PAULA MCINTYRE: “We all need daily laughter and good old Ulster grub’

Leading culinary whizz Paula McIntyre chats to JOANNE SAVAGE about Ulster Scots recipes, her deep love of local produce, respect for the farming community and swimming off an icy North Coast in February

Saturday, 4th September 2021, 8:00 am
Paula McIntyre has been creating all sorts of culinary delights in kitchens since the tender age of 14

So we can expect a cornucopia of mouth-watering cuisine including Glens of Antrim lamb roast with a caramel and vinegar glaze with turnip cake and gratin; salt ling (a local sustainable fish) roasted and served with boxty, poached leeks, bacon crumb and an elderberry caper butter sauce; brined braised Denver cut of beef with a nettle and onion crust served on a barley risotto; locally-caught langoustines on potato and smoked dulse; and ‘love on a plate’, as she calls it, which is to say a country pie, rounded off with a rhubarb and blackcurrant tray bake with cider custard on top.

Then too she will tantalise palettes with a soup of roasted onion and garlic bud, served up with cheese and smoked tomato jam biscuits and a little-known Ulster Scots dish named Mollygowans and Clappydoos, namely an escalope of monkfish and mussels cooked in cider and dressed in brown butter.

Paula said: “I’m proud of my heritage and Ulster Scots culinary influences are a part of that, though what I love to do is take traditional recipes and reinvent them in a modern way. I want to make food that is heartening, wholesome, tasty and relaxing and relatively easy to do.

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Paula participating in the NI Junior Cook of the Year competition in 1981, aged 14

“I was brought up with a deep appreciation for food and for farmers and the work that they do, I have huge respect for that. I’m all about the ingredients and the incredible produce that we have here in Northern Ireland.”

Of her new series, set near her home in Portrush which looks out across the Atlantic Ocean to the Isles of Mull and Jura, reminding her of the many Scots who settled here, bringing their traditional cooking methods and favoured ingredients with them, she adds: “I go out fishing and catch ling, a beautiful fish that is actually nicer than cod in my opinion, firm and white and we should eat more of it than we do. Then we go to a lovely farm outside Portrush owned by William and Alice Chestnutt. It’s a dairy farm and they have those dairy machines where you can buy the milk straight from the farm. William’s sister Susan and her partner Sea have Seaview Farm, just a few fields away and they rear rare breed pigs. I make a country pie made with ham from here with a crowdie cheese, which is a kind of pressed ricotta, quick to make and rolled in pinhead oats and black pepper, all served with smoked pickled beetroot salad.” Mmmmm. Sounds scrumptious indeed.

McIntryre, who was awarded an MBE presented to her by Prince William at Buckingham Palace in November 2018 for her services to cooking and hospitality, grew up inspired by the baking of her mother, grandmother, and aunts who quickly taught her fool-proof recipes for soda farls, stews, tray bakes, and slims. Aged just 14 she began working in a well-to-do restaurant in Aghadowey named McDuff’s and fell in love with catering, eschewing her parents’ academic ambitions for her in order to pursue it. That same year (1981) she entered an NI Junior Cook of the Year Competition, judged by Wendy Austin, for which she made eggs mimosa, pork chops Ardennaise and pineapple water ice; that was 40 years ago and Paula has since “had a pop at Wendy” for this outrage, she laughs.

“I definitely fought to become a chef. It’s my vocation. I’m a stubborn woman, so I followed my own path, guided by a passion for imaginative and creative cooking and I have never looked back.”

After training in the culinary arts in the US Paula returned to Ulster and worked as head chef in several prestigious establishments including Ghan House in Carlingford and Fontana in Holywood. She once beat Paul Rankin on Ready Steady Cook and has since racked up innumerable appearances on BBC Northern Ireland and BBC Radio Ulster, demonstrating her favourite recipes or chatting about gastronomic delights. And she has penned recipe books, with another written during lockdown on the taste of the Causeway Coast in the pipeline.

What about those of us who can’t cook, won’t cook?

“Anyone can cook if they put their mind to it,” says Paula. “If you have a core of recipes you’re flying. Learn to make a soup, a pot of stew, a couple of potato or pasta dishes, it’s not hard at all.”

I wonder if such a seasoned chef sits down to haute cuisine each evening, but no, it turns out she only really cooks when she has people coming round, outside of the day job, and has a particular weakness for “baked beans on toast with brown sauce, baked potatoes, curry chips and Denny’s sausages. I’m so not posh.” She has also been known to eat plain cheese on white bread with Branston pickle, although she certainly draws the line at processed cheese or the culinary crime to humanity that is the Pot Noodle.

“When I have people over for dinner it’s more about the craic than the food. What I love most is laughing with friends until I cry. I think we all need that daily. And some hearty Ulster dishes.”

‘EXPERIMENT IN THE KITCHEN AND HAVE FUN’

So, what exactly does it take to make a good cook?

For Paula there are a number of core skills involved.

