Journeys in Taste Interview with Maura Derrane

Like the rest of us over the past 15 months, Maura Derrane is more into food than she ever was. With some extra time on her hands and not being able to go to places for things other than necessity (fun and frivolity – what are they?), the RTE television presenter says that “while I don’t think that food is my universe, I do feel it is very important and I don’t want to go around munching things just to survive.”

Maura has a good instinct for a down-to-earth, affable chat – a fact clearly borne out of her career as a television presenter and interviewer – but she is also a no-nonsense person as befits someone who was born and raised on Inis Mór, the largest of the three Aran Islands. She no longer lives there, but she has forgotten little about growing up in such an occasional wild and windy open space – especially when it comes to crucial aspects such as family upbringing and what sustained them through the years. 

“Food provenance and self-sufficiency have always been there for me,” she admits. “I hadn’t tasted anything out of a packet until I was out of my childhood, so predominantly everything we ate, we grew.” This was a time, she notes, before the word ‘organic’ became fashionable and profitable. The food the family ate “was food we grew in the garden. Every year, there was the planting and then there was the harvest, and that was just part of our lives. A rural background gives you that, but with an island background you are, literally, cut off, so you couldn’t depend to go a big shop and get things.”

While her career has brought her into the public eye (as much via her television presenting as by regular coverage in various Irish magazines), she is astute enough to have a grounded approach to pretty much everything. When she talks about her upbringing on Inis Mór, she does so with fondness and a rooted reverie that is a real pleasure to listen to. She retrospectively views island life as having been an exceptionally lucky time of her early life.

RTE Picture: Miki Barlok

“Oh definitely, but then you never think about that when you’re younger,” Maura remarks, “it’s always in hindsight, especially when it comes to your childhood. But, yes, we were spoiled in one way in that the food was so fresh – the harvested potatoes were stored and brought us through the winter.” Further memories spill out, including trekking to the shore with the donkey and two baskets to get seaweed as fresh as the air. That sounds like a scene from a John Hinde postcard, I suggest. There’s a laugh and a not-too-serious semi-admission. “I was probably one of those children in those photos! Seriously, I am the John Hinde child.”

Of course, island life for an adult is different from what it is for a child. Back then, there were very few of the kind of home comforts most children have today. Growing up on the island, she recalls with a salty sense of humour, “was a complete pain in the arse because you had to do everything. We didn’t have brothers, it was just us four girls, and we had to do all the chores and farm things to help dad. You’d have to go to the shore, you’d have to get the seaweed, you’d have to bring it back home. My father did the planting of the potatoes, in fairness, but all the other stuff, the carrots, the parsnips, the weeding – oh my God! My mother was at home all the time, so we’d come home every day to lovely dinners of potatoes, vegetables, fish, goat. We’d catch rabbits and have stews, and we loved them.”

As you would expect, more than memories remain. For Maura, there are connecting threads from then to now, from growing up as a child on an island to living as an adult, married and with one child, in an urban environment. She left Inis Mór before she reached her 20s, yet still hankers after the quantifiable taste of the food she ate. She is lucky, she says, that she visits every summer for extended periods of time – her mother and one of her sisters are islanders, and so she can still experience going out into the large back garden and pulling out carrots from the ground, shaking the grit from their roots, cleaning them and putting them into a pot on the kitchen stove. Until you return to that environment, she says, you don’t realise how good the food can taste. The island, she observes, “is a very special place, the soil is so good.” 

During non-holiday times, Maura says she cooks every day. “And that hasn’t been because of the past 15 months,” she clarifies. “First of all, I have a husband who isn’t a good cook, and secondly, I can be quite picky in that I wouldn’t eat anything I don’t consider nice. The eat to live aspect doesn’t really work for me. I might starve to death!”

Attributing her daily cooking to having more free time (she currently presents RTE’s Today Show three days per week, having cut back from five), Maura says she has absorbed many tips and food hacks she has learned from the studio appearances of “not only the best chefs in the country but some of the best in the world.” This, along with her currently Covid-inhibited travels to other countries (“I buy spices from wherever we went”) has greatly enhanced her cooking. “I’m into slow cooking and putting into stews cuts of meat you might not think are so tasty. But I love using spices, herbs and oils when I cook, which compared to the food I was used to when I grew up is quite exotic.”

Exotic, of course, is a far cry from carrots, potatoes and whatever else is pulled out of the earth on Inis Mór. The conversation turns (perhaps all-too inevitably because, frankly, this is the way we’re living right now) from home cooking to where we’ll be visiting when lockdown restrictions relax. Living in Sandymount, on Dublin’s southside, Maura’s first restaurant visit will be to a firm local favourite – Pete’s.

“It has great Italian food, it’s child friendly, and it is definitely the first place I’d go to for lunch or dinner. As for food and kids? You need to be practical with them, don’t you? I’m not into making them eat food they don’t want. I don’t agree with that, and one thing we, as kids, grew up with on the island is that we were never in our lives told to finish a meal.” Maura doesn’t believe in the ‘you’re not leaving the table until you finish your meal’ mindset, either. “The truth is that they will eat if they’re hungry.”

Spoken like a true pragmatist. If there’s a simple and perhaps obvious lesson to be learned here, it is this: you can take the woman away from the island, but you can’t take the island away from the woman. Long may it continue.

WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA

Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland

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