Jumping over ditches isn’t something you expect in a day’s work as head chef of an hotel as old world and grand as the Imperial in Cork city.
Chef Nicky Foley is used to rummaging around in hedgerows and foraging on the seashore, however, after a six-year tenure under Richard Corrigan in London.
Foley had it drummed into him that ingredients are everything and growing up in Waterford as one of 10 children, he remembers always being out picking blackberries and the resourcefulness of his mother in feeding such a large family: “She was very organised”, he says.
Something no doubt any chef has to be in a busy kitchen.
And in the case of the Imperial, his kitchen is undergoing a sea-change, quite literally — bringing in the wild food that Foley finds on the shore in nearby places like Crosshaven and along the coastline of south Cork.
Dishes that feature sea-beet, a plump, spinach like leaf with a mild flavour of the sea, are created with fish, seaweeds, wild peas, honeysuckle and clover.
They all feature on the menu. Due to the erratic nature of this summer, wild garlic is still plentiful either in its ramson form or as the long-leaf variety.
“The leaves have a delicate, garlicky flavour but pack a spicy punch too and are great in a risotto, but leave it until the end to add the leaves to keep the flavour”, says Foley.
“If there’s lots of it you can take some of the bulbs too but otherwise you should leave it so it grows back again next year,” he says.
To see what grows where, and to find all the tastiest treats along the shore, we took a trip on a rainy Sunday to see what we could see, but foraging is easier when the sun shines.
Not a man to be deterred by a few raindrops and howling wind, however, the chef had me worming my way down a hidden passageway to a secret beach where all the good stuff was hiding.
“Now is a great time for wild peas, tiny shoots that look a lot like normal peas but with pretty purple flowers.
"Keep your eyes peeled for these sweet delicacies when you’re out walking and pick some to pretty up a plate of smoked fish or finish off your salad with a few shoots”, says Foley, while checking along water’s edge to see what was free for the taking.
Sea beet (above) is a plump and delicious leaf with a mild flavour of the sea and is easy to walk past on a stoney beach.
Sea beet, or sea spinach, is the genetic ancestor of beetroot or chard and regular spinach, and it shares similar thick, pointed leaves and firm stems.
Its glossy, fleshy leaves and waving flower-spikes will probably be a familiar sight if you’ve ever spent any time walking near the sea.
The leaves are an excellent vegetable and can be served in just about any recipe that calls for cooked spinach. Picked young and juicy and glossy, it may be the best spinach you’ve ever tasted.
“This will make a great dish with some white fish like turbot, I might stuff it with some langoustines and use the sea beet — poaching it just a tiny bit to lay the fish on and lifting it with some lemongrass puree maybe,” he says.
Sea beet can be picked from May to December and used in lots of dishes from quiches to soups.
Rock samphire grows from under rocks, as the name suggests, and is much fierier than its juicy French cousin that we’re, perhaps, more used to getting.
Seaweeds too, are making a big comeback on the fine dining scene and Foley loves to get his hands wet, picking what’s on the shore at the time.
“Seaweeds are highly nutritious and of course they’re free. I don’t know why more people don’t come down to the shore and get these free foods”, he says, pulling up a handful of sea lettuce (the stranded variety).
He comes up with a recipe that I can’t wait to try back in the hotel kitchen.
“I’ll pickle this seaweed and then slice up some scallops thinly to make a ceviche, we can have that with an Asian-style dressing and finish it off with the wild peas.”
Driver Scallop Ceviche, Wild Pea Flowers, Pickled Seaweed, Spiced Dressing, Broad Beans
3 scallops (driver scallops are more environmental friendly).
Open these and slice very thinly and arrange on a plate and chill
5gs of mustard seeds
100g of sugar
75g of white wine vinegar
125g of mirin
Bring all the above up to the boil, let it stand to cool and then add the washed seaweed, I find it best to do this the day before, it breaks the seaweeds down and softens it better.
50g of ginger
2 sticks of lemon grass
2 med spiced chillies
Micro-plane all the above and set aside 5 limes – juice and zest
125g of caster sugar
Bring the water and sugar to the boil, cool, season to taste with salt and pepper.
Then add the lime juice and zest, ginger, lemon grass and chilli. I love to add a good splash of Irish rapeseed oil too.
Now remove the scallop plate from the fridge, season with salt and pepper, put the broad beans in a bowl and pour the dressing over and then cover the scallops fully dressed with the pickled seaweed.
Wild-pea flowers add a wonderful sweetness to the whole dish and pulls all the other bits into place, scatter the flowers over the plate at the table and enjoy.