Aug 04, 2023

What foods do Irish chefs bring home from their holidays?

If, like me, you spend a substantial portion of your time on holiday browsing the local markets and supermarkets for unique or hard to get pantry items, I relate. Foreign supermarkets are magical wonderlands, and even the sight of a large red packet of Lays crisps or Chips Ahoy cookies can make my heart skip a beat.

In the past, I have been known to ditch lesser-loved sandals, beach towels or leftover shampoo in favour of bringing home a huge tub of za’atar from Israel; a bottle of local pumpkin seed oil from Slovenia; Flor de Sal and Marcona almonds from Mallorca; and tarragon mustard or chocolate from France.

Granted, a lot of these products are widely available in Ireland today, but there is something extra special about buying foodstuff to bring home, as every time I use them I’m transported back to my holiday place, even if it’s only momentarily.

Of course, I’m not alone. Here, five Irish chefs and food entrepreneurs share what products they bring home in their suitcases.

Jordan Bailey, formerly of Aimsir and now of Bech-Bailey Consultancy and Events. Photograph: Pieter D'Hoop

Chef Jordan Bailey, formerly of Aimsir and now of Bech-Bailey Consultancy and Events, loves travelling, with Italy and Mexico being among his favourite destinations.

“I try to go to a different part of Italy each year to explore as much of this beautiful country as possible. I love the food, the wine, and the people. Everyone seems so passionate there and their love for cooking with humble ingredients is such a joy to discover.”

Outside of Europe, Bailey is partial to Mexico. “The food there is incredible and the scenery is stunning. Cave diving has become my new obsession after trying it last time I was there – slightly scary but very magical.”

When it comes to the foods that make it into his suitcase, there are few surprises: Parmesan, olive oil, Lambrusco, cured meats and truffles from Italy, and on trips to Mexico, it’s sauces – mainly hot sauce – that appeals most.

“I’m becoming a big fan of hot sauce but Majken [Bech-Bailey, Jordan’s wife and business partner], surprisingly, is a veteran. She throws it on everything so we need a good few bottles with us on the return home.”

Bailey suggests using hot sauces to add heat to anything. “We mainly use it on salads, in pasta sauces and even mixing it through butter. It’s great brushed on meat and veggies while cooking on the barbecue.”

Andy Noonan, director of Big Grill BBQ & Food Festival. Photograph: Liam Murphy

Speaking of barbecue, Big Grill BBQ & Food Festival director Andy Noonan is also on the hot sauce train, and always brings back a local sauce from wherever he might be visiting.

Favourite holiday spots include Spain, Portugal and France to visit family in the Alpine region.

Foods that make the cut there are local cheese and saucisson, and Noonan always brings back a few jars of terrine to eat throughout the year.

Other pantry items that make it into his suitcase include good-quality olive oil, wine, cured meats and local cheese.

Thailand is another dream destination, and he has a return trip planned for a food tour within the next year.

“It’s one of those places I can’t ever get out of my head,” he says. “I’ll never forget the flavours and smells. It’s a wonderland of good food for anyone keen to explore.”

The best food items to bring home from Thailand, he says, are chilli oils, dried herbs, dried prawns and all kinds of cooking gadgets (such as small grills).

Luca De Marzio of Dublin restaurant Rosa Madre

When it comes to holidays, Luca De Marzio from Dublin restaurant Rosa Madre naturally gravitates back to his hometown of Rome to indulge in proper suppli (a ball of rice with tomato sauce, a typical snack in Rome), and Rome’s famous pizza Bianca with mortadella.

Another local speciality he dreams of is buffalo mozzarella, of which De Marzio says “the secret is never keep in the fridge; it ruins the flavour”.

The options are endless when it comes to foodstuffs to stow in your suitcase, but De Marzio recommends some nice limoncello or other flavoured liqueurs.

“I love them all, especially hazelnut or coffee flavours. I also love Italian tuna in tins, so delicious, it’s called Rio Mare,” he says.

