Black Point: a year in the King’s Inns

Black Point: a year in the King’s Inns

(adapted for Village Magazine, September 2012)

‘I am sure you’ll all soon be living in Regency houses after successful careers at the bar’, were some of the saccharine words that greeted our first day at the King’s Inns as the Under-Treasurer welcomed us to our new lives as fledgling barristers.

Before long we had been ushered into groups, and what followed was the excruciation of a ‘describe yourself in sixty seconds’ discussion with a partner who would then give a presentation on the essence of who you were.

The first week came straight out of the ‘Getting to know one another in Business School’ manual as students were subjected to such questions as ‘who would be your ideal dinner party guest?’ Fortunately, the nauseating artificiality of these exchanges did not deter the formation of normal relations, and even friendships, as individuals bonded through that vital human ingredient that has always been the bane of totalitarian regimes; satire.

The student body consisted of one hundred and ninety students, sub-divided into twelve groups of sixteen, and the ‘group’ formed the basic social unit of which a student became part. The ultimately chimerical threat of failure haunted any student who did not abide by the mandatory ninety per cent attendance, ensuring low absenteeism.

The Dean, a lady of unfailingly sour countenance, justified this compulsion by analogy with the medical profession. It would, apparently, be unfair on future clients for discrete areas of the law to be unknown to practitioners if they had missed out on classes. But this ignored the fact that students often turned up in a condition where learning was out of the question; either because they promptly fell asleep, or had rip-roaring hangovers, or were in the grip of a cabin-fever induced dementia. I know because I attended in all three states. Moreover, a medical student’s knowledge is tested by examination (as was the King’s Inns student – intensively) not by attendance. With the best will in the world, a person of low intellect may not remember what was said in class while the smart student may consult a textbook.

The real reason for the mandatory attendance seemed to stem from the need for the full compliment of any group to be available for the ‘Ring-Ring a Rosy’ business school games and group work.

The ‘War on Absenteeism’ led to one of the defining moments of the year; an attempt to introduce a biometric roll-call. Students were to be asked for a finger print sample to confirm their presence in class. Progressively, the distinction between student and ordinary criminal was blurred as the authorities sought to prevent the dastardly students from creating androids in their own image or enlisting suitable doppelgangers. Fortunately, the scheme was abandoned as even the unusually docile students of the King’s Inns began to rumble with discontent.

Compulsory attendance extended to dining, by far the most archaic aspect of the King’s Inn’s education; a vestige of a time when there was no formal education and students were treated to the wisdom of their elders while they ate. Students still dine in capes which give the festivities the appearance of a wizard convention. They then gather at tables to await the entry of the Benchers, members of the judiciary and grizzled barristers. The students bow before these luminaries in a show of feudal deference.

The food, which had apparently improved immeasurably, was of the distinctly canteen variety, limp and unimaginative; melt in your mouth carrots and mystery meat. The old rational of the benefit of interaction between students and practitioners is lost as, except on rare occasions, practising barristers are kept well away from the hoi poloi and given superior food as a mark of their elevated status.

The modern hybrid is a glorified piss-up where students are provided with wine that would make a salad wince. The only educational aspect of these evenings is derived from learning how to cope with quantities of cheap plonk, the euphemistically named Chilean Punta Negra (black point). Twice a year, so-called ‘grand’ night takes place where each student is given a whole bottle as opposed to the customary half. The consumption of so much cheap booz at an early hour has predictable results with many students roaring drunk by nine o’clock. On both grand nights students suffered broken bones (two broken ankles on the last occasion) there were also stories of prominent members of the judiciary being harangued by students who had fallen under the spell of the wicked brew. For anyone with a weakness for alcohol, dining provided an atmosphere not exactly conducive to sobriety.

Retribution for a lack of decorum could be swift. On one night the Chief Justice took exception to the insufficiency of the students’ bowing and the ‘privilege’ of going to the toilet was withdrawn. It should be emphasised that in the Honourable Society of the King’s Inns going to the toilet at dining is a privilege sought by way of permission from the Bench. In most walks of life, such a decree would give rise to a riot but owing to a general omerta and deference to authority no such response could be expected from the sheepish students of the King’s Inns, eager themselves to ascend to the cherished heights of the profession.

Probably the most nauseating moment of the year came after the triumph of the King’s Inns Hurling team in a competition involving about three other colleges with miniscule student numbers (while the King’s Inns team also contained practising barristers). The team were feted like astronauts. Members of the judiciary became weak kneed at the sight of these fine young men who had, apparently, single-handedly changed the prevailing perception of the institution (in the deluded estimation of the President of the High Court). These brave young men were now firmly established in the pantheon of Gaelic heroes. No longer would the institution be associated with West-Brit cricketers or pansy debaters.

