As Neven Maguire returns with series three of his Spanish Food Trails he chats to Janice Butler about his culinary journey, being content with his work and the importance of family.
Neven Maguire is no stranger to Spain, in fact, this new series of Neven’s Spanish Food Trails is his third visit to the European country with a camera crew but the chef admits he’s still amazed by how much he’s learned from the people and their unique cuisine.
"I had never been in this area before," he says of the regions of Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia in Northern Spain. "It’s not overly commercial, not overly touristy but when it comes to food it’s some of the best I’ve ever seen or eaten. The way they shop for their food and eat it is so unusual."
In the opening episode of the series, we see Neven making his way to East of Santander to Santoña, one of the most important fishing and canning ports in the Bay of Biscay. After attending a fast-paced fish auction, Neven visits Conservas Catalina, one of the region’s best-known fish canning companies. He meets the highly skilled women who painstakingly prepare each individual anchovy by hand to be preserved in jars and cans.
"You know people think 'you’re a chef, you’re 45, you’ve seen it all’, but I never stop learning and when you go to somewhere like Spain they’ve such a unique approach to food so everything is a new experience. The way these women prepared the anchovies; I’d never seen anything like it."
He spent quite a bit of time in Santiago de Compostela, the final point in the famous Camino pilgrimage. He surprised himself with how emotional it was to see the weary walkers reach their destination and attempting the Camino is now on his bucket list.
"I’d love to and I’d love to bring Amelda and her father to do it – he’s a very spiritual, religious man, he would love all the characters and people he’d meet along the way. I’m so used to going to San Sebastian with Amelda and the twins but I have to say I’d go back to this region in a heartbeat."
It’s been a difficult few months for Neven and his family following the death of Amelda’s mother, Eileen, who has been an integral part of the family, helping Neven and Amelda with the busy task of raising twins (Connor and Lucia, 7).
We’ve done many photoshoots with Neven and his family in their home in Blacklion over the years and every time Eileen, "supermum", as Neven referred to her, was always busy in the background helping out with the kids. ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ as they say and to Neven and Amelda, Eileen was their village.
"It’s been a really tough time for us all," admits Neven. "It’s only six or seven weeks ago so it’s quite raw. She reared the twins while we worked so we’re heartbroken, to be honest. She was like a mother to me too."
Neven filmed the Spanish Food Trails series in March and after that pulled back on his work-load to help nurse Eileen at home in Blacklion. "I’m so glad I was there because she was always so good to me." In honour of Eileen’s memory, the family has two new additions to the home in the form of Bichon Frise puppies. "Her dream was to get the twins their own dogs; she said it taught children really good life lessons having to look after a dog."
Neven took a trip down memory lane recently on his Instagram page, posting a video with all 15 of his cookbooks and reminiscing about his early days on the Irish food scene. How does he feel he’s changed since then? "The first book was the hardest, I was only 21 and I just got a break on Open House. When I look at all those books, I never take any of it for granted, I think that’s key," he says. "I’ve aged terribly," he laughs. "But the same passion and love for the work is still there."
MacNean House is open 30 years this year, something he’s incredibly proud of. "It’s a fantastic achievement for me and my wife and it makes me think of my mum and dad who had their own struggles with the restaurant – we’ve come so far."
He’s glad he never opened another restaurant, even though, he admits, the offers were always there. "I just want to have one restaurant and do it right. I’m 45; I want to enjoy my life. I have the cookery school which is going really well, I want to be in my kitchen for my customers and I want to be at home for my family. I don’t want to have two or three different restaurants and if you only knew how many requests I get to put my name to things and I always politely decline. I’m very content where I am."
Watch Neven's Spanish Food Trails, Thursday, RTÉ One. Find the recipes here.