For this latest installment in my series** on how to support the restaurant industry while avoiding dining rooms like the plague, I shall be considering the nature and value of the picnic. What is it? Should I try it? Do I deserve it, and most importantly, will the internet validate the endeavour?
If picnic has never happened to you, it’s like eating indoors but without shelter or comfort. If you were living someplace that all but guarantees long, languorous months of clement, balmy weather it’s conceivable that you might indulge in these moveable feasts on a whim, at the drop of some kind of hat. When you live in Ireland – ‘where the sun don’t shine’ (Fáilte Ireland can have that one on the house) – the planning of a picnic is more fraught.
Depending on your lean, you could implore Jesus or beseech Baphomet. At the very least, choosing the right moment resembles a kind of (low-stakes) Russian roulette. You load your chosen date into the calendar, spin the cylinder and put the plan to your temple.
Back in the month of March, as the epidemiological faeces was fast approaching the fan, I was very much looking forward to a dinner out at the Airfield Estate. It was to be an ‘Irish Culinary Treasure Dining Experience’, with each dish showcasing ingredients from their organic kitchen gardens. How lovely, I thought! Then the tone of the news reports began to change.
I do recall feeling a little sheepish after I’d mailed the PR folks to excuse myself. Huh. I presume it never happened. Nevertheless, I thought it a pleasing circularity to begin my exhaustive two-part picnic assay with a trip there, four months apart from that invitation. Some years ago, a dear friend of mine took to venturing out there to help during lambing season, finding peace in the work and a respite from the bleating of her doctoral candidates.
Lambing aside, I can see why. The 36-acre urban farm was gifted as a charitable trust by the Overend sisters to the Irish State in 1974 and a lazy perambulation around its grounds is just a balm to the senses. Eating some great, simple, seasonal food there en plein air is even better.
We picked up our (pre-ordered) neatly packaged ‘BBQ Picnic Box’ and set out to encourage our appetites with a walk among the green and growing things. If you have an interest in food (rather than expressly reading these dispatches for the florid prose style), those kitchen gardens really are something to behold, especially in the superabundance of the season.
Beautiful borders hum with bees and flutter with butterflies. Looking into the mildly mournful eyes of a Jersey cow it’s easy to forget you’re in the middle of humdrum Dundrum. We enjoyed generous portions of smoked (Higgins’) free range chicken, lacquered with a dusky barbecue sauce and ballasted with a good, herb-laden potato salad. If you set out for a picnic without potato salad, you need to turn back. You could have a quiche if you scorn the flesh of fowl. I’m sure it’s good too. The box also includes hummus and crudités and some well kept cheese. At €22 it’s a steal.
The dessert though. A perfect Panna Cotta made with milk from those tan Jerseys was topped with elderflower-macerated strawberries. We just sat on our blanket at the foot of a rare redwood and spooned it and smiled.
It was better than sunshine.
Opened to raves some eight months ago by partners Jess D’Arcy and (chef) Killian Durkin, Mamó has (or rather, had) become a darling of the scene out in how now Howth and was on its way to destination restaurant status. The pair worked all over town (Etto, Thornton’s etc) but I’m told that they met while working at The Mermaid. I used to very much enjoy brunch there with my wife before she was that. Even before that, it seems that, as a mere slip of a girl (and neighbour), she would occasionally babysit the young Durkin himself! I was unsure just how to leverage that revelation under review circumstances but will figure it out in the future.
We set out under a sullen sky at two bells on a recent Friday, point the GoCar North and it feels like a roadtrip. The Liberties feels like a life sentence right now. The idea was to pick up from the hatch and drive to the foot of the hill to put the blanket down.
As we parked up, a persistent mizzle put paid to that, so we improvised a kind of hatchback-tailgate situation. We laid out the spread in the boot and perched on the lip, sacrificing only our lower legs and feet to the Summer.
We restricted ourselves to ordering from the snacks and small plates – there’s a full collection menu online, but we did specify that we were attempting ‘picnic’ when ordering. If you want to tackle a Cote de Boeuf on the fly with plastic implements, then fill your boots. The words ‘Cod Chip’ do little to convey the singular pleasure of golden planks of confited potatoes topped with piped whorls of briny taramasalata. The thing tells you everything you need to know about the technique and wit at work in the kitchen. If, and when, we can resume our former unworried ways, there is no other place I’m more excited to review, or even, God forbid, spend my own money in.
The langoustine ravioli, tender, ochre islands bobbing in a profound, russet broth was a display of easy seafood mastery. Slivers of pickled chili brought little stabs of acid urgency. That’s all the gush I gots. Maybe I’ve eaten better crudos but never as takeout and never from the back of a Micra. Cubes of wild Pollack were cured a little for firmness then tumbled together with cucumber and bound up with orange for citrus and soy to season. It ate like a fresh slap of ozone.
The cheese that day was an impressive hunk of Offaly’s own Mossfield Mature, it’s a personal favourite of mine, reminiscent of Montgomery Cheddar. It came with two halves of perfectly poached pear and a length of superb house-made nigella cracker. No, not that Nigella. Emboldened by the quality of the food (and the glugged vin de soif) we set off up the hill, just far enough to take in the full breadth of that view. Right on cue, the wrathful sky visits the full force of its biblical fury upon us. Whatever, who plans a picnic in July anyway?
These were picnics different in ambition and price point, but the point is that every restaurant kitchen in the country right now is casting about for ways to keep feeding you. Do your best to let them. I don’t regularly end these things with a call to action but these are exceptional times. Spend what you can, drag those bones outdoors, go eat and drink with the people who make you feel better. The rain won’t kill you. What passes for Summer here passes quickly, so take a deep breath and live. Fall’s not far off.
Words: Conor Stevens
Airfield Photo Credit: Fernanda Pinto Godoy
Overends Kitchen @Airfield Estate
Dundrum, Dublin 14
Harbour House, Harbour Road, Howth
Thursday – Sunday
Phone lines open from 10am on Thursday
Collections from 1pm – 7:30pm