THE food-conscious French are standing in line in the heart of Paris to sample Irish stew and black-currant fool, buttery Irish smoked salmon and crusty brown bread, streaky Irish bacon and pork sausage.
La Ferme Irlandaise (The Irish Farm) on Rue St. Honore', which was created to showcase Irish agricultural products and cuisine on the European continent, is more than just a restaurant success story. It is public repudiation, in the toughest of culinary arenas, of all the libelous blarney about Irish cooking.
Proprietor Myrtle Allen, the force behind La Ferme, established her culinary reputation as mistress of Ballymaloe House, Ireland's celebrated country house hotel and restaurant near Cork City on the southern coast. She supervises an Irish staff in Paris and commutes every third week from Ballymaloe, laden with the best of seasonal Irish foodstuffs.
Ballymaloe House is the centerpiece of a 400-acre working farm. The rambling country manor house, which incorporates a 14th-century castle, has 27 comfortable rooms for guests but is even more famous for the Yeats Room Restaurant.
The hotel and restaurant, like the farm itself, still are very much an Allen family enterprise. Daughter-in-law Darina supervises the restaurant when her mother-in-law is away. Myrtle Allen's husband Ivan feels strongly about the excellence of Irish foodstuffs from his perspective as a committed farmer, though he acknowledges the tendency of many Irish cooks to overcook food.
"The south of Ireland is agriculturally close to Normandy, so we start off with some of the best raw materials in the world," he says. "The challenge is to get them on the table without destroying them."
Ireland's moderate climate, warmed by the Gulf Stream, means local produce in seasonal variety nearly all year round. Grazing is lush and extensive, producing fine meat (especially lamb) and legendary dairy products. The crinkly, 3,000-mile-plus coastline and more than 800 unpolluted freshwater lakes, streams and rivers offer a dazzling variety of fish and seafood.
The underlying principle of good Irish cooking is exploiting that quality with simplicity--letting the ingredients speak for themselves--and insisting on freshness, a point Myrtle Allen makes most forcefully when it comes to fish.
"The extreme urgency of getting fish from the sea to the table is not properly appreciated," she says, suggesting only half jokingly that it would be a fine idea if fresh fish could be time-and-date labeled as they are caught, automatically dropping 10 percent of their value every 12 hours thereafter. She cooks the day's catch--salmon, plaice, a cornucopia of seafood--in simple fashion, poaching, baking, saute'eing or grilling, finishing the dishes with cream and fresh herbs, hollandaise or lemon butter.
Vegetables get the same treatment. She concentrates flavors and preserves textures by sweating vegetables in butter in cast-iron casseroles with heavy, tight-fitting lids over very low heat for a minimal time. She covers the vegetables with a butter wrapper during this cooking process--a special technique she swears by.
All of this, and more, is very much to the liking of the French. "It is just extraordinary how they have gone mad for some of the simple things that we would consider everyday fare," says Ivan Allen.
"We always have Irish stew on the menu there," adds his wife as an example. "We just can't take it off. And Irish smoked salmon is very special in Paris."
Although opening La Ferme was Myrtle Allen's idea, conceived after observing the success of a two-week Irish food promotion at a Brussels hotel, she was not the original proprietor. Recognizing the benefits that could accrue to Irish agriculture from heightened visibility in key European markets, she took the notion to the national farmers' association, a key component in the Irish economy. The farmers' group and the Irish Export Board liked the idea, and the restaurant was opened several years ago under those auspices.
Two years ago, the manager left and Myrtle Allen took over.
"I felt something of an obligation to see this through, since it had been my waving the red flag that got it started in the first place," she says. La Ferme's Irish chefs now are trained at Ballymaloe, and Allen's frequent visits to the restaurant, which was designed by an Irish architect and furnished with antique farmhouse furniture from Ireland, bring menu changes and fresh Irish delicacies. Because of the open borders within the European Common Market, supplying the French restaurant with fresh Irish products--salmon and lamb, for example--is not a problem.
Here are some of Myrtle Allen's most-requested recipes, adapted from "The Ballymaloe Cookbook," published in Ireland in 1977 by Agri Books. For a copy, write c/o Ballymaloe House, Shanagarry, Midleton, County Cork, Ireland. WATERCRESS CREAM SOUP (6 servings 4 tablespoons butter 1 cup chopped onions 1 cup chopped potato Salt and pepper 5 cups chopped watercress 2 1/2 cups water 2 1/2 cups half-and-half 1 egg yolk 1 tablespoon whipping cream Whipping cream and watercress leaves for garnish
Melt butter in heavy saucepan. When it foams, add onions and potatoes and toss them until well coated. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover and sweat vegetables on low heat for 10 minutes. Add watercress, water and half-and-half. Simmer until tender. Liquidize mixture in blender or food processor. Adjust seasoning. Just before serving, beat in egg yolk mixed with the heavy cream. Do not allow soup to boil or egg will curdle. Serve garnished with a spoon of heavy cream and a watercress leaf. DRESSED CRABS (5 to 6 servings) 3 cups crab meat 1 3/4 cups soft bread crumbs 1/2 tablespoon white vinegar 2 tablespoons bottled chutney 2 tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon dijon mustard Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 cup white sauce 1 cup buttered bread crumbs
Mix all ingredients except buttered crumbs. Taste and correct seasoning.
