Friday, July 19, 2013



This was a challenge put to me by the Marian Finucane Radio programme on RTE Radio 1.

All of the shopping was done in either Lidl or Aldi. Including a bottle of Baron St Jean Rosé (€3.99 from Lidl; a perfectly decent wine, especially when well chilled) the total cost came to €19.74, which leaves a whopping 26 cent left over. I didn’t include store cupboard ingredients like flour and sugar but everything else has been costed. The bad news is that if you must have spuds (and so many Irish people do) it’s going to push the expenditure over the limit – but only just.

Starter: Sopa cuatro de hora (by Elisabeth Luard)

Main course:Chicken, mushroom, mustard gratin

Side: Green salad, shallot, vinaigrette

Pudding: Whole lemon tart, crème fraiche (based on a recipe by Adrian Bailey)

The order in which you prepare it all, is up to you but I'd be inclined to start with the chicken which can be done the day before.

What you get here is (a) sensational stock and (b) exceptionally moist chicken which is going be luscious.

Start with the chicken and the stock. You will need

1 x 1.4kg free range chicken
1 large onion, with its skin, sliced
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1cm lengths
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 sprig of thyme
2 bay leaves
stalks cut from 1 bunch of parsley

Put the chicken into a large saucepan. Add the rest of the ingredients and 2 litres of water. Cover, bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 45 minutes.

Turn off the heat and let the saucepan cool (if you have time). When its contents are warm, but not scalding, remove the chicken and let it drain in a colander over a bowl. Put the chicken aside and pour the rest of the saucepan contents through the colander into a bowl. This liquid is now a superb chicken stock.

Now, get the chicken gratin organised....


The gratin is rich and savoury but the mustard cuts it, so to speak. Lovely contrast between crusty, cheesy top and moist, creamy main part.

You will need...

The chicken, skinned, meat removed from bones, cut or torn into bite-sized pieces…

And the sauce, which goes like this. (If you don’t like mustard, try a sprig of tarragon very finely chopped or half a teaspoon of dried tarragon instead)

a knob of butter
2 onions, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, firmly squashed
250g button mushrooms, sliced
500ml double cream
1 tsp to 1 tbsp wholegrain mustard (according to taste)
110g breadcrumbs
50g Grano Padano or other hard cheese, grated

Preheat the oven to 190ºC, gas mark 5.

Melt the butter in a pan, add the onions and garlic; turn the heat down and  cook gently until soft but not browning. Now add the mushrooms, turn up the heat and toss for 2 – 3 minutes.

Add the cream and cook for 3 minutes or until the cream slightly thickens. Now add the mustard and cook for 1 minute. Add the chicken, and allow to heat through. Season with salt and pepper, then pour into a shallow ovenproof dish. If the mixture is too thick or too dry, just add more cream or stock.

Mix the breadcrumbs and cheese together and sprinkle evenly over the top.

When you’re ready, pop it into the oven for 15 – 20 minutes, or until browned and bubbling.


200g plain flour
115g butter
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 egg

1 egg
2 unwaxed lemons
300ml water
2 eggs
225g sugar

Make the pastry. Put the flour into a mixing bowl and add the butter, cut into little cubes. With your fingers, mix the two together until it resembles sand. Stir in the caster sugar followed by the egg. Mix together and roll into a ball. If the mixture is too dry, add a teaspoon or two of water.  Wrap in clingfilm and put in the fridge for an hour or, ideally, overnight.

To make the filling, slice the lemons thinly, remove the pips and put into a saucepan with the water. Simmer, covered, for 30 – 40 minutes or until very tender. Uncover and, when cool, blitz in a food processor until quite smooth. Add the eggs and the sugar and pulse until thoroughly mixed.

Take the pastry from the fridge, roll it out and line a 24 cm tart tin (ideally one with a removable bottom), cover with greaseproof paper, fill with baking beans or rice and bake for 10 minutes. (The pastry has a tendency to break; just work it with your fingers so the base is thin and there are no holes! Think of it as a kind of Plasticene).

Remove the greaseproof paper and the baking beans. Pour the filling into the case, reduce the oven temperature to 160ºC, gas mark 3.