The denouement came at one of the final dining nights in a rally where Nuremburg met Croke Park. The team, heroes to a man, were presented with awards with each member accorded a stirring accolade. The whole ceremony seemed to go on for hours. Leaving the hall was prohibited, so vast quantities of the Punta Negra were consumed as most people, bemused by the spectacle, sought some escape from the tedium. But the hum of speeches continued as each substitute who had turned up at every training session to bash the head off some malnourished gombeen from Newcastle West Post-Leaving Cert Institute, was accorded his due. Unsurprisingly, before long most of us had reached ‘black point’.


Dining in Dublin: the good, the bad and the inedible

(Lecture delivered in the Little Museum of Dublin, December 2013)

We humans put a lot of store in food and its symbolic value. In fact our picky and refined approach distinguishes us from other primates who tend to retreat into a hidden corner to devour their fare.

But modern technology such as televisions, smart phones and tablets seems to be changing this. The anthropologist Jack Goody is scathing of the modern habit of avoiding social engagement while eating. A solitary form of consumption he says reverses the customary habit of ‘public input and private output’, making eating alone ‘the equivalent of shitting publicly’.

For that reason alone, meals are a crucial component in our lives and it is puzzling that the subject of food tends to be ignored in mainstream history. Although that is changing as historians begin to recognize the crucial importance of this univeral component of all human life. As the great gastronome Brillat-Savarin wrote: ‘it is the common bond which unites the nations of the world in reciprocal exchanges of objects serving for daily consumption.’

Indeed, any religious festival or life event that I can think of is marked by a feast or meal of some description. Food is both symbol and nutrition.

It is interesting to consider the origin of the dining table which is ‘descended from the sacrificial altars that were used to make offerings to the gods.’

French sociologist Bernard Kaufmann argues that its presence in the family-home, dating back to the 18th century, helped to produce the modern family, and certainly the arrangement, often hierarchically and in designated positions, of family members around a single table achieves a sense of togetherness that haphazard seating around a room will never achieve. This is played out in almost every restaurant experience.

We turn now to the emergence of the restaurant in eighteenth century France.

Before it gained popularity there was the simple table d’hote where a traiteur would present a large pot to the assembled diners who arrived at the appointed hour. This presented difficulties as agreed conventions were lacking on how diners would participate. The agronomist Arthur Young, travelling around France at the end of the 18th century, bemoaned the rudeness of greedy table-companions in hostelries throughout that country, saying that ‘the ducks were swept clean so quickly that I moved from the table without half a dinner’. An ascending bourgeois class were looking for something more recherché.

The restaurant was originally a place where medicinal broths were consumed and derives its names from the French verb ‘to restore’ or ‘to recuperate’. These originally specialised in medicinal broths.

The bourgeoisie found the experience they sought through the adaptation of the restaurant In her history, The Invention of the Restaurant (2000), Rebecca Sprang recalls how the restaurants of 18th century Paris differentiated themselves from other eateries by offering sustenance at any time of day, allowing for individualised portions in contrast to the traiteurs. Eventually restaurants began to offer more solid fare, thereby encroaching on the traiteurs.

The strict laws regulating the division of business between the different food guilds in France in the 18th century led to friction, culminating in a landmark court case in which the restaurateurs carried the day. This allowed the restaurant-style of eating, ‘characterized not by commonwealth but by compartmentalization’, to emerge as the dominant form of eating-out in the Western world.

Today, European restaurants invariably ‘plate’ each dish before presentation to the individual customer a style known as service a la Russe which replaced the more medieval display of service a la Francaise at the end of the nineteenth century. The elitist quality of the restaurant experience was part of its appeal. Indeed according to Sprang, the ‘restaurant fantasy implicitly required the presence of somebody outside: some poor devil with his nose pressed to the window’.

Thus, for our purposes a restaurant is more than merely an establishment where food is served. It involves the refinements of individual seating and usually separate portions for each individual. It also involves table service. A restaurant is synonymous with French food, though not exclusively. The dominance of French models is definitely apparent in the early history of Dublin restaurants, though this has clearly changed in recent decades.

Apart from the chefs, waiting staff and often indulgent investors, the most important person to a restaurant’s livelihood is the food critic. A bad review can sink a restaurant while praise can bring customers flooding in to the next big thing.

A food critic is also known as a gastronome and the first of this kind was Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière who wrote his Almanach des Gourmands in the wake of the Revolution.

He issued his pronouncements in the name of tradition as a member of the departed ancien regime. The son of a rich farmer-general, in his early life he displayed liberal tendencies but became disillusioned with the new order, condemning ‘everything that is despicable and vile; there in two words you have the Revolution’. He asserts: ‘I will never be the friend of a democrat. It is atrocious that men of letters should think as the majority do today (MacDonogh, 1997, p.203)’. According to his biographer MacDonogh (1987 p.41), he began to write about food after being told to write about something harmless or give up altogether. In this medium he ‘masked his vicious attacks behind harmless idioms’. Gastronomy became a vehicle for his reactionary views. An awareness of ‘good’ food revealed the true aristocrat. After the Revolution he founded what he referred to as a Jury des Degustateurs, and between 1803 and 1812 set about writing his Almanach des Gourmands. The aristocratic display of pre-Revolutionary France could re-emerge in the new forum of the public restaurant.

