The Irish Nigella – An Interview with Catherine Fulvio
With their manes of thick dark hair, multitude of cookbooks and TV shows to their names, and shared affinity for Italian food, one could easily draw comparisons between Catherine Fulvio and fellow domestic goddess Nigella Lawson. And just like Nigella Catherine know’s how to throw a good dinner party too.
Though rather than ambling through the streets of South West London, picking up hard to find ingredients in Chelsea’s luxury artisan food stores to treat a small group of friends, Catherine grew up making dinner, and lunch and breakfast too, for the guests at her mum’s B&B Ballyknocken House, using the simple fresh produce straight from the family’s farm.
At Ballyknocken, Catherine says if she wasn’t helping her mum in the kitchen, she was giving her dad a helping hand on the farm, and so learnt where good food comes from “by osmosis”. “You learn not only how food is produced but how to get it to the table, and you don’t even realise you are learning that as a child but it does soak in.”
“We grew all our own food; had our own hens; had turkeys for Christmas. We were dairy farmers so we had all our own milk, butter and cream; we had pigs and lambs, everything. We were more or less self-sufficient – and mum would have cooked all that food.”
From Ballyknocken Catherine Fulvio has built a business, growing her mother’s B&B and adding a cookery school. So busy is her schedule now however, that of the 7 days Catherine works she can only devote her full-time and attention to the activities at the house on weekends. “Otherwise I travel quite a bit doing cookery demonstrations around the country, filming Lords and Ladles, and the new TV series Tastes like Home. And I’ve the new cookbook as well, so I am out and about doing book signings and promoting that too.”
And so, while Nigella is sneaking downstairs in silky robes for her famously indulgent midnight snacks, Catherine is most likely on the road home to Ballyknocken after a long day at work. “I try to travel home, I’ll drive back in the middle of the night. Call me crazy! But I do like to get back to the children. I still have the school runs to do in the mornings, life doesn’t stop just because you are working evenings.”
Catherine’s commitment to both her family and business if unquestionable, but she admits it can be difficult to find a balance between the two. “It is difficult to switch off, but who every switches off when they are running a business?,” she questions.
“When it’s your own business, your passion is there for it and you want it to succeed. If I do switch off I almost feel like I’m not committed enough. Maybe it’s my upbringing of working with my mum in the B&B and my dad on the farm, and knowing what hard work is about. I feel guilty if I switch off!”
Catherine’s parents instilled both a passion for food and a great work ethic in her, but says that she didn’t necessarily ever think she would take over the family business. “It just happened that sadly my mother died quite young, she was 56, and the business was left in limbo.”
“I had just got married and my husband and I had been looking into setting up our own restaurant. Instead, I took over the business here, and I had always wanted to teach cookery so after that I opened a cookery school.”
Catherine met her husband, Claudio, from the Sicilian capital of Palermo, in a pub in Dublin over 20 years ago. “Or so it says on the web anyway, you can actually google it!” she says, in fit of giggles, “that’s hilarious, isn’t it? I couldn’t believe it myself. When you google Catherine Fulvio the first thing that comes up is my age, and the second is my husband.” “He is highly flattered!”
As baffled as Catherine is about the public’s interest in her husband, she is very sure about the influence his Italian heritage has had on her cooking.
“The thing about Italian food is that they are great believers in fresh, local produce, which is exactly what I’m about, and what a lot of Irish people are about. Ireland and Italy have an awful lot in common, but just different produce. Different produce but the same ethos.”
“I respect Italian cooking so much, and I love the simplicity of it. Though I said that to Claudio’s cousins once and they were highly offended, and tried to rattle off the most complex and Italian dishes they knew, with as many ingredients as possible to prove how un-simplistic it was.”
Catherine says she uses both Irish and Italian ingredients at Ballyknocken, cooking them simply yo let the flavours speak for themselves: “So we’ll have as a starter to dinner here, and you’ll see it in my new book, an Irish Italian antipasti platter – there’s salmon on it and there’s caponata on it. There’s a whole range of Ireland meets Italy for people to dip into.”
Her new book ‘A Taste of Home’ is a curated collection of Catherine’s very own tastes of home, and she reveals there is one recipe in particular that strikes an emotional chord every time she recreates it:
“The lemon meringue pie was my mother’s speciality, and we absolutely adored it as kids. She’d serve it to the guests, and keep it in fridge, and we would take little slivers of it any time we could. That absolutely just catapults me back to my childhood.”