Bake the tart on the middle shelf for 30 – 40 minutes until the filling has risen and is just starting to colour.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Glaze the top with a little sugar syrup, if  you like, or sprinkle with icing sugar. This tart is best served warm rather than hot or stone cold, with, ideally, crème fraiche, or with lightly whipped cream.

This is the simplest salad you will ever make. So easy but the perfect foil for that rich, bubbling gratin.

1 large cos lettuce
I pink shallot, very finely siced
extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
cider vinegar
a little Dijon mustard (optional)

Wash and spin the lettuce, discarding the coarser outer leaves. Put them in a salad bowl and sprinkle over the shallot. Combine the dressing ingredients in a jar (I like 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar, but it’s up to you…) Shake, pour over the salad and toss.

This is a soup only in a technical sense. It’s really the most delicious broth – light and packed with flavour – enriched with some slightly unexpected things. The name suggests it takes 15 minutes to make; it doesn’t – more like five.

You will need:

 the stock from the chicken
1 egg
50g Serrano ham slices
leaves from the bunch of parsley

Hard-boil the egg. Boil  the stock until reduced to about 1 litre. Meanwhile, shell and finely chop the egg. Chop the parsley finely (if you have a mezzaluna, use it). Cut the Serrano ham into fine ribbons. Now, add all of these ingredients to the stock, check the seasoning and divide between four bowls. Serve right away.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


When the Lexus project was launched way back in 1983, what they had in mind was something that could match, at least, the Mercedes S-class. Numerous Mercedes cars, it is said, were taken apart painstakingly and examined in the minutest detail by the engineers and designers.

What emerged at the end of that process was a remarkably comfortable and dependable car – a friend of mine still revels in his 1990 Lexus LS – but, to be honest, it looked a bit like a slab. And not even a very distinctive slab, at that.

In time, Lexus developed a reputation of innovation, reliability and, I’m afraid, a kind of dullness and a general remoteness from the driving environment. It didn’t bother the well-heeled, middle-aged men who bought them, of course. The well-meaning Lexus LS, in whatever colour it came (and there was a particularly unattractive metallic bronze, I seem to remember) was as grey as they were.

Well, that situation did not obtain for long. Lexus, right across the model range, has developed a distinctive look of its own and, more recently, a rather unexpected reputation for excitement.

And now that reputation is even better deserved, something very effectively embodied in the car I’ve been driving for the past week: the Lexus GSh F-Sport which, far from blending anonymously into the background has real presence, a very low front end and a touch of futuristic aggression if you happen to glimpse it in your rear-view mirror. It looks fast and it is fast.

It’s not often I get to drive a car that can move from zero to 60 mph (please forgive the Imperial measure there, but it’s the way I still think) in 5.6 seconds. The last the time I drove anything in the same performance league, it was the Range Rover Autobiography Supercharged 5.0 litre which needs all of its staggering 505bhp to achieve 5.9 seconds.

The Lexus, by contrast, makes do with 338bhp and even when driven in Eco-mode you realise that there’s a very considerable reserve of power within close reach.

The whole Eco thing is significant, of course. This is a very fast car that is also a hybrid. If this puts you in mind of the Prius (surely one of the smuggest cars on the planet), you could not be more wrong.

The same principle applies, to be sure, viz. you have a mega-battery which stores energy generated during braking and coasting; this then assists the 3.6 litre petrol engine when accelerating, reducing fuel consumption. Like a lot of contemporary cars, the petrol engine switches off when stationery which means that you start off again, in the Lexus, in complete silence – which can be a little unsettling at first.

You choose from four settings: normal, Eco-mode, Sport and Sport+.

In normal, I found the experience much the same as driving a comfortable, expensive, powerful car. In Eco-mode, it was much the same and the pleasing growl from the exhaust on hard acceleration was reassuringly still there.

With these settings you get a dial which sets out, graphically, what is going on with the – let’s call it the motive force of the car. Flip into Sport or Sport+ and the instrument panel flips over to present you with a rev counter, and a change of back-lighting from calm blue to raging red.