The gastronome in his most evolved form is not a professional cook. He is a man of letters. His real table is not the one where he eats but the one where he writes. It is with the flourish of the pen that they achieve success rather than through the extent of their knowledge as ultimately the gastronome is not the one who knows the most but the one who speaks best.

Curnonsky, the pen name of the great French food critic Maurice Edmond Sailland who was elected Prince Elect of Gastronomy by Le Soir magazine in 1927 describes the role as follows:

‘There are those who stare with gluttonous resentment, and those who snap impatient fingers at every passing waiter: those who flap huge newspapers in their companions’ faces, and those who shake defiant powder-puffs in their neighbours soup; those who devour bread to repletion, and those who chat so gaily, to the restaurant at large. But there are others, a chosen few who, having developed to a fine degree the study of physiognomy and, coupling this with a skilled pen or pencil, combine their talents in lightning sketches on the tablecloth.’

Pascal Ory poses the question “Does the chef make the gastronome or vice versa?

While it is clear is that culinary evolution is largely independent of gastronomic evaluation, without an audience chefs are unlikely to innovate. Just like if we cook only for ourselves we tend not to perform heroics, a cook without a responsive audience might take a functional approach. But innovation and high standards become an imperative when the food critic is there to evaluate. Even if they have nothing but contempt for the breed, virtuoso chefs usually require the validation of critical approval, and boundaries are only broken when gastronomes are there to describe them as such. More to the point, the imprimatur of the critic brings great rewards. Perhaps unfairly the pen is often mightier than the kitchen knife.

This lecture will thus include a short evaluation of the role of food criticism, restaurant criticism in particular, that elevated the standard of Irish food. Food criticism also serves as a vital primary source for what these Dublin restaurants were like.

Now, turning to the subject matter of the history of Dublin restaurants. What does that conjure in our minds?

I must admit that growing up in a reasonably affluent Dublin household I did not have a huge exposure. We went to restaurants or trattoria when we were on holidays in France or Italy, there might be the odd meal in restaurant like Da Vincenzo for a special occasion or the odd illicit and sometimes regrettable Chinese dinner but there was no recognisable Irish food culture evident in Dublin until the 1990s. Hiberno-French restaurants like Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud’s or Thornton’s were not family restaurants, although somewhere like Roly’s Bistro did create a wider diffusion of French dining habits, albeit at prices that would have excluded most. However, as time went by I did encounter some of the more fashionable restaurants and I even worked in one called Mint whose chef Dylan McGrath became the enfant terrible of the Irish restaurant scene before he became the sympathetic and health-conscious individual we know today: but more of that later.

As you will know Dublin was the second city of the British Empire until end of the eighteenth century. After the Act of Union of 1801 many of the prosperous land owners departed the city and, indeed, by the start of the twentieth century Belfast’s population was greater. But it retained a residual aristocracy and gentry who formed the clientele for the few restaurants that did emerge toward century’s end. However, the absence, into the twentieth century of a significant bourgeois class meant there was little demand for restaurants for those on middling incomes.

It is also perhaps unfortunate for the gastronomic inheritance of this country to be colonised by the English who Voltaire described as being a nation of 42 religions but only two sauces. It is also worth recognising that Ireland was a poor country by European standards in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century. The Great Famine was among the most devastating of its kind in human history. Perhaps in response culinary celebration was muted.

There were of course places where food was purchased and consumed prior to the emergence of restaurants; many French chefs had already emigrated to Ireland to work in aristocratic households and gentlemen’s clubs by the time the first recognisable restaurant emerged in Dublin in 1861.

The Café du Paris on Lincoln Place was intriguingly linked to a Turkish baths on the same premises. They advertised both dinners ‘a la carte and table d’hote; choicest wines and liqueurs of all kinds, [and] Ices.

Any history of Dublin restaurants must linger longingly in the shadow of the legendary Jammet’s which was founded by two brothers from the Pyrennes Michel and Francois Jammet in 1901. They purchased the Burlington Restaurant and Oyster Saloon on Andrew’s Street in 1901 and renamed it Jammet’s.

Michel had been chef to the lord lieutenant so knew all about what appealed to the aristocracy whose descendents continued to patronise the establishment until its demise in 1967.

In 1908 Francois Jammet returned to Paris leaving his brother in sole charge until 1927 when he handed the reigns to his Belvedere educated son Louis. By that time it had moved to Nassau Street to the site of the Porterhouse Central where you can bop the night away. We can only imagine how Jammet’s illustrious patrons would feel about that.

One observer from the 1940s describes the interior of the restaurant: ‘the main dining room was pure French second Empire, with a lovely faded patina to the furniture, snow white linens, well cut crystal, monogrammed porcelain, gourmet sized silver-plated cutlery and gleaming decanters.’ It was the hangout for artists and the literary set such as W.B. Yeats and the Michael MacLiommar and Dudley Edwards as well as wealthy professionals and men of commerce.

