Got an appetite for a food adventure? Then check out what’s on Ireland’s bill of fare. No need to consider the stunning beauty of the Emerald Isle and its inspirational culture and heritage. And fret not about the fun and ‘craic’ you’ll have, nor the out and out friendliness and hospitality of the Irish people. The bon accord side of the trip is a given. It’s Ireland. It’ll be outstanding.
But the nosh, the foodie experience, your actual tasting, sniffing, munching, tucking in and quaffing, what will that be like?
“Absolutely excellent!” according to English holidaymaker Amanda Long, “Every bit as exciting as the Irish scenery, the literature, the music and the rest,” she says. “In fact what we ate down around Kinsale was about the best food we’ve ever had, especially the seafood, which I adore. The simplest grilled fillet of hake in a place called Fishy Fishy was just out of this world.”
The Hertfordshire mother of twin girls takes foodie breaks with her husband whenever their busy schedule allows. On the recommendation of a French friend they were in what’s regarded as the Irish food capital, Kinsale, County Cork, earlier this year. This trip has followed other food-themed trips to France, Italy, Scotland and England.
“We knew we were going to a food ‘hot spot’ so we just went our own way over two days building our sightseeing ´round places we’d picked out that looked good.
“We’ll be back as soon as we can,” adds Amanda, “that’s a certainty. Splendid, scrumptious plates of food every time.”
Ireland’s foodie menu is, however, way, way more than pretty food served on elegant plates. It’s an island-wide adventure involving the favourite Irish pastime of eating, drinking and socializing. Great food, great value and diversity can be had at all levels – from cafés and pubs offering relaxed, inexpensive dining options to stylish Michelin-starred restaurants.
Foodies realize quickly there’s as much respect and passion in Ireland for the original ingredients as the delectable end products. As Amanda and husband discerned, Irish food is intimately connected to the rich green landscape, regional farming and cooking traditions, the freshest seasonal ingredients and supremely talented food-meisters who magically inject the ‘art’ into artisan Irish produce. “You couldn’t not notice that the Irish are very knowledgeable about their raw ingredients and where they come from”, she says. “That’s very encouraging.”
Specialist shops, artisan producers, delis, farmers’ markets and farm outlets will surprise too with delicacies and unusual Irish treats such as air-dried hill lamb from Connemara; smoked eel from Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland; boxty, a potato pancake popular in Dublin; seaweed-flavoured sausages from County Mayo; or drisheen, a kind of black pudding, from Cork. All of it grown, prepared and served with passion passed down through generations.
The thriving Irish foodie scene has until lately been a bit of a well-kept secret. But not any more.
Word is out and international food tours into Ireland are on the up. Earlier this year French tourism bible Le Guide du Routard rated the Irish dining experience “as good if not better than anywhere else in the world”. And in May, Ross Lewis of Michelin-starred Dublin restaurant Chapter One showcased both Irish culinary expertise and produce in a widely acclaimed menu for the state banquet held in Queen Elizabeth II’s honour. The subsequent royal visit to the English Market in Cork – a symbol of all that’s great about Irish food – again fixed the international spotlight on traditional Irish produce. The 223 year-old covered market has heaved with local and overseas visitors ever since.
Food festivals are a brilliant way to experience Ireland’s vibrant food culture and to mingle with Irish people who’ll be eager to share, celebrate and talk about their locally-grown foods. They appear all over the country from spring right up until Christmas.
September is the month of the oyster and in Northern Ireland the annual Hillsborough Oyster Festival (1-4) holds the world oyster eating championships – you’ll have to eat around 223 in three minutes if you want to seriously compete! But the pretty Georgian village is alive with music, Ulster’s fine food, golf, dancing and pageants if you don’t.
The world-famous Galway International Oyster and Seafood Festival (23-25) is also a major event in Ireland´s social calendar – London’s Sunday Times has called it one of the 12 greatest shows on earth. Guests and luminaries from all over the world usually attend to help the area celebrate the start of the oyster season.
Walk through the city and you’ll see passionately fought-out Irish and international oyster opening competitions, celebrity cook-offs, and fantastic live music events on the streets and pouring out of the pubs. Electrifying craic intermingles with the gourmet sights and smells. Few can resist a Galway oyster tasting (with the perfect accompaniment of a pint of Guinness), a ‘seafood dine-around’ some of the city’s best restaurants or a glam night out at the Gala Oyster Ball.
This festival is a quintessential world-class Irish event – a great time of the year for visiting the city and the stunning West of Ireland.
Bite into a Blaa
There’s a similar buzz at the Waterford Harvest Festival on Ireland’s east coast (September 3-11). If you ever wondered what a pig’s trotter would taste like or want to bite into a blaa, the city’s famous fluffy bread roll, Waterford can satisfy your curiosity – and your appetite. World-famous for exquisite Waterford Crystal, this historic Viking city also boasts a wonderful food heritage and culture.
Run over 10 mouth-watering days, foodies will relish the cookery demos and workshops, seminars, foodie films and tastings, dinners, banquets and restaurant trails. Street performances and big outdoor music gigs are also on the Waterford menu.
Move into October and the dishes keep coming. Few towns and cities can rival the picturesque town of Dingle, County Kerry, for a blend of eating, drinking, music and craic added to sea, sand and scenery. At Dingle Food and Wine Festival (1-2) almost every shop, gallery, hotel and restaurant organizes a tasting of some sort – from oysters to kangaroo.
At Savour Kilkenny (28-31), meanwhile, what’s unique is that you get to meet, learn from and taste the produce of the many wonderful artisans in the county whose passion and personality shape the foodstuff. Food lovers can expect lots of quirky ideas, demos, artisan tasting menus and an all-out party atmosphere in hotels, restaurants, cafes and shops throughout the beautiful medieval city.
Deeper into Food
If you want to take your love for food a bit deeper you can sign up for one of the excellent cookery schools located around the country. Dabble or specialize in traditional Irish or world cuisine and learn under the direction of Ireland’s best chefs with a glass of wine or two in charming surroundings. Serious foodies can also opt for a food tour – counties Cork, Mayo and Dublin are excellent for these.
But no trip to Ireland is complete without experiencing the thriving pub culture. An Irish pub is more than just a place to have a drink; it’s frequently a traditional music experience, almost always a great conversational experience and very often a fine foodie experience as well – many, many establishments have superb reputations for top-drawer cuisine.
An after-dinner pint of stout, a nice Irish whiskey or Irish coffee will leave you purring over the happy marriage of wonderful hospitality, and the senses surprised and satisfied by excellent food.
And if those drinks don’t appeal, how about champagne? It will be a feature of the 35th Bollinger Kinsale Gourmet Festival (October 7-9), which kicks off with a ‘Bolly Ball’ and showcases the fine food of one of the top places in Ireland to eat.