The Irish are known for their hospitality, and on a recent visit to Ireland, I had plenty of opportunities to experience this welcome first-hand, both in the south, and in Northern Ireland. But nothing says ‘welcome’ better than sitting around a kitchen table sharing a meal that you helped prepare. I had done this already once on a visit to Catherine Fulvio’s Cooking School, but when we met Tracey Jeffery in Northern Ireland, and broke bread at her table, she really made us feel at home – hers, in fact.
Make Yourself at Home with Tracey Jeffery
Tracey is the woman behind NI Food Tours, a local who takes local food tours seriously: not only does Tracey host small groups of visitors on tours to local producers and growers in the County where she lives, but she also invites them right into her own kitchen where she prepares meals for her family.
Tracey’s home is an 18th century thatched-roof former barn a half hour from Belfast that she and her husband renovated to make into their family home. It was a labour of love as she describes it, since converting a barn is no easy task and thatch is a high-maintenance roofing material that needs to be replaced every few years – a skill that is quickly disappearing in Ireland and elsewhere.
The fact that she chose to keep to the original character of her house speaks volumes about Tracey’s philosophy to live an authentic lifestyle. It’s why she has taken on a new career after years as a French teacher, pursuing a passion for good food made with simple ingredients, and picking up her culinary pursuits where she left off years ago when she was trained in the art of macaron-making at a French patisserie.
Today when Tracey’s not filling the occasional macaron order, she hosts weekly groups in her home, introducing them to the quality ingredients and the people who produce them – people who are both her neighbours and friends. One of the experiences she offers visitors is a traditional Irish bread-making class, demonstrating how to make two staples of the Irish country kitchen: soda bread and potato bread. And our group was definitely keen to learn.
Making Potato Bread
To be fair, no one loves the humble potato like the Irish (with the possible exception of Henk who has never met a potato he didn’t like!), so it’s little wonder they created a potato bread recipe. This one actually makes use of leftover ‘ “champs” (mashed potatoes with herbs) and turns these humble ingredients into a delicious bread that is melt-in-your-mouth moist and delicious. This no-food-goes-to-waste recipe was likely part of the legacy of the Famine years but regardless of its origin, the bread is the best use of leftovers I’ve ever tasted.
But in order to make a good potato bread, you need a good instructor. Meet Fred Strickland, a former mechanic who decided to pursue his passion for baking after retiring (or has he puts it, “do something where his hands stayed clean for once!”)
Fred has evidently mastered his new second career as he deftly massaged his potato bread dough, while instructing us how to shape and test ours for the right texture. Always game for a challenge, I was soon up to my elbows in flour along with another woman, SiSi, from our group.
I have to admit, I was pretty proud when Fred praised my dough-handling skills! (I returned the compliment by admiring his fashion sense!)
Lunch with the Locals
Our bread-making demonstration was only the beginning of our visit because we were all invited to lunch, over which we got to meet the other neighbours/producers who had provided the fare: Patrice, a former rugby player from France who found his second career in Ireland as an oyster farmer; Jackie, a beef farmer who provided meat to our table from her small herd of Dexter cows (a small breed half the size of Dairy cows known for their marbled, flavourful meat rich in Omega 3), and of course Tracey herself.
What I found so inspiring about meeting all of these people is that either by design, or by happenstance, each of them had reinvented themselves to pursue a passion that is giving them as much satisfaction, if not more, than their first careers. This simplicity of doing what you love with people you genuinely like seems to be their recipe for a good life, and is a lesson we can all take to heart.
As if welcoming us into her home to meet these people wasn’t food enough for the soul, Tracey also brought out her own batch of sloe gin as the perfect way to top off our visit! Two gins in Tracey and I were really hitting it off, and I couldn’t help but think of Humphrey Bogart’s line from Casablanca, “I think this is the beginnings of a beautiful friendship!”
Farm-to-Table at its Best
While there were plenty of opportunities on my trip to Ireland to sample delicious food at restaurants around the country, this experience stood out as the perfect example of the farm-to-table philosophy; it doesn’t get more local than staying in someone’s own home, or sitting down at a table with your hostess to share a meal.
Or some gin.
TIP: For more information on costs and types of tours/demos offered by Tracey Jeffery, visit nifoodtours.com
Fred’s Potato Bread Recipe
250g (a little more than 1/2 pound) leftover Champs (herbed mashed potatoes, however you like them).
60g (a little more than 1/4 cup) plus extra to flour rolling pin/board
Optional Additions: scallions, chives or bacon pieces
Mix the potatoes and flour by hand on a wooden board dusted with flour until the mixture is very well blended.
The texture of the dough should be soft and smooth, not sticky.
When dough is thoroughly mixed, roll it out with a rolling pin into a large circle about 1/2 inch thick.
If edges crack, told them back to maintain the outer shape of the circle.
Cut into 4 pie-shaped pieces.
Fry on a griddle on medium/high heat until golden brown. Then flip (putting flour on your hands will help you keep from burning as you can use your hands to help flip them.
Special thanks to Tourism Ireland who hosted my visit, to Fred for showing me the ropes, and of course to Tracey for a warm welcome and for breaking out her gin!
Here’s a short video clip of me, looking like a Potato Bread-making Pro! (Really, it’s one big gnocchi, after all!)