Not just potatoes. Ireland, a food journey

There’s so much more to Irish food than potatoes, we discovered on a recent trip. While food was only one of the reasons drawing us to the Emerald Isle, we discovered an abundance of food experiences, even though we only scratched the surface. Here are some great food-related reasons to visit Ireland:

To discover our food heritage

As Australians, we feel lots of connection to Ireland. And why shouldn’t we? About 2 million people, 10 percent of the Australian population, claim Irish heritage.

Mention Irish history and the Potato Famine comes to mind immediately. While many political factors exacerbated the severity of the famine, reliance on one crop as food for many Irish people led to great vulnerability when the crop suffered blight from 1845 – 1849. A lack of both food and opportunity stripped Ireland of its people, taking the population from an estimated 10 million before the famine down 25% within a few years, to 4.7 million today. We visit famine ships and emigration museums across Ireland to learn more about its history.

Valuing food diversity and uniqueness is paramount to survival. The lack of commercial greenhouses in Ireland surprised us. There is a reliance on fruit and vegetables imported from around the Mediterranean, particularly Spain and Portugal.

The Slow Food movement reminds us that heirloom plants and traditional recipes are worth preserving. We see all that and more in Ireland: a vast array of Irish cheeses…

… a full Irish breakfast with black pudding, soda bread, Irish stew, boxty, colcannon, bacon and cabbage, fires fuelled by peat, and hand-cut chips accompanying fried fish and brown bread. We also see some varieties of plants not common in Australia, such as the delicious lamb’s lettuce.

Along the way, we’re down to one real meal a day. Irish food is so filling and ‘in generous proportions’!

To meet some Food Champions

The Fáilte Ireland food tourism initiative aims to get visitors to Ireland to ‘stop more, spend more and stay longer’. As well as designating tourist areas (Ireland’s Ancient East, Dublin – A Breath of Fresh Air, and the Wild Atlantic Way) they have appointed Food Champions – chefs and people in the food industry who can promote new food tourism experiences.

We meet Niall Sabongi, a food champion who owns three restaurants in Dublin, including the intimate seafood bar Klaw: The Seafood Cafe, where we have lunch. “We are an island nation surrounded by seas and amazing seafood,” he says. He’s all about freshness and sustainability.

Seafood chowder with leeks and pippies, along with Fish and chips – citrus breaded Arklow plaice with handcut chips and homemade tartare fit the bill on a cool day.

Let’s not forget entree – a large, juicy oyster each. There’s a choice of provenance, these ones from Galway being plump and creamy. Might as well give us the postcodes while you’re at it!

To meet and greet the makers

There’s no better place to meet makers and suppliers than at local markets. Markets in Cork and Galway bring fresh vegetables, fruit, cheese and seafood to the people.

We love how some restaurants, such as Market Lane in Cork, feature their food producers and suppliers, shining the light on provenance and fresh local produce.

To visit some great markets

English Market, Cork

In existence since 1788, the English Market in Cork is regarded as one of the best in Ireland. Under cover in a mid-18th century building, providores sell the best fish and meat in the area. The market has hosted many famous visitors, including the royals.

It’s “… a civic space, a meeting place, a thoroughfare, and a bustling social hub of the city. With its variety of products, the pride of place accorded to small traders, the personalised service, the growing emphasis on organic products and reliance on small-scale producers, it is forever popular.

A mix of traditional Cork fare and exciting new foods from afar, along with longstanding family-run stalls and newcomers from outside, all contribute to its unique appeal, which is celebrated widely, especially by visitors to the city…”

Galway Market

Galway’s famous bustling street market has been trading in Church Lane by St Nicholas’ Church in the centre of the city for literally centuries. You will find hundreds of stalls selling fresh produce such as vegetables, flowers, plants, seafood and seaweed, and locally produced crafts.

To visit exceptional specialty grocers

Specialty grocers scattered across Ireland, such as Mc Cambridge’s in Galway, bring a rich choice of produce to consumers.

We visit one of the best food stores we’ve ever seen, Sawers Ltd., founded in 1897. Named by the New York Times as one of the 5 best stores to shop in Belfast, it’s a cornucopia of delight for foodies.

Originally a seafood shop, the range extended to cheese, four Irish cheeses at first and now a huge range from throughout Europe, chutneys and jams, including a range made under their own label, smallgoods and specialty grocery items, salads and baked goods to go.

What a delight! Owner/manager Kieran Sloan gives us a little tour and potted history. Having trained under the famous Tommy Black, Kieran’s attitude to us, street walk-ins, is indicative of the business attitude he engenders in all his staff: every customer counts! Service is king!

