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Last years winners of ‘A Taste of West Cork Schools Cookery Competition’, Ellen O’Regan & Pearse O’Flynn from Schull Community College have just sent us this account of their prizewinning trip to Neven Maguire’s MacNean House & Restaurant:

neven & grace inehanOn Wednesday, 13th May 2009 we travelled the seven hour journey to Blacklion, Co. Cavan with our Home Economics teacher, Ms. Grace Linehan. We were welcomed at MacNean House & Restaurant, in Neven’s absence, by his uncle Frank and local lady Sheila. Neven and most of his staff were at the Irish Restaurant Awards ceremony at The Burlington Hotel in Dublin. We relaxed for an hour in the lovely surroundings of MacNean House before we sat down to a delicious meal prepared specially for us by Chef Vicky. We had the restaurant to ourselves that evening.

After nine o’clock breakfast next morning we were told of Neven’s successful night in Dublin. He picked up six awards including the coveted All Ireland Best Chef and Best Celebrity Chef awards.

Before meeting Neven in the kitchen, we had a few hours off which we spent at Enniskillen Shopping Centre just fifteen minutes away. At one o’clock we were back at MacNean House to meet up with Neven. Before getting down to work in the kitchen he spoke briefly about the awards ceremony the previous night and gave us the history of MacNean House.neven in kitchen with shane and ellen   He introduced us to his chefs, kitchen staff and his enthusiastic, three year old nephew who obviously adores Neven as he was dressed in full chef’s outfit and wanted to cook with Neven. Then it was time to put on our aprons and set to work. Neven showed us how to make spring rolls, chocolate tart, roast pineapple, pineapple chutney, chili jam and how to spin sugar into baskets and other designs. He also showed us cooking techniques such dicing and how to roll pastry correctly. Meanwhile he made us a lovely chicken curry for lunch while at the same time we watched as he set about preparing dinner for guests later that night.

After lunch we presented Neven with a hamper made up of West Cork produce, generously sponsored by: Irish Yoghurts, Glenilen Farm, Gubbeen Cheese, Bantry Bay Seafood, Union Hall Smoked Fish, Clonakilty Black Pudding, Skeaghanore Duck, Durrus Cheese, Sally Barnes Smoked Fish, Desmond/Gabriel Cheese and FollainTeo.Neven presented with West Cork Food Hamper

At 6.30 p.m., before the pièce de resistance (8 course dinner in MacNean House, prepared by Neven) we watched from the kitchen while table service began. It was interesting to see how smoothly things ran in such a busy kitchen and celebrity chef Neven wasn’t at all like other t.v. chefs who seem to shout at their staff all the time.

Dinner was an exceptional dining experience from beginning to end. Starter included Trio of Goat’s Cheese, Assiette of Rabbit or Seared Sea Scallops, to name just three. This was followed by Carrot & Coconut Soup with smoked ham Hock Ravioli and Passion Fruit Jelly. Main course included Assiette of Irish Beef, Rare Breed Pork Plate or Trio of Turbot, all with delicious accompaniments. A wonderful selection of deserts was preceded by ‘pre-desert’ of Tiramisu with popping Candy! Tea or coffee was accompanied by MacNean House petit fours.

The presentation of each dish was truly amazing and the wonderful combination of flavours and textures made it a dining experience we will never forget.

Next morning after a delicious breakfast, Neven invited us to join him on a visit to his producers but unfortunately as we had a long journey ahead this wasn’t possible. Before we left, Neven kindly presented us with a signed copy of his new cook book and again invited us back to MacNean House to complete our Transition Year work experience. We are very much looking forward to it.