As much as some of the recipes conjure up memories of her mother’s and grandmother’s cooking, Catherine says the book has more modern influences too: “This is my food story. It’s my favourite book that I have done. It’s a nostalgic journey for me but I’ve also brought it into this century, with new flavours.”
‘New’ flavours include that of rabbit, which Catherine developed a taste for while working on the Lords and Ladles series; where she learnt new techniques too, like slow roasting venison in layers of butter parchment until it becomes mouth-meltingly tender.
Now promoting her sixth book, and fourth TV series, Catherine says she never thought she would become the household name she is today: “I heard that RTE were auditioning, and someone put my name forward for it, I can’t remember who, and I ended up down in Fermoy in front of camera cooking Italian food.”
“I thought I had made an absolute mess of it. In was so mad at myself driving home thinking I had ruined my golden opportunity. I remember the tears started to well up, I had to pull over. The next thing, I got a call to say they had made a pilot, and UK TV Food were very interested in also showing it.”
One sponsor later, she had her first TV series, Catherine’s Italian Kitchen, which is still broadcast around the world to this day. “I’m not joking, I started to get all these followers on Instagram overnight a couple of weeks ago, and it turns out the series had been sold to the Food Network in Asia; and I know it’s been in Canada, South Africa, Australia, Poland, France, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, Poland – it’s everywhere.”
Two more series and a stint as a judge on Taste of Success later, Catherine’s latest show “Tastes Like Home” is a few episodes into its run on RTE. Catherine says the concept was inspired by her own nostalgic day dreaming: “Did you ever just make something and it catapults you right back to a moment as a child, and your granny putting something in front of you; something that really tastes of your childhood?”
Through the show sponsors Londis, Catherine put the out the call for Irish people and families all over the world to share a dish that ‘taste like home’ to them. Choosing from among hundreds of entries Catherine travelled to the homes of six Irish people living all over the globe to recreate that very recipe.
“It’s quite an emotional experience, and people can get quite moved when they taste a dish that throws them right back to sitting in a kitchen as a child in Ireland.”
“Added to that, I get to see their food lifestyle nowadays,” Catherine says. The show has opened her eyes to a whole array of worldly food experiences. Like when Aoife in Dubai took her to the city’s famous spice markets, and to her favourite restaurant, ‘The Fish Shack’ – “where the only choices are small medium and large.”
Other eye-opening experiences included visiting a maple syrup farm in Canada, and making her own ‘voodoo doughnuts’ in Portland, Oregon – apparently, a local phenomenon. “They have a few stores now and they are famous for these doughnuts shaped as voodoo dolls. The doughnut is filled and they give you a pretzel stick to use as you would a needle in a voodoo doll. It’s crazy!” She tells me the same store encourages people to get married in-store, with a free box of doughnuts as an added incentive – a concept that continues to perplex her.
Voodoo Doughnuts won’t be making an appearance on Catherine’s Christmas Day menu, instead she reveals a festive line up that marries Irish and Italian traditions in perfect harmony. The Smoked Salmon Rolled Salad dish from her new book precedes the centrepiece of Roast Turkey, basted with cider and butter and served with a cider apple sauce. Apple and Cranberry Stuffing is flecked with Pancetta, Roast potatoes get a dusting of smokey paprika, and brussels sprouts are jazzed up with cannellini beans, garlic, bacon and Parmesan.
Accompanying the classic Christmas Pudding is a ‘Mince Pie Bombe’ – an ice cream shaped pudding with a mince-meat type flavour filling and chocolate chips. A recipe that is very much influenced by the Italians says Catherine: “Almost like the filling of a cannoli but made with ice-cream.”
Looking into the new year Catherine hopes to reap the benefits of another project she has been working on this year, in between two a TV series and a cookbook: a 10 bed room house, to meet the growing demand for rooms and private party facilities at Ballyknocken. “We feel it’s the future for us,” she says.
The cookery school class schedule is getting a makeover over too with new classes focusing on fermentation, cider making, fabulous fast food for busy people, and many other ‘skills based’ classes.
A new series of Lords and Ladles is being proposed and Catherine hopes to hear news early in the new year, and, she has her “fingers crossed” for another series of Taste of Home too – and if the popularity of the show after only a few weeks is anything to go by Catherine’s New Years wish very well may home true. “It is the 2nd most watched show in it’s time slot beaten only by Coronation Street,” says Catherine.
“Entries for that Tastes Like Home was huge,” she continues, “and we could only pick six, so we know that there is big demand for Irish families to see their recipes transported abroad. Hopefully the Irish viewer will really enjoy the culinary travel and emotional trip too! I want to start a conversation among people – what tastes like home to you?”
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.