Every good foodie knows that great food needs great ingredients and great passion. In gourmet Ireland all three are roundly understood and served up in style.
Irish food and drink uses only the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients, which, as it happens, enjoy the privileged reputation of belonging to one of the best larders on the planet.
Certainly good enough for the pantry of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who, following her visit to Cork’s famous English Market, took home a hamper of delicious artisan Irish food that included smoked salmon, beef, duck, cheeses, honey and handmade chocolate.
Such ingredients are intimately rooted and intertwined with the lush, emerald green landscapes, the unpolluted Atlantic waters and the trusted, age-old Irish farming and fishing traditions of what’s now universally regarded as a major ‘food island’.
Come autumn in this culinary hotspot something extra special is cooking. The low sun is turning everything golden. The harvest is gathering. Flavours are turning earthier. It’s a particularly good period for Irish ingredients.
Modern Irish cuisine
So no better time to take a foodie trip to Ireland; all you have to do is let nature’s bounty tantalise your taste buds, tuck in, and savour the flavour.
Ireland’s modern cuisine is pulling in the foodies and pushing out the culinary boundaries with dishes that champion a bold mix of local produce, international influences and Celtic imagination.
The results can be found in many top-end Michelin-starred eateries like Waterford’s Cliff House Hotel or Dublin’s Chapter One, the latter one of the most consistently praised restaurants in the country.
Featuring Irish hospitality at its best, there you can tuck in to elegantly and colourfully crafted dishes. Fancy a bit of rarebreed pork plate with parsley creamed barley and roast carrots, Jack McCarthy’s black pudding and smoked aioli, oh, and a little pickled thistle sauce? Yum.
But the Michelin maestros by no means monopolise great food in Ireland. Quality food experiences continue in a huge variety of fine-dining and pop-up restaurants, gastro-pubs, bistros, wine bars, cafés, small hotels and country houses – even in the B&Bs where they serve up breakfasts to die for.
En masse, Ireland’s eateries have become guardians and advocates of cooking that keeps the focus on taste, local produce, and a mix of tradition and creativity. Pick a region and it would be possible to stay for a month, dine like the Queen every day, and never have to visit the same place twice.
The Irish gourmet experience is in no small way related to the rise of its army of artisan food producers. Organic growers, charcutiers, cheese makers, fish smokers, chocolatiers, confectioners, bakers and more have sprung up all over the country, drawing on long-held country traditions to feed the new breed of Irish chefs with the raw ingredients for conjuring up fresh, exciting and novel dishes.
These artisans have the skill and passion for producing top quality handmade food that flies firmly in the face of the mass produced, the processed and the flavourless.
They’re also brim-full of Irish character and the great thing about a food-themed trip to the Emerald Isle is that you can easily go along and meet these artisan producers for a bit of craic as well as a taste experience. In Cork, for instance, Ireland´s foodiest county, Frank Hederman smokes eels, sprats, mackerel, trout, salmon and mussels in his Belvelly Smokehouse.
He uses beech rather than oak to give a mild, subtle flavour to his products and his smokehouse, the oldest traditional one in Ireland which is open to visitors. You can also meet Frank at the local farmers’ markets in Midleton and Cobh.
And that’s the key to another excellent Irish food, indeed an Irish cultural experience. Bustling farmers´ markets are held in towns and cities all round the country, bringing together farmers, local growers and artisan food producers to sell their produce directly to the consumer. A trip to one will give you an authentic slice of Irish life and get you close up to people passionate about food.
Howth Farmers’ Market is one of the most picturesque. It’s set on the west pier of a pretty fishing village a short distance from Dublin city centre (itself the location for an array of different markets). Every Sunday it assails the senses with the aromas and colours of fresh, locally grown, quality food and special artisan produce – organic meat, fruit and vegetables and homemade everything else, including farmhouse cheeses, chutneys, fresh fish, jams, cakes, breads and delicious gourmet treats.
Seafood of all kinds features prominently on the menus of Howth’s harbour-side cafés and restaurants – perfect for Sunday lunch after visiting the market.
Food and drink trails and tours
Select a village, city, county or individual producer at any time of year, organise your transport and follow your taste senses – that’s all there is to it if you want to tour gourmet Ireland under your own steam.
For an organised autumn food trail explore the theatrical Belfast Bred walking tour (3 August-22 September), which is entertainingly presented by ‘Barney’, a chef from RMS Titanic who introduces the local lore and the very best local produce. You also get the chance to chat with chefs, learn about and taste Titanic Town’s food heritage. The mouth-watering tour includes free samples at each location, which include delicious Irish cheeses in the highly-rated Nick`s Warehouse in the city’s Cathedral Quarter`s and sizzling ‘hot rock’ steaks at the 300 year-old McHugh`s Bar.
When it comes to food tours and trails there are many opportunities and plenty of Irish experts offering guided foodie experiences, especially in and around Dublin and the southwest. County Cork, the Irish gourmet heartland, is excellent for this and there’s even a specialty beer trail available.
But over in County Mayo in the West of Ireland there is a food trail worth visiting simply because it typifies just how the amazing Irish landscape connects to Irish food culture. The Gourmet Greenway is one of the unique assets of the Great Western Greenway, which is a 42km walkers’ and cyclists’ paradise route through an area of unrivalled natural beauty on Mayo’s famed Atlantic coast. The producers that can be visited on the trail are among the most distinguished in the country – Murrevagh Honey is hand-harvested for example and Achill Island Turbot is Ireland’s only turbot farm.