The family first lived in Queen’s Park, Monkstown but moved to the sixteenth century Kill Abbey in the 1940s. There vegetables were grown for the restaurant a home grown philosophy that we are seeing increasingly in Dublin restaurant’s today.

A 1928 article in Vogue describes Jammet’s as ‘one of Europe’s best restaurants … crowded with gourmets and wits, where the sole and the grouse was divine.’

It was during the years of the Second World War that Jammet’s really came into its own as being the location for the ‘finest French cooking between the fall of France and the liberation of Paris.’ Like other Irish restaurants Jammet’s managed to evade restrictive rationing and serve customers the fare they were accustomed to.

According to one observer ‘American servicemen, cigar-chomping and in full uniform, were streaming across the neutral border to sample the fabulous food in the prodigious quantities available here.’

If Jammet’s was the location for Allied excess another long-established restaurant the Red Bank was the place of Axis intrigue. On April 22nd 1939 the German colony in Ireland celebrated the birthday of Adolf Hitler there. The Irish Times records: ‘A large portrait of Herr Hitler occupied special position in the special decorations. On either side of it were swastikas and every guest wore a swastika or Nazi party badges.’

Disturbingly in May 1940 as the Nazis Blitzkrieged through Europe, the ‘Irish Friends of Germany’ (aka the National Club) held a meeting in the restaurant that was attended by 50 people. George Griffin, veteran anti-Semite and ex Blueshirt, spoke on the subject of the ‘The Jewish Stranglehold on Ireland’. Griffin mentioned many Jews by name and went onto advocate that ‘… we should never pass a Jew on the street without openly insulting him’.

But Jewish émigrés were themselves involved in the restaurant trade and could dish out their own retribution. It is said that revenge is a dish best served cold but for Austrian Jews Erwin and Lisl Strunz from Vienna it could be salty too.

They escaped from Vienna in 1938 and purchased a premises on Merrion Row which they called the Unicorn. They bought it for a song as Irish people thought the premises was haunted because W.B. Yeats had conducted séances there.

Lisl would cook her mainly Austrian dishes while Erwin entertained at the front of house. He reminisced ‘during Christmas 1940 when all the lights had gone out over Europe I played my guitar in the restaurant and sang Christmas carols and folk songs in eight languages.

But not all comers were welcome. When Edouard Hempel and his acolytes from the German legation visited Erwin became apoplectic with rage. But he kept his wits about him and calmly took their orders. Before each plates was delivered he doused each one with enough salt to clear a frosty driveway. Hempel nearly choked and the whole table walked out and never returned.

After the war the Unicorn was sold to an Italian family the Sidoli’s and it brought exotic ingredients like pasta to its Dublin clientele. It also involved females chefs which was unusual for the male dominated profession in Dublin.

Another immigrant who came to Ireland to work in the restaurant trade was Zenon Geldof a Belgian citizen who set up a restaurant called Café Belge. His grandson Bob retained an ambition to feed the world.

Steeped in the haute cuisine tradition of Escoffier Jammet’s continued to prosper after the war when it was joined by other restaurants including The Russell. Mac Con Iomaire argues that on a per capita basis in the 1950s Ireland was the gastronomic capital of the British Isles. Although this may not have been that big an achievement as by the 1950s English food has reached a nadir. Elizabeth David wrote of her experience in one English restaurant of the time: ‘there was no excuse, none, for such unspeakably unpleasant meals as in that dining room were put in front of me. To my agonized homesickness for the sun and southern food was added an embattled rage that we should be asked – and should accept – the endurance of such cooking.’

Standards do not appear to have been that much higher in Ireland. One chef working at that time recalls: ‘The standard of cuisine when I was 14,15,16,-20 was poor. It was very poor. For instance the Clarence Hotel, they used to have pig cheeks on and the clergy used to come in and eat them. Pigs cheeks, and damn it all you’d get was corned beef or some bloody thing.’

Another chef was shocked when he entered one hotel kitchen: ‘It was horrible, it was the dirtiest and filthiest kitchen I had been in my whole life. I don’t know how anyone got away with it! … there were stalagmites of big black fat all around on the floor.’

This may have been because there was no serious critique of Irish restaurants until as late as the 1980s. Farmar suggests that an absolute rule among the Irish middle class in the 1960s was never to talk about food: ‘to enjoy eating as such was unbecoming to a serious person’. He quotes an American commentator who claimed cooking in Ireland was: ‘a necessary chore rather than an artistic ceremony and that in restaurants ‘nine out of ten ordered steak every time with nine out of ten ordering chips with it’(1991: 180-182).

But Dublin certainly did have fine dining establishments that were considered among the best in the world. The Russell was one of only eight restaurants that received three stars from Egon Ronay in 1963. In 1965 he wrote: ‘words fail us in describing the brilliance of the cuisine and the elegant and luxurious restaurant which must rank amongst the best in the world.’

