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Blacklion's Day In The Sun - Neven Maguire is going Global

nevenmaguire.jpg"THE RECESSION MUST be biting," a fellow diner said to be me as we sat down in MacNean House and Restaurant in Blacklion, Co Cavan. "Neven's waiting list is down to six months."


This kind of thing embarrasses Neven Maguire. He's a modest fellow. And it makes it sound very hard to get a table. "There are always cancellations," he says. "People should never be afraid to give us a ring and see what we have. We're great at phoning back. But it's true that we do fill up pretty quickly."


Well, there are lots of reasons for that. The border village of Blacklion - stagger on a few yards more and you're in Fermanagh - and its hinterland is not exactly peppered with serious restaurants. 


But the key reason is Neven Maguire's cooking. The meal that marked the launch of his new book and the accompanying TV series (which started on RTE in February 2008) was, quite simply, one of the best I have ever eaten. It was a whirl of culinary brilliance, a combination of deep understanding of the raw materials, of invention and restraint. Neven Maguire is not a good chef. He's a great one.


Just a few highlights. There was a soup of mushrooms and chestnuts which tasted so intensely of the ingredients that it was more of an essence than a soup. Carpaccio of tender beetroot sandwiched with creamed goat's cheese. A lightly poached oyster with spinach and lemon foam. A seared scallop with smoked belly pork which was as brilliant as it was simple. A trio of lamb: herb crusted loin, braised shoulder and a cassoulet of neck, was an impeccably balanced dish. Passion fruit jelly and sorbet. I could go on. Suffice to say that it's easy to see why people flock here.


And consider the prices. The five-course dinner dinner menu costs €70 (the vegetarian version of which is probably the best in the country, at €50) while the Menu Prestige delivers nine courses for €85 or €125 including wine.

 

Neven has been cooking since the age of 12 when he started to help his mother Vera in the kitchen. Vera and her husband, the late Joe Maguire, bought the restaurant in 1969. This was unfortunate timing. The Northern troubles erupted and Blacklion suffered two bomb attacks, both which destroyed the front of the premises. The Maguires struggled on until 1976.

 

Then they closed the restaurant and switched to the bed and breakfast business, for which there was considerable demand because of the swelling numbers of customs officials and gardai.
By 1989, the restaurant was open again. Vera had kept her hand in by running a catering business, and Joe took over the front of house role.


 Neven, now aged 16, was so convinced that he wanted to cook that he left school after the Junior Cert and headed over the border to Fermanagh College in Enniskillen.
His first overseas post was at a grand hotel in Berlin. "The chef took me over to this huge fridge and showed me the beef and the lamb. And he told me it was all Irish because Irish is best. It was a very proud moment for me," he recalls.

 

This must have been a pivotal point because Neven combines huge enthusiasm for local produce (pointing out that Cavan, Leitrim and Fer-managh is exceptionally rich in this respect) with a profound interest in learning from other cultures and far-flung cuisines.
After a stage at Arzak in San Sebastian and a spell with Paul Rankin at Roscoff, he was ready
to take over back home in Blacklion giving, as he says, the respect to local produce that it deserves. "We have a fascination with the exotic,"

 

He says. "It takes a lot to persuade people that food produced by their neighbours is world class, but it can be."


Every year, Neven Maguire takes his kitchen team abroad "just to eat and drink, look for ideas, soak in the culture of cooking and food." The most recent outings have been to Rome, Barcelona and London.

 

"We eat five-star and sleep one-star," he says. "They're the priorities."
Neven 's Food from the Sun is inspired by his love of travel. "My wife Amelda and I head off every January. And, of course, food is a huge part of the experience. This book brings some of the best experiences home, a bit of sunshine for the Irish winter."

Unlike most celebrity chefs (and his books and TV appearances qualify him for that title) he remains utterly committed to the restaurant. "Honest to God," he says, "I'd hate to spend less time in the kitchen. I've only missed four nights in eight years and two of those were because of the new TV series. But even for that, we filmed all the cooking in my kitchen at home. This is where
I need to be."

 

What's his philosopy? " It's all about seasonally. Seasonality is critical. And local produce. I have two butchers near here who are simply the best. And I can get the best dry-aged beef on the planet. I just want to celebrate the stuff that people are producing and growing around here. It's a treasure trove. And I like the flavours and the textures to do the talking. I don't want to interfere."


It's interesting to watch Neven work with his kitchen team. They all look at him adoringly, protectively. "There's no yelling in my kitchen," he says. "No abuse. I won't tolerate that kind of
thing. I look after my staff. They are the greatest resource."


And what about Michelin stars, of which, were he in France rather than Blacklion, he would already have at least one? "I don't chase stars," he says. "Michelin is not a goal for me."
And you know, this is probably one of the key reasons why Neven Maguire's cooking is so as
sured, so real and so finger-licking good.