Hay and Smoke… Adds a New Dimension to Food

Elena Arzak, the executive chef of Michelin three star restaurant Arzak in San Sebastian, which is ranked eighth in the World’s 50 Best Awards, was in Dublin  earlier in the year to judge the final of the Euro-toques Ireland Young Chef of the Year. She was particularly interested in the level of Irish identity that came through in the dishes of the finalists – among the tastes and flavours, she was fascinated with the use of hay infusions in a dish cooked by the winning chef, Mark Moriarty, a commis chef at the Greenhouse restaurant in Dublin.

 Hay has earthy notes like mushrooms…

“I found the use of hay interesting and very natural. It reminded me of the levels of flavours in mushrooms,” she said. “We don’t use it in the Basque Country so it caught my attention. I found it interesting that a young chef would be drawn to the subtle union between cuisine and nature. This connection with nature is just as important in the Basque region. One of the things I liked about Ireland was that everybody seems to love to eat as much as we do in San Sebastian. We have lots of clients from Ireland at the restaurant and now I understand their gusto!”

“When we started off, the idea was to make a vegetarian dish that is meaty, without having any meat. So we used celeriac as the centerpiece,” says Moriarty, who developed the dish with his mentor Mickael Viljanen, executive chef at the Greenhouse. “Mickael became quite famous for using hay when he used it on Masterchef to smoke the pigeon in the box. The idea with the celeriac was to use hay in a salt crust to link it to the farm. When you open up the crust, you see the celeriac in some of the hay; it’s theatrical. We found the flavour fuses really well when you toast the hay, you almost get that meaty flavour. Then we tried fermenting the hay to get yeasty flavours into it, so it was almost a sourdough base that is flavoured with hay. We tried out so many different things when we were developing the dish; some things work, some don’t.”

Using hay to smoke food and infuse it with its flavour has been on the menu in some of the world’s top restaurants over the past few years, including Alinea in Chicago and Noma in Copenhagen. But the popularity of cooking with hay dates back over a hundred years when hay box cookers were used as a fuel efficient method of gently finishing off the cooking of food that had been boiled.

A smokin’ past from Finland helps…

Viljanen, who grew up in Finland, has been experimenting with different types of smoke since his childhood, “The traditional way of cooking wild salmon was on planks on the open fire, so it was semi smoked,” he says. “The whole fish would be nailed to the plank of wood and cooked over the fire. In the Greenhouse, when it comes to smoking techniques, I’m using hay less in dishes now. At the moment, I’m using branches of juniper for cooking shellfish on, which is a play on the traditional way. But we’re always trying out new things, so we’d do something for maybe two weeks and then we move on to something else. We don’t want to be going stale. I also burn liquorice root until it turns amberish and roast carrots on it; you get an anise flavour. There’s so much you can do. There are no rules. There have been as many trials as errors; we just keep trying out new things.”

“Last year I got some reindeer moss and smoked that with hay and it smelt like the woodland when it came out with the venison,” he says. “What we’re doing at the moment is using the last of the blackcurrant leaves. We cure lobes of foie gras for a couple of hours, wrap them in blackcurrant leaves and steam them so it gives a slight citrusy flavour, and we serve it with smoked eel and apple.”

G8 summit up in smoke too…

For Noel McMeel, the executive chef at Lough Erne Resort in Fermanagh who cooked for world leaders at the G8 summit last summer, the aroma of hay brings back memories of his childhood, growing up on a farm. “I don’t use straw, hay is a lot finer, it’s stronger and it lasts a wee bit longer,” he says. “Sometimes you find that hay from different parts of the country is very different. It’s the clay; some of the fields we have at home are very clay based. I used to experiment with smoking hay in a pit in the ground years ago. Now I’m doing it more in the kitchen using smokers.”

McMeel uses hay for smoky aromas and also uses it to infuse both savoury and sweet dishes with flavour. “I’d often have small pieces of hay going out with my gravy, a hay flavoured jus, and small haystacks beside them as a garnish,” he says. “I smoke dulse seaweed, which I sometimes use in my starters, but I’ve also put it into ice-cream. And I’ve smoked oats to use as a crumble over a crème brûlée; it gives it a lovely, smoky flavour.”

Seamus Commons, head chef at Knockranny House in Mayo, says that the quality of hay used for smoking is very important – it must not be damp or it will give a musty aroma. “It has to be good hay. I get the hay from the farm at home,” he says, “We made up our own smoker because the hay was not coming up to a high enough temperature, it was cold smoking. What we use is a wooden box basically. We get some decent hay, dampen some of it and put a layer of that in the bottom. Then we put a layer of dry hay on top, so it smolders. Eventually, when it gets up to a higher temperature, we put in whatever we’re going to smoke. So if it’s pigeon breast, we smoke them off for about five minutes, take them out and finish them by searing them off in the pan. You get this really sweet, nutty smell of fresh hay. It’s really different.

