In the Hands of a Master – Aniar Cookery School Review
It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of the food in Aniar, the first of only two Galway restaurants to hold a Michelin star. I can still remember the first time that I dined there and I recall with sparkling clarity the tastes and textures of each dish that I ate that night. Aside from being delicious, what impressed me so much about the food was its sense of identity and its connection to the land and countryside that it came from. The cooking in Aniar unashamedly celebrates all that is great about Irish food and this it does in a modern and exciting way which I find intoxicating. I especially love the inclusive philosophy of the restaurant and the fact that whilst the food ticks all the fine-dining boxes it does so without being elitist or pretentious.
Restaurateur and self-taught chef JP McMahon runs Aniar alongside his wife Drigín Gaffey. In addition to Aniar they also own two other successful restaurants in Galway – Cava and Eat Gastropub. One senses that JP is a man who doesn’t like to stand still because, in addition to the pressures of running three busy restaurants, he was also responsible for bringing Food on the Edge – an international food symposium – to Galway in October 2015. Many of the world’s top chefs were in attendance and key issues regarding the future of food and the restaurant industry were discussed over the two days of the conference. Quite astonishingly, JP still manages to find time to work on his PhD in Art History and fit in media and journalism commitments. Not content with all that, he also runs a boutique cookery school in Aniar, personally delivering most of the courses himself.
The cookery school offers a range of courses including Breadmaking, Gastropub Classics, Tapas and Planning a Dinner Party amongst many others. Classes are held in the kitchen at Aniar and as result most of them take place on Sundays or Monday evenings when the restaurant is closed. The courses are understandably popular and get booked up quickly. However, prospective students can sign up through the restaurant’s website to receive email notifications when new courses come on stream.
I was keen to enrol on the Understanding Food course which takes place each Monday evening over a six week period. After putting my name on the waiting list, I was delighted to finally start the course a couple of months ago. Classes are small and limited to six students so you really have the chance to improve your cookery skills and learn loads from JP.
Being familiar with restaurant kitchens, I know that many of them can be small and cramped and whilst the kitchen in Aniar is compact there was still plenty of space for us all to get stuck in and do a lot of hands-on cooking. All ingredients and equipment are provided and the atmosphere is laid-back but focused at the same time as there is a lot to get through.
Each week of the course has its own theme which means that you can really explore each topic in detail, trying out a number of recipes and different cooking techniques. Subjects covered include Bread, Beef, Pork, Fish and Poultry with the final week covering Vegetables and Desserts. On our first night we were each given a lovely Aniar apron which we wore with pride for the duration of the course. Detailed notes containing all the evening’s recipes are given to all participants at the beginning of every class. After the six weeks we each received a comprehensive booklet containing all the notes and recipes bound together.
Each weekly class begins in a relaxed manner just before 7pm with a cup of tea/coffee in the dining room during which time JP informally outlines the evening’s activities. Moving into the kitchen proceedings kick off with a demonstration where ingredients including all meat and vegetables are prepped. JP guided us through all aspects of the cooking and food preparation and with his calm and reassuring manner even the most inexperienced of us felt imbued with a confidence.
The first of the classes dealt with Breadmaking and it is fair to say that we all threw ourselves into it with great enthusiasm, kneading and punching our bread dough as if we were boxers trying to win a title fight. During the course of the night we made a vast array of yeasted breads including a standard white loaf, focaccia, bread sticks as well as sourdough and soda bread. We also found the time to make a soft cheese and homemade butter which we flavoured with dillisk, a seaweed which is commonplace off the Irish coast.
Pork week was a particular favourite of mine and I loved all the food that we cooked, especially the dish using the pig’s head. On that evening, I was tasked with picking the meat from the head out of which we later made little bread crumbed croquettes which we deep-fried until they were a lovely golden colour with a crispy texture. The croquettes were absolutely delicious and tasted wonderful with the accompanying beetroot purée and thyme gel that we had also made. I also loved the Pork Belly that we cooked and thought that the Pork Loin, Serrano Ham & Apricot dish with its punchy Spanish flavours was heavenly.
I really enjoyed all the subjects we covered but probably gained most from the Fish week as, like a lot of people, it is something that I am reticent to cook at home, fearing that I will overcook it to the point that it is inedible. JP showed us how fish is really the ultimate in fast food being easy to prepare and quick to cook. Since completing the course in Aniar, I find that I am cooking fish much more regularly and that I am really enjoying experimenting with using it in different ways. During the Fish week we also cooked scallops, shellfish and prepared a dish using a live lobster.
There were so many stand-out dishes over the six weeks that it is hard to single out one as my favourite. If pushed I think that I would have to choose the Egg Yolk and Turnip dish that we made in the final week. Not only was it beautiful to look at it but it really demonstrated how the simplest of ingredients could be elevated to a fine-dining standard. I also loved the Scallop & Artichoke dish that we made during Fish week and I thought that the Beetroot Parfait dessert was one of the most unusual but delicious things that I have ever eaten.
Each class ended in a convivial manner at around 10pm when we sat down together with a glass of wine and sampled the food that we had cooked. Many of the dishes that we made during the classes were variations of those that are served in Aniar, Cava and Eat Gastropub. Others we adapted as we cooked them to incorporate and use the ingredients that were available to us on each particular evening. At this point I should mention that participants are urged to bring a container in order to carry home samples of the food that they cook and this I would definitely advise doing as there are loads of leftovers and everything is so delicious.
I gained so much from the Understanding Food course. As a fairly competent home cook I particularly enjoyed the creative aspects of the course and was fascinated at seeing a top chef at work. I was genuinely sad when the course came to an end because I had enjoyed every single minute of it.
Further information on all the cookery courses in Aniar is available from:
51 Lower Dominick Street
T: 091 535 947
I’m simply someone who loves cooking and experimenting with food and different ingredients. From my early childhood spent in Zambia and Australia before returning home to Ireland I was fascinated with cookbooks and reading recipes. I would spend many hours reading my grandmother’s cookbooks and watching her preparing food in the kitchen.
Although I studied to become a graphic designer and spent a few years working in advertising before then becoming a civil servant, the one thing I always wanted to be was a food writer – sharing my enthusiasm for cooking with others, but I lacked the confidence to do the thing I wanted to do most in case I failed. I finally decided to take a risk and applied for MasterChef Ireland 2014 and was one of the three finalists.
For me, food and cooking is about family, friendship, sharing and conviviality. As a mother of three, I want my children to grow up with a love and appreciation of how lucky we are to live in a country like Ireland with such great produce and so many wonderful food producers. I continue to write and share my enthusiasm for food on my food and recipe blog The Game Bird Food Chronicles.