Journeys in Taste Interview with Dr. Ciara Kelly

A good place to start,” offers Ciara Kelly, “is to say that I love it.” 

As a broadcaster and newspaper columnist (and as if we could ever let her forget, a former GP), Ciara Kelly is well used to voicing her opinions on many different topics. When it comes to food, however, there is a sense that she is used to having her opinions tested more at home than on the airwaves or through online comments sections. When she was a General Practitioner, her first regular nationwide appearances were as part of the core team on RTE One’s health programme, Operation Transformation. At this point in her established career as a doctor and her early days as a public figure, Ciara says that some people “perhaps expected me not to eat any food that had a bit of fat on it, but that’s not the case. I have no problem having a massive Sunday dinner with all the trimmings, a roast this or a roast that, and a big dessert afterwards, but then on Monday I’d go back to eating much healthier. I think food should be balanced, I don’t think there is any food that is good or bad, or that some food should be off-limits – chocolate, cream cheese, you name it – but if you hit those fairly hard for a day or two then for the next day or two you don’t.

Food has its own internal dynamics, she implies, and so the body is continuously on alert for all different types and levels of messages. If you indulge in rich food for longer than you ideally should, Ciara posits, then soon after your body is probably going to put in a request for salad. “Sometimes we lose the ability to listen to what our bodies tell us, but if we listened we’d be able to better maintain the balance.” She accedes, however, that sometimes people will hear only what they want to hear. 

Relationships with food form at a very young age, says Ciara. She recalls her mother as being such a good cook – a cook with an inherent interest and curiosity in the actual process – that family, friends and neighbours would ask her to make wedding or birthday cakes. “I was very lucky growing up. We ate very well in that meals were made from scratch, not processed but rather a lot of meat, vegetables and different takes on the meat-and-two-veg approach. She was great at stews, pies, and she was adventurous for the time – we’d have things like moussaka and kedgeree. That carried on for me – I’m very interested in cooking, I love cooking and I love socialising through eating with other people.

Ciara defines her cooking style as a splash/dash of that and a splash/dash of this. She remembers her mother as a great baker but doesn’t regard herself as being anywhere close. Bakers – prepare to be shocked: “I find it it bit boring because you have to weigh everything. Surface decoration aside, you can’t be that creative with baking – if you put in too many pinches of this or that then the whole thing might turn out revolting, or you’ll ruin the dough. I love the creative elements. For example, if you’re making a tagine, you can drop in a few dried apricots. It’s like a tapestry and you put them all together, so I don’t necessarily use the recipe. I might read them for inspiration but then make up my versions, so anytime I make a dish I’ve made before it will probably be different to the last time I made it.

With her medical background, Ciara is fully aware not only of the differences between food nutrition and indulgence but also how taste preferences change as the years pass. When her children were growing up, she references, as a parent she was “desperate for them to eat something. You lean towards beige food that children love so well – nuggets, chips, and so on. Of course, I would have wanted them to eat all sorts of things but on occasion, they ate all the stuff I didn’t want them to eat. As they got older, however, I became less willing to accommodate their tastes, and brought in more of an expectation that they would eat whatever food was made.

Her thoughts on the frequently niggling problem of child-rearing and food are that if as a parent you play your cards right then children will gradually adjust from the narrow food range of ‘beige’ to kaleidoscopic. A case in point, cites Ciara, is a one-off staycation she and her family enjoyed last year at Waterford’s heavenly Cliff House Hotel. “We went to the proper restaurant and had the tasting menu, which is heavily seafood-based, and my children – who are not that adventurous – ate everything from pollock skin to cod roe to oysters. They were given the option of having the wonderful bar food but the deal was that if they chose the tasting menu they had to taste everything. They didn’t have to like it or have to finish it, but they had to taste it all.

If the Cliff House is a fond foodie memory in the history of the Kelly family, then future treats include (if all goes well with the dreaded pandemic, of course) visits to a couple of restaurants in Ciara’s locality of Greystones, Co Wicklow. Like all of us, she admits, she has seen restaurants struggle and has worried about their future. “I think we will go to the Hungry Monk and Chakra by Jaipur, which we would have gone to regularly over the years and to which I would be very happy to go back to. I know people who work there and it will be delightful to see them back in business.” Assisting local businesses, she suggests, is a surefire way to getting back on track. “They’re neighbourhood restaurants, so you can walk to them, have a glass of wine, and stroll back home. So, yes, I’m very keen to revisit soon.

Such once usual comforts and their collective benefits have been missed immensely over the past 15 months. Something so commonplace as being able to sit down to eat with friends and family is, says Ciara, one of life’s supreme gifts. Like virtually everyone else, she didn’t enjoy lockdown, but there was one advantage.

My older children, who are now young adults, were home and would have sat around and had lots of dinners that might not have been had under different circumstances. That was a pleasure. The communal aspect of eating is so important. My favourite thing in the world is eating outdoors on a sunny, warm evening. It’s something very simple – a glass of white wine, bread and cheese, by the sea. For me, that’s enough, it’s the pinnacle.

A sunny, warm evening? A glass of white wine? Bread and cheese? By the sea? Bring it on, Ciara, bring it on.

WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA

Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland

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