Ellen O’Regan & Pearse O’Flynn

3rd Year students Schull Community College

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If I was to bare my guilt ridden soul to the watching world, they would no doubt spot the cherry tomatoes and batons of raw carrot on the middle shelf that were left there by my children. Healthy eating begins at home, and the beginning was fine – they couldn’t speak, didn’t know they had a choice and generally trusted our judgement. But for my seven year old twins that has changed and though we struggle on with vegetable offerings, they are generally declined. I know we’re not alone and that crudités for lunch are enjoyed by but a few children beyond senior infants. But I also know that this is a problem of food culture in Ireland – it’s cultural, not universal and not biological, it doesn’t have to be this way. And thankfully, healthy eating by children is also one negative aspect of our food culture around which there is a huge resolve to change. This week I visited Scoil Náisiúnta an Chroí Naofa in Glounthaune near Cork to get feedback on a new initiative called Taste Buds, from Safefood and ourselves at West Cork LEADER Co-Op. In the process I learned a lot about how a determined school can approach this challenge.

I spoke with Stephen Patterson and Laura Leahy, two teachers from the school who had put a bit of work into evaluating the Taste Buds teaching resource and had given a presentation at its launch in November. Scoil Náisiúnta an Chroí Naofa had worked with the resource developers to pilot the programme in 2007. Taste Buds is a resource for teachers and aims to help children enjoy learning about the origins and production of food and the importance of eating a healthy diet. It consists of eight sessions of about 40 minutes and has extension activities, teachers notes and additional information that really help teachers to work food into their teaching practice.

I found that the first thing I needed to relearn was about how teaching works these days. In my memory of primary school, when we had the maths book open we were doing maths and could expect to have it open for half an hour or so before we opened the science book and so on through English, Irish, history or whatever. Each subject was distinct and linear. But Laura explained to me that she and her colleagues now use a theme based approach that allows them to integrate the 6 subject areas comprising 11 subjects in the primary curriculum. In this way the teacher can hold the child’s interest by digger deeper into a topic, building on what they have already learned and exploring the theme from many aspects. So a theme like the Courtmacsherry whale could be used by a skilful teacher to learn about science, language, art, maths, conflict resolution and so on.

Food and nutrition is a specific part of the curriculum, being included under the subject area Social, Personal and Health Education. It comes under the strand – Taking Care of My Body but Laura explained that can be woven into various topics. “If we were learning about a country, like France for example, then the kids would be fascinated to learn about what the French eat, it’s part of the culture and they are very curious about other cultures. Then we could pick out a resource pack like Taste Buds and use it to learn more about where our food comes from around the world. It’s very well designed and the multimedia part is very good. The feedback from the children I spoke to was that it was cool and exciting and they related well to the characters. The characters and design are very age appropriate, though it would be good if we could have a younger version too. Tastebuds is best suited for 2nd to 4th class.”

I recall a recent tale from school where one of my daughter’s friends was being repeatedly taunted with “You don’t go to McDonalds!”. So I asked Stephen about the challenge for parents and teachers to encourage healthy eating in the face of peer pressure that is conservative about food and very subject to junk food advertising. “None of these things work in isolation, it has to be a whole school approach. It has to be ongoing and integrated and we can’t force children to eat things they don’t like. This year the fifth class planted potatoes in the school grounds, all these ideas help. Peer pressure can be a problem but if you have a teacher that is enthusiastic about food that will really rub off to the pupils. As teachers we talk to each other constantly, discussing the merits of each programme, sharing resources and planning, especially at the start of the year.”

School principal, Aiden O’Brien, told me more about the schools healthy lunch policy which was recently redrafted in consultation with parents. “Healthy eating must be linked to exercise; health needs to be holistic and must be reinforced at home.” The policy has been well received by parents and to my shame Laura told me that it’s quite common for her pupils to have cherry tomatoes bursting from their lunchboxes.

Since its launch in November there has been a great take up of the resource pack by schools – over 1200 have contacted Safefood to obtain the pack. Tastebuds is a follow up to an earlier West Cork LEADER Co-op initiative called foodskool.com and we are committed to an ongoing involvement with schools and parents to create a more positive relationship with food. As a rural development company we are of course keen to facilitate learning about local food and are looking at ways in which we can help children learn about what is produced all around them in West Cork or get involved in growing themselves. If you’d like to find out more about Taste Buds you can access the entire resource online at www.safefood.eu and schools can obtain a free copy of the pack at 1850 40 45 67. Let’s hope that these buds emerge as the green shoots of a more rewarding and nourishing food culture.

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