Declan Ryan describes his time working there:

‘They [the Russell] were the greatest shower that God ever made. They fought like devils and they cooked like angels … I don’t think you’d get away with the sort of tactics he must have used on those guys today, but they could cook like magic.’

Egon Ronay was also bewitched by the retro glamour of Jammet’s ‘As if by magic the turn of the century as been fully preserved beyond the swing of the door … Space, grace, the charm of small red leather armcahairs, fin-de-siecle murals and marble oyster counters exude a bygone age. Ritz and Escoffier would feel at home here.’

But Jammet’s was not cheap. When John Lennon dined there in the early 1960s he drew a self-portrait and commented ‘the other three are saving up to come here’.

But by the end of the 1960s Dublin was changing as many of the old ascendancy who had been the patrons of restaurants like Jammets were dying out, and moreover, structural changes were occurring as an emerging bourgeois moved to suburban homes where they acquired motor cars. This jeopardised city centre establishments like Jammet’s which did not have parking facilities and it closed its doors in 1967. Unfortunately its hope of moving out to the suburbs to another premises was not realised. A form of obituary was written in the Irish Times from 1967 read:

‘The Dublin that most of know is changing. In some ways for the best; but in the process so much that gave its special character to the city has been allowed to rot or has been swept away. Rumours that Jammet’s was for sale fitted into the sad story …  it was as old as the oldest Dubliner and it represented the best of its kind when there were much fewer restaurants than it boasts today … Many who read the news of the sale of the restaurant here and abroad will be oppressed with nostalgic regret … M. Jammet [was] formerly chef to Lord Cadogan when the last but one of the expansive Viceroys returned to England. For 67 years Dublin has had evidence of how well that pro-consul did himself and his guests.’

The decade of the 1970s with its high oil prices and wealth taxes dealt a series of body blows to high class Dublin restaurants and emphasised what a precarious enterprise it is. It is instructive that only five restaurants Beaufield Mews (1950), The Unicorn (1938 but moved premises in 1960), Nicos (1964), The Lord Edward (1969) and the Trocadero (1956) date back to before the 1970s.

The 1970s witnessed a swing in gastronomic gravity to County Cork where restaurants like Arbutus Lodge, and Ballylickey and Ballymalloe houses pioneered a locavore approach that brought critical acclaim.

But Dublin still had some famous, some would say notorious, restaurants at this time many of them associated with Charles J. Haughey who despite a ‘flawed pedigree’ was a more devoted gastronome than his political rival Garret FitzGerald who claimed to eat no vegetables bar peas and white asparagus.

The appeal of these haute cuisine restaurants lay in their exclusivity, the sense that when one dined there one entered an elite world where money was no object. One restaurateur of the time was taken by surprise by the demand for fine wine: ‘They were drinking vintage port by the bottle, they were drinking 1952 brandy or Armagnac by the glass and we were just staggered.’

Perhaps this can be explained by how in an era of brown envelopes restaurant bills could always be paid for in cash.

The Mirabeau (1972-1984) in Sandycove will always be associated with its celebrit chef patron Sean Kinsella who drove a Rolls Royce and wore Louis Copeland suits. He counted Haughey as a friend and attended Christmas parties in Kinsealy, Haughey’s mansion home. Kinsella chose not to trouble prospective diners by putting prices on his menus, warning them ‘you can get by on £10 per head in The Mirabeau, but if you have to worry about the prices don’t go there.’

Kinsella describes how his restaurant operated:

‘the waiters would take the food in, in its natural state, and then I’d come in, and I’d say Mr Smith you are having your usual wine’ and he’d say: ‘oh yes Sean’ , the bloke wouldn’t know what I was talking about, but around the table, they would be saying ‘oh, yer man is a regular here’ It was psychological, now I was not going to give him a bottle of plonk and he’s not going to worry if he pays fifty or a hundred pounds for it if he is able to reciprocate the treatment that he got abroad. And then you get the other side of the coin, a chap phones me up and says to me ‘I hope to get engaged tonight’ and I say no problem come around eight, and he says there is only one problem, my fiancé and I only eat burgers’, and I say no problem, so they arrived and I told the waiter ‘don’t give them the menu, give them a bit of melon, and the main course, and give them a bit of dinner. And in the visitors book, he wrote ‘she said, yes’, and wrote ‘I’ll remember the burger’

[We might contrast this approach with the response of one famous chef to the request for a plate of chips.]

[(Optional) Kinsella continues:

‘We made people feel that they were coming into somebody’s home, either Audrey would meet them or I’d meet them … If you were there at two or three in the morning, the chairs were not being put up on the tables around you and would you mind paying your bill at the reception … We built up a relationship with customers, and if we knew a man’s wife was having a baby, Audrey would go down to St. Michael’s … with a bunch of flowers and a bottle of champagne.]

