America trip confirms that our food is on a par with the very best


Earlier this month I struck another experience off my bucket list. I’m celebrating a significant birthday soon and have always wanted to visit the vineyards in Napa Valley in California, so it was an ideal time.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve held America up on a pedestal – as an ideal place to live and where everything is bigger and better.

But this trip was different. Thanks to a mutual friend who set up visits to wine producers, I got to meet the people who may well have red or white wine running through their veins. They are of the place and have a mutual respect for the unique and bountiful qualities of the landscape they call home.

Because of its mild climate California is an area that grows food all year round – fruit, vegetables, nuts and olives are sent around the country and further afield. Like our agri-food industry, they are very reliant on migrant workers. Unfortunately, the migrants are leaving voluntarily or being forced to leave, and the result is going to be devastating for the industry. One winemaker told me they are already more than concerned about who’s going to harvest the grapes in September.

The precious, delicate grapes are picked by hand – there is no machination involved at any stage. I’ve heard the same complaint from vegetable and fruit growers here and it’s a situation that isn’t going to improve.

Every day I get phone calls from restaurant owners and head chefs to see if I can recommend any young people available to work in their establishments. The situation is exactly the same in California with staff shortages right across the board.

One of the best meals I had was in one of the vineyards. Maria Sinskey cooks delicious food to match the wine her husband makes. We had a great chat after lunch and, proving how small the world really is, the problems we have in the hospitality and food production sector in Northern Ireland mirrored exactly what our American cousins are experiencing.

After my last trip to California back in 1990 I came home thinking the produce and cooking was the perfect match in terms of provenance and skill. This time I arrived back thinking our produce in Northern Ireland was better and our cooking up there with the best. Everyone told us to have chowder in a place on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and it turned out to be fine but nothing compared to the one I had from Primrose Café in Londonderry last summer.

Crispy chicken is a big thing in America at the moment – food trucks sell fancy versions of this fast food. They brine the chicken and then coat in breadcrumbs before frying and serving with coleslaw. My first recipe this week takes inspiration from this classic but uses pork griskins instead of chicken. Griskins are pieces of tender pork from beside the rib. They’re relatively cheap but absolutely flavoursome. They’re brined in cider before being breaded. Rather than coleslaw I’ve included a recipe for a warm grilled cabbage salad.

Maria Sinskey created a stunning soup made with three different squashes from her organic vegetable plot. She served it with cheese popovers – essentially a cheesey Yorkshire pudding. They were as light as a feather and perfect with the soup.

My second recipe is for these delicate pastries – serve them with soup or just on their own as a snack.