Sam Gleeson & Niamh Fox

15th February 2018

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

15th February 2018

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

Part of an ongoing collaboration with Fáilte Ireland

A few weeks before we visit Niamh Fox and Sam Gleeson at their house in Co Clare, not far from the Cliffs of Moher, they slaughter the three pigs they’ve been raising at the bottom of their garden since the start of last year. We can’t claim it was done entirely in our honour, as the meat in the freezer would sustain them through a mini ice age, but we do benefit from the intervention. “We’re going to have pork chops for lunch,” announces Sam when we arrive. “And we’ve also got some homemade black pudding for you to taste with Niamh’s beetroot ketchup.”

The accompanying vegetables will come from their own polytunnels at the side of the garden – and for afters, given the scarcity of decent pork-based desserts, we’ll head out to the field to pick blackberries and eat them with yoghurt and blackberry jam. “It’s a get-your-own-lunch type situation,” says Niamh cheerfully.

Like many encounters in Ireland, our detour here is the result of chance connections, of friends-of-friends telling us we have to go and visit this interesting couple in the wilds of West Clare. He’s a furniture- and knife-maker who creates beautiful fixtures and fittings for restaurants and private clients. She’s a chef who worked in a number of impressive kitchens – Ard Bia and Kai in Galway, Rochelle Canteen in London – before deciding she wanted to cook with greater freedom, in more peaceful surroundings, at the local yoga retreat.

 

We’re glad we came – and not just because of the amount of pork on the menu. Sam and Niamh (who is pregnant with their first child) couldn’t be more welcoming or better company. We chat for a bit in their light-filled conservatory with the dogs Bert and Stella snuffling around our feet, then head on a tour of their plot, via the polytunnels, the blackberry bushes and Sam’s cavernous workshop across the yard.

By this point we’re totally won over – by Sam and Niamh and by the life they’ve forged for themselves in this remote and beautiful part of Ireland. And that’s before we’ve even sat down for lunch. It’s all laid out on the table in the conservatory: tomato salad and borlotti bean stew, fried pork chops and that sublime black pudding with beetroot ketchup (those pigs did not die in vain). We take our seats at the table and get stuck in.

Continued below...

Where did you grow up?

Niamh: On Inishbofin – it’s an island off Connemara with only 150 people on it. My mum still lives there with my aunties and uncles. They have a farm. My granny used to make all the butter and bread for the island. She had her own cows and they still have all her old churns.

Did you learn about food from your grandmother?

Niamh: Yeah. Also, my dad was a chef – he had a wholefoods restaurants in the 80s, doing falafels and stuff, in Kenmare [Co Kerry]. We grew up on the beach. My dad would be finding raw razor clams and trying to feed them to us.

Were you receptive to the razor clams?

Niamh: Well, yeah. We used to eat seaweed like crisps.

I grew up by the sea as well, but I didn’t eat anything like that. It was only after I left that I became aware of all the amazing stuff I’d missed out on. Was your whole family into food?

Niamh: Yeah. We never had any pre-made anything, we never even had apple juice or orange juice. We were taught how to cook when we were really young – at five or six, we were making scrambled eggs for ourselves. My mum was a musician so she would always be out playing gigs. She’d cook brown rice for us [before she went out] and we’d make egg fried rice with all kinds of things in it.
Sam: Your mum is addicted to fish.
Niamh: She’s like a crazy woman! She gets black plastic bags of crab claws delivered in the morning by the fisherman and she’ll spend days sitting there picking them.
Sam: If you’re eating them with her, she’ll keep an eye on what you’re doing. If you’ve left any meat, you’ll get told off first of all, then she’s like…
Niamh: She’ll teach people how to eat them. “So, do you– do you eat crab a lot?”

We used to wake up in the morning and my mum would be boiling the crab claws and the smell would be going into our rooms … She’d be eating it with garlic butter for breakfast

Have you inherited that addiction?

Niamh: I do love seafood, but…

But not to the same extreme.

Niamh: No. We used to wake up in the morning and she’d be boiling the crab claws and the smell would be going into our rooms. We’d wake up going “uhhhh!”. She’d be eating it with garlic butter for breakfast. At all times of day.
Sam: She’s wild.

Did you learn to comb the beaches for edible things?

Niamh: Yeah. But I’d say most people who grew up by the sea would know how to do that.

