An Eejit Abroad: It’s an Irish Food Revolution
By CB Makem
It’s time to take a look at Ireland’s gustatory achievements. Now settle down, geez! What’s wrong with you? Ireland has a great number of world class traditional offerings. Tayto Cheese and Onion, anyone? Irish sausages? Tea and biscuits? There you go… calm down… breath.
But you are right. We’ve never been known for our cuisine. I was in the old country in the 90s with my brothers, the youngest of us having ordered the spaghetti Bolognese at a well-respected eatery.
When the dish arrived, he asked the waitress if she noticed anything awry with his meal. She didn’t… until he pointed out that the noodles had missed the boat. It was just the meat sauce. (I could also go into disturbing details about the U.S. as well, like the time at a Midwest diner when the vegetable of the day was listed as mac and cheese, but I’ll digress in order to stay on topic.)
So, what do they say? You don’t visit Ireland for the weather or the food. Friends, don’t let this dreadful old saying dissuade you. You may have chomped through a tough bit of corned beef and cabbage during the last Paddy’s Day fundraiser. You might even be recollecting a visit to the auld sod a few years back and your own version of the spaghetti Bolognese caper.
I am here to tell you that things have changed … mightily. All joking aside, you should be setting up a food tour of Ireland right now!
Now, I’ll defend a carvery lunch ‘til the day I die. The Irish do a lump of meat, two veg and gravy as well as anyone. However, Ireland is a new and delectable ballgame today. They actually care about what they eat nowadays, and they have the kind of inherent lush landscape that produces delicious foodstuffs the old-fashioned way, no factory needed.
You see, after the Celtic Tiger, regular people finally had enough spare shekels to visit other countries and they discovered that food was more than just sustenance, it could be pure joy on a plate. Chefs returned with brilliant new ideas to liven up the culinary landscape, incorporating their international inspirations in with the fresh produce and livestock the country already did so well. And just like here, food and travel shows have raised their noshing expectations.
Now wherever you go you’ll find restaurants embracing locally grown and raised fare and dishes you never thought you’d see in Ireland. You’ll even see entire vegetarian restaurants, a stoneable offense not that long ago. In fact, the absolute best falafel I’ve ever eaten was at a farmer’s market on a cold, wet morning in Ballintemple, Co. Cork two years back. I’m a tried and true meat-eater, but if you can’t break out of your comfort zone to try some delicious meatless comestibles, then maybe you deserve to feel the tinge of coronary artery disease.
That having been said, if you still want to stop the old ticker at the local chipper, you’ll be able to do that. But … if, like a lot of people out there, you want an Instagrammable and Food Network worthy meal, Ireland has you covered.
Cork: Let’s take an incredibly short food trip starting in County Cork, which is the hands-down mantle holder for first-class Irish grub. It’s home to the world-renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School, run by celebrity chef Darina Allen, a pioneer in the slow food movement. They have courses as short as a half day if you’re up for something different on your next trip over.
The center of all local grub is the English Market in Cork City, running since the 1700s. Think of the food court at your neighborhood mall. Now replace all of the huge chains with local food-producing artisans, butchers and fishmongers. Grab a pastry and coffee and take in the sights and smells of one of Ireland’s largest traditional food markets. And with non-food stalls as well, there’s always a surprise waiting for you.
While in Cork City, stop in to Elbow Lane, a smokehouse with an intimate and relaxed setting that also brews its own beer. I had one of the best locally-sourced, wood-grilled steaks of my life there, along with a sampling of four of their very own delicious brews. It’s a perfect venue for a romantic dinner without all of the pomp and circumstance.
If you’re looking for low-key basic grub and inventive drinks, try the burgers or rotisserie chicken at Coqbull. Libby and I stopped in for drinks and thoroughly enjoyed the options and vibe.
Galway: Cork isn’t the only area able to toot its own horn, so to speak. Galway City visitors seeking organic, wild and locally sourced ingredients could very well end up at Kai Café. They feature whatever’s in season.
“How about a sampling?” you ask. You bet. How’s this for a starter? Tipperary venison, date, blackberries and peanut. Or for supper: monkfish, spinach, rope mussels and Madras broth. Still not sure? Lonely Planet Magazine named Kai Café one of the top three places to eat… in the world! Alternatively, head to Cava Bodega for what the Irish Times calls “the best tapas in Ireland,” with small bites like smoked duck, plum compote and hazelnut, or jámon serrano, manchego cheese and quince.
And so on…
Cripes, I always do this. I had every intention of touting eateries and drinkeries up and down Ireland. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough space. So, I need to cut it off somewhere. But allow me, as a final suggestion, to point you toward some food tours for your next trip across the pond.
These folks will bring you to the best of the best in the area, hopping from restaurant to producer and back again, showing you behind the scenes, as well as stuffing your stomach with deliciousness. It’s quite possible that you’ll find local food trails wherever you’re heading in Ireland, but I’ve thrown in a few here for your perusal. They’re not your cookie cutter tours, though I suppose you might indulge in some cookies while on one.
Fab Food Trails (www.fabfoodtrails.ie), with offerings in Dublin and Cork; Good Food Ireland (www.goodfoodirelandexperiences.com), including cooking classes and farm tours; Irish Food Trail (www.irishfoodtrail.ie) with tours of Dublin and Galway.
And by all means, run an internet search for food tours of wherever you’re heading. Go experience for yourself the burgeoning of an Irish food revolution.
*CB Makem spent 22 years traveling and honing petty gripes as an Irish musician, and enjoyed a further 13 years of people not returning his calls as a journalist. He is fluent in English, American and old Kerry farmer. More of his photos are on Instagram under cb.makem.