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First recipe - Irish kidneys

"still the way to get the most flavour from lambs' kidneys."

Theodora Fitzgibbon

Now why would you start a recipe book with a recipe for kidneys? It's hardly a good way to entice your readers in is it?

But before I try and answer that question I will explain how I come to be writing this particular post.

It's a beautiful day and really I should either be out there walking somewhere or weeding in the garden. But for some weird reason I really did not feel like it, so here I am facing my blog - without an idea in my head. Nothing. Which is when I resort to one of my writer's block strategies, and today I decided to go the first recipe route.

The book is one in a series written by Theodora Fitzgibbon back in the 60s and 70s. The series focussed on an area of Britain and its traditional dishes, and was illustrated, not by photographs of the dishes - of these there are none - but by historical photographs from the area in question.

The photographs were the responsibility of Theodora's third, and last, husband George Morrison. Hence in this book - A Taste of Ireland in Food and Pictures - our first photograph is of City Hall in Dublin in 1858 featuring the statue of Daniel O'Connell, who is dressed like an ancient Roman it seems to me, and a few Dubliners standing around and looking curiously at the camera. I don't think it's actually a particularly good photograph, although there seems to be a pretty good cross-section of society represented in the random people. Why was it chosen as the first recipe? There are a few overcoats, but not many and besides there are plenty in many of the other photographs in the book. The more I think about it, the more I have no answer to the choice of this recipe as a first recipe. It's not even what you first think of when you think of Irish food is it? I mean - potatoes surely?

The photograph has nothing to do with breakfast either. Why breakfast? Well Theodora begins her recipe with the statement that this is "A popular breakfast dish in the early years of the century", and I guess breakfast is as good a place to start a cookbook as anywhere. But no that's not the reason either for a first recipe for kidneys, for there is no particular organisation of the book around meals, or categories of food, or even regions of Ireland. It's all very random. The pictures too. That picture has nothing to do with breakfast, or even the 'early years of the century' by which she means the twentieth century. Which is appealing in its way. It's a bit wacky. And the series was certainly popular. As I said, this particular volume was written in 1968 and then republished by Pan in 1970. My book is the fourth printing of 1974. It's also yellowing with age, having been printed on cheap paper I guess. But in this instance that too is very appropriate and lends a patina of extra authenticity to it.

So who was Theodora Fitzgibbon? Well it turns out that, in many ways she was a bit like Elizabeth David in that she was a bit of a bohemian.

"She took hold of life early on, held it firmly by the throat until she died" Rose Doyle - The Irish Times

In her early years she travelled the world with her father who was described as 'rakish' by one writer, then became an actress and a model, mixing with the big names of early twentieth century European culture.

"Theodora FitzGibbon was legendary, in her own and many another’s lifetime. A majestic presence – Picasso admired her long arms – she made her mark on several decades of the 20th century and had lived several lives, all of them exhilarating, before becoming a cookery writer in 1952." Rose Doyle - The Irish Times

As I said before, she married three times - the Fitzgibbon was her second husband, but there were affairs as well. She began writing cookery books in the 50s and became much admired in this field with her magnus opus The Food of the Western World winning various cookbook prizes. And yet she has faded from our memories. She is not as well known today as her contemporaries, Elizabeth David, Alice B. Toklas, Jane Grigson et al. Or is it just me? You will see more of her on this blog, because the next three First recipe posts will be the other three books I have from this series. She also wrote a novel and two memoirs. I think Ireland must have been important to her as I think she spent her later years there. She certainly died in Dublin and her brief introduction was also written in Dublin. I believe this book is the first in the series.

So that's Theodora Fitzgibbon. I wonder why she hung on to the surname Fitzgibbon. Maybe it just has more of a ring to it than Morrison. It's certainly more Irish. Maybe like Jeremy Irons she had a deep-seated need to find Irish roots.

So what about the recipe? Well she is not alone in praising it as the best way of cooking kidneys. England's king of offal cooking, Fergus Henderson includes it in his book Nose to Tale Eating, and Darina Allen, the queen of Irish cooking also sings its praises. Jane Grigson is also a fan:

"To my mind the most delicious way to cook kidneys is to pop them into a moderately hot oven, encased in flare fat and roast them for 1 hour" Jane Grigson

And that's basically the recipe. Theodora gives a slightly longer version with a shorter cooking time - 30 minutes, but really there is nothing to it. Why would you though? They don't even look particularly appetising when cooked. Fergus Henderson (who only cooks them in the oven for 8 minutes, having first browned them in a frypan), says of the finished product that:

"You should have the salty, crispy outside of the suet, melting rich fat within, and finally in the middle, the beautiful blushing kidney. Serve hot with a watercress salad."

I couldn't find a tempting picture of the dish - maybe he would make it look good. His restaurant has Michelin stars after all. And here's a bit of trivia - his restaurant St. John is in a house in Clerkenwell that I think one of my ancestors lived in back in the nineteenth century.

I don't like kidneys. Even before I read James Joyce's Ulysses and his famous comment about the taste of kidneys being the “fine tang of faintly scented urine”. When I read those lines at university I realised at last why I didn't like kidneys. I don't really remember having kidneys as just kidneys, although perhaps we would have had them in what my mother called a 'mixed grill', but we did have steak and kidney pie and pudding now and then. Not my favourite dishes. Chefs love them though. Maybe it's because of the challenge to make basically repulsive things taste good.

"A trained chimp can steam a lobster. But it takes love, and time and respect for one's ingredients to deal with a pig's ear or a kidney properly. And the rewards are enormous" Anthony Bourdain

One of the few writers I found who talked about this particular way of cooking kidneys said that it was sort of like a confit of kidneys because you were left with a lot of fat:

"This rendered fat is equivalent to what in pork is called leaf lard, and it has a similarly fine character, though with a faint but distinct fragrance of lamb. I’m hoping to do some neat stuff with this rendered lamb lard once I’ve strained it." The Butcher's Apprentice

Well my mother used to render down all the superfluous fat she either removed from the meat before cooking, or cut off when it was cooked. This was placed in a dish and left in the oven to cook down every time the oven was turned on. It became our beloved dripping which we ate on toast.

So none of this is healthy. Well, actually not true I have just found. The fat isn't but:

"Rich in nutrients and proteins, kidney meat contains omega 3 fatty acids. It is also known to contain anti-inflammatory properties and to be good for the heart." Medical News Today

Now I don't know how true that is though there seem to be plenty of other sites that say much the same. Not that this will get me to try roasting kidneys, whether it be for 8, 30 or 60 minutes. That's quite a difference in cooking times, so I can imagine the results would be quite different. Perhaps it depends on how much fat there is around the kidney. Certainly the kidney is supposed to be totally encased in it. And you won't find kidneys like that in the supermarket. You will have to talk to your butcher. I don't have 'a butcher' I have to say. Such a middle-class thing is it not to have your own butcher?

So I have rambled enough. I will leave you with a couple of statements from Theodora Fitzgibbon's introduction to this interesting little book. There are actually other recipes within that are well worth trying - colcannon for one. So don't be put off by this one. Many people would be though, so a very curious decision by the editors or Theodora herself to put it first. If you see it in a second-hand bookshop buy it. It's a curiosity. Somehow it makes me feel a bit more of a serious collector of cookbooks - which, when I think about it, is really a bit precious of me.

"The best food of a country is the traditional food which has been tried and tested over the centuries. It suits the climate, and uses the best products of that country."

"The food of a country is part of its history and civilisation, and, ideally, the past and the present should be combined, so that traditional food is not lost under a pile of tins or packages."


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