Pack into scrubbed crab shells or individual ramekins. Top with buttered crumbs. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or until heated through and brown on top. LAMB NOISETTES IN MINT AND BUTTER SAUCE (1 serving) 2 slices white bread (medium thickness) Butter 2 noisettes of baby lamb Salt and pepper 1 heaping tablespoon finely chopped scallions 4 tablespoons dry white wine 1 teaspoon roux (equal quantities of butter and flour, cooked together for two minutes on low heat, then cooled and stored as a thickening agent) 3 teaspoons fresh mint, chopped
Cut two large, round croutons from bread. Fry slowly in butter until golden. Keep warm. Remove surplus fat from lamb noisettes. Roll and tie them with cotton string. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then saute' for 3 to 4 minutes on either side in foaming butter. Remove from pan. Toss scallions in pan for 1 to 2 minutes; add wine. Stir and scrape pan over high heat. Thicken slightly with roux, stir in more butter. Add mint. Serve each noisette on a crouton. Spoon butter/mint sauce on top. STEAK AND OYSTER PIE (4 to 6 servings) 1 1/2 pounds sirloin steak Salt and pepper to taste 2 tablespoons butter 1 medium onion, chopped 1 tablespoon flour 1 pint beef stock 1 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms 1 dozen oysters Puff pastry to cover pie pan
Cut beef into cubes and season with salt and pepper. Melt butter in casserole. Toss meat and onions in melted butter, then remove with slotted spoon. Stir in flour and cook for several minutes. Blend in stock, then add mushrooms and oysters. Mix with beef and onions. Transfer to 10-inch pie plate. Cover with pastry. Bake for 2 hours at 350 degrees. IRISH FARMHOUSE LEEK-CHEESE TART (6 to 8 servings) 8 leeks 2 medium potatoes 3 tablespoons butter Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 clove garlic, crushed 2 tablespoons grated gruye re cheese For cheese sauce: 2 1/2 cups milk Salt and pepper to taste 1/4 cup roux (equal quantities of butter and flour, cooked together for 2 minutes on low heat, then cooled and stored as a thickening agent) 2 tablespoons gruye re cheese
Wash leeks and cut into 1/2-inch rounds. Peel and slice potatoes thinly.
Melt butter in casserole. Toss vegetables and season to taste. Cover and bake slowly until soft.
Make cheese sauce by bringing milk, seasoned with salt and pepper, to a boil. Remove from heat, add 2 tablespoons cheese and whisk until melted.
When vegetables are tender, add prepared cheese sauce, to which garlic has been added. Sprinkle with grated cheese. Bake at 400 degrees until heated through and brown on top. BALLYMALOE BROWN BREAD (Makes 1 loaf)
Brown bread, baked in fat, crusty loaves, is one of the glories of the Irish table, especially when smeared with fresh creamery butter. It is a near-mandatory accompaniment to Irish smoked salmon, and together they are the most popular drawing card of La Ferme Irlandaise. 3 3/4 cups whole-wheat flour 1 tablespoon salt 2 tablespoons molasses 1 1/2 cups (or more) warm water 1 1/2 packages dry yeast
Have all ingredients at room temperature. Mix flour with salt. Mix molasses with 1/2 cup of the water in a small bowl and add the yeast. Set yeast mixture in warm place and allow to rise for about 5 minutes, or until it appears frothy on top.
Meanwhile, grease 9-by-5-inch bread pan. When yeast has risen, stir it well and pour it with the remaining water into the flour to make a wettish dough. The dough should be just too wet to knead. (Kneading is not necessary.)
Put the dough into the greased pan that has been warmed and set aside in warm place. Cover with a towel. Allow to rise for 20 minutes, or until loaf has increased by about 1/3 its original size. Bake in 450-degree oven for 50 minutes, or until it looks nicely browned and sounds hollow when tapped. GOOSEBERRY FOOL (6 servings) 4 cups gooseberries 1/4 cup water 2 cups sugar, approximately Whipped cream
Cook gooseberries with water in saucepan over low heat, watching closely to prevent scorching. Sieve fruit to remove skins and pulps. Beat sugar into hot pure'e. Taste for required sweetness, adding more sugar if desired. Cool pure'e, then chill. When cold, fold it into an equal quantity of stiffly whipped, unsweetened cream. Spoon into parfait glasses or a glass serving bowl. IRISH APPLE CAKE (6 servings) 1 stick butter 1 3/4 cups flour 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar 1 egg 1/2 cup milk, approximately 2 tart cooking apples 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves Whiskey cream: 1 cup heavy cream 1 teaspoon sugar 1 1/2 tablespoon Irish whiskey
Cut butter into flour and baking powder until crumbly. Add 1/2 cup sugar, beaten egg and enough milk to make a soft dough. Divide in two. Roll one half into a circle to fit a greased pie plate. Peel, core and slice apples into dough. Sprinkle with remaining sugar and cloves. Roll out remaining pastry and fit on top. Press the sides together, cut a slit through the lid and bake about 40 minutes or until nicely browned.
Beat cream until stiff. Gently fold in sugar and whiskey cream. Top cake.