Others were less impressed by the vulgarity of the large portions on offer and unfortunately for Kinsella the revenue commissioners may not been impressed by his rather opaque financial dealings. The restaurant went into voluntary liquidation in 1984.

Another restaurant associated with CJ was The Coq Hardi (1977) on Pembroke Road. It drew its custom from an emerging corporate class and boasted a wine cellar which was voted the best in Britain and Ireland in the Egon Ronay guide at one point. This was an excellent business strategy as wealthy customers could entertain clients with stupendously expensive bottles wines which would be put on expense accounts.

The Moriarty tribunal revealed in 1999 that Haughey accumulated huge bills at the Coq Hardi that came out of the public purse, including one year when £15,000 was spent from the ‘Leader’s Allowance’ in the restaurant.

At one point the former Taoiseach spent £500 on a bottle of 1967 Chateau d’Yquem when dining with a group of guests, who included the wine critic of a major British newspaper.

An ‘apocryphal’ story emerged about CJ treating his Cabinet to dinner at Le Coq Hardi. The then Taoiseach chose beef as his main course and when the waiter asked him “And the vegetables, sir?”, he is said to have replied: “They’ll have the same.”

But a new broom was sweeping through the Dublin restaurant scene at this time in the shape of an acerbic restaurant critic called Helen Lucy Burke.

We have discussed the importance of the critic in improving standards, and also providing critical approval for unnoticed chefs. The culinary standards of Dublin restaurants were not high in the 1970s and 1980s: it was common practice for even expensive restaurants to plate vegetables before service and microwave them when required.

Dublin restaurant did not have to endure informed and sustained criticism until Burke’s arrival on the scene. She began writing for the Sunday Tribune in 1985 and later in Magil magazine.

According to one chef of that time: ‘Lucy Burke was writing and she was causing such mayhem that people began to take notice … She was the one that really led. A lot followed you know.’

Burke recalls that she used to have to wear disguises and put on foreign accents to avoid detection. A legendary article in Magill entitled The Peacock, the Critic and the Blind Pussy revealed how even a successful chef like Conrad Gallagher could fret over Burke’s caustic pen. [the blind pussy in case you are wondering refers to the critic’s pet for whom a doggy bag was requested].

She described the offering in one restaurant in the following terms: ‘my plain green salad was tired before I started to eat it and I too became tired and left it … [while] the toast melba was like damp cardboard.

But she would praise restaurants she felt deserved it, describing one encounter as an ‘exquisite event’ and even thanking God for another restaurant she could conscientiously praise.

A favourable review could have customers streaming through the door and her words were used to advertise establishments in newspapers.

One devotee of Burke’s was CJ himself who apparently put a lot of store in Burke’s appraisals. He once met her at a party and told her that he always went to the restaurants she favourably reviewed.

When Conrad Gallagher (whose real name is Patrick – he took the name Conrad from the famous hotelier Conrad Hilton) opened Peacock Alley in 1995 he had most critics gushing with praise.

His fusion cooking breathed life into the Dublin restaurant scene. He rejected the city’s gastronomic inheritance just as many people were beginning to reject stifling Catholic morality; it is perhaps no coincidence that the right to divorce was passed in a referendum the same year his restaurant opened.

He said: ‘I use light Mediterranean style ingredients like pepper, basil, olive oil and garlic. I don’t like using cream or butter or heavy sauces. I also use Californian ingredients like rocket salad.

But Gallagher’s demise when his financial affairs and hedonism caused his restaurant to come a cropper was perhaps a foretaste for the future demise of the wider economy.

Another restaurant that suffered at the end of the boom was the new Unicorn. The Unicorn was to the noughties what Jammet’s was to the 1930s, the place where the great and good assembled, including literary demi-gods like Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel. Although the standard of its food does not seem to have reached the level of its illustrious predecessor.

Barry Egan wrote a farewell article in 2011

‘Friday afternoons on the terrace of the Unicorn that edged woozily into the evenings became something of an established ritual — Bill Clinton could even turn up — as he did last year. It was all about the interaction between the group. Friends at one table were sometimes joined by others, who attended for short periods or drifted about the periphery of the group. There would always be a model or two, a pop star, a visiting dignitary playing out their role on the stage that was the Unicorn. On a good night, and there were many good nights, it was like a rollicking Noel Coward play at the Gate.’

I should add that the restaurant has re-opened under new management.

A restaurant I was intimately familiar with was Mint Restaurant in Ranelagh where I worked for an unforgettable week in 2006. A few months later after the restaurant secured a Michelin star and its chef Dylan McGrath had come to national prominence after a TV show called Pressure Cooker showed him in action I published an account of my time there for the Sunday Tribune.

