Derek Davis – A Fond Farewell

Sorry news indeed, to hear of the death of Derek Davis (26 April 1948-13 May 2015). We went back a good way, right back to student days at QUB, and it’s hard to believe that he’s gone. His reassuring presence, the big grin, the self-deprecating wit and his tremendous enthusiasm for the good things in life will be sadly missed.

He was a good friend to me, right from the start. He was a bit ahead of me in college but, being friendly with some of the pals I shared a house with, he was often around the place and soon discovered that – despite the weekly budget of just £1, which each of us would spend on food when it was our day to cook for the house – there was always good, simple food on the table. And, as every cook knows, there’s no encouragement like an appreciative diner.

Those were good days, when I was first discovering the pleasures of Irish food and it was great to have a fellow traveller. There were very good basic ingredients in Belfast – excellent butchers and greengrocers, and terrific little bakeries – and you could buy well with very little money.

Theodora FitzGibbon’s ‘A Taste of Ireland’  – also the title of Derek’s mammoth 1980s  gastronomical TV tour of Ireland, which was well ahead of the posse and deserves far more credit than it gets – was my  first cookery book on arrival in Belfast. Many of its simple, wholesome and inexpensive dishes were popular in our house when it was my turn to cook, and Derek was often there to share our table.

The Belfast pork butchers were especially good and, like many people on a tight budget, we ate a lot of sausages so Dublin Coddle became a favourite – and I still think of those days every time I make it.

Boiled sausages and bacon may not appeal to everyone but, as always with very simple dishes, it is the quality of the basic ingredients that make all the difference, something that Derek understood very well.

He was a great mate in every way – he did a sideline as a night club doorman for a while, and not only did he get waitressing jobs for all the girls in the house, but he minded us too: no late night drunks would mess with our Derek.

Later, when we had all migrated to Dublin, he found useful parts for me in TV and radio jobs he was working on. One especially enjoyable one involved cooking on a Shannon cruiser, and another was a fish cookery series for the BBC in which he went off fishing and I cooked the catch. So far so normal, but the catch was actually being frozen as they went along and the cookery filming was done in one flat-out week in my own kitchen.

Each night the frozen fish for the next day’s filming would be collected from the fishmongers who were minding it for us, and we would try to make sense of it all in the morning. Quite a challenge, especially as we had a dog who spent most of her time under the table hoping for spills and two cats sharing a basket beside the radiator with their seven kittens. And then there was the family to feed. Derek wasn’t actually present when all this was going on, but I wish he was here now and we could have a laugh about it.

As well as being brilliant on TV and radio, Derek was a gifted public speaker and much in demand as an after dinner speaker for his great stories, quick wit and good humour – all qualities that came in equally handy to him as an MC, and he gave a great lift to many of our annual Awards ceremonies.

His great knowledge of Irish food and drink was a huge advantage on these occasions, of course, and he knew just about everybody who was anybody in Irish hospitality, so he made real contribution to the occasion (including plenty of our shared stories from the ‘old days’) and everyone always went home smiling.

And on that happy note, here is the Dublin Coddle that we enjoyed so much in those student days.

Introduction, from my first book ‘Good Food From Ireland‘: “Said to be Dean Swift’s favourite meal, this traditional dish is every bit as comforting as it sounds – for hundreds of years it’s been the Saturday night drinkers’ friend: absolutely forgiving and always welcoming whatever the time! I first made it as a student in Belfast, using this recipe from Theodora FitzGibbon’s lovely book, A Taste Of Ireland (Pan).

It is utterly Irish and, as Theodora points out in her introduction, combines two foods known since the earliest Irish literature: “Bacon (tinne or sensaille) is mentioned many times in the medieval Vision of MacConglinne, as are sausages, particularly one called Maroc, and another called Indrechtan. Leeks and oatmeal were no doubt used in the earliest form of Coddle but, since the eighteenth century, potatoes and onion have supplanted them.”

Serves 4 very generously or 8 normal portions.

8 (1/4  in/O.6 cm thick) ham or bacon slices

8 pork sausages

l quart/1.2 litres boiling water

4 large onions

2 lb/900g potatoes

4 rounded tablespoons freshly chopped parsley

Salt and pepper.

Cut the ham or bacon into large chunks and cook in the boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain but reserve the liquid.

Put the meat into a large saucepan or ovenproof dish with the thinly sliced onions, peeled and sliced potatoes and the parsley. Season to taste and add enough of the stock barely to cover.

Lay a piece of greaseproof paper on top and then put on the lid and simmer gently, or cook in a slow oven (250′F, 130′C, Gas mark 1/2) for about an hour or until the liquid is reduced by half and all the ingredients are cooked but not mushy. (This will take longer in the oven than on the hob.)

Serve hot with the vegetables on top and fresh soda bread and glasses of stout.

Slainte Derek!

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