The day that Aishling invited me over to the Fumbally for a residency, as part of their Autumn Series, was the day after I found out that half a roasted peanut goes further that a whole one. I said yes in a blink and on the last but one morning of October I arrived at Dublin port with a Hawley ticket, a thirst and a van full of Bengal. An opportunity like a dream.
A place to stay, a test kitchen to cook in, the Fumbally cafe to eat in and a good gaggle of folk around moving in the same direction but in different vessels. And time too – time to work on ideas and observations without having to juggle with everyday jobs. Time to watch thoughts land, time to look into the layers. A gift.
I came for the month, to work on recipes for a book on foods found on the streets of Kolkata. The street food there is remarkable. Limitations of cooking outside, with no running water, gas or electricity create another way. It’s all about economy. Of space, of money, of energy, of time and foods. The least for the most, the best for less.
Resourcefulness opens other avenues and instead of turning many things into few things they turn a few things into many. In this bare wire cooking situation an efficiency and simplicity evolves that touches the natural law in how to bring out the magic of what we have. And thats what I like to look into and learn. Like knowing half a peanut tasting more than one.
Not just the authentic recipes I like to work on, but ones adapted to fit into different kitchens. Well actually not recipes and nor kitchens. Their cooking is bound by a different science. One of hand and human touch and experience, where there are procedures and processes, tastes and textures. In understanding these, then one is in a position to take it where you like, with what’s available. The best food is made with certainty and understanding that allows for creativity, calmness and caring.
Like the jazzers learn to play the tune, so you can sound nothing like the tune.
This food of Kolkata needs no kitchen as such – a stove, a flat surface, water and a place for waste, is a cooking situation. Simple as you like and I build mine in the Fumbally flat, around 3 split pallets, 4 bolts, a plank, 2 buckets and £10 stove and with low level seating – it’s a set up. Surround it with garlands, signs and the contents of the van and there is a different space wallowing in rows of red topped jars and saturated colour – from here we experiment.
At Wednesday workshops we crowd around and talk and taste our way through what I had been spending the week exploring. There was Chaats, Dals, Milk, with a different potion each time.
Chaats are India snacks by the way – a crunchy, tangy, fresh and spicy mental intoxication and physical boast to send you on your way, reminded of the pleasure of losing yourself to pleasure. Everyone happy to see the chaat man because he bring good news.
It’s a simple formula and one easy to adapt. Basic ingredients brought to life with seasoning. Seasoning is the key to simplicity and the body likes simplicity. Something sour, something salty, a little sweet and some spice, something wet and something dry. In India it’s all about the onion, ginger, tamarind, lime, chilli, cumin, amchur and black salt but nations have their arsenal of ingredients, that will do the same in a different way.
They say tastes are triggered in the mouth and there are five: salty, sour, sweet, bitter and umami or savoury. Flavour is influenced by taste but also by smell, texture and other goings on. By layering and balancing the tastes and flavouring the mind with textures, nutritional booty, smells, sounds and visual pleasure, leaves one in a state of no resistance – and this is when the magic happens. If the balance is right you satisfy the appetite with contentment and that is the real nutrition. When the jigsaw piece fits without pushing.
Attention on the simple things makes the difference. From the washing, chopping, mixing, stirring, you bring the food back to life. In the seasoning you make it more. This cooking is very simple – a little time and your attention. Give this and it repay you 100 times.
When you start to scratch the surface of Indian food, whole new worlds can appear and sometimes it feels like the more you learn the less you know. It’s a process but being above the Fumbally kitchen that emanates the bubble of the ferments, the warm sweet smell of baking and the babble of the bakers, can do nothing but help.
As did being around for the events linked to the autumn series. There was Mark and Ciaran of The Culinary Counter, who took over the place for 3 days and turned simple Irish fare into a remarkable creation, 10 course eating and drinking experience. and Fergal’s ramble around the cutting up and cooking of one of his wonderful pigs, then there was the omnipresence of Katie Sanderson whose ways with the food, are as fresh, as they are exciting.
The Fumbally is a fermenting place. Of food, of ideas and in time when they have fermented they will be passed on to start all over again.
There has to be the party at the end, like a full stop or an exclamation mark or something but whatever it is, it’s a schedule that starts at a simmer and ends with a full blown boil hanging on a thread. A great team of many nations held it together. We had it in the Long Room. From 5 stalls, 10 dishes advertised – we managed 8. The food wasn’t perfect but it was better than last time and the atmosphere was warm, open and loose and thats the main thing – what makes it all while. You want people to leave laughing.
Actually it wasn’t the end. Their was a gap in the Christmas Flea and I filled it and then I took a few days feral in the van, on the Dingle peninsular to be blown left, right, up a mountain, across beaches and into the Other Voices Festival, while the Flea Team pull a rabbit out the hat, when there was barely a hat and you have to respect that. So instead of the John Player Factory, the Christmas Flea moved to the unused shopping mall by Dublin port and brought a whole new world to its uncontroversial lines. The eating and drinking was done outside with the weather, which to be fair, there was no shortage of.
From the back of the van we expanded with a box theme – dal box or tonic box, and you ordered from the box office at the front and the signs were in wooden fruit boxes. It made sense at the time, just one thing to eat, one thing to drink, nice and easy. Run by a compact three person pod and blessed we were, with a great revolving team, low level seating and fortified potion. The dal was masor dal cooked with Bengali spices and mustard oil and topped in the box with modi masala, bombay onion, ginger, tomato, coconut, lime,coriander, tamarind chutni and the sev. The potion was ginger boiled up with spices longtime, and mixed at the last minute, with fresh orange and lemon juice and palm sugar.
Simple and efficient, no monkey business, they do what they need to. I’ve done these dishes many times over the years, but this time it was different. With the luxury of the bubble the Fumbally offered me for the month to immerse myself in variations, when you come back home, you see it with different eyes and you realise when you look after the simple everyday things first, generally, the rest will follow.
Exciting things are going on with food in Ireland. Unstuffy and strong, realizing the gifts on the doorstep and making things happen. What Aisling and Luca have created at the Fumbally and beyond, is remarkable. Really, really. Inspiring and uplifting the whole experience has been and the best reminder of what can happen when one keeps it open. I’m very grateful for their hospitality in these matters.
The power and possibility of food is a barely tapped force and one we are losing sight of. It can flip you up or it can slap you down. Taking control of the situation is empowering on many levels. Your body knows what it needs. Listen and it will tell you. What we consume is peppered with potential. Have a go-just have a go. You don’t know till you try. Anything is possible.