Leaving a successful production career in the United States, food photographer and writer Imen McDonnell took the ultimate leap of faith, uprooting her whole life across an ocean for the love of an Irish farmer. Surrounded by fine Irish produce and nuturing her passion for food and cooking, she now lives with her husband Richard and son Geoffrey on the McDonnell family farm in Dunboylan, Co. Limerick.
Imen’s food career began with blogging in 2009, in a bid to connect with other farming women and to have a creative outlet. I Married an Irish Farmer soon turned into a weekly column in Irish Country Living and evolved to become Farmette, a popular blog devoted to her life on the farm and her passion for food.
Imen’s stories and recipes now form part of Imen’s first book The Farmette Cookbook: Recipes and Adventures from My Life on an Irish Farm. Imen has also found another way to express her creativity and love for food and photography by teaming up with Cliodhna Prendergast of Breaking Eggs to create Lens and Larder, offering creative workshops and retreats in rustic locations across the country.
Imen has also joined forces with www.TastyEasyLamb.ie to share her favourite ways to work with one of the most delicious ingredients our country has to offer and we caught up with her to chat about all things lamb and her life as a food creative here in Ireland.
You left your city life to embrace rural living and farming, how has your outlook on food changed as a result?
I have a deeper understanding of where food comes from and the hard work it takes for real food to get to the marketplace. When I lived in NY or Minneapolis I shopped at Whole Foods or my local food cooperative, but still did not realise what goes into producing food as I had never been on a working farm in my life. I now have such respect and reverance for farmers of all kinds, who work tirelessly with little pay to put food on our tables.
As someone with a deep insight into the production of food on the farm, what is it about Lamb that you love most?
There is a distinctive robustness to lamb. It’s not gamey, nor bland, just so tender, and richly flavourful. I remember one time my friend Ella McSweeney showed up at a food shoot with a piece of lamb that was smoked and then presented on a wedge of fresh Connemara soil complete with heaps of heather and grass and wild herbs. It might have been the most beautiful thing I have ever seen!
What is the most popular Farmette lamb recipe?
What is your favourite lamb cut to work with?
Lamb shoulder. Drenched in honey and harissa and slow-roasted until it melts in your mouth.
How did you manage to transform your blog Farmette into a career with an accomplished cookbook to your name?
I wish I could say “it just happened” but the answer is: hard work! Coming from a creative career I needed an outlet to express myself and connect to others after moving to the farm. I diligently (but, with a wink) wrote about my journey into farm life and growing my own food and soon Irish Country Living asked me to write a weekly column.
I took that on and then began writing/photographing for other publications as well. I took every. single. offer. that came my way, and when the literary agent from NYC contacted me about writing a book I eventually agreed to that too. I wrote and photographed my book which includes over 150 recipes that I developed over the years, which, thankfully has done quite well.
Tell us more about Lens and Larder – where can we expect to see you next and what kind of dishes do you love to create at these events?
Lens & Larder is constantly evolving. It was born out of a wish to learn better food photography and styling skills from the pros. I reached out to some heavy hitters who were thrilled to come to Ireland. I partnered with Cliodhna Prendergast on the very first retreat and since then we’ve done 6 workshops and 3 fashion industry events together. We only use seasonal, local, often wild and foraged ingredients and elixirs when preparing food for Lens & Larder.
With Lens and Larder, you shine a light on fantastic Irish produce and get people to engage with it – what local Limerick ingredients are your favourites to work with?
Well, my favourite Limerick ingredients would have to be what is growing in my kitchen garden and on the farm, but as far as other local producers, Brookfield Farm lamb, Rigney’s Farm-both their free-range pork and their shorthorn beef are incredible and just down the road from us, Attyflin apple juice, Green Apron preserves, Ballyhoura Mushrooms, Cratloe Hills cheese and Beal Cheese.
How do you ensure your son Geoffrey is involved in the kitchen and has a healthy curiosity in food and where it comes from?
I was just thinking today about how this all comes so naturally to Geoffrey, he loves to cook and has done for the past couple of years. He’s only 11 but cooks us a healthy dinner one night per week. This summer he grew vegetables from seed and sold them at the Limerick Milk Market which was a very proud mommy moment for me!
Where do you get inspiration for your recipes?
Primarily, the seasons. Secondly, homesick cravings.
How did you learn how to cook?
My dad showed me the kitchen essentials when I was quite young, but after that I was on my own. My late mother-in-law taught me so much about Irish country cooking. She was my mentor when I moved to the farm. Everything she prepared tasted like heaven.
Who has been the biggest inspiration in your cooking journey?
I’d have to say Donal Skehan, because he encouraged me to start writing about my cooking journey, and he is just a swarm of good food energy, such an inspiration.
Who do you admire most in the Irish food industry?
Bord Bia and their Origin Green program.
What’s your go-to easy midweek meal?
The cast iron skillet/sheet pan supper is my new go-to. Just pop a protein (lamb, chicken, pork, beef) into the skillet with loads of veg and potatoes (Irish men can’t live without spuds!) drizzle with some flavoured olive oil, scatter loads of herbs on top and bang it into the oven for an hour. Divine.
What advice do you have for foodies looking to improve their Instagram feed with food photography as you photographed the recipes for Farmette yourself?
Shoot with a professional camera connected via wifi to your smartphone.
Who is your local butcher/meat supplier?
Garrett’s in Limerick City. And, I also order from James Whelan Butchers in Tipperary and they deliver, as well as Rigney’s Farm Shop.
What food can’t you live without?
Ice cream….butter is a close second. (from our dairy, of course!)
As someone with such influence in the food community, how do you choose which brands are a good fit for you to work with?
I work with brands and foods that I believe in, which means I have to love how they taste, and what they stand for…I am very enthusiatic about promoting brands and companies that deserve attention.
What is your death row meal, and who would you share it with?
Home-made wood-fired pizza with my husband and son.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that(and greed) as the ultimate motivator, I realised that baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, fuelling my desire to focus on food in a serious way. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting.