Published 5 May 2022
Chef Anna Haugh was raised on the bounties of Irish produce and a humble approach to good, honest cooking. These days she’s a star of the industry, juggling a new gig as a judge on MasterChef: The Professionals with running her Irish-focused restaurant, Myrtle, in Chelsea, and squeezing in events on the side. In March she and fellow Irish chef Robin Gill hosted a lunch at Darby’s with Bord Bia (The Irish Food Board), in celebration of grass-fed Irish dairy. Here she tells us about what makes it so special.
How did you and Robin come up with the menu for the event?
I think we really wanted to use ingredients that we were excited about, particularly the lovely Irish produce we use day in, day out. And then we kind of thought about what dishes were inspired by those ingredients. Robin is one of those chefs who takes you for who you are and what your hands can do. It’s not about where you come from or what your gender is. He was like ‘I’d like to do this’, I was like ‘I’d like to do that’ – it was very easy and there was no ego.
Tell us a little about Myrtle and your personal focus on Irish produce.
My restaurant is all about Irish produce. It’s about celebrating Irish ingredients. Irish recipes, Irish culture, Irish, you know, pottery, cutlery, music, you name it. So the idea of doing the event [with Bord Bia] is that I’m not ‘wanging’ on about that, I’m just like ‘I like this. It tastes good’. And that’s what it’s all about.
If there’s one thing that our country has got the climate for, it is good dairy and beef. I want to use Irish butter because I believe Irish food tastes better. I think if the cows are having a good diet of nutrient-rich grass, wild herbs and clover… I mean, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that it’s going to produce better meat and better milk, with more of a rich and creamy flavour. You also know that it’s coming from well looked after herds and good farming practises that have been passed down the generations.
I feel it’s logical, and also that it doesn’t have to travel so far. Ireland is literally just over the water there. To me, it makes sense.
How do you communicate the quality of produce to your customers?
We’re absolutely customer-led. We’re not ‘chef-led’ or ‘produce-led’. The customer comes in and the floor are absolutely brilliant at reading how much they want to know. If they want to know every detail about what we do and where things come from, Daniel and Max are great at reading the guests and giving them what they want. You can tell when people want to know more with the questions they ask but without spending so much time at the table that their food gets cold. I personally hate when that happens.
Have you noticed an increased interest in sustainability and provenance from customers?
People have been curious about where their ingredients come from for a long time. But when they come to Myrtle, there’s a different reason they want to know. It’s not just because of the environment and sustainability but because it’s an Irish restaurant. There’s genuine curiosity about the products that come from Ireland. They’re like, ‘wow, I didn’t know you could get that from Ireland’, and ‘this is the most delicious beef I’ve ever had’. It’s like they never thought of eating Irish beef, which I think is shocking.
There’s some products that are being created in Ireland that are just so delicious; so special and such high quality. When I was first discovering the ingredients before I opened the restaurant, even I was like, this is a conspiracy theory keeping all of this quiet. I’m really proud to be a bit of a showroom for those products.
What suppliers do you use?
Aubrey Allen is great and does a lot of beef and other Irish products. I use a lot of Clonakilty black pudding, which is made with beef blood, and is one of the only black puddings not made with pork blood – using the blood means reducing waste and maximising what you can get from the animal. I get an unforgettable ‘Nduja from Corndale, and St. Tola does an expertly made goats cheese. There’s also this black garlic from Taylor’s of Lusk which is incredible.
There’s beef that I get from the Burren in Co Clare. The magical thing about the Burren, which is basically a limestone rock, is that per square foot there’s like 37 different flora and fauna the cattle can dine off. There’s an ancient form of farming here, created before we could even build houses: The farmers knew that when it was summertime, you never fed the cattle on the Burren as they would eat all the plants as they were flowering, and everything would die off. So they fed the cattle on neighbouring pastures in the summer, then in the winter the herd would be taken onto the Burren where the residual heat from the sun would provide warmth and keep the cattle alive.
This same technique was protected by Bord Bia with Origin Green [the national sustainability programme ensuring dairy producers are following sustainable practices and upholding high quality standards], and they went round to the different farmers in the area who owned that land and had access to the rock and said, would you be interested in reintroducing this farming technique? And that’s what they did, and it produces really delicious, incredibly nutritious, magical meat.
What dish at Myrtle really represents the quality of Irish dairy?
We have a dish on the menu, which is a signature I can’t take off. It’s a carrot salad with a creamy puree of carrot and star anise, Ballymakenny potato chips, a tarragon dressing and Cáis Na Tíre cheese. I use a very young Cáis Na Tíre which is soft enough that we make this kind of shaped flower. And it’s the kind of salad that when people have it, it’s really satisfying. The cheese goes so well with the carrots. It’s a real match made in heaven.
There’s a real kindness to the experience when you’re not shoving it down people’s throats going ‘this dairy is incredible’. You’re just going to think ‘this is delicious’. And it’s delicious because of the dairy that’s in it.
There’s also the sea bass, with a burnt butter. When you have good grass-fed Irish butter that has a natural flavour and natural sweetness, that’s what’s going to result in the flavour going into your fish. It’s not that complicated but you end up with something that’s unforgettable.