New year, new you

From boxing to baking, our writers step outside their comfort zones and try something brand new to mark the beginning of 2013.

Katy Harrington, follows in Katie Taylor’s footsteps

I HAVE been described as a lot of things, but ‘sporty’ is not one of them. My daily physical exertion is a short walk to the bus in the morning. Exercise is a chore to me, and I have never experienced the endorphin highs described by friends who are addicted to the gym/marathons/personal trainers.

I’m not the only exercise-phobe. According to a study published earlier this year in The Lancet, more than half the people in Ireland (53.2%) do less than the recommended amount of exercise.

Personally, I do shamefully less than the guideline 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week. And so, my new year’s resolution is to get my expansive backside into the gym … or, should I say, the ring.

On the back of Katie Taylor’s success, I am taking up boxing — not just to get fit, but as a back-up should some punk try and run off with my mobile phone.

My first port of call is super-swanky London gym, The Third Space, where ex-pro boxer, Lonsdale ambassador and all-round tough cookie, Cathy Brown, conducts one-on-one and group training sessions. Membership of The Third Space costs more than my annual rent and it is the type of place that puts wimps like me off the gym. It is full of buff, grunting men lifting enormous weights and staring intently at themselves in the mirror. I feel immediately intimidated, but Cathy is having none of it. Her approach to training is no-nonsense, and she is the second woman in the UK to hold a professional boxing license, winner of the European flyweight title, the first British woman to win a professional English title, and formerly ranked number three in the world flyweight division. It’s best not to argue with her.

After strapping my hands and wrists, we get down to business. First, I learn my stance position: because I am right-handed, I lead with my left foot forward and right foot back to achieve balance. Next, we practise jabs with my left hand, then a cross with my right hand, and a left hook. Later, we mix in defensive moves, like rolls and slips. Once I have the hang of that, we try combinations: jab-cross, jab-cross-roll-cross, jab-cross-hook, jab-cross-hook-cross. This isn’t just physically tough, it also requires intense concentration.

At first, I find it incredibly difficult to keep my balance, and to combine the right movements and not punch, well … like a very unfit girl. Yet, despite my struggles, the masterclass is exciting, exhilarating, and far more fun than running on the treadmill. Whatever I thought previously, it is now clear to me that boxing requires as much brains as brawn — it’s a bit like playing chess … against a bulldozer.

Once I have more confidence, Cathy makes me work on my movement backwards and forwards, which is where Mohammed Ali’s “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” mantra comes into play. Keep on your toes to move deftly, stay balanced, and use your whole body to put weight behind your punches. I am sweating everywhere… and I mean everywhere.

We round off the class with sit-ups, but these are boxing sit-ups, so with every crunch comes a punch.

By number 20, I am the colour of a beetroot, gasping for air, and there is no power left in my weedy arms. I leave the gym staggering like a baby lamb that can’t take the weight of its own wool.

Cathy says boxing is a brilliant workout, and is suitable for anyone, even absolute beginners like myself. It gives an intense, full-body workout that makes you physically stronger and aerobically fitter. Boxing works the cardiovascular and endurance systems and builds upper-body, lower-body, and core strength. Calorie-expenditure and fat-burning are also high, as you work all the muscle groups, which I realise when I wake up in agony the next day.

Determined to capitalise on Cathy’s lesson, my next challenge is a box-fit class at my local health club. The class is 80% men, and they look like grunters.

We warm up with intense rounds of skipping and push-ups (which I can barely manage), and then we partner up for sparring, all the while being shouted at by the instructor. It is intense and painful, but incredibly good fun (especially working the bag, which is guaranteed to rid you of tension and make you 100% less likely to want to punch your boss). By the end of the class, my arms feel weak and strained, but, despite the pain and the embarrassment of being the worst boxer in the class, I love every minute of it.

I’m now on week three of my boxing/keep-fit regime and, so far, the biggest change has been my attitude towards boxing as a sport.

