Can you imagine raving about the cooking or food in Ireland? Have you ever used “gourmet” and “Ireland” together in the same sentence?
Well, times have changed radically over the years and Ireland is rapidly winning acclaim worldwide for outstanding chefs who create wholesome, elegant fare in restaurants all over the country.
Pub food has improved, too, and you might find homemade soup -- often something other than vegetable -- and perhaps paninis or crostinis, an assortment of salads and burgers, and maybe a “toasted” or other sandwich that’s more interesting and complex than the standard pub fare of olden days: buttered white bread with a slice of dry ham. True, there are pubs that offer white bread with ham, but they are not the norm these days.
While people can honestly complain about meals they’ve had in Ireland, we suspect that many are actually complaining about the food they remember from 25 or 30 years ago. They probably haven’t visited or eaten in Ireland for many years or, if they have, they’ve made some very bad choices of restaurants and/or menu items.
So what changed Irish tastes, menus and food? It’s hard to figure out, although some say that horizons broadened dramatically when Ireland joined the European Union. Others credit the Celtic Tiger with creating an increased interest in traveling abroad, which introduced the Irish to very different foods.
PROMOTING GOOD FOOD
There are many organizations in Ireland now that promote food and the expanded use of fresh, local products. One group, called “Good Food Ireland,” lists approved restaurants by county in a glossy brochure and on the website: goodfoodireland.ie. The brochure says Good Food Ireland “is for everyone who simply loves good food."
If you enjoy Irish cheese, be sure to check out the Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers’ Association website, irishcheese.ie, and try St. Tola goat cheese or Cashel Blue or any of the other wonderful Irish cheeses available in supermarkets and restaurants. And, we read recently that a Co. Cork farmer has imported water buffalo, is breeding and building the herd, and recently produced his first batch of Irish buffalo mozzarella? We’ll be interested to try that when it hits the market.
If you’re a dedicated foodie, be sure to check out Slow Food Ireland (slowfoodireland.com), “a non-profit, eco-gastronomic member-supported group founded in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions, and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes, and how food choices affect the rest of the world.” Today, Slow Food boasts more than 100,000 members in 132 countries focusing on “the strong connections between plate and planet.”
If you want to learn more about Irish food, check out Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, at bordbia.ie.
Speaking of fast food, if you’re not an adventurous eater, there are 77 McDonalds around Ireland, 41 of which have drive-through windows, with 20 more planned over the next four to five years. It’s interesting that Europe’s first ever drive-through opened in 1985 in the Nutgrove shopping center in Rathfarnham, a suburb of Dublin.
The Irish Times reports that McDonalds is not the largest fast food restaurant chain in Ireland; Supermacs has more outlets. Burger King and KFC each have more than 30 locations.
Visitors and residents have long enjoyed Ireland’s heavenly smoked salmon. One of our favorite producers is the Burren Smokehouse in Lisdoonvarna, but we recently bought delicious smoked salmon from Delphi Lodge in Co. Mayo.
Delphi’s Atlantic silver wild salmon is caught off the West Coast, then smoked and packaged by Connemara Fisheries in Cornamona, Co. Galway. Is there anything better than smoked salmon on a slice of John McCambridge’s stone-ground whole wheat bread? It’s one of many things we miss about Ireland when we’re not there.
Delphi, by the way, is a member of Hidden Ireland, an accommodation organization owned by its members. Prices vary but the 30-plus homes are all privately-owned, scattered around the country and are known for the hospitality of their owners and for preserving a sense of history. Visit the website (hiddenireland.com) for locations of the houses and rates.
In addition to smoked salmon, there are other gustatorial treats in Ireland too.
We recently attended a seven-course, sold-out gourmet dinner at the 4-star Mulranny Park Hotel in Mulranny, Co. Mayo. The dinner highlighted six Mayo food producers and introduced The Gourmet Greenway, a food trail devised by the hotel and local producers to showcase artisan foods from the area. Nash Wines provided specialty wines to complement each course.
John McKenna, publisher with his wife, Sally, of the Bridgestone Guides on Irish food and accommodation, was guest host for the meal served in the Park’s Nephin Restaurant that overlooks Clew Bay and distant mountains.
“We’re very apologetic about our food in Ireland,” McKenna said. “We’re world-class and we have to get better about saying that we’re world-class.”
He praised the “creativity, authenticity, and realness” of local food producers and said Irish food “is as good as you get anywhere in the world.”
Gourmet Greenway members include Mulranny Park head chef Ollie O’Regan and his kitchen crew, who prepared the gourmet dinner. Also, Kelly’s Butchers of Newport, a multiple award-winning family business (kellysbutchers.com); Carrowholly Cheese of Westport, which makes five flavors of hard gouda-style cheese from raw cow’s milk and vegetarian rennet; Curraun Blue Trout Farm, the only organically sea-farmed trout in Ireland; Croagh Patrick Seafoods of Newport, producers of award-winning Clew Bay native oysters, mussels, and clams; Achill Island Turbot, Ireland’s only turbot farm and Keem Bay Fish Products, which smokes salmon, mackerel, and kippers, and supplies seafood to owner Jerry Hassett’s Chalet Restaurant in Keel.
GREAT WESTERN GREENWAY
Last spring, the Great Western Greenway, the longest off-road walking and cycling trail in Ireland, opened to the public. The 11-mile long stretch follows the path of an old railroad, which closed in 1937, and runs from Newport to the back of the 41-room Park (originally a railway hotel.) The Greenway is currently being extended to Westport on one side and Achill Island on the other and has spawned several bike hire businesses and boosted existing business. We heard that the highest number of bicyclists and walkers on the Greenway in one day last year was just over 300. This year, there have been more than 700 reported in a single day.
There are a number of recommended walks, some guided, some hill walks, in the area too. The Greenway, Mulranny Park Hotel, the Loop Walk, and Mulranny Causeway, as submitted by Mulranny Tourism, recently won a European Destination of Excellence (EDEN) award for sustainable tourism. To learn more about the Greenway, visit greenway.ie. A new tourism website for Mulranny (Mulranny.ie) is scheduled to be launched this month.
The West of Ireland is a great place to spend a vacation and seems to add more and more activities every day.
It’s high season in Ireland and there are many festivals and fun things to do everywhere.
• Sea Sessions Surf and Music Festival (seasessions.com) is planned in Bundoran, Co. Donegal, from June 24-26;
• Street performance world championships (spwc.ie) will be held in Cork City and County on June 11 and 12;
• The Waterford Tall Ships Race Festival (waterfordtallshipsrace.ie) is planned from June 30-July 3;
• Bloom 2011 (bloominthepark.com) will be in Phoenix Park, Dublin, June 2-6;
• Cat Laughs Comedy Festival (carlsbergcatlaughs.com) is set for June 2-6 in Kilkenny City.
• The Achill Island Half Marathon will be held the weekend of July 2. Visit achilltourism.com or achillmarathon.com for details. Proceeds benefit several charities.
For details on other happenings, visit discoverireland.com or stop by the local tourist offices, which are designated by large, green shamrocks, when you are in the country.
Be sure to check the internet for all the latest travel specials too. Aer Lingus offers many great web deals on flights and ground travel as do other airlines that fly in and out of Ireland.