In this state, you can use the discreet paddles on either side of the wheel to flick through the gears, the rev counter swinging all over the place as you do so. This, I should warn, can be quite addictive but is not a good recipe for a calm commute. Eco is fine for that, and much more appropriate.

Road-holding in Sport or Sport+ mode is, by my modest standards, exceptional. The rear wheels steer up to 15% in the same direction as the front ones, which explains a lot. At speeds less than 50 mph, they steer in the opposite direction which makes the car feel more light-footed than its size would have you expect. So, you get more than just adaptive variable suspension – you get this too: Lexus Dynamic Handling.

On the practical issues, well it’s got everything you would expect, from rain and light sensors to front seats that remember up to three pre-set positions. Turn off the ignition and the driver’s seat slides back to make it easier to get out and in. There is a huge display for satnav and the other gizmos which are controlled from a mouse-like button beside the automatic shift. Air-conditioned seats were, unusually, rather nice to have in the recent heatwave.

My children enjoyed the leg room in the back, even on my side. And I’m over six feet when I sit up straight.

As far as fuel consumption goes, it’s not bad, given the performance. Overall, I managed something approaching in the mid-30s in terms of mpg, about 8.5 l/100km. But bear in mind that I was putting the Lexus 450GSh through its paces and there was minimal town driving. That’s very little fuel for so much fun and so much comfort.

So, this car has a great deal going for it: solidity, refinement, comfort, lovely performance which you can adjust to mood  and circumstances, and fuel economy which, if not quite planet-saving, is a lot better than we would normally associate with all of those other qualities.

The nice people at Lexus Ireland, not wanting to scare me with the price of what I was about to drive off, told me that the car, as tested, “is around €80,000”.

I bet Mercedes have bought one. Times change.

And now, I’m still trying to adjust back to my 1.9Tdi with manual transmission…

Monday, July 15, 2013


At one point last month Ireland’s horticultural bush telegraph cranked up and spread the good and rather unexpected news that one of the country’s great gardens would be open again but just for one day. On Twitter and Facebook, in text message and phone call, a whole community heard that Mount Congreve could be visited; and they came in their thousands on an overcast Thursday afternoon to a corner of Co Waterford where the plantings made by one inspired man have become part of European garden legend.

The man was Ambrose Congreve, the last of the Waterford Congreves, who died in 2011 at the age of 104. It was his intention to bequeath the house and gardens – which cover some 70 acres – to the nation and he had made arrangements to do so.

However, after his death, just as the Office of Public Works were preparing to take over the property, a legal glitch was spotted and both the OPW and the Mount Congreve Trust are reported to be seeking a solution. The problem is said to revolve around the technicalities and timing of transfer of ownership. However. there is much local fear that the OPW, under pressure as all public bodies are, has no great desire to add Mount Congreve to the gardens in their care. The OPW press office has not responded to my inquiries at the time of going to press. (They did eventually, saying that it would not be appropriate to comment as negotiations are in progress).

In the meantime, one of Europe’s great gardens remains closed, the cost of maintenance met by another body, the Congreve Foundation, which manages the late Mr Congreve’s very substantial assets. The sale of contents of the house, last October, according to a local source, was necessitated by the huge cost of wages.

Mount Congreve was one of – surprisingly – four great Irish gardens which were created in the second half of the last century, not an era when you would expect such undertakings in a poor country with a dwindling aristocracy. Henry McIlhenny, of the Tabasco Sauce family, took advantage of the gulf stream at Glenveagh Castle in Co Donegal; Lord Talbot de Malahide coaxed an amazing collection of Australian and Tasmanian plants to thrive in the alkaline soil of the north Dublin suburbs; Lord and Lady Rosse of Birr Castle started a little earlier and were already helping to fund plant-hunting expeditions to China before World War II but their 150 acre garden, in the coldest part of Ireland, was essentially put together in the 1950s and 1960s.

Mount Congreve’s golden age, in terms of planting, extended for longer. Ambrose Congreve made his mind up to be a gardener at the age of eleven and he always claimed that his eureka moment had come when visiting the de Rothschild garden at Exbury in England. Both Exbury and Mount Congreve are conceived on a grand scale, but not a grand manner. In both places it was never enough to plant one example of a shrub or tree; lots of them were put in.