“Something else amazing is the dried oregano. They sell the best in Italy and it comes like a bunch of flowers. It’s dried naturally in the sun and smells amazing. I use it on many different dishes, definitely with tomato salad but even on scrambled eggs, it’s delicious.”

He also recommends bringing home pecorino Romano cheese and guanciale (cured pork cheek) from Rome, which he regularly uses back in Dublin to make amatriciana or carbonara sauce.

Bianca pizza. Photograph: Deb Lindsey/Getty

Eunice Power of AndChips, Dungarvan. Photograph: Joleen Cronin

For Eunice Power, chef and owner of AndChips in Dungarvan, practising restraint is something of a challenge when it comes to buying ingredients while travelling, especially when visiting favourite destinations such as Istanbul, Beirut and London.

“I have a huge interest in Middle Eastern food, their methods of cooking and ingredients, and a trip to London is always a great snapshot for the direction of food trends.”

Must-haves for Power’s suitcase include Pul Biber crushed chilli flakes from Turkey, as well as eucalyptus crystals, which she finds super to ward off head colds.

“I was introduced to sumac, za’atar and pomegranate molasses in Lebanon, and Lebanese rosewater is magical, subtle in its aroma. I use Middle Eastern-inspired preserved lemons in a dressing with olive oil, honey, parsley, marjoram and mint with crushed potatoes, which is absolutely delicious with lamb. A little feta sprinkled over the potatoes gives a wonderful, salty finish. New-season carrots roasted with a little honey and olive oil, sprinkled with sumac and tahini yoghurt, is transformative,” she says.

“My personal favourite is cauliflower, broken up into florets, tossed in olive oil and a little salt, roasted at 180 until you have toasted crisp florets sweet and nutty, and drizzled with pomegranate molasses and a sprinkle of za’atar.”

What are her top tips when it comes to storing or using these aromatic delicacies?

“The secret to herbs and spices is to buy in small quantities and use quickly. Store in airtight containers in a cool dark cupboard or, in the case of za’atar, it’s best to store in the fridge. I am always cautious of using pomegranate molasses in cooking, especially roasting, as it can turn acrid. I generally stir on or drizzle at the end of cooking. Use rose water judiciously - a little goes a long way.”

Pomegranate molasses. Photograph: Laura Chase de Formigny/Getty

Siobhan Lawless, owner of The Foods of Athenry

Siobhán Lawless, owner of The Foods of Athenry, is partial to holidays in Gdańsk in Poland with its “breathtaking architecture straight from a fairy tale, and restaurants serving the best of inspired traditional Polish food. The cafe scene is also so cool. You could spend your entire time just eating,” she says.

When returning home, Lawless usually finds space in her suitcase for a bottle of Polish vodka. “A lot of people think of vodka as Russian, but Poland is the ultimate home of vodka. While Russian vodka is traditionally made from wheat, Polish vodka is made with rye or potatoes and has a sweet, distinct flavour.”

She also suggests taking home a rolling pin. “There is a great history of wood carving there, so you can pick up some great carved rolling pins that will emboss the pattern on to a rolled sheet of biscuit dough.” Another favourite place to visit is Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada.

“Our eldest daughter is marrying a Torontonian this summer, and his parents have a house in Niagara-on-the-Lake, approximately 20km from Niagara Falls. The town is straight from a Hallmark movie, in the middle of Ontario wine country, with close to 40 wineries, producing award-winning wines and their famous ice wine, a type of dessert wine produced from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine.

“If you have room in your bag leaving Canada, make sure to bring home some maple syrup and ice wine. Just as we have artisan producers here, so too in Canada. It’s like liquid sunshine. Pair your chilled ice wine with a delicious dessert, make an ice wine martini, or rustle up an ice wine ice cream or ice wine chocolate pot. Lastly, any time I visit a new country, it is a mission to find the best cookery book I can find for the local cuisines. That way, my travels stay with me.”

Jars of maple syrup at a shop in Woodbridge, Ontario. Photograph: Creative Touch Imaging Ltd/NurPhoto via Getty