By Judy Enright
Special to the BIR
Ireland has changed a lot in the past 30 years. Much of that change is probably thanks to – or the fault of – the internet, depending on your perspective. But, changes can also be credited to the country’s many visitors who demand the best, to the Irish who travel widely and bring home creative ideas from everywhere, and to the influx of foreigners living in Ireland.
Frequent travelers will note the many changes, subtle and otherwise.
I often mention the improvement in Irish food because meals there were once so predictable, plain, and not very tasty. All of that has changed. Delicious, wholesome, and nourishing meals can now be ordered in pubs and restaurants almost everywhere.
Food and food service is important enough to the Irish economy to have inspired the University College Dublin’s (UCD) Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School to launch a degree program for those planning to enter the food industry. Simon Coveney, minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, was quoted in the Irish press as saying, “The agri-food and drink sector is a driver of economic growth in Ireland. Food and drink companies in this indigenous industry employ some 50,000 people and achieved close to 10 billion euro in exports to 160 countries in 2013.”
We have enjoyed many outstanding meals in Ireland over the last 15 years – especially along the West Coast where you can visit all sorts of restaurants while you’re traveling the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland's first long-distance touring route that runs along the coast from Donegal to West Cork.
I wholeheartedly recommend eating out at Nancy’s in Ardara and Kitty Kelly’s in Killybegs, both Co. Donegal; Newport House, Kelly’s Kitchen, and Grainne Uaile in Newport, Rua and Café Rua in Castlebar, An Port Mór in Westport, Healy’s in Pontoon, all in Co. Mayo; Renvyle House Hotel on the Renvyle Peninsula, Lough Inagh Lodge Hotel in Recess, O’Dowd’s in Roundstone, Mitchell’s in Clifden, all in Connemara (Co. Galway); Linnane’s Lobster Bar in New Quay, Wild Honey Inn in Lisdoonvarna, Gregan’s Castle and Burren Fine Wine and Food, both in Ballyvaughan, Fitzpatrick’s Eatery in the Hotel Doolin, Roadford House restaurant in Doolin, all in Co. Clare. Those are just my favorites on the West Coast.
Fish in Irish restaurants is outstanding, especially salmon (cooked or smoked) and cod. Foodies also rave about Irish lamb and beef. I don’t happen to eat either but have heard praise from other diners.
There are many, many excellent eateries all over Ireland and you should have no trouble finding great food wherever you are.
I recently attended the 4th annual Gourmet Greenway dinner at the lovely 41-bedroom Mulranny Park Hotel in Mulranny, Co. Mayo, (mulrannyparkhotel.ie) and you’d have to travel far to find food as good, as well prepared, or as beautifully presented. Each elegant course was locally sourced and enhanced by specially selected wine from Wines Direct. To promote the culinary event, the hotel offered a very good value 99-euro overnight package that included the dinner as well as breakfast.
Mulranny Park general manager Dermot Madigan and Suzanne O’Brien of sales and marketing created the Gourmet Greenway dinner concept and have had great success, selling out every year.
Tables were assigned in the Nephin Restaurant, overlooking Clew Bay with distant mountains as a backdrop. The room was packed for this 90-seat, sold-out dinner and the evening started with servers passing canapés – incorporating Kelly’s Butcher’s Black Pudding (Newport) and Gerry Hassett’s (Achill Island) smoked salmon – as guests chatted and sipped Clew Bay Brewery Ale or Prosecco.
According to Madigan, the dinner was a “baptism by fire” for 37-year-old head chef, Chamila Mananwatta, who had been working at the hotel as second chef for about seven years but took over the top job just one month before the big dinner.
“I knew what I was doing (from having worked at the hotel),” Chamila said, “but it was a challenge and pretty hard work.” He credited his team of six additional chefs and Helen, the hotel’s baker, for the dinner’s great success. “I really enjoyed working with them and I couldn’t have done it with just my two hands.
“Everything was local and homemade using modern cooking techniques,” he said. The black pudding polenta, he added, was his own creation. “I love to create. You have to cook with your heart – it’s not about throwing food on the table. You need to be focused. Every customer is important to me.”
Chamila said his interest in cooking was influenced by his mother’s curry. Before Ireland, he studied in Ceylon Hotel School and worked in the Dubai Hilton and he laughed when he added that he learned to make Irish Stew in Sri Lanka.