I wrote: ‘As the week went by the chefs around me began to greet me with more than a contemptuous grunt. This might have owed something to the fact that I was becoming a veteran. Most new chefs didn’t last the day. Only a chef who really wanted to learn from a master could possibly endure the invective levelled at them. Also, as the week wore on, I was asked to work longer hours as my body adjusted to the bowed back and repetitive chopping, though each night I would still return home to lie on the cold asphalt. But I could hardly complain, given that Dylan and the other chefs worked harder than me. They all arrived before eight in the morning and only finished late at night

By the end of the week, I had come to realise that I could derive no satisfaction from work of this monotonous cruelty. I felt a certain macho pride that Dylan urged me to stay when I announced I was leaving, but this kind of acceptance came at too great a price. I had fallen out of love with food.’

It is hard to chart the future of restaurants in Dublin. There is less appetite for expensive dining but there is at last a discernible middle market and a good array of ethnic offerings. It remains a very tough business with high turnover. Often it is a labour of love or even a vanity project. The history of Dublin restaurants shows how volatile the market is.

There is also a lot more critical appraisal of Dublin restaurants in all major publications and now, increasingly, online. The issue of food is covered more and more in the media as we explore issues like sustainability, provenance, human health and animal welfare.

One exotic trend that we see emerging is an appetite for raw and plant-based food, a further move away from Escoffier orthodoxy. Dublin actually had its first vegetarian restaurant in 1908 but recent years have seen an increasing demand for more healthy offerings. Dublin now has its first fully raw and vegan restaurant Sseduced in Temple Bar.

We have also witnessed the emergence of pop up restaurants that come and go in the space of a few days. One such is called Living Dinners run by Katie Sanderson. It offers a completely raw menu to its patrons including dishes including a living lasagne made with a pistachio pesto and a cashew nut cream cheese. The customer’s of Jammet’s might baulk at that!

But the dynamism and short-lived nature of the restaurant trade means that new ideas will emerge especially as tastes change. And even if the restaurants don’t stick around the appetite for the food will. It’s amazing to think that rocket was exotic in 1995. Now you’d find it in your local Spar.

We now want to know where ingredients come from and increasingly we want to feel restored by the experience of going out for a meal. This brings us back to the original meaning of a restaurant. The excess of haute cuisine is no longer universally desired and we prefer a more affordable version of the restaurant experience where there are less poor devils were their noses pressed against the window.

Excess and hedonism is increasingly reserved for the Christmas jumper brigade.

Happy Christmas everybody.


In search of the quinta essentia

(Spectator Scoff, November, 2010)

Courvoisier, the Cognac brandy, has long been synonymous with opulence and majesty. Napoleon himself was known to be fond of a snifter, giving the English owners of Courvoisier in 1908 the idea to market it as the drink of the diminutive Emperor. An early case of ‘celebrity’ endorsement, albeit achieved without the consent of the participant who had died nearly a century before.

This glamorous aura lingers as Courvoisier, and other Cognacs, have become for some African-Americans a status symbol to compliment the ‘ghetto styles’ of Nike Air Force trainers. When Busta Rhymes rapped that ‘Everyone is singing now “Pass the Courvoisier”’, his management company maintained that the beverage had been chosen for ‘artistic reasons’. Needless to say, Courvoisier was not complaining about a double-digit upsurge in US sales.

Surprisingly, today more Courvoisier is drunk in Britain than France and here the company has cultivated an image as a drink for those with cash to burn: the Courvoisier 500 is a marketing campaign in which emerging business people are approached and co-opted by the brand, in exchange for a few perks one assumes.

Last week I was invited to Jarnac, the town where Courvoisier is based in the Cognac region. The offer of a private jet was too good to pass up, so early one Monday morning I found myself being driven to the rarefied surroundings of Cambridge Airport for lift off. In line with Peter Sarstedt’s old song, I would sip my Napoleon Brandy ‘with the others from the jet set’.

On arrival in France I kept secret the fact that my acquaintance with Cognac was mainly restricted to underage forays into the forbidden fruit of my parent’s drinks cabinet. Nonetheless, over the course of three days I confess to developing a taste for the beverage that could have alarming financial repercussions considering L’Essence de Courvoisier has a price tag, in Harrods, of £1,800 pounds. Fortunately their VS is available for the more reasonable sum of £20 or so.

The story of Courvoisier begins with the main grape variety Ugni Blanc – actually the Italian Trebbiano – low in sugar, and suited to the mainly chalky soil of the Cognac Appellation. After harvesting it is fermented to an alcoholic level of about 10% in stainless-steel vats.

That is the easy part. Wine and even lower alcohol beer have been around for millennia, but advanced technology is required to distil it into the hard stuff. This knowledge arrived via the Arabs who used distillation to produce concentrated aromas and called it al-khulul – ‘the finest’. European medieval scholars who encountered the writings of the scientist known as Abulcasis mistook al-khulul for the misleadingly similar al-ghawl, the ‘spirit’ or ‘spiritual being’. As a result of this confusion, it was believed that alcohol would bring them closer to the secret of human existence, the pursuit of alchemy. Consequently the effect of high alcohol was initially considered medicinal rather than simply pleasurable, and its production was the preserve of apothecaries, the medieval pharmacists. It was not long before its more light-hearted effects were recognised and the distillers became a guild in their own right.