“First, organisation. Then we have a saying ‘mise en place’ - putting everything in place. Know what you’re cooking, learn knife skills, learn fish mongering skills and how to do butchery. Be careful about sourcing your food and get your hands on great produce. Then you need to be imaginative, creative and, crucially, excited about food. I’ve been excited by food from a young age and you have to want to experiment with flavours and think outside the box. Experiment in the kitchen and have fun.

“It’s such a great industry to be involved in, with so many exciting new developments, new products, the different food that comes with the changing seasons, so much to be thrilled by, and I don’t think I have ever lost my passion for creating new recipes or indeed reinventing old ones.”

‘SWIMMING IN THE ATLANTIC MAKES ME FEEL SO ALIVE’

When she’s not cooking, and one of Paula’s favourites is Italian cuisine made using local ingredients ( “what I love is on a Saturday afternoon to get the pasta roller out and make some beautiful wee tortellinis”), or looking up Nordic recipes, dishes from Denmark or cookbooks by Angela Hartnett and Giorgio Locatelli, or visiting food markets in London or top notch restaurants in that most cosmopolitan of cities, she loves swimming in the sea on the East Strand near Portrush were she is lucky enough to live.

“I love it, whatever the time of year, the colder the better. One of my ambitions is to do one of those ice swims. Ideally in the Arctic. You are at one with nature and even though it’s cold your body becomes accustomed to it. I generally ease myself into the water on the shore. I find sea swimming so invigorating, it makes you feel so alive. One of my favourite swims was in February this year, there was snow on the beach and there I was in the sea, on my back, and the snow was beating down on my face.”

In her forthcoming series, she will serve up hot roasted onion and wild garlic soup for her fellow swimmers on East Strand.

As somebody who makes her bread and butter catering for swish events and doing cooking demonstrations, McIntyre was particularly rattled by lockdown. As soon as it was declared her phone pinged and pinged with clients cancelling all kinds of gastronomic get-togethers.

“I had a choice, either lying down and doing nothing or getting up off my backside and finding alternatives and I chose the latter. I’d no work at the beginning but then I began to work with the council on a project called Taste Causeway encouraging people to use local produce. I started doing private catering in houses and supper clubs. I got cooking properly at home again and wrote a book which will hopefully be out in the new year. It’s a Taste Causeway Cook Book about food from the North Coast.”

McIntyre has come to enjoy the more mellow pace of life that lockdown has afforded her; prior to this she was so busy that her life was a whirl of cooking engagements and rushing in and out of airports to catch 6am flights.

“I enjoyed having a wee lie-in, getting up and having coffee and breakfast, buying a paper, not having to rush - that was a first for me. I wouldn’t go back to the frenetic pace at which I was living at before. So lockdown taught me that. But it was not an easy experience and like many people I found it particularly hard not having people in the house. I mean, there’s only so many Zoom quizzes you can do.”

Q&A: ‘I’D HAVE ELLA FITZGERALD AND MARTIN LUTHER KING ROUND FOR A BBQ’

Tell us your earliest childhood memories?

I remember baking mostly with my granny, my mum and various aunts. And running around the country wrecking the place with an old Alsatian we had named Billy.

School days - what subjects did you excel at and were you ever in detention?

I saw school as a social club that I went to every day, and a place where I found life-long friends. I wasn’t that swotty, although I did love history and English. I would have been in detention quite a lot, mostly for not being there and for was minor misdemeanours like forgetting books.

Your ideal way to spend a day?

I would start the morning with a swim in the sea. Then I’d take a private jet to London to a restaurant called Flor for lunch. I love these flatbreads they do with crab and fennel and nice bitter Italian greens with fresh pasta, slowly cooked tomatoes and a beautiful cheese. Then I would pick up a lot of stuff from Borough Market, take the private jet back home, light the barbecue and have a few friends round.

Who is the person in your life who makes you laugh the most?

There are so many. I was sitting with a group of friends from school a few Saturdays ago and there were six of us round the table and we were all crying from laughter. My brother manages to make me laugh to the point of tears too. Laughter to the point of tears - that’s my favourite feeling and we should all have that daily in an ideal world.

What music do you like to listen to in your downtime?

Nanci Griffith, James Taylor, New Order, The Bee Gees, and a bit of soul - you name it.

Favourite book?

Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey.

Favourite film?

Steel Magnolias.

If you could have an ideal dinner party to which you could invite anyone from history who would you bring?

Anthony Bourdain, Ella Fitzgerald and Martin Luther King.

What would you make them to eat and drink?

I would do lobster from the bay here, cooked on the barbecue with lots of local vegetables and a nice butter sauce with local drinks, like cider, beer and maybe some gin martinis.

If you had a magic wand and could change anything at all about NI overnight what would it be?

Politics. I would love to live in a country where politicians dealt with social issues and not partisan politics.

Happiness is...Swimming in the sea in February with the snow beating down on your face.

Paula McIntyre’s new Hamely Kitchen series begins on BBC One Northern Ireland on Monday September 6 at 7.35pm and can also be viewed on BBC iPlayer.