When Irish Country Living arrived in MacNean House, our competition winners were already seated in the state of the art school kitchen.

Daragh Lawless from Dunnes Stores Simply Better was giving them a warm welcome on behalf of the Irish retailer as they enjoyed some coffee and fresh scones.

Although Neven hosts all the classes himself, we might cheekily suggest that his right hand lady in the school - Chef Claire Beasley - takes a fair bit of the heavy lifting.

Between them over the course of the day, we learned and laughed with Neven regaling us with stories and his top tips on sourcing the best ingredients. After that it was all about the fabulous food.

Neven opened the day with a warm Cavan welcome: ”We are thrilled to be re-opening with yourselves.

This is my home, this is where I grew up and this is where I live. Cooking is my love, it’s my life, it’s what I do and today we are going to have fun.

I see my role as inspiring people to cook and one good thing that has come out of the lockdowns is more and more people have reconnected with food.”

Question time

This is a very intimate experience. The school is small which means that Neven directly interacts with each of the participants to help them and answer the myriad of questions that come his way. With so many questions, I could but pick a few:

How do you sharpen knives?

You can find affordable knife sharpeners in most specialised kitchen shops, including Neven’s own line. For continued maintenance, Neven recommends not to put any good knives in the dishwasher as the detergent is too harsh on them.

How do you chop an onion?

Halve the onion and lay it down on the flat (cut) side, make vertical slices toward the end of the onion, but not all the way (leaving the root intact), curve your fingers and slice two incisions through the onion horizontally. Then hold it all together and chop. So the incisions are down, in and then down again. If this is unclear, look at our video online.

Do restauranteurs hate when people have dietary requirements?

Neven says this is just a way of life now. In MacNean House, they will always ask guests what requirements they have and will mark the plates (coeliac etc.) so no mistake is made.

Seamus and Vippi Lynch

Potentially the shortest spin to Blacklion was the journey taken by Seamus Lynch and his wife Vippi. Seamus, according to his wife, is the better cook and it was he that won the trip.

They described the day as a really fabulous treat with the curry being what Seamus was most looking forward to cooking.

This is something that he would cook at home. Cooking from fresh is important to them, particularly since their daughter was diagnosed as coeliac five years ago.

When she was diagnosed, that changed the cooking for the entire house. It took some time to get a diagnosis, but Vippi credits the Coeliac Society of Ireland with highlighting the condition and says that, now, the gluten-free offering in restaurants is fantastic

When discussing tolerances earlier in the day, Neven had said that they always check with guests so that everyone can be looked after.

For the Lynchs, this is important as when they go out as a family to eat, they pick the restaurant based on who can cater for them all.

Pauline Donnelly and Aoife Rogerson

Mother and daughter from Roscommon, Pauline Donnelly and Aoife Rogerson are only an hour and a half from MacNean House.

Pauline says with a huge smile, “I can’t believe we won the competition.” Having been to MacNean House once before, 10 years ago for a birthday celebration, her memory of that fantastic experience added to the excitement.

Primary teacher Aoife loves cooking and with three small children cooks everything from scratch.

I ask how she encourages the small ones to eat vegetables and her response is simple: “I don’t cook separate dinners, we all eat the same dinner and we sit at the table to eat it.

I think our children need to be involved in the process. They need to understand how it comes together, that it doesn’t come from a package.”

On the Granny treats situation, Pauline jumps back in [grinning proudly], “It’s a granny thing - they called to me yesterday and I only gave them one sweet each as they were going home for the dinner, so they were not very impressed with me.”

Sarah Louise and Mary Duggan

Sarah Louise Duggan brought her mother Mary as her guest to Blacklion, which was clearly appreciated, with Mary commenting several times over the course of the day, “I think I am in a dream.”

Sarah Louise is a dietician and coming from a dairy farm in the Curragh in Co Kildare; they are both passionate about food.

Sarah Louise says of the menu, “That curry looks fabulous. I do like more savoury stuff and I don’t randomly bake so it’s nice to have a simple recipe [the brownies] if you did want to bake.”

Professionally, Sarah Louise finds that post COVID-19 people want to cook more and that those who didn’t cook before have definitely tried to learn but also are trying to balance a meal nutritionally.

Mary is a Neven fan and followed him online during the pandemic. “Between him and Kevin Dundon, it was a godsend. They were so accessible during COVID.”

In terms of coming back for the 10 course tasting menu. Mary said that she wasn’t leaving until she got bumped up the list. “Sure, we are closer to him now than ever!”

Peggy and Anne Eviston

Peggy and Anne Eviston travelled from the two ends of Tipperary to Blacklion. Dairy farming in North Tipp, mam Peggy had to draw a name out of a hat to pick between her three daughters, with agricultural science graduate Anne coming out on top.

Anne has been watching cooking programmes since she was knee high, her mother volunteers, so the trip was not wasted on her.

In terms of how COVID-19 impacted their eating habits, Peggy said that it was initially for the worse and then they “got our act together”.

On the plus side though, she acknowledged that for the family, “it’s been great because for us we’ve had three of them at home, cooking for a big crowd again.”

Anne was the great white hope to take on the farm, but now Peggy says she is gone “tillage farming in Grangemockler,” with a laugh.

More seriously, she says that it’s up to the kids what they want to do, “Their lives! Not for us to decide. You rear them to be adults and to make their own decisions”.

Grainne and Deirdre Fahy

Deirdre Fahy brought her mother Grainne from Westport in Co Mayo. When we talk, Deirdre is trying to hold back the sneezes as the spices from her curry waft through the air.

Big fans of Neven, Grainne saw the competition on Facebook and asked Deirdre to enter. She likes Neven’s cookware range, because it’s easy to pick up and reasonably priced.

Deirdre has made some of Neven’s curries previously, with the butter curry a particular favourite, but his ribs, stews and pavlova are also made a lot.

With both a sweet and savoury tooth, it’s again the korma that they are looking forward to making.

Many years ago, Grainne met Neven at a cookery demonstration in Kelly’s in Rosslare and it has stayed in her mind.

Neven’s tips:

1 To save time, weigh out ingredients in ziplock bags.

2 Melt chocolate and butter over hot water slowly. You can melt it the microwave but good chocolate is not cheap and if it burns, it’s in the bin.

3 Value Irish butter. On the continent they use a lot of UHT. Chefs that visit Neven are always blown away by the quality of our Irish butter.

4 Leave the root on the onion as it stops the juices being released for less crying (Neven says he has no research to back this up but …).

5 Neven never uses greaseproof paper as baked items (brownies in this case) will stick to it; he advises using parchment paper (non-stick silicone paper).

6 Look out for the Protected Geographical Indicator (PGI) logo. There are only eight Irish producers with it. It means that Connemara Hill Lamb can only be produced in a select region in the west of Ireland and the Waterford Blaa can only come from Waterford.

7 With corn-fed chicken, some people think that the colour looks wrong. But on the continent, this type of chicken is very common. The colour is due to the maize the birds are fed on.

8 You can poach your chicken in a curry - you don’t need to pre-cook it - but if you are using left over roast chicken, just throw it in at the end

9 Last one! If you ever meet him, don’t tell Neven he uses too much butter. That will go down like a lead balloon and he will charge you full price for a book (just joking!).

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