Ambrose Congreve started gardening on the family estate in 1918 and his enthusiasm never waned; if anything, it grew. After being sent to school at Eton and to university at Cambridge, he joined Unilever and started to display his exceptional ability in business. But he continued planting at Mount Congreve where his parents continued to live until their deaths in the 1950s.

The Congreves were not poor but they were not in the same financial league as the Beresfords of nearby Curraghmore or the Rosses of Birr Castle. Ambrose Congreve married Margaret Glasgow in 1935. Her father, Arthur, owned half of Glasgow and Humphreys, an Anglo-American engineering company which made a fortune supplying the hardware that went into gas plants throughout the world.

Soon, Ambrose Congreve was working for his father-in-law’s company, where he eventually became chief executive and chairman.

Even though he spent many years at the helm of a major company, and the war years with Air Intelligence, his horticultural heart remained in Waterford and he continued planting – always on a grand scale. If you want to see a plant, he would advise gardeners who had sufficient space to do so, put in five of them, not one. Or fifty of them.

Even in the flower garden the same philosophy is evident. Two huge, long borders packed with pink and white paeonies and lined with purple spikes of nepeta face each other across a gravel path. The scent, as you walk down that path, is almost overwhelming.

Ambrose Congreve almost certainly held the world record for the number of magnolias planted by one man. In the early 1960s he planted sixty Magnolia campbellii along one of the walks by the River Suir. Indeed, there is a mile and a half of magnolias, unequalled anywhere.

Although he was a great exponent of mass planting, he was not just a gardener but also a plantsman, someone whose fascination with the diversity of the botanical world was channeled through collecting.

The evidence is there to see. Estimates of how many individual rhododendrons grow at Mount Congreve range from 3,000 to 4,500 but whatever is the true figure this is almost certainly the largest collection of rhododendrons in the world. There are 300 varieties of magnolia, 600 varieties of camellia (who thought that so many existed?) and over 250 Japanese flowering cherry and acer cultivars.

All of these are framed, in a sense, by ancient woodland, the oaks planted when the Congreves first came here over 300 years ago and the other broadleaves put in by succeeding generations.

Thanks to the substantial wealth of Ambrose Congreve and his wife, the house and estate were unique in twentieth century Ireland, so well appointed and lavishly run were they.

After his father’s death in 1957, Ambrose Congreve gutted the house and created the kind of comfort within it of which most other owners of Irish stately homes could only dream. He also set about restoring the greenhouses in the four-acre wallled garden and soon grapes, peaches, nectarines were being grown again for the table and huge vegetable beds were interpersed with flowers for cutting for the house.

Guests were ferried to and from Cork airport in a Rolls-Royce Phantom II limousine, with hand-built coachwork, one of only two in the country.

Mount Congreve had, between house, gardens and nursery some seventy staff – a state which no other grand Irish estate had seen in over fifty years. The staff presented Ambrose Congreve on his hundredth birthday with a Wollemi pine, a recently discovered plant survival from the age of the dinosaurs.

At lunch on the same day he remarked that while there are many routes to temporary happiness, the way to be happy forever is to plant a garden.

Although there was no benefit for him in doing so, Congreve opened his private domain to visitors on Thursdays between April and October. At other times, visits were by appointment and he liked to test the knowledge of visitors by asking them to identify three unusual plants which he kept in pots by the garden gate. If you got all three right, you got the full tour; less than that, and the visit was short.

The wholesale nursery which he established in the 1960s (and which continues as a separate business) won many medals for its displays at the “plant Olympics”, the Chelsea Flower Show. It was fitting, therefore, that when Ambrose Congreve’s long life, so much of it devoted to planting, came to an end, he was in London for that very event.

He and his wife are buried in the grounds of Mount Congreve, beneath a little temple overlooking the River Suir. Let’s just hope that his generous gift to the people of Ireland is treated with the respect that it deserves. Mount Congreve’s significance as a garden means that it belongs not just to Waterford and to Ireland but to the whole world. The OPW and the Government must act.