Far from making you feel more aggressive, it has made me calmer and more balanced. Some people relax doing yoga. I discovered that hitting a bag as hard as I can for 40 minutes does the trick for me.

I’m still far too much of a pansy to want to compete, but I will continue boxing for fitness and for fun.

One other thing I have definitely gained — more respect for Katie Taylor.

* Equipment and sportswear: Lonsdale; for stockist details, visit or check Sports World/Heatons stores nationwide.

Pól Ó Conghaile, the tables are turned on a travel and food writer

Reuvan Diaz says “this is your best friend,” as he hands me a tea towel. Nothing puts you in your place like a tightly-run kitchen. I’ve stepped backstage at Drogheda’s Eastern Seaboard Bar & Grill. I’m kitted out in spanking white jacket and svelte, black apron. Instead of being handed a delicate sliver of sea-bass to sauté, I am issued with a polite but firm instruction.

“Assume everything is hot.”

Reuvan is head chef and owner, with his partner, Jeni Glasgow, of Eastern Seaboard. During today’s lunch service, I’ll experience life on the other side of a menu, in one of the smartest social spaces in the north-east.

I’m nervous. I love food. I write restaurant reviews. I travel and eat for a living. At home, I’m chief culinary dogsbody for our family of four. But work in a restaurant kitchen? That’s something else.

Taking the towel, I wash my hands and slip through the bustling choreography of chefs, sizzles, and stainless steel to join Jed Capulong on starters. In 60 seconds, he adds maple cream to a soup, plates up a skewer of grilled tiger prawns, builds a burger, and toasts two slices of ciabatta under the grill. He’s like a human octopus.

“Go light with your hands,” Jed says, assigning me a couple of Caesar salads. “Don’t crush the leaves. Toss them so that the dressing is evenly distributed.” The commands are punchy and precise. There’s no time for trial, error or experimentation.

The order is in, and it needs to be heading for the pass within minutes.

“Where’s that butcher’s board?” Reuvan calls.

“Coming, chef.”

It’s co-ordinated chaos. I pull a handful of leaves from the fridge, add croutons, and dress the mix. I’ve made a gazillion Caesar salads, but never under this pressure. It’s amazing how much rides on a leaf of Romaine. It’s also amazing how exciting that feels.

Around me, the team works a gauntlet of grills, ovens, fridges and fryers. Orders come through at a frantic pace; Reuvan responds like a conductor with sheet music, directing his players with concise commands and Zen-like presence.

Pans sizzle, knives slice, water gushes, bells ring, receipts are spiked. I can see why I wasn’t invited on a Saturday night.

Eastern Seaboard opened in November 2007 — the depths of the recession. “Every day, the headlines were worse than the next,” its head chef says on a coffee break. “But we were committed. We were confident it could be a social space for a wide spectrum of the community.”

That word — ‘social’ — is key to the place, the reason it’s going from strength to strength five years (and five brutal budgets) later. Open from 12pm daily in the Bryanstown Centre, its funky marriage of food and drink in a hip, warehouse-style room suits everybody, from finicky foodies to gossiping friends and families gumming ice-cream.

Reuvan and Jeni also run the Brown Hound Bakery next door. Earlier in the day, I helped Robert Thompson and Niall Kirwan make parfait and bread here, getting another lesson in the work that goes into creating something customers demolish in minutes. “It’s a scientific process,” Niall says. “No-one thinks bread-making is hard, but it is. One wrong step or measurement, and you might as well toss it in the bin.”

I’d consider myself a reasonable cook, but compared to trained chefs, it’s amazing how slow I am at basics like kneading dough or separating egg yolks.

After several minutes whipping a couple of litres of double cream, my forearm feels like Popeye’s.

Plus, my back is starting to pinch.

