to make it happen.

“It’s still hard work, though,” he laughs, “but you have to keep on pushing and surround yourself by people that inspire you.”

He might have started the trend, but he’s not the Irish blogger to make the leap across that percieved divide between old print and new digital media. Back in the mid 2000s, having a food blog was a niche, nerdy activity that meant that you were outside mainstream media. This is no longer the case. When the Irish Food Bloggers Association was established in 2010, there were 30 members; now there are now almost 400 on the blogroll with members writing for food magazines and newspapers, publishing cookbooks and magazines.

The traffic isn’t always one way, either. After publishing her book Basketcase: What’s happening to Ireland’s Food?, food and farming journalist Suzanne Campbell set up basketcasetheblog.blogspot.ie so that she could continue the conversation online.

But could we be blogged out? John McKenna who, with his wife Sally, has been publishing guide books to Irish food since 1989, thinks that the overall impact of food blogs has been positive, “because the best ones are very, very good, and they are a form of CV if you’re starting out in food writing. But,” he cautions, “they need to develop to become multi-media, and they need a very precise aesthetic in order to bring readers back”.

One blogger with a distinctively individual point of view is former Daily Mail food columnist David Kiernan of Kitchen72.com. He painstakingly recreates dishes from restaurants in New York and London in his small Dublin kitchen, looking abroad for inspiration and cherry-picking the “ideas, ingredients and techniques” that appeal to him.

Kiernan finds that blogs are hugely useful “as a store of knowledge and information — in a transitory world it is incredibly useful to be able to simply Google for information on food and recipes”. With food trends changing rapidly, it’s the lack of a filter and the immediacy that appeals to him: “without blogs I would be fully reliant on reading about recipes in books, years after they had been created and only from chefs that had become marketable to PR and publishing houses”.

Food writer Aoife McElwain used the ICanHasCook.wordpress.com blog as a way of documenting her efforts at learning how to cook, from M&S sourced snacks in 2009 to catering for a recent hen party dinner for 23 people. As well as it being a springboard to professional writing work, she celebrates the community aspect of blogging: “I also met a lovely community of other bloggers in Ireland that I feel so glad to know and to share recipe failures with.” Like Kiernan, a lot of her ideas come from visual sources: “I get inspiration from bloggers like Orangette (orangette.blogspot.com) and Farmette (farmette.ie), not only from their blogs but from their Instagram and Twitter feeds too... I follow lots of food folks who post aspirational photos of food that make me want to run to the kitchen.”

The increasing importance of the visual side of food writing isn’t something that has escaped the McKennas either. Along with their guide books, website (guides.ie) and blog, they have been making a series of short artisan food videos, starting with an elegiac portrait of Ballymaloe matriarch Myrtle Allen.

McElwain has recently incorporated video into her blog with Forkful, a beautifully styled series of video recipes.

McKenna can see print dying, foreseeing a time when the guide books “will eventually translate almost entirely into digital form, because people want them on tablets rather than in a physical form, especially when they are travelling”.

McElwain, however, sees it as a part of the whole multimedia aspect of food writing:

“There will always be value to reading something on paper, even if it becomes a niche market”.

She pauses, thinks, and laughs: “The sensitive souls will still be reading about cake on scrunchy old paper that smells lovely.”

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