Over the years, Café Paradiso has built up a close working relationship with Gortnanain Farm. Owned and operated by Ultan Walsh and Lucy Stewart, the nine acre farm is set on an Atlantic-facing sloped site about ten miles outside Cork city, near the village of Nohoval. Not an easy place to find, but well worth it if you do, since Ultan and Lucy also run a B&B from their lovely home. With amazing ingredients literally on their doorstep, and both of them being no slouches in the kitchen, dinner here is a very special pleasure.
But it is those ingredients that are the main business of the farm, and the main reason that Café Paradiso has been able to develop its focus on local produce. It started in a very small way when Ultan came into the restaurant one day, offering to sell some of the vegetables he was growing on a rented plot of land. By the time he and Lucy had moved into the house they built on their own farm, Café Paradiso was their biggest customer, and the seeds of a unique working relationship were sprouting nicely.
In hindsight, I think it was what both of us were looking for, even if we weren’t consciously aware of it. For a restaurant where the dishes are based on fresh vegetables, having a farm nearby that produces the stuff is like a child living over a sweetshop. And for a farmer who is nothing less than fierce fussy about not only the quality of what he grows but also where it ends up and how it is treated…well, let’s just say we work hard to keep up to Ultan’s standards and we must be doing okay since he keeps on letting us have the vegetables.
As Ultan’s repertoire and variety of produce grew, the focus of our cooking in Paradiso shifted from recipe-focused dishes using generic ‘organic’ and approximately seasonal ingredients to something much more real – the business of adapting our menus to stay in balance with the specific vegetables coming off the farm. In practice, this means a change from picking a recipe and then trying to source the ingredients, to figuring out what to make from the ingredients due in today. We work together on getting this balance right all the time, firstly by carefully planning how much of a crop should be grown, then monitoring it all the way through. If a glut appears, we have to find a way to use it; if a crop comes up short, we change the plan for how it will be used. And if there is something we want to use, Ultan will do his damnedest to produce the best varieties of it.
This is the most challenging way I’ve ever worked with the issue of sourcing ingredients but it is massively rewarding. Trying to figure out a way to create a dish that will convince customers to eat exactly the amount of, say, chard that Ultan delivers is a cross between cooking dinner and doing complicated psychological puzzles. Fun, believe me.
Part of the reason for this is that Ultan and I tend to agree on most things, barring the relative merits of XTC and Devo and whether the Beatles were actually any use at all. Favourite vegetables? Same list, slightly different order. Is it worth growing, peeling, preparing and dressing up globe artichokes? Definitely. Is local asparagus – hand-weeded and land-hogging – so much better than imported? By miles, literally. So much, in fact, that for the past three years we have only used asparagus during the short season on Gortnanain.
For the most part, we have eschewed the fashion for naming producers on menus. Dinner, after all, has to be a pleasure in itself rather than a worthy affair. And we’re confident that when you enjoy that pleasure in Paradiso, part of it comes, knowingly or not, from eating something unique that has been grown in a specific place by a farmer who wants you to know just how good real food can taste.