Not necessarily! I didn’t.

Niamh: I suppose my dad would have taught us a lot of it. He used to make meals from stuff on the shore. We always knew how to pick seaweed and mussels properly, where to get it and where not to get it.

Where did you grow up Sam?

Sam: Near Cambridge.

Do you have an Irish connection? Your surname suggests you might.

Sam: My great-grandparents on both sides were Irish, but nobody else. Pre-Uprising everyone panicked and ran to England and stayed there.

Did you visit Ireland when you were younger?

Sam: Only once, we came over on a family holiday when I was 14 and went to Dingle – my dad’s family came from Kerry. In England no one could spell my surname, but in Ireland I remember spelling it out to somebody and they said, “There’s not an Irishman alive that can’t spell Gleeson.” Then you drive past M Gleeson’s newsagents and J Gleeson’s butchers and realise – ah, there’s loads of them!

Was your family into food?

Sam: Not really.

What do you remember eating when you were 10?

Sam: Potato waffles, fish fingers. My mum cooks more now.
Niamh: She does nice lamb…
Sam: Lamb stew was my favourite thing my mum cooked.
Niamh: It does have brown sauce in it though.
Sam: [laughs] She loves brown sauce. She lashes it in. My old man and my brother were very much potatoes-and-meat men and maybe some carrots and peas…

Everything is subject to change when you’re cooking. Sometimes a vegetable is bigger, or not as sweet, or woody… Obviously baking recipes work, but I don’t really think the rest do.

If they were feeling flamboyant.

Sam: At 14 or 15, I started helping to cook. I always enjoyed making things with my hands. My dad made parts for vintage car engines and there’s pictures of me as a kid with tools and chisels. [Cooking] is just an extension of that, isn’t it?

When you’re both at home, who cooks?

Niamh: It was me for a long time, but Sam’s actually picked up a bit.
Sam: It depends on our work hours, I guess. Most of my work is here, whereas Niamh’s work is over the cliffs.
Niamh: I cook at the Cliffs of Moher Yoga Retreat. It’s all vegetarian, and everything is grown in the garden, so you just go out picking and cook whatever you can from it. It’s really nice, perfect for how I want to work now. Working in restaurants is a bit taxing after a while. Here, I go in and cook what I actually want to eat for dinner. I can be as creative as I want. I do some catering as well. And myself and Sam also do a dinner once a month in Ennistimon. We both cook.

Are you harmonious when you’re cooking together?

Niamh: Yeah. [laughs] I’m probably a bit bossy…
Sam: It’s good. When it comes to general house maintenance – getting the firewood in, keeping the garden organised – I’m bossing Niamh around. So I’m totally happy being told what to do in the kitchen. It’s actually quite a good combo, because we both work hard.

Do you have different approaches to cooking?

Sam: [laughs] Ahhh, yeah.
Niamh: [laughs] I don’t plan anything.
Sam: I say, “Teach me how to do this”, and she says, “Well, throw some of that some of that some of that…”
Niamh: He asked me this morning how to make curd scones. I just started throwing stuff in a bowl.
Sam: She didn’t measure anything. “Here yeah, just mix the egg, yeah that’s done.”

On The Menu

Lunch with Sam Gleeson and Niamh Fox
Lahinch, September 2017

To eat:

Black pudding and beetroot ketchup
Pork chops
Borlotti bean stew »
Root vegetables
Tomato salad
Garden-picked blackberries with blackberry compote, crème fraiche and whipped cream

To drink:

Domaine de la Pinède, Pays d’Oc

Are you more dependent on recipe books?

Sam: Yeah, although I use them more for inspiration. I don’t like following recipes to a tee. I might get four recipes for the same kind of thing. “Okay, you’re doing that, you’re doing that, so I’m going to do this.”
Niamh: But everything is subject to change when you’re cooking. Sometimes a vegetable is bigger, or not as sweet or, you know, woody. Everything changes.

You’ve got to adapt.

Niamh: Obviously baking recipes work, but I don’t really think the rest do. I don’t think two people can make the same thing, necessarily.

What’s a fallback dish that you’d cook on a night off?

Sam: Tuna-pesto pasta.
Niamh: That’s Sam’s one. I always make broths with noodles and seaweed and vegetables.
Sam: Yours are definitely more wholesome and varied. I could lose myself in the workshop until 10 o’clock at night, very easily, and then all of a sudden I’m like, “Oh shit, food.” Then it’s into the house, tuna-pesto pasta with some sort of greenery on top. Done.