“The early starts can be a killer,” Robert says, mixing candied peel, pistachio nuts, rum-soaked cherries and the double cream (which, embarrassingly, he finishes whipping) into a scrumptious-looking parfait. “You never really get used to the alarm at 5.15am.”

Working in a kitchen is physical. Staff at Brown Hound and Eastern Seaboard seem to have the mix of graft and good craic down pat, but I can see how the pressure-cooker environment of a professional kitchen could also be a recipe for back problems and muscle sprains. It’s hot and stressful work, and without short breaks, proper techniques, and a clunky pair of Birkenstock clogs, I’m not sure how long I’d last.

It’s also humbling to see how much craft, planning, and hard work a good restaurant invests in creating what appears magically in front of you on a plate. “Even a little turn makes a huge difference,” Reuvan says.

Back at Eastern Seaboard, he intercepts my dish at the pass, the red zone where orders receive their final tweaks, the chef’s sign-off, and clumsy thumbprints like mine are dabbed away by the ‘friend’ I was introduced to hours ago: a tea towel. “There’s a joy to it,” Reuvan says. “It’s almost like theatre.”

* or 041-9802570

Dave Kenny, scales new heights to overcome his vertigo

ALAN The Barman was enjoying himself. “Whatever you do, don’t look down. Because, if you do,” he said, “you’ll definitely fall over the edge.”

I had said I was doing the Etihad Skyline Tour at Croke Park the following day. The Irish Examiner had asked me to do something unusual for the new year, and I had flicked through my catalogue of broken resolutions.

1: Go on a diet. Tried it once and felt miserable. Began comfort-eating and put on a stone.

2: Quit booze and fags. Tried it once and felt miserable. Began comfort eating and put on another stone.

3: Learn to swim. No point. I’ll never be able to afford another sun holiday, thanks to Michael Noonan.

4: Learn to drive. Are you joking?

5: Conquer my vertigo. Okay, we’ll give it a go.

I have a fear of heights. I can’t stand up on a chair without panicking.

My countless attempts at conquering my vertigo have included walking the ‘levadas’ mountain trail in Madeira.

The levadas are canals that feed water down to the capital. They’re accessed by narrow paths with a washing-line-wire ‘fence’ between you and a 200-foot drop.

After half an hour of holding my nerve, I froze and had to be guided, gibbering, on my hands and knees down the mountain, through a rancid canal.

My humiliation was compounded by German children skipping by and laughing at “der wixxer in dem wasser”. [The wanker in the water.]

I flew to Plymouth in a tiny Cessna after a challenge from a student-pilot friend, Pa.

A Cessna is like a Mini Cooper with two ironing boards stuck to its roof.

The sea-crossing was terrifying, but it had nothing on the landing.

It took four attempts to ground the plane because of strong crosswinds.

I’ll never forget Pa shrieking “I can’t hold it! I can’t hold it!” as I silently prepared to evacuate (and I don’t mean the plane).

So I was preparing to walk the roof of Croke Park — 44m above the ground.

The previous day had been one of the stormiest of the year. Alan The Barman told me it would make a better story if I was blown off the roof of GAA HQ. .

It was a benign, sunny day as I climbed up the Cusack Stand with my father-in-law, Paul, and guide, Julianne.

I think it was the Cusack Stand — I had my eyes closed.

On the roof, the words “don’t look down” rang in my ears.

I looked down — and my legs turned to jelly.

I steadied myself to see the spectacular view.

The Liffey estuary glittered in the distance. The traffic snaked silently along north Dublin’s historic streets.

“Look, there’s the GPO and the Four Courts,” I said.

“Quit stalling,” said my father-in-law.

I looped my safety harness onto a guide rail and steeled myself. I was about to walk along the viewing platform, which juts out over the pitch. This was the bit I had been dreading.

Fear gripped me by the bowels. I grabbed the rail and inched forward. My head felt light. Even with the harness, I was terrified.

I snailed on, determined to stick my head over the edge and have a look down at the park. There were tiny figures moving below. People.

