Claire's taste of Christmas past...

It’s the most wonderful time of the year for Claire Nash of Nash 19, who loves Christmas! KATE RYAN caught up with her to talk about family recipes, Christmas traditions and the importance of supporting local food businesses/producers
Claire's taste of Christmas past...
Claire Nash  shares some Christmas recipes. Picture: Larry Cummins

NASH 19 in Cork city is the kind of heart and soul restaurant that reminds us what makes the city so special.

It is a bastion of the personal touch; a place where no matter how long the line is out the door for their legendary breakfast, you absolutely, positively will be sorted out for a seat.

At the heart of it all is proprietor Claire Nash, and if you let her, she’ll take you under her wing and keep you well protected while you are in her restaurant. In effect, Claire is everyone’s Irish Mammy, her restaurant is her home, and her team her extended family ready with a welcoming smile, a pot of tea and a homemade bun to welcome you in from the chilly December air.

At this time of year, these wonderful traits are on show more than ever, for Claire loves Christmas to its ribbon-tied, yuletide-scented bones.

The Nash Shop is in full swing: the range of Cheats and Treats are ready to go; from ham glazes to fig confit, those incredible deep-filled all-butter pastry mince pies and THOSE Christmas Puddings.

But customers who come back year after year for these delectable Christmas goodies may not realise that their genesis lies in a generations-old Nash family recipe book. It is well-worn, the pages within softened with time and use; stained with spilled brandy from 1978 or 1984. Pages have been added; hand-written notes scrupulously recording the year of making a pudding or cake, the temperatures and timings for cooking and the review of how things turned out: “Gorgeous”, “Turned out Fablous” (sic), “First time cooking in new oven — overcooked due to oven not turning off”, “Tasted excellent”, signed CN for Claire Nash.

On the inside cover, in immaculate handwriting, is the name Alice Courtney.

“This is her book originally,” says Claire. “She would have been my mum’s aunt. This recipe, we called it a Plum Christmas Cake, is dated here 1976 — this was possibly the last time my mum ever made this cake…”

In amongst the notes, a clipping from a local newspaper reads “Dublin House wife is Ballymaloe Winner” with a photo a young Darina Allen and a beaming Myrtle Allen. The mention of Ballymaloe is enough to set her immediately down a nostalgic path: a 13-year-old Claire with long hair wandering into the Big House after spending two days picking potatoes for money in the farmlands.

“Whenever I passed Ballymaloe House I was always fascinated by the smells of food coming from there. So I knocked on the door of the main house and walked across the baby blue carpet. Well, Myrtle loved children, so she stuck her head out and she started laughing at the poor sight of me! I said ‘Mrs Allen, could I come and wash dishes for you instead of picking potatoes?’, and she said, ‘Would you? I could actually do with you tonight!’

“So I cycled home, had a swim to clean myself up, cycled back and washed dishes until one day Myrtle took me into her kitchen. She asked if I had ever cooked, I said, ‘Mrs Allen, I cooked Christmas dinner last year, aged 12’, so of course she was only weak for that!”

That very first Christmas dinner Claire cooked was from her mother’s recipe book: including the Christmas Cake, Plum Pudding and Mincemeat, the filling for which was made by hand-mincing all the ingredients and using organic suet from the local butcher.

Many of these traditional treats are available all festive season long from the Nash Shop. The making of them is near identical to how they were made 40 years and more ago at the kitchen table of the Nash family home.

In margins of the recipe book next to the list of ingredients is a tick, crossed through, ticked again and so on. Each year, making the Christmas Cake, Claire and her mum placed a tick beside each item as they were added to the cake mix: mother and daughter standing side by side at the scrubbed wooden table, carefully measuring out ingredients, ticking them off the list and carefully stirring the whole melange together.

“This is the recipe for the plum cake: this is my mum’s writing, all nice and neat; and then here’s my writing and I start to take over! This is me, writing in my recipe; see my mother’a note in the margin? ‘Revised by Claire 1988’ — so I’m fooling with her recipe!

“I bet something became unavailable so I had to change the recipe that year. Actually, I always used to think she overcooked them a bit! Or else her oven was too hot or something.”

Stirring up a recipe stirs up memories.

“’Soak fruit in Poitín’ — that was illegal! Dad would get the hops from Murphy’s brewery, get them delivered to the co-op, hide them behind the driver’s cab of the milk truck, bring them to the creamery, and dad would drop them to Paddy Mulcahy. Paddy was arrested twice over making poitín! Isn’t it gas when you think of it?

“Dad would come into the kitchen while I was making the cakes and say to me, ‘I hope you’re not touching my bloody poitín!’, and I’d say, ‘Dad that’s disgusting stuff, t’would poison you!’ and yet there I’d be, with the poitín and the brandy. I had forgotten about that until now!

“My mum is very ill now, and she would probably not remember what a great cook she was. But they were great bakers in her family: her mother was a great baker, and her aunty Alice (whose book this originally was), was a beautiful baker. It was a farmhouse tradition —there was always good baking; always a cake on the table or something in the tin.

“Sometimes, we like to think we’re miles beyond that, but we’re not: its traditions and comforts and the expectation.

“At any other time of the year, you could be creative, but at Christmas, it’s the one time that I just never tamper with people’s expectation of tradition. I’m trying to recreate that taste and smell memory that people have that evokes what Christmas is all about for them.

“We steam our puddings overnight here, and in the morning the place will be filled with the smell of Christmas.

