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"What would Theodora do?" Donal Skehan on rediscovering Theodora FitzGibbon


12-05-2014 17:30

When Donal Skehan came across some old recipes from Theodora FitzGibbon’s column in The Irish Times, a new world of culinary delights has suddenly opened up. Now, bringing back some of her signature dishes in his stunning photographs, he hopes to inspire a new generation of foodies!

 

‘I do believe that the best food for a country is that which has been continuously tried and tested over the years, which suits the climate and uses the best products of that country.’

The history of Irish food is full of enlightened but sometimes forgotten voices. At a time when we are rediscovering the roots of our cuisine, it seems only appropriate that one of those great voices should be celebrated and shared with modern Ireland. Theodora FitzGibbon’s knowledge of Irish food and cooking was encyclopedic. Her passion, which can be seen in her extensive catalogue of cookery books, is still inspiring today.

My journey into the world of Theodora FitzGibbon began a couple of years ago when her name came up after a mushroom hunt I was attending. While her name was new to me, those who had read her work and grown up with her recipes extolled her virtues to me as an expert of Irish food who was integral to the very make-up of our cuisine. Before her death in 1991, she had written over 30 cookery titles and served as an Irish Times food writer for nearly 20 years. Her popularity was in an Ireland far before my world of social media and food blogs, which means her recipes have stayed solely and exclusively in her printed publications.


After some bargain-hunting online, I managed to order second-hand copies of the vast majority of her books. They arrived at my house in slow succession in varying states of use: dog-eared and splattered with slowcooked stews and sweet cake batters. Past treasures of kitchens gone by. The moment I opened my world up to this grand lady of Irish cuisine, she seemed to rush into my life. I made my way through her fascinating two-book autobiography, a hand-me-down from my aunt. I pored over the many newspaper clippings my grandmother had saved over the years from Theodora’s highly popular Irish Times column. However, the true highlight was discovering her beautiful recipes and recreating them in my kitchen. I served her Rabbit Pie to my grandad and it rekindled memories of his time as a bachelor when rabbit was all he knew how to cook, while her Mutton Pies and Lemon Marshmallow Cake proved a hit with a slightly younger audience and were served to a chorus of approval from my friends.

Classic recipes – like her Christmas cake – had become legendary and well used in homes across Ireland throughout the 1970s and 1980s, cementing her as a voice of knowledge and as an instant portal to reliable recipes. Apart from her knowledge of Irish food, the fact that she travelled widely throughout her life also had a large part to play in the success of her career as a food writer, providing her with foreign ingredients and influences from far-flung places.

In early 2013, just when I had finished reading her autobiography, I was contacted by Gill & Macmillan, Theodora’s Irish publishing home. They were working on a project to republish a collection of her recipes. We discussed the idea of presenting her work from a new viewpoint and they asked me to take on the daunting task of selecting recipes from her huge collection and photographing them.

A meeting was set up with Theodora’s husband, film-maker and photographic restorer, George Morrison. Naturally the meeting was over lunch. As we settled into Cavistons restaurant in Glasthule, and over George’s recommendation of scallops, we discussed Theodora’s approach to food as well as their relationship. Most important, however, was George’s approval of this ‘young man’ to work on the project.

George photographed all of the recipes for Theodora’s Irish Times columns and has an extensive collection of food photographs which he has exhibited. He invited me to visit the home he had shared with Theodora for a viewing of her recipe images and to watch his film These Stones Remain. George warned me that a good food photograph should stay trueto three key components – form, texture and colour – and told me that his one rule as a food photographer was to make sure that he tried all of the food that passed beneath his camera. A rule I also stick to quite firmly!

A truly magical moment during my journey into the world of Theodora was the discovery of her contribution to an RTÉ radio documentary on the history of the Irish potato, which aired on 18 February 1984. Although I had spent time with her text and recipes, her speaking voice had been silent. Then, all of a sudden, exactly how I had imagined, she was there in the room, booming and proud. She spoke at length about the Irish and our relationship with an ingredient that has come to define our nation.

Her voice was full of authority and expertise, with a no-nonsense approach to modern-day practices. The powerful timbre of her voice stuck with me as we cooked through the recipes I had selected from her vast back catalogue. The mantra ‘What would Theodora do?’ was used many times as we made decisions on how to plate-up dishes and present the food for camera. It is this voice and the present-day inheritors of Theodora FitzGibbon’s great knowledge who continue to inspire me on my journey in food.

The recipes you will find in The Pleasures of the Table stand as a strong testament to a fine Irish food writer. My hope is that it will give a new generation of cooks the inspiration and wisdom Theodora FitzGibbon has given me.

Donal Skehan

The Pleasures of the Table. Rediscovering Theodora FitzGibbon. Over 150 classic dishes from Ireland’s much-loved food writer, selected and photographed by Donal Skehan is published by Gill & Macmillan Books in April 2014. Available online and in all good bookshops nationwide.

 

Visit our gallery of photos on Facebook!

 



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