The Menu is always happy to acknowledge the Scottish side of his mixed Celtic heritage, most particularly on Burns Night (January 25) — the annual celebration of the life and works of Scottish poet Robert Burns. Last year, The Menu hosted a particularly rambunctious affair despite being in deepest lockdown, rousing attendant members of his immediate family and a few digital delinquents on Zoom with his stirring address to the Haggis on foot of a wonderful finish-at-home Burns Meal Kit from the Celtic Ross Hotel — a performance that was wonderfully received until at least the second line.
Back then, we thought such occasions were one-offs, believing that next time we would be assembling en masse to savour the enormous conviviality that is the more usual West Cork Burns Supper under the aegis of Celtic Ross Hotel’s general manager and resident Scot, Neil Grant, in the Rosscarbery-based hotel.
Alas, The Covid once again scuppers such plans so in the meantime, The Menu thoroughly advises arming oneself with the Celtic Ross’s Burns Meal Kit (serves two), including pre-prandial cocktail, fine three-course meal and a ‘wee dram’ to toast ‘Rabbie’ Burns and the edible star of the feast, a haggis made by Kanturk butcher Jack McCarthy. Online videos advise on preparations and running order, and also feature poetry and music.
Available for collection Sat Jan 22 and Sun Jan 23, €70 per kit.
To book: Tel 023 8848722;
For those wise old heads who realise that New Year’s resolutions around health and fitness inevitably falter and often fade away entirely before February due to the inclement weather of January, The Menu advises delaying the implementation of same until later in the year when the weather becomes more favourable to the essaying of al fresco shenanigans. In the meantime, he counsels hunkering down around the stove with a couple of close friends or family to enjoy a Virtual Cheese and Wine Evening with Kevin Sheridan of Sheridan’s Cheesemongers and Wine Importer and all-round gourmand Enrico Fantasia to enjoy a selection of cheeses, crackers and two specially selected wines.
One kit/ticket is suitable for up to four people in a single household.
(Kit costs €70 plus €5 for shipping. Dates: Jan 21; Feb 4 & Feb 18) sheridanscheesemongers.com
If there is anything that truly delights The Menu’s heart, it is to bear witness to the continued rise in popularity and availability of real bread in Ireland, containing nothing but flour, water, salt and the time to properly ferment, achieving maximum nutritional bioavailability along with superb flavours and textures.
The Menu’s latest discovery is all the better for having been under his nose the whole time. Natural Foods Bakery was founded in 1980, by Wendy O’Byrne, eventually becoming an iconic institution in Cork’s food story. Its two outlets, in Fitzgerald’s Park and at Blackrock Pier, are now owned and operated by Wendy’s daughter Orlagh and her partner Roddy Henderson.
NFB always served their own decent fresh-baked breads, yeasted, salt-free breads without any hidden additives but, several years ago, Breton baker Ben Le Bon, married to a Cork woman, began working as head baker in the NFB commercial bakery, beginning a gradual evolution in the baked offering, moving it towards naturally-fermented sourdough breads. In January 2021, Ben finally took over completely, buying out the bakery, with Orlagh and Roddy retaining the two retail outlets as an entirely separate business.
Ben trained in France in the mainstream ‘traditional’ sector but his own floury road to Damascus has seen him discard much of that original learning to reach back to a time before machines when bread was produced with minimum intervention, without fridges to ferment the dough, primarily using organic and ancient grains. His bread is now entirely handmade from barely worked dough proved for up to 20 hours at room temperature and where possible using ancient and Irish-grown grains, including emmer, einkorn, rye, barley and Oak Forest Mills’ spelt.
Over Christmas, Ben’s loaves were The Menu’s bread of choice for multiple dining occasions: an absolutely gorgeous and flavoursome Rodebrod, traditional Danish rye bread best eaten two or three days after baking and stunning served with Sally Barnes’ smoked wild salmon and crème fraîche, lemon zest, dill and capers. Textured walnut sourdough made with purple Olands flour from Little Mill, in Kilkenny, was a fine companion to The Menu’s festive cheeseboard, better again when brushed with garlic and herb olive oil and crisped in the oven. And an Ancient Grains loaf made with a compendium of grain flakes, flours and seeds must qualify as the healthiest loaf in the land without sacrificing an iota of fine flavour.
Standout is Ben’s Lockdown Loaf, an outsize pavée or pain de compagne, made with rye and white flour from Kells, that was inspired by the large loaf his grandfather would buy once a week to feed himself for the next seven days, a superb crusty creation with a springy, nutty crumb structure and deep-seated sweet and savoury flavours, meaning this is a real workhorse loaf, equally suited to breakfast, lunch and dinner. And, finally, a shout out for Ben’s take on a traditional sweet pastry from his native Bretagne, the Kouign-Amann, a sinfully delicious laminated pastry containing layers of caramelised butter and sugar that definitely injects a welcome dose of sybaritic vice into all this virtuous healthy bread eating.
Ben’s ambition, to create healthy, nutritious and sustainable bread, is to The Menu’s mind already fully realised and, crucially, it all makes for most wonderfully tasty eating.
Currently available from the NFB outlet in Blackrock and Alternative Bread Company, in the English Market.
Ben Le Bon 089 704 1593/email: firstname.lastname@example.org