“When Nash starts to do Christmas I don’t makey-up anything, this is what people want: it’s the mince pie that people adore, it’s that comfort of smell and taste — both gone within a second of each other once you’ve eaten the pie.

“All our puddings are moist from the fruits: we steep all the dark fruits in rum, the walnuts and cherries in Longueville Brandy.

“Our puddings have a shelf life of two years, and I keep some back each year to cut into slithers and serve them with Crozier Blue Cheese as a tapas. The pudding doesn’t crumble so we can cut it very fine, so it’s like a biscuit under the cheese.” Claire’s adoration of Crozier blue is just one example of her passion for supporting local food producers. Dairy is a big part of that; Claire’s father was a creamery manager for years – milk, butter, cream and cheese — especially cheese — is very dear to her.

“Dad would always say an apple tart without the cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze! I just like to support the producers around me, and I believe if I don’t throw the stone in the middle of the pool here, who am I going to reach? If I’m up here with my notions and not down there with my actual practice, where are we going, like?

“We wouldn’t have the lovely ethos and tradition of food we have in Cork – something that could so very easily get lost.”

Claire worries that the younger generations coming through won’t have the tradition of the dirty book filled with recipes, where every little thing, each mark, date and splash, has a story. Away from the sauce-splashed page and the stirred pot on the Aga, Claire tries to replicate this special sense of Christmas for her customers.

Bespoke Hampers, by Claire Nash, in her words are “no substitutes, all proper stuff, real, no fillers”. The contents of each hamper are personally chosen by her, the items meticulously sourced over months, and many items made by craftspeople solely for the hampers.

“The first thing to know about our hampers is that you always use all of my hamper — even the box it comes in! There will be a handcrafted Caulfield Chopping Board, there’s always a book, some of Frank Hederman’s hot smoked salmon, Dermot Sugrue’s Sparkling Wine. There could be knives, candles, proper linen cloths; maybe a spiced beef that we will have cooked and vac-packed for you.

“We’re open until December 23, and many customers come in during the night-before-Christmas dash, and we’ll fill a Nash Bag until bulging for them with stunning foods perfect for a gift: pickled cucumber, salmon, dill dressing, spiced beef, Claire’s chutney, pate, loaf of brown bread just baked, and a bag of fresh leaves. Or I’ll get one of the gorgeous plates from the olive stall in the English Market and I’ll do a big stack of my deep-filled mince pies, wrap it up and tie it with a bow!”

As well as hampers, and feeding hungry Christmas shoppers, the team at Nash19 also make Christmas happen for the time-pressed, cooking hams and spiced beef ready to just collect and go.

“So many people tell me if I didn’t do their Christmas for them, there would be no Christmas had at all. I really love Christmas. I like the pain of Christmas, the exhaustion of Christmas.

“There’s always a lot to do, but we do it the way we do because small things matter. And we have never changed — no matter what. I never moved from oxtail, liver, oysters — we never changed our course in the boom times.

“We source finer now because those who survived are operating even better than before, but our ethos has remained the same. Of course our surroundings have changed: we’ve lived through floods and fires, but since we opened 28 years ago in February, the fabric of what Nash19 is has never changed; the integrity hasn’t and that really shows at Christmas. Things just have to be so.”

And with that in mind, take some time to make your Christmas just-so with Claire’s recipes for Plum Christmas Cake and Red Cabbage from the pages of her family recipe book.

PLUM CAKE

(Makes two 8” round cakes)

12oz butter

12oz brown sugar

10 eggs

1lb plain flour

2 level tsp Royal Baking Powder

1 large pinch of salt

2 level tsp mixed spice

1 level tsp ground cinnamon

6 tbsp of brandy or Poitín

8oz currants

1lb sultanas

1lb raisins

8oz glace cherries (chopped)

4oz candied peel (chopped)

4oz blanched almonds

Grated rind of 2 lemons

Method:

Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

Gradually beat in eggs, adding 4oz of flour before the last few eggs.

Seize the baking powder, salt, mixed spice and cinnamon together before adding to the creamed mixture.

Pour out into lined 8” cake tins and gently bake for 3.5 to 4 hours at 165 degrees Celsius (non-fan assisted) for two hours then reduce the heat to 150 degrees Celsius.

CLAIRE’S RED CABBAGE

This recipe is for a bulk amount. If you consider that one red cabbage would make enough for four to six people, reduce the quantities by this ratio. Alternatively, make the whole batch and freeze in containers.

Note, Claire mixed imperial and metric measurements — check twice, measure once!

Ingredients

6 red cabbages

2lb butter

2.5kg diced onion

0.5kg cooking apples

10 garlic cloves, crushed

5 oranges, zest and juice

2.5 pints red wine

¾ pint red wine vinegar

15tbsp brown sugar

10 star anise

5 teaspoons each of ground nutmeg, all spice, cinnamon, thyme and caraway seeds

2kg of frozen cranberries folded in 20 mins before cooked

Method:

Heat the oven to 180 degrees celsius.

Start on the hob, saute the onions in butter until softened. Add the spices followed by the apples and red cabbage. Stir well. Mix all remaining ingredients, (except the cranberries), together and place into a large baking dish.

Cover with lid, or tightly with a double layer of foil.

Place in the oven, and cook for 1.5 hours, stirring twice.

Add in cranberries for the final 20 minutes of cooking, fold into the mix, finish cooking uncovered.

More in this section

Sponsored Content

summersoaplogosml

Catch up on the latest episode of Annie May and the Hit Brigade written and read by  Mahito Indi Henderson.

Add Echolive.ie to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more