Cafe Paradiso Seasons and Vegetarian Wine Pairing

Ξ June 25th, 2009 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, Interviews, Wine News |

There are indispensable wine books; one immediately thinks of The Oxford Companion to Wine. But what of recipe books? A trip to the local bookstore in any city reveals 100s of titles. There are many compilations, inches-thick, those dedicated to specific national cuisines and their regional sub-divisions. Cantonese is not Sichuan. There are multitudes of great food writers, great cooks and chefs: Julia Child, Alice Waters, Jacques Pépin, Ferran Adrià, to name a very, very few. And every town and village has their unheralded favorites. One’s mother, perhaps.
But then there is the great cultural divide, Omnivore and Vegetarian. How many times have we read tasting notes of how well a wine would pair with a rare steak, a leg of lamb, pork, wild game bird, venison, or prosciutto? So abundant are the meat/wine pairing references that a vegetarian, such as myself, might well think wine itself shares a fundamental, intimate alchemy with the flesh of animal life roasted, baked, blackened or fried. And at a certain level this is undoubtedly true. The multiple origins of wine production have, we might safely hazard, universally occurred in meat-eating cultures. Vegetarianism is a culinary exception, often ethically or environmentally driven. A choice, and one I’ve freely made.
So a question wine-drinking vegetarians must ask, certainly those committed to the idea of consuming food and wine, where can we turn for instruction, for inspiration? What book? I have an answer. Inasmuch as a meat is the keynote, the centerpiece of an omnivore’s meal, for the vegetarian the search must be for surprise, flavor complexity, and innovative variety in a meal. Yet the food must also be something we, too, can prepare. And the brilliant Denis Cotter of Cafe Paradiso in Cork City, Ireland has written such a book, Cafe Paradiso Seasons.
Winner of the 2003 Gourmand World Cookbooks Award as the ‘Best Vegetarian Cookbook in the World’, Cafe Paradiso Seasons is a gathering of 140 recipes made up of seasonal vegetables. And we are not talking tofu night and day. Indeed, only two tofu recipes are included in the book. As he writes,
“I probably use tofu more at home than in Cafe Paradiso these days. Every time you try to create a restaurant dish with tofu, you have to confront the public perception of it and its association with the worthy but dull end of vegetarian catering. [....] Let’s say I’m in a rest period in my professional relationship with tofu.”
And a glance of his most recent ‘mains’ of the dinner menu displays the same rest.
risotto of watercress, avocado & broad beans with Oisin mature goat’s cheese, braised fennel and a lemon thyme & chilli oil €23
sweet chilli-glazed panfried tofu on chinese greens in coconut-lemongrass broth with soba noodles and a gingered aduki bean wonton €24
feta, pistachio & couscous cake on citrus & nutmeg greens with sweet & hot pepper relish, chickpeas with cumin & fresh chillies and coriander yoghurt €24
almond and pastry galette of spinach and Knockalara sheep’s cheese with sweet harissa sauce, coriander-crushed potato and sugar snap peas with oregano €25
panfried fresh artichokes with semolina & fresh goat’s cheese gnocchi, braised lentils, lemon cream & caramelised beetroot €25
roast aubergine parcels of kale, pinenuts & Coolea cheese with warm cherry tomato-caper salsa and sage & shallot farrotto €25