Remember when we cooked the sea spaghetti with sorrel pesto in the van? Wasn’t that so nice?

When you first met, what did you cook to impress one another?

Sam: I was quite nervous to cook for Niamh.
Niamh: You didn’t cook for me for ages!
Sam: I probably made tuna-pesto pasta.
Niamh: No you didn’t, you were afraid to pull that one out.
Sam: Van dinners were a good one.
Niamh: Yeah when we went away in the van, we made some really nice dinners.
Sam: We had a little stove in the van.
Niamh: Remember when we cooked the sea spaghetti with sorrel pesto?
Sam: Yeah.
Niamh: Wasn’t that so nice?
Sam: That was really good

What’s sea spaghetti?

Sam: It’s a type of seaweed.
Niamh: It’s brown and when you boil it, it goes bright green.
Sam: Then there was that amazing seafood medley at Kilcummin harbour. We had been out for a surf and then we cooked dinner. It was a really wintery day and there was this Frenchman on the harbour and he looked so chilly. I asked, “Do you want some food?” and he was so pleased.
Niamh: Van food tastes nicer.

What would an average day be like for you?

Sam: It depends on the surf. If there are waves, I could be up really early, 5 or 6am in the summer. If not, I probably wake up around 7 or 8am. Niamh is pregnant with our first child, so she is getting some rest time. I tend to make a cup of tea and coffee and come back to bed.
Niamh: Breakfast…
Sam: You could have anything couldn’t you?
Niamh: Yeah, yesterday I had salami and cheese.
Sam: We’ve been known to have pasta for breakfast.
Niamh: I usually just have savoury things like goat’s cheese on toast or avocado toast.
Sam: I like porridge with nuts and seeds and bananas, stuff like that.
Niamh: Then we go our separate ways.
Sam: I zoom Niamh over to work and then I’m back here in the workshop and I hopefully eat at some point.

What would you have for lunch – if you remember to have it?

Sam: A sandwich or a bowl of soup. We’ve got loads of vegetables on the go so I try to make a big soup at the start of the week.
Niamh: Lunch for me might be salad, though it really depends. We’ve had so many green beans that I was almost retching the other day, I can’t look at green beans. Crazy amounts, just crazy. Basically our food revolves around what we’re using up from the garden.

Was there a bit of a veg patch on the go before you moved here?

Niamh: The polytunnels were there already – that kind of swayed it for us.

Tell us about the house.

Sam: It’s more than 100 years old. Two brothers lived on this land for a very long time with their animals. In 1890 they went to Australia in the gold rush and found gold, came home and built this house and planted the orchard. There is an old poem about this land – the last line is something like “On midsummer’s day at sunset, if you know where to look, you’ll find the rest of the buried gold”.

The joy of Egan’s is a good cheese toastie and a good carrot cake
Sam and Niamh on their favourite food places around Ireland

Are you keeping an eye out?

Sam: The old owners apparently had some Polish dude out for days with a metal detector.

I imagine you’re more interested in what the land yields in terms of food.

Sam: And wood. We’ve planted about 50 or 60 oak trees so far and loads of other bits and bobs. Most of my work is either from reclaimed timber or Irish hardwood fallen over in storms. It’s really nice, especially for the knife handles. For wood-turning as well. We have a friend who’s a spoon maker, so I’ll be grabbing him and doing a few spoons with him using wood from the land.

Did you fall in love with the place straight away?

Sam: The house didn’t do it – the two conservatories look like something out of a Sunday Mail supplement. I always wanted to build my own home. When my dad died I inherited his house back in Cambridge, but I’d ever particularly enjoyed living in it. So we sold it and my brother and I had enough to buy a house. Niamh and I saw this place, with the land and the two polytunnels, and thought, it’s not a bad place to start.

This is part of an ongoing collaboration with Fáilte Ireland.

For more on Sam’s knives, go to www.thisiswhatido.ie. He’s also part of designer/maker duo ThisIsWhatWeDo
Follow Sam: Instagram | Twitter

Niamh cooks at the Cliffs of Moher yoga retreat, www.cliffsofmoherretreat.com
Follow Niamh: Instagram

Posted 15th February 2018

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

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