Alongside the food trails the popularity of Irish food festivals is soaring, and this autumn there is a veritable feast on offer.
Visit the Northern Irish capital at any time in September and you’ll hit Belfast Food and Drink Festival for instance, a month-long celebration of food, with demonstrations by celebrity chefs, tasting-and-tips sessions from the stallholders at the wonderful St George’s Market and special offers at restaurants throughout the city. Garden Gourmet at the city’s Botanic Gardens is part of it and combines Northern Ireland’s largest flower show with an entertaining food and drink festival. The first Belfast Restaurant Week is also taking place this autumn, from 6-13 October, to celebrate Belfast’s top chefs and its ever growing number of excellent restaurants. Sample the best of Belfast food at great value.
Or put the Waterford Harvest Festival on the menu for ten lip-smacking days (10-16 September) of cookery demos and workshops, seminars, tastings, dinners, banquets and restaurant trails. It’ll also feature ‘Amazing Grazing´ – an all-island farmer and country market – and a ‘Hungry Hordes’ presentation telling stories from the local food heritage. Stand up close and you could be part of the show that explains the blaa (a renowned local bread), the cream cracker, the origins of the word whiskey and even the rasher (bacon slice), all of which are all linked to Waterford.
The same week (10-16 September) A Taste of West Cork features a Celtic Cook-off with top chefs from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Brittany.
Killyleagh native Sir Hans Sloane discovered cocoa in Jamaica and introduced it to the UK as a form of drinking chocolate in 1687. The Hans Sloane Chocolate and Fine Food Festival (21 - 23 September) in County Down offers a selection of the finest food producers from the area and many of the best chocolatiers from Ireland will be participating at the event. A great chance to taste, nibble and buy from a wonderful array of foodie goodies.
In Ireland the old rule that native oysters should only be eaten when there is an ´r´ in the month is the cue for September to kick-off the oyster season. The Hillsborough Oyster Festival (6-9 September) in Northern Ireland holds the annual World Oyster Eating Championships (record: 223 in three minutes). It will be alive with a gourmet food market, fashion show, concerts, dancing, beauty pageants and even a golf tournament and supercar dream rides in Ferraris, Porsches and Aston Martins.
Its gala ball is always the highlight and this year RMS Titanic, celebrating its centenary and built in nearby Belfast, provides the theme. The festival marquee will be decked-out in the style of the famous liner and a seven-course banquet will be based on meals that would have been served to passengers.
Every September since 1954 the small village of Clarenbridge in County Galway also celebrates the king of seafood at its Clarenbridge Oyster Festival. This year it runs from 15-16 September.
On a much larger scale the Galway International Oyster and Seafood Festival (28–30 September), labelled by London’s Sunday Times as one of the 12 greatest shows on earth, is one of Ireland’s most internationally recognised food festivals. Visitors from all over the world travel to the magical West of Ireland city to help the area celebrate the beginning month of the oyster season. Few can resist a Galway oyster tasting (with the perfect accompaniment of a pint of Guinness), the seafood fare in the city’s restaurants or the super-glam night at the Gala Oyster Ball.
This year Seanachai (storytellers) will be narrating the story of the Galway oyster, the long tradition of seaweed harvesting, salmon snatching on the River Corrib and the people who gave Galway its colour and vibrancy. Live music, sensational seafood, mouth-watering dining and the National Oyster Opening Championship will kick-start the celebrations and this year there is also a Mardi Gras parade through the city streets.
October is a great time to come and celebrate the Irish harvest too. Dingle Food and Wine Festival (5-7 October) in County Kerry and the Kinsale Gourmet Festival (12-14) in County Cork offer havens for gourmands in the early part of the month. Savour Kilkenny (25-29 October) in the medieval city of Kilkenny concludes just before Hallowe’en and even in November the food festivals continue in County Kerry with the Listowel Food Fair.
For those who want to appreciate how to put scrumptious food on the plate rather than munch through its contents, an Irish cookery school will satisfy your appetite. Learning to cook in Ireland – as a beginner or a more experienced cook – is a relaxed, fun-filled affair with warm hospitality and after-class socialising built in to the experience.
The hideaway locations of most these schools make them feel like holiday destinations. In many you can sleep over while learning to cook up a storm.
Northern Ireland has seen quite a few cookery schools open in recent times. Among them is
Belle Isle Cookery School, located in the lakelands of County Fermanagh.
Ballyknocken Cookery School in County Wicklow, a short distance from Dublin, is one of Ireland’s most famous cookery schools. Run by top TV chef and food writer Catherine Fulvio, it offers all manner of classes as well as a fantastic variety of cookery getaways and foodie short breaks with four-star guest accommodation – a special way of learning to cook, and a great way of sampling Ireland’s culinary delights.
Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork is another top cookery school in Ireland. Owned and operated by food heavyweight Darina Allen, the school is located on its own 100-acre organic farm. Students get the opportunity to cook with the finest and freshest ingredients grown on site in delightful former farm buildings.
If you can’t escape to the country, there are plenty of city-based cookery schools to try out. Cooks Academy in Dublin is located right in the city centre and James Street South in Belfast, one of the city’s best restaurants, is also now offering cookery classes for up to eight and demonstrations for up to 35.
Gourmet Ireland – why don’t you book a table?