Lucy Madden is among the greatest of our country-house cooks. As Darina Allen of Ballymaloe said recently, ‘Lucy turns out some of the most delicious and appropriate food I’ve tasted anywhere.’ Writing as someone who has unapologetically wrestled leftovers from other guests at Hilton Park, I have to agree.
There, too, I have finished one meal only to dream about the next. No wonder the Observer has called this redoubtable Englishwoman ‘one of the most inspired cooks in Ireland’.
Lucy grew up in London, but in her early twenties she made the decision that haunts so many women: she married an Irishman! Johnny is the ninth generation of Maddens to own Hilton Park, near Clones. There must have been days when Monaghan felt oppressive.
(Patrick Kavanagh said of it: ‘My black hills have never seen the sun rising, eternally they look north towards Armagh.’) Yet here in the border country, Lucy and Johnny – who is an equally thoughtful, amusing host – have reinvented the Irish country-house experience, offering foodie pilgrims legendary hospitality in a part of Ireland that rarely finds its way onto the travel pages.
Hilton Park is nearly 300 years old. It’s a grand – very grand – property, yet the hosts could not be more engaging.
Over lunch, at the kitchen table, you might spend an hour debating the mating preferences of mussels, the antics of adulterous politicians or the behavior expected of people in obscure religious cults. This is a kitchen full of flavor.
An enthusiastic chronicler of the oddities of Irish life, Lucy has a neighbor who was once asked why he had a washing line erected across his farmyard from which hung a row of empty plastic oil cans.
The farmer looked astonished to be asked the question. ‘Because a man has to have what no other man has,’ was his explanation. ‘And this attitude,’ says Lucy, ‘is what we once had in Ireland. Bring back the oddballs.’
Lucy’s culinary philosophy is simply expressed. ‘The dishes,’ she says, ‘are inspired by the fruit, vegetables, and herbs grown in the garden.’ And while her talented son, Fred, has taken over the reins in the kitchen, Lucy is still to be found in that four-acre walled garden, with a stiff cup of coffee and a shovel, digging spuds. That is the genesis of this Article.
The Potato Year is a celebration of the most modest vegetable in our shopping basket, the story of a garden and a record of our shared heritage as potato growers and lovers. Freshly boiled organic potatoes, with a lick of sea salt and pan-fried garlic? Guaranteed to do all sorts of funny things to my nostrils and my toes.
Kale is so 2019. Turnip is yet to find a patron. And blueberries are in rehab. Spuds are the national superfood, almost buzzing with goodness. Indeed pasta and rice would blush in the presence of potatoes, which are a terrific source of potassium – otherwise known as the hangover-healer! If you eat them with the skin on, vitamin C can also help the body repair any damage done the night before.
And finally, vitamin B6 and iron can help to strengthen red blood cells. Isn’t it great to find a food you love that loves you back? The recipes in this article do the Irish potato a memorable service. If you haven’t submitted to their call, prepare to embark on a pilgrimage. And remember to savor the writing. Always interested, ever looking for the right combination of flavors and words, Lucy is a pleasure to read.
She inspires us to experience food as one of the great gifts of life, and that spirit of celebration informs every page of this ‘homage to the humble spud’. It looks set to become a classic.
‘What is this?’ an American visitor asked recently, indicating a row of plants growing in our kitchen garden and dotted with purple and white flowers in full bloom.
That an adult should not be able to identify what is without doubt one of the world’s most important crops, was a shock.
To look down on the flowers that Marie Antoinette had once worn in her hair, and not to know them, was this possible? Add to this the fact that the visitor’s existence on this planet had not a little to do with the one-time failure of the crop, which caused the great Irish famine that sent his ancestors on their diaspora to the New World, and the lack of knowledge was even more bewildering. But then, sadly, we don’t all know our potatoes. Extraordinarily, many people prefer pasta, rice or couscous.
Not I. My father, a man whose relationship with the soil could only be described as reluctant, and who once planted a hedge of fuchsia cuttings upside down, managed to produce a crop of potatoes that, steamed with mint then gilded with butter, were as epicurean as anything I have eaten since and began a life-long love affair for me with the vegetable.
When I had the good fortune to marry a man whose family owned Hilton Park in Co. Monaghan, with its large walled gardens that seemed to beckon to a potato grower, years of cultivating and experimenting with different varieties of the crop ensued.
When, some thirty years ago, we decided to open the house to paying guests as members of Hidden Ireland and people from all over the world began to visit, it provided an opportunity to widen my collection of potato recipes, which, year by year, increased alarmingly.