I went to the launch of Donal Skehan’s new book, The Pleasures of the Table: Rediscovering Theodora FitzGibbon at the Royal Society of Antiquaries on Merrion Square a week or two ago and, despite the torrential rain outside, it was a lovely evening. Organized as part of the series of ‘Finishing School’ talks hosted by Gill & Macmillan and Le Cool Dublin, the discussion was warmly framed and well presented by Skehan, with beautiful images and audio clips punctuating his talk on FitzGibbon and her work.
According to Gill & Macmillan, the book was written with the dual aim of replacing loyal fans’ battered copies of her books and ancient newspaper clippings and to introduce a new generation to her work. Writing in the introduction to the book, Skehan notes that ‘The history of Irish food is full of enlightened but sometimes forgotten voices. At a time when we are rediscovering the roots of our cuisine, it seems only appropriate that one of those great voices should be celebrated and shared with modern Ireland’.
Fitzgibbon, a completely formidable lady by all accounts, was certainly one of these great voices and she extolled the virtues of Irish ingredients and recipes long before it was fashionable to do so. She was a Killiney resident who lived life to the full and travelled widely and had so many exciting experiences and met so many interesting acquaintances – Picasso admired her arms apparently – that she wrote not one but two memoirs. She also wrote numerous cookery books and was The Irish Times’ food columnist for 20 years. I didn’t know much about her before Skehan’s book came out but I mentioned her to my mum and she recalled clipping a number of her columns out of the paper, as did many others at the event, with her recipes for barm brack, Christmas Cake and Gur cake being widely cited as favourites.
Skehan’s book revisits some of FitzGibbon’s many recipes with his distinctive photography, making her black-and-white recipes suddenly appear modern, real and colourful once again, and the canapés cooked from the book for the event (lentils and apricots, chicken liver paté, thimblefuls of gazpacho and beautiful potted crab on brown bread), all showed this particular duality of old and new; of then and now; of Irish and exotic.
I loved the idea of seeing old-fashioned Irish ingredients in a new light, and, with that in mind I decided to try making soup with some of the lovage that is currently trying to take over our garden. Leafy green and totally uncontrollable, lovage, also known as ‘love-parsley’ is, it would have to be said, regarded as a fairly unfashionable ingredient these days. It was popular long ago as a cooking herb, and as it comes from the same plant family as parsley and celery (Umbelliferae), it tastes quite strongly of both (take note, a little goes a long way). But it tastes wonderfully delicate and fresh in soup, especially when paired with new-season ‘wet’ garlic, a milder form of garlic which hasn’t been left to dry. The combination of the two spring ingredients in this lovely, creamy, pale green soup is, to appropriate a refrain from the talk, a way of ‘capturing food in its freshest form’. Perhaps this is the message to take from the evening: food that is fresh, seasonal, well-presented and delicious can never truly be unfashionable; all it needs is to be captured once again with a fresh look, a fresh touch, a fresh attitude and it sings again anew.
Theodora FitzGibbon: “The hand that cuts the garlic is the one that is kissed most often”
1 medium white onion, finely diced
1-inch piece of fresh garlic, finely diced (or a clove or two of ordinary garlic)
3 large potatoes, peeled and diced
4 heaped tablespoons of finely diced lovage
1 pint or more of good-quality bought or homemade chicken stock
Salt and pepper
Crème fraîche or cream to serve
Melt the butter in a heavy pan and fry the onion and garlic gently until soft and golden. Add the diced potato and the stock and cook for around 15 minutes or until the potatoes have softened. Add the milk and season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add the chopped lovage leaves and allow to simmer for a few minutes. Blend the soup and heat through. Don’t bring it back up to the boil or it may split (apparently). Serve with a swirl of cream or crème fraîche, some more salt and pepper and a sprinkling of diced lovage.