Hay and game, a perfect combination…

“Game, chicken, Jerusalem artichokes and pear work very well being smoked,” says Commons who creates dishes for a specialty game weekend every year. “Last year, we cured venison leg for a long time and smoked it. And we did a similar dish with kid goat in the summer. People don’t always go for goat, it wasn’t a big seller, but anyone who had it really enjoyed it.”

Commons has also used smoke to add a depth of flavour to cream which he serves with chicken and found it works beautifully with artichokes. “We peel them, put them into a solution of lemon juice to stop them discolouring, dry them, lightly salt and add a bit of thyme. Then we smoke them in cold smoke for about half an hour and after that we cook them. They’re perfect for purees, soups and salads where they add a subtle smoky flavour.”

It started out at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck…

“I first saw hay being used to smoke food in Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant,” says Graham Neville, executive chef at Restaurant Forty One at the Residence club on St Stephen’s Green. “He was smoking sweetbreads. It was about 10 years ago, he had just got his second star and I was doing a stage there. So when I came here about five years ago, I thought it would be a nice idea to develop a dish of lamb smoked in hay. I tried lots of different ways of doing it. I roasted the hay, put it into a vac pac bag and cooked the lamb sous vide, but I didn’t really like it. Then we tried roasting the lamb with hay in the oven, but it wasn’t nice. In the end what we did is what I’m doing now with the goose dish that is on our current menu. I roasted the loin of lamb and towards the end; I’d pop the lamb into a little smoking chamber for about five or six minutes. It gave a lovely taste. The smell was incredible. I used to say to the guys who cook it and smoke it, if I could get that smell out into the room, it would really lift that dish, because the smell is beautiful. So that’s where it started.

“Over the years, I’ve done à la minute smoking with fish and last year with the venison, I did a smoked heather sauce. I smoked the heather, infused it into some milk and incorporated that into a venison jus. It’s kind of evolved. This year we’re working with goose. Goose generally is quite tough, so I marinate the goose breasts for three weeks and then lightly smoke them. We totally cover them in salt, garlic, juniper berries and thyme, just for 20 minutes, and then wash it all off. After that, we marinade it inside a vacuum bag in aromatics and herbs – olive oil, peppercorns, thyme, bay leaf and some juniper berries. The salt helps to break down the meat and the marinating process helps to soften it. Goose breast is tough as an old boot. Generally you get it and it’s well done, cooked on the bone until it’s nearly confited. But cooking it this way, we can serve it pink, and it’s fantastic.”

Don’t stop at hay… lash a bit of ash in there too…

As well as using hay to add earthy flavours to classic dishes, Viljanen, Commons and Neville have also used small amounts of vegetable ash for a subtle dimension of flavour. It’s another old technique that is enjoying a revival. Traditionally used with cheese to form a protective coating, chefs are making vegetable ash out of carrots, onions and leeks. When used carefully, it adds a slightly acidic, unexpected flavour to a dish. “I’ve incorporated a little bit of ash into some of my dishes,” says Neville. “You can make leek ash, but I actually bought some ash from St Tola; it’s the ash they use to coat their goat’s cheese. I use it to make an ash crumble which I serve with the roast heirloom vegetable dish. It’s basically a 36 month old Parmesan crumble to which I add a little bit of ash for the flavour and the colour. It’s the simple things that draw you in.”

The inside track from Seamus Commons… how to make leek ash

Cut the leeks lengthwise in half; trim off the dark green ends and separate into individual leaves. Lay the leaves out flat in a roasting dish and lightly coat with olive oil and some salt. Roast for 20 minutes in the oven on a high heat (250C) until dehydrated and black.

Uses: Leave in whole pieces and use to dress a plate. Or  blitz to a fine powder and roll a piece of meat in the leek ash powder and roast.

Smokin’ Hot Reading… a few cookery books you might like

Food DIY: How to Make Your Own Everything by Tim Hayward

Food writer Tim Hayward takes home smoking extremely seriously and proudly borders on the obsessive. With meticulously researched detail on hot and cold smoking and different methods like the “offset smoker”, the intricacies of building a home smoker are clearly explained with a passion and conviction that is sure to bring out the caveman in suburban males looking for a project.

Fig Tree, Easons €36.50

Salt Sugar Smoke by Diana Henry

Essentially about preserving, this beautifully written cookbook has some more unusual, easy to replicate recipes from many different cuisines. There is expert advice and instruction on techniques where necessary – from successful smoking (without expensive equipment) to foolproof jellies.

Octopus Books, Easons €36.50

Pitt Cue Co. The Cookbook by Tom Adams, Simon Anderson, Jamie Berger and Richard Turner

Filled with smoke and fire and a load of ‘how to’ detail, this is the definitive dude food bible with recipes from their eponymous restaurant in London which is renowned for serving up true American ‘dirty food’. The smoking techniques here are all about long time, low temperature cooking in the barbeque tradition with recipes that range from smoked quail to their famous smoked brisket.

Octopus Books, Amazon £9.99 plus delivery


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