The distillation chambers of Courvoisier retain hints of those original apothecaries: great stoves heat copper tanks out of which bewildering tubes emerge to draw the magical vapours. Distillation (deriving from the Latin destillare = to drip) occurs when the lower boiling temperature of alcohol separates it from water, condensing into what was referred to as the quinta essentia (from which we derive quintessence), the mysterious fifth element.

What emerges from the process is a clear liquid so alcoholic that it burns the mouth. But a distiller versed in the alchemic arts can blend the proceeds to produce the correct notes for maturation.

Next the alcohol is consigned to barrels where it will rest for at least two years and decades in the case of the superior grades which fetch the high prices. It is from these years of interaction with oak that the beverage draws the tannins that impart its distinctive character and hue. The alcohol level now declines as molecules slowly seep through the wood to concentrate the essence. In a throwback to more mythical times, this loss is said to be sacrificed to ‘the angels’. A mixture of old and new barrels are used in the process and stored in giant warehouses where, such is the fire-hazard, it is advised that phones should be powered off.

Courvoisier attach great importance to the quality of the wood that goes into their barrels which is all from French oak forests. The staves are split from the trunk and then seasoned outdoors for some three years.

A visit to a cooperage offers another insight into a bygone age when all work was manual. As the insides of barrels are treated with flame, huge men, resembling terrifying prop forwards, execute skills that have changed little over centuries. Such is the intricacy of the work that a team of about sixteen workers will produce a mere two barrels per person per day.

Cognac, though it does not age in the bottle, will preserve indefinitely because of its high alcohol content so long as it is kept away from bright light. It should be stored upright. Even uncorked, once kept air-tight, it will retain its alcoholic content for years. Efforts are now being made to market it as an aperitif, perhaps accompanied by ginger ale. But since my initiation, its appeal is as the traditional digestif, those aromatic qualities suited to after-dinner-reflection and calm discourse.

Courvoisier Is Beginning To Show Its Age

(Spectator Scoff, September, 2011)

I have previously referred to the great French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s identification of eating with sex: une conjunction par complementairé. Both processes involve a union of complementary elements, though the digestion of one by the other is not generally considered appropriate in a relationship.

The process of drinking also involves a conjunction, and where a fine beverage is involved this can be quite intimate, beginning with the tender foreplay of olfactory reception, before a lingering swoosh in the mouth and then, lastly, the warming swallow. With this in mind, it did seem a little inappropriate for me to be crying out ‘I prefer the 12-year-old’ after sampling a new variety of Cognac brandy from Courvoisier’s ‘Connoisseur’ range recently launched on the UK market. Surely I should have plumped for the eminently eligible 21-year-old to whom I was simultaneously introduced, but somehow the risqué charm of that first encounter proved irresistible.

Salacious humour completed it remains for me to discuss the innovation of Courvoisier’s age statement, a new departure that will make this elite product more accessible to the UK customer well acquainted with whiskies displaying an age. And even the most gloopy New World plonk will show its vintage.

Traditionally Cognac does not reveal its age, relying instead on a classification that includes VS, VSOP, and XO. Confusingly, these marks are actually an indication of a minimum age, as any Cognac is rarely from one vintage alone.

Over time the distilled contents of the casks reduce as alcoholic vapours pass through wood, known as the share of the gods. Concentrated essences which have drawn out the flavour of the barrels made from the fresh French oak required by the appellation are blended together and aged further until bottling when maturation ceases.

Even elite products such as the L’Esprit de Courvoisier that leaves rappers weak-kneed with the anticipated bling of spending over £3,000 on a bottle does not reveal its age. L’Esprit comes from a range of vintages between the Napoleonic era and the 1930s, so what year could they to put on it?

Apart from the aging process the other key influence on the ultimate taste is the provenance of the grapes (90% Ugni Blanc) within the region as soil minerality varies and provides distinctive notes depending on whether they are from Borderies, or Grande Champagne etc.

Courvoisier have bowed to the Anglo-Saxon consumers’ desire for an age statement in bringing out two new marks: one with a minimum age of 12, the other 21.

As mentioned I preferred the 12-year finding it as spicy as an Arab Spring, and providing the aromatic intrigue suited to the after flush of a heavy dessert. The 21-year had a longer finish and I felt it best suited to the traditional situation of a Cognac: a lingering compliment to a post-prandial coffee. These are stellar beverages that offer a sumptuous compliment to fine dining. The gustatory complexity of good Cognac is really worth experiencing in this short life.

In terms of price, the 12 year is quite reasonable at £50, with the 21 year a good deal pricier at £175. However, when one considers the price Bordeaux and Burgundy wine is currently fetching then even the price of the 21 year does not seem outlandish since unlike Cognac, a bottle of wine is nothing more than a one-night-stand. Though I am keenly aware that the spirit in a bottle of Cognac, like that of a love affair, will also drain away eventually.