In the book you will find recipes for watermelon and feta salad with lime, pumpkinseed oil, toasted pumpkin seeds and green peppercorns; poached zucchini flowers with herbed ricotta stuffing in a tomato and basil broth; pan-fried couscous cake of red onion, feta cheese and pine nuts with green olive tapenade and spiced roast peppers with spinach; baked portobello mushrooms with Cashel blue cheese, pecan crumbs and sage, and smoked paprika aioli. You get the idea. In my home we have cooked these and dozens of others drawn from the book.
So, again, how to answer the question of wine pairing with such meals? Here wine takes on a different meaning. In a very real sense Mr. Cotter’s recipes reverse the role of wine. It’s not a matter of wine with food, but of food with wine. Food takes gustatory precedence. That an omnivore’s meal might be of a single note, have a commanding center, a rare steak, for example, the recipes in Cafe Paradiso Seasons instead open up a space of experimentation and exploration for wine drinkers in general. The flavors, textures, and temperatures are profoundly decentralized.
Perhaps this is why tasting notes so rarely reference vegetarian cuisine. Reviewers are perplexed. Terra incognita. And that is a very good thing. We might yet think for ourselves.
Cafe Paradiso Seasons has been in our house for a few years. We have yet to exhaust its riches. I contacted Denis Cotter essentially to thank him for his work. I was pleased he agreed, without hesitation, to be interviewed. Before proceeding the reader might wish to first look over his wine list.
Admin When did you become a vegetarian?
Denis Cotter In my early 20’s. It was the early 80’s and vegetarianism was mixed in with all the other fashionably left-wing politics of the time. Plus I had a girlfriend who was vegetarian, and I was a big fan of Morrissey of the Smiths, who was and is a militant vegetarian.
Before that, I had a squeamish attitude to meat growing up, and a generally sensitive nature.
But, as I often say, it’s not about why you become a vegetarian but why you remain one [emphasis added]. I’ve never felt that I was denying myself anything so there has never been a sacrificial element to it. Vegetarianism simply became part of my core ethics, a central part of how I felt morally comfortable in the world. As time went by and I got older and calmer, I moved away from being evangelical in any way and simply kept it as a personal ethic.
When Paradiso opened in 1993, I wanted it to succeed as a mainstream restaurant, despite being vegetarian rather than being recognised as a good ‘vegetarian’ one. I also consciously wanted to disconnect from the health food industry and connect with the local food culture instead.
I’ve been a vegetarian for a little over 20 years. My first shock was watching Frederic Wiseman’s 1976 documentary ‘Meat’. For reasons not clear to me, the film is now nearly impossible to find. In any case, how do you understand the modern industrial production of meat?
DC I’ve read a few books like Fast Food Nation and the like, and went through a period of shocking myself with the horrors of the meat industry. But, to an extent, it’s not really my concern. How animals are reared for slaughter is an ethical issue for people who eat them. I don’t eat animals because I don’t consider them to be food, and I suspect that the slaughter involved in meat production is holding us back as a species. I wouldn’t eat a pig even if it was hand-reared in the farmer’s living room and got to choose which tv channel the family watched. That said, I have great respect for, and get along very well with, people who produce meat in an ‘ethical’ way.
Where do source your produce from? Have new gardens been planted because of your effort?
DC I buy cheeses from local producers. I work very closely with a local grower, Ultan Walsh, who has a farm and guesthouse nearby. Paradiso buys most of his output, I visit him once a week to make sure my menus are adapting to what’s coming in, and we plan together what to grow, how much and so on. He’s gotten into beekeeping recently and I have a hive out there too, so Paradiso will have it’s own honey this year.
Paradiso is a small restaurant that couldn’t support one grower completely, not to mind several, so no, there haven’t been any gardens planted for us.
However, it’s probably true to say that Ultan has built his business on his relationship with Paradiso, but he’s such an amazing grower that he would have found an outlet anyway.
Besides Ultan, we buy from a couple of other small growers, but because of the climate we work in, we also have to buy a certain amount of imported produce. I would estimate that in summer we buy 80% from Ultan, in winter it drops to 25%.
Do you yourself farm or garden?
DC NO. That’s a weird one. I can talk the talk and I love to spend time on Ultan’s farm, but I’ve never done anything more productive than weeding. It’s something I feel is in my future somewhere, but it would want to hurry up.
I’ve worked to produce a garden for a local elementary school. Do you work with schools?
DC I did a demo recently for a class of 32 11-year-old girls – my niece’s class, she asked me to do it. They were incredible, so enthusiastic and adventurous. I told them we would be eating some wild food, including nettles, which they found very exciting and a bit scary. But the nettles were in gnocchi and they loved them.
I’ve done a few other classes for kids, with Slow Food, and always get a great buzz from it. It’s definitely something I want to do more of.
It can be expensive to eat locally. But given the increasing popularity of family gardens, there is hope. What advice would you give folks with a small backyard? What might they grow given a temperate climate, one with seasons?
DC Again, I’m not a grower. But something that Ultan and I have always agreed on is that, if you have a small garden, use it to grow things you can’t get in good condition otherwise, and luxuries. Grow your own salad leaves, asparagus if you can, and, of course, tomatoes – get some sungold seeds and you’ll never want another tomato! It’s fine growing a few spuds and onions but you can’t grow many and they’re cheap to buy. And put up a small hothouse if you can, it will increase the range of possibilities so much.
Has your work had a discernible effect on local restaurants? Have they felt the need to improve?
DC That’s a hard one to answer. There is probably a small number who admire Paradiso and I think the way we work has helped to grow the idea of working with local producers. But there has always been a strong Slow Food movement here as well as a lot of independent-minded individuals who have been nurturing a good food culture for decades. Paradiso wasn’t alone in turning to local producers in the past ten years, but maybe the books have given the concept a public face.
