Master Chef Brendan Cronin shares favorite memories from his childhood kitchen table at a small dairy farm in the West of Ireland. Chef Cronin is the only Irish chef to attain the prestigious Swiss culinary title of ‘Chef de Cuisine Diplomé’, and his book, Cheffin’: From Potatoes to Caviar, offers a rare look at life on the farm to cooking at some of the world’s most celebrated restaurants in the Swiss Alps, Africa, and The Far East.
Allow yourself to armchair travel with Chef Cronin. You’re in Ireland! Here goes:
The kitchen was the hub of our family life, and besides the turf-fired range, the simple formica table was the single most used item in our kitchen. We did not have modern-style counters so the table was the only flat surface to work on. The table is where we held discussions with visiting farmers on politics, religion, and the price of cattle; where we plucked the Christmas turkey; made apple tarts and canned fruit for jam; and of course, where we talked about the weather, that great topic of Irish conversation (but still it rained!). The table is also the place my father wrote letters to distant family members, where my brothers and I did our homework, where my mother darned socks, and where my uncle meticulously mixed his pipe tobacco.
Our kitchen was always brimming with life and good cheer. And it’s no surprise that this is where I launched my career. My mother taught me how to make succulent stews, fried steaks, and breakfast for the lodgers we took in to make extra money. Breakfast was a porridge affair accompanied by hot sweetened tea and my mother’s brown bread, together with homemade butter and marmalade or sometimes freshly prepared jam. She made the porridge the night before in a double boiler with oatmeal, water and a grain of salt. Reheated the next morning, it was a satisfying meal, especially when we sprinkled sugar on top to lend a crunchy texture. Dinner – served in the afternoon – was either a stew, steak, lamb chops, or pan-fried mackerel with boiled potatoes and vegetables. Evening ‘tea’ was served around six o’clock and consisted of brown soda bread, homemade butter, jam, and maybe a slice of cold roast lamb with homemade apple-raisin chutney. These memories are as vivid to me today as they were when I was a boy.
My mother always needed help with the lodgers’ dinners. This was one of the few instances where she took off her apron, put on a head scarf and lipstick and carried her shopping bag into the village – she looked beautiful! In the colder months she often made a stew, cutting the beef into small chunks on the kitchen table, adding an onion, a few parsnips, a carrot or two, a head of cabbage cut into slices. a bay leaf, a grain of salt and peeled potatoes. While it simmered on the range she removed any froth or fat that would rise to the surface with a large metal spoon. “Mrs. Cronin, that was a lovely dinner,” the lodgers would say time and time again.
Today I call upon these ‘taste memories’ to connect with diners. Chefs and taste buds – we are in this together – and make a powerful duo, indispensable to one another. In many of the hotels I worked at around the world we had a ‘chef’s table’ in the kitchen. Guests thought it was ‘cool’ to be dining in the kitchen while watching chef prepare and plate food. But this is not a new phenomenon. My mother had a chef’s table all throughout my childhood. She had a chef’s table in our kitchen – I just never knew the term existed.
MY MOTHER’S IRISH BROWN SODA BREAD
8 oz. white bread flour (high gluten)
8 oz. whole wheat flour or bran (bran adds density – and fiber – to the baked loaf)
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1.6 cups buttermilk or sour milk
2 oz. butter
4 oz. raisins, or…
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
Heat the oven to 350F degrees. In a bowl, combine the dry ingredients.
Add the butter and rub in with the finger tips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
Stir in the buttermilk to form a dough.
Turn the dough onto a floured surface, knead very briefly and shape into a round flat loaf about two inches thick.
Cut an “X” in the top with a sharp knife.
Sprinkle with a little flour and bake on a floured baking sheet for approximately 50 minutes. Makes one 9 inch round loaf.
To check if the loaf was baked my mother would lift the hot bread off the baking sheet and knock on the bottom of the loaf with her knuckles.
A hollow sound indicated it was baked.
A dull sound meant it required further baking.