Prior to the meal being served, several speakers pointed out that Mayo is “a world class place to do business” as evidenced by the presence there of “the largest Coca-Cola plant on the planet” and Botox maker Allergan Inc. in Westport.
John Magee, senior enterprise development officer of Mayo’s Local Enterprise Office, said, “Mayo is an amazing place to do business.” He described the Great Western Greenway (an off-road cycling and walking trail from Westport to Achill Island) as “an amazing example of what can happen when people start to work together.”
He praised the cooperation of local landowners (who allowed the Greenway to pass across their property) and said the Greenway “is an absolutely stunning success story that became the tapestry and allowed other things to happen, like the Gourmet Greenway.” Both showed what can be done, Magee said, “when you join the dots and unlock the hidden potential.” He added that “everyone wants to replicate what’s happening here, but it’s not easy because they don’t have the Mayo magic.”
Tanya Whyte-Stanaway, Enterprise Office business advisor with specific responsibility for the food sector, said, “We’re the envy of a lot of counties. Innovation in food is huge now and Mayo is internationally recognized for having great food producers.”
Madigan said the Gourmet Greenway has been “hugely successful” and the hotel gets calls nearly daily from suppliers who want to be included. “This concept grabs people’s imagination,” he said, “and everyone who comes to the dinner loves it. It’s been 100 percent successful.” He said there is a possibility that another gourmet dinner will be scheduled for the autumn.
So, what was on this fabulous menu? To start, each table featured hotel baker Helen’s homemade bread as well as Café Rua’s Dilisk, Achill Island Sea Salt Bread, pots of Café de Paris butter (which Chamila made at his home), black olive tapenade and basil, and sundried tomato pesto.
First course was Croagh Patrick Seafood’s Clew Bay Black Mussels garnished with asparagus and green pea veloute with a hint of white truffle oil. Next came Padraig Gannon’s native oysters and Gerry Hassett’s barbecue salmon, served with brown crab, avocado and buttermilk pannacotta, wasabi and chervil aioli, and cucumber ceviche.
Next, to cleanse diners’ palates, came a “Slushy” of Mulranny mint and watermelon with a hint of Grand Marnier. Then there was pan-seared Curran Blue Sea Trout and glazed pork belly and, finally, Kelly’s Seaspray lamb with Celtic crust, lamb and Clew Bay seaweed sausage, sweet bread fritters and Chamila’s black pudding polenta. Dessert was Strawberry Bavarios with champagne jelly, basil syrup and Murrevagh honey ice cream followed by Carrowholly cheeses with A Taste of Days Gone By’s homemade chutney. It was truly a meal fit for royalty and doesn’t sound much like the traditional Irish meat and potato dinner, does it?
Other members of the Gourmet Greenway are Newport House and Blue Bicycle Tearooms, both in Newport, Achill Mountain Lamb and Achill Island Sea Salt on Achill Island, Marlene’s Chocolate Haven in Westport, and Rua and Café Rua in Castlebar.
Be sure to stop by the Mulranny Park for a meal or overnight if you’re in Mayo this summer. It is truly a jewel in the village of Mulranny.
There is so much to do in Ireland now that summer is in full tilt! See Ireland.com, Tourism Ireland’s excellent website, for events and information.
• The Museum of Country Life in Castlebar, Co. Mayo, has an interesting exhibit through next Easter called “Preserving the Peace: Policing on the Island of Ireland: 1814-2014.” The exhibition focuses on organized policing in Ireland over 200 years.
• The West Cork Chamber Music Festival welcomes nearly 100 performers to Bantry from through July 5. See westcorkmusic.ie for more information.
• A half-marathon and 10K run on Achill Island July 5, benefits the Children’s Medical and Research Foundation at Our Lady’s Hospital, Dublin. See achillmarathon.com.
• Foynes/Shannon 75th Anniversary Air Show will take to the sky on July 5 and 6. See flyingboatmuseum.com for details.
• Christy Moore with Declan Sinnott will perform at the Castlecourt Hotel in Westport, Co. Mayo, on Thurs., July 17. See Christymoore.com for details.
• The European Juggling Convention will be held from July 19 to July 27 in Millstreet, Co. Cork. Billed as the world's largest festival of juggling and circus skills, the event promises world-class performers, master classes in all juggling disciplines, parades, games, and special events.
Enjoy Ireland whenever you visit and be sure to check online for airfare and ground deals available during the summer.