It was like watching fleas on a snooker table.

I moved back to the centre of the roof.

On the way down, fear turned to relief.

I may have made a babbling idiot of myself but I hadn’t chickened out.

If you’ve done the Skyline, you’ll think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill (a very large molehill).

That evening, in the pub, Alan The Barman asked if the experience had cured me. Would I now be able to change a light bulb?

“No,” I replied, looking up at the rugby match on the telly. “I now have a fear of heights,” I said, lifting my pint, “… AND sports stadia.”

* For details of the Etihad Skyline Tour see

Joe McNamee, our food critic creates the goodies

PITCH DARK, 5.30am, I’m trusting a chirpy DJ to keep me alert as I motor cautiously west. On arrival in Toonsbridge, the village is in slumber. The former dairy housing Toby Simmonds’ Real Olive Company HQ is in darkness but, towards the rear, I spy a soft, celestial white light spilling out into the dark, frosty yard.

Standing in the doorway, dressed in white wellies, long, white, rubber apron, and white t-shirt is Sean Ferry, one of Ireland’s most renowned cheesemakers and a hero of mine. I’ve had a thing for cheese since the ‘high queen’ of Irish cheese, Veronica Steele, gave me a taste of her renowned Milleens 30 years ago.

Coming from a world where cheese was sweaty, orange and rubber, I was revulsed at the high, pungent aroma, but this gave way to delight at the gentle, creamy tang, triggering obsession.

Today, Sean and I are to make cheese. Mozzarella is the extreme of cheese-making. It takes mere hours as opposed to the weeks, months, and years required for most cheeses.

It involves ‘hand-pulling’ (a swift and vigorous action), boiling hot water and fast-melting curd. Traditional cheese-making is gentler.

Machines are humming inside, and a large paddle slowly stirs 600 litres of raw buffalo milk heating up in a great steel vat.

The best mozzarella is made from fat-rich buffalo milk and Toonsbridge’s milk comes from nearby farmer Johnny Lynch’s herd. It is the first buffalo herd in Ireland.

At 26/27°C, Sean pours in the starter culture, those beautiful bacteria that kickstart the conversion of milk into cheese. “They’re hungry boys. It takes them about 20 minutes to start their magic,” says Sean. At 37.5C, he adds rennet.

It is 8.06am, the clock is set, the four-hour countdown begins. We pump the mix into two, great, white plastic vats.

An hour later, the mix is solidifying, so Sean methodically slices it and solid curd separates from liquid whey.

As the curd sinks to the bottom, we pour the whey off into a vat, picking out rough cubes of curd to drain on a sloping, steel tray. I tear off a chunk.

It is rubbery but tasteless, just a slight, lemony tang from the citric acid speeding up acidification.

Time isn’t wasted: we scrub out the milk vat and knock out a swift batch of ricotta from the liquid whey.

“More than half the job is cleaning,” says Sean, “but 90°C water, a bit of detergent when needed, avoiding loads of chemicals.”

It’s coming up to the witching hour, 12.06pm, but all depends on whether the curds have reached the optimum PH setting. Sean no longer tests with a meter. “I just know instinctively,” he says.

The final stage needs to be done quickly. Johnny Lynch lends a hand. Cubes of curd are put into a shredder and spat out below like glistening, white-bark mulch. We scoop them into a slanting, shallow vat, and Sean pours 95°C water on top. As they soften, Sean drains off most of the water and, with a stick and a carved wooden ‘cup’, stretches the melting curd, gathering it into a great single mass.

In minutes it is ready for the next stage, passed into another hopper, this time feeding a stainless steel drum pocked with rounded indentations. In minutes, it is spitting out gorgeous white globes of mozzarella which we turn into brine baths. “The brine helps them form a little skin,” says Sean, “and also keeps them fresh for a good 10 days.”

I’ve made cheese. I’m as triumphant as a first-time father emerging from the labour ward.


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