This month marks the second anniversary of North East Cuisine, Dublin-based chef Eric Heilig’s monthly pop-up dinner event, which serves food inspired by his Pomeranian heritage.
Pomeranian food culture isn’t very well known, and it isn’t well-documented either, says Heilig. This may be an understatement.
A historical region to the south of the Baltic Sea, today Pomerania spreads over parts of both Germany and Poland. Its traditions didn’t fare well under communist rule. And, more recently, emigration has left it with a dwindling population.
“Very few young people of my generation still speak the language, because they don’t necessarily need it any more,” says Heilig. “A lot of the actual culture, heritage and language is dying out.”
Heilig’s village is deep in the countryside and has a population of a couple of hundred. “I’m from farmland,” he says. “We still eat the old way.”
He left Pomerania 12 years ago, and while he has always enjoyed his work as a chef, he felt the need to cook native Pomeranian dishes.
“I cooked a lot of food in restaurants . . . but none that was really personal, that was really my food or something that I felt was my identity,” he says.
He wasn’t in a position to open his own restaurant. So, he sprang the idea of a Pomeranian pop-up.
So What Is Pomeranian Food?
Pomeranian food has nothing to do with Polish cuisine, or German cuisine, or little fluffy dogs. It’s got straight flavours, wild ingredients and staples like fish, goose, swedes and sugar beets.
Heilig forages in the Dublin Mountains for a lot of his ingredients. “There’s lots of wild berries, wild herbs, wild garlic . . . and there’s a lot of moss.”
And he heads to Killiney or Dalkey for his seafood. “You can go pick cockles and seaweed. So everything you kind of need and want is there around Dublin.”
The ingredients are wild, so the dishes are seasonal and every menu reflects the month, he says.
Many of the dishes come with berries. That’s a Pomeranian thing, he says – to mix them with meat and fish dishes.
“I don’t think I’ve had a single menu without sea buckthorn,” he says. “It’s my absolute favourite thing.”
If he’s ever really stuck for an ingredient, his family will pick it and post it over. But for a lot of stuff, including meat, he goes to the McNally Family Farm in County Dublin. He often bases his menus on what’s available there.
For this month’s dinner, Heilig was so inspired by the sweetness of the farm’s parsnips, and their coconut-y scent, that he decided to include them as a dessert: parsnip, milk, grain coffee and honey.
“Sometimes you can be surprised how good a simple parsnip can taste,” he smiles.
A Big Fan
Andrew Moore has only missed two of Heilig’s Pomeranian pop-ups since they began two years ago. “I like good food that’s not too fussy . . . He makes flavours shine,” he says.
Sometimes those flavours are found in unusual places.
Heilig believes in nose-to-tail eating, and there have been situations where his partner, Floriane Loup, has had to talk him out of serving dishes that might put customers off; pig’s brain and horse meat are just two examples.
“It’s traditional back home. It’s normal to eat,” he says.
But Heilig does often shove his diners right out of their comfort zones.
“Every single dinner, I introduce something else that people haven’t eaten,” he says. “The next menu there will be a dish entirely made of what I call the delicate cuts of the chicken . . . the cuts that people here wouldn’t necessarily use, like the gizzards, the heart, the liver.”
Moore recalls beef heart and pork scratchings made from pig’s ears as two dishes that went down well.
“He’s fed me geese hearts, duck hearts, gizzards and more recently Irish snails with venison,” he says. “Everyone was surprised by that.”
If you’re not into snails or gizzards, don’t fear. Heilig’s menu has at least six dishes.
He once did nine courses, because for him it’s not about making money, it’s about getting to know his native cuisine, he says. “If a few quid for a pint falls off it that’s grand, like, but it’s mostly for me.”
With each dinner priced at €65, yet no major profit for Heilig, you may wonder where the money goes. One word: beer.
Alongside the plentiful courses come five Irish craft beers made in Wexford. And they’re not just any beers.
Heilig matches beers with his Pomeranian dishes. This month’s dinner has seen, for the first time, Declan Nixon of Otterbank Brewing create beers that compliment Heilig’s menu.
“They’re very different and weird beers that will hopefully be very, very delicious,” says Heilig.
The menu includes a pistachio IPA, a honey ale and a sour gruit. The latter two turned out so well, says Nixon, that they may become permanent productions.
Where do you even start with something like that? “We talked for hours,” Nixon says. “I thought about the flavours and interpreted what would compliment them.”
Of course, the beers are as local as possible too. Nixon sourced honey and heather from some of his regular customers in Wexford, and foraged for pine needles and rose hips.
A Monthly Indulgence
Ultimately, Heilig would like to open his own Pomeranian restaurant back home. But he says now is definitely not the time. Besides, he’s happy experimenting and hasn’t had to repeat a dish yet.
“It’s just once a month that I really do what I want, what I enjoy, and get something of my culinary identity,” he says. “It’s something that makes me very happy.”
This month’s North East Cuisine dinner will take place on 31 January, at Heron & Grey in the Blackrock Market at 7pm.