Most of the restaurants in Cork, however, carry on as though they are on planet pizzaland. It’s one of the frustrating aspects of the city that, despite a healthy food culture in the general population, the restaurant scene hasn’t kept up or properly tuned in.
What kind of clientele do you serve?
DC All sorts. Mostly foodies, I suppose, people who have Paradiso on their list of good restaurants, but who aren’t vegetarian. We have a strong core of regular clients, and a lot of people travel from out of town to eat here. Again, foodies more than vegetarians. Also, a high percentage of women, sometimes as high as 80% early in the week, falling to 50/50 at the weekend.
Are you cooking in the kitchen everyday? Would a customer have a good chance to meet you?
DC No, since I wrote the last book – ‘wild garlic, gooseberries…and me’, I’ve stepped back to be more of an executive chef. I have a great head chef and a great team. I do the Saturday night service, but I wouldn’t be able for all the hard prep anymore.
Also, because of my personal life, it’s not possible for me to be here all the time so I need a good team to run the place as though I wasn’t here at all. I spend at least half my time with my girlfriend in Ontario, Canada.
Moving on to wine, how are your wines selected? It must be difficult with the flavor complexity of your menu!
DC The wine list has evolved over the years. It started with personal preferences but has broadened out over the years to be more in line with the kind of food we serve, which has complex and bold flavours.
With a focus on European wines now, particularly Italy, Spain and Portugal, I think the best we can do is offer a wide range and make sure the floor staff know the wines well enough to be able to guide customers according to their personal preference and to the food they choose.
It’s usually possible to match a wine to a dish but much harder to match a wine to a whole table of orders, given the wide range of flavours in the menu. In that case, the best you can do is try to pick a compromise or convince people to drink separate wines. However, Paradiso is a laid back dining room, more suited to conviviality than reverence, and I think an important part of a meal is sharing wine even if you’re not sharing food. So compromise is my preferred way of solving the issue.
Have you tasted all the wines on your list? How often do you update the selection?
DC The wine list is now in the hands of Geraldine O’Toole, the dining room manager. She updates it and uses the taste buds of the floor staff to help her keep it in line with the food.
Do you keep a wine cellar?
DC No. Again, this is a tiny place – 45 seats. Also, with Cork being built on a marsh, going underground has never been a good idea. With the exception of a Barolo and one or two others, we don’t really stock wine for cellaring, and I would guess that most of our wines are 2 to 6 years old.
What is your personal history with wine?
DC I drink too much of it! When we opened first, I was involved with the wine, but gradually gave up control of it. Initially to my ex-wife, who was a New Zealander and gave the list a strong antipodean twist; then to Geraldine, who has brought it back to Europe.
Do you have more books in you? Are there topics you have yet to write about?
DC Sore point. I just had another in an occasional series of arguments with my girlfriend about ‘the book’. I signed up to do another book with Harper Collins a few months ago but there’s not much coming out. I have a number of ideas for things I want to write about, and a number of ideas for recipe books. But the book I signed up for depends on a narrative in my life which is not happening. Hence, no story. There will be a book sometime in the next two years. It might be a recipe book with short intros, along the lines of ‘Seasons’, or it might be a narrative with recipes, a la ‘wild garlic…’.
One topic that interests me greatly, going back to the top about why I became a vegetarian, is the wide range of ethical approaches people take to food. While a large part of the population goes on eating anything in front of them, so many people have a personal way of choosing what they will and won’t eat. Turning 50 this year, I’m curious about looking at my own vegetarianism and squaring it up to others’ approach – the ones who only eat their own animals, the ones who only buy organic, those who will eat fish but are careful to know which are environmentally sound and which are not…etc etc.
I don’t know if this is a book or an introduction to a book of recipes. More worryingly, I don’t know when I will start to produce something.
One of the dangers of approaching a new book is the risk of replacing the sense of pride in previous work with the sense of failure inherent in staring at a computer screen with an empty brain. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that.
What will be your lasting impact?
DC I don’t know if there will be a lasting impact. Some people will fondly remember the good times they had in Paradiso. Maybe it helped to turn people on to a different way of living and eating so their lives are happier in a subtle way.
I love the fact that there are thousands of my books all over the world. A lot of those people found the books themselves and have a great attachment for them. I always wanted to do something useful with my life, after eight years working in a bank. I think the books have been very useful things, in bringing pleasure to peoples’ lives. The pleasure of food, as distinct from it’s nutritional value, is so important to our well-being, and very few vegetarian books have gone there. Any ambitions I have left are personal.
Thank you very much, Denis.
DC It’s been interesting answering the questions. Thank you.
Mr. Cotter has written three books. The Cafe Paradiso Cookbook, Cafe Paradiso Seasons, of course, and most recently, Wild Garlic, gooseberries …and me. All may be purchased from Amazon, all may be purchased, signed editions at that, from the Cafe Paradiso bookstore on its website.


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  1. Stacey said,

    on September 7th, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    I lucked into finding DC’s Cafe Paradiso: Seasons at my local library. I found so many recipes that I want to try, I’m going to have to buy the book! Smart investment, as I see it. I hope, some day, to get to Ireland just so I can eat at Paradiso!

    Thank you for the interesting article/interview.

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