To experience gastropubs, keeping tradition alive

There’s no better place to find a filling meal on a cold day than in one of Ireland’s gastropubs. With an emphasis on familiar food, we dine on Irish seafood chowder, hearty soups, great homemade bread, and fresh fish with hand cut chips. Gastropubs source local ingredients to give a real taste of Irish cuisine in casual surroundings.

Our first stop from the airport, suitcases and all, is at Toddy’s Bar & Brasserie, The Gresham Hotel, Dublin, where we dine on Mussels in saffron broth with soda bread. Waitress Alison shows us amazing Irish hospitality that we will encounter everywhere on our trip.

Across Ireland we stop for lunch at local pubs, sharing soup and stew ‘to warm the cockles of our hearts’. They’re great places to people watch as well. You could tour Ireland by its pubs, all in the name of research!

To see the reinvention of tradition

While many places present traditional Irish dishes, there are a few intent on reinventing them, putting their own twist on the classics.

In Market Lane, Cork our entrée of Vietnamese braised brisket is served with cucumber and pickled ginger salad is followed by slow-cooked Crowe’s bacon collar served with mustard glaze, parsnip and scallion mash, potato purée, creamy leek sauce and braised hipsi cabbage. It’s a hearty reinvention of classic Irish fare.

A Michelin Star restaurant, Chapter One

Descending the stairs to Michelin starred Chapter One, Dublin, we enter a sophisticated dining room. Ross Lewis’ Chapter One is one of Dublin’s finest restaurants, yet dining at lunch is both affordable (36 Euro for two courses) and more casual than dinner.

We begin with delectable hors d’oeuvres and brown bread. Entree – Fricassee of rabbit, morels, parsley and parmesan. It’s the best rabbit my farmer has tasted. (Rather different to the rabbits he shot as a teen to be cooked for dinner.)

Entree – Smoked organic salmon, Lambay crab pancake (rather like a crumpet), peas and cherry blossom vinaigrette. An interesting combination. Main – Salt marsh duck, smoked black pudding, crapaudine beetroot, bonito-flavoured sesame and pear. Main – Cod, white asparagus, pickled sweet kelp, Connemara cockles and brown butter.

The restaurant itself may not be as visually impressive as Copenhagen’s Marchaud, but our meal is delightful!

To enjoy seafood, the bounty of an island nation

On our island journey, we dine on magnificent seafood in chowder, grilled, fish and chips, freshly caught by the restaurant’s boats.

We must give tribute to those who brave the wilds to bring us fresh seafood. We’re at New Quay, a favourite haunt of Seamus Heaney, who wrote:

“A hurry through which known and strange things pass, As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways, And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

On a cool, blustery summer’s day, we stop at Linnane’s Lobster Bar for lunch (one of thirty Irish pubs listed in the Michelin guide), looking out over the inlet. The town lies in view outside one window… The fishing boat and cray pots out front.

The chef pops down to the coldroom to pick up the ordered cray… And before long it’s presented in front of us, unadorned, as well as a pot of chowder. Life couldn’t be better!

Market Lane, Cork – Roaring Water Bay mussels are a tasty entree with white wine cream, garlic, herbs and shallots served with crusty bread.

Celebrity chef Martin Shanahan is a seafood champion, selling fresh fish traced in provenance to the person who caught it, (named on the menu). Overlooking Kinsale’s pretty harbour, the seafood here is as fresh as it gets.

Grilled local plaice caught by David Hurley served on Asian style noodles with toasted sesame, soy and honey dressing.

Jimmy Hurley’s pan-fried cod on a bed of orzo provencale, with salsa verde and citrus cream. It’s perfect in its delicious simplicity!

To visit the birthplace of Guinness

Dream me a city… Dublin is everything we hoped it would be and more – quirky and historic, literary and fun, great food and people watching, a crazy sense of humour and eccentricity.

There are many distilleries in Dublin and, while whiskey is high on our priority list, Guinness is higher, so it wins. Allow half a day to visit the Guinness Storehouse.

In Trinity College Library, Dublin, we see the Brian Born harp, dating from the Middle Ages, the symbol of Guinness, whose famous storehouse is only a few kilometres away.

In 1759, Arthur Guinness signed a 900-year lease on the property to begin his brewery. Despite his foresight, he could not have guessed how successful his new business would prove to be!

Housed in the oldest continuously operating factory in Dublin, the Guinness Storehouse is a must visit attraction. 10,000 visitors a day pass through its doors. It’s a top tourist attraction spread out across seven levels with interactive displays, educational films with brewing well-explained for the novice.

One of the most fascinating aspects for us was an old documentary about the work of coopers. It’s an amazing and dying craft.

One whole floor is dedicated to Guinness’ advertising slogans. One slogan, ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’, used in an ad challenging sexual stereotypes, is attributed to Australian writer and activist, Patricia Irene Dunn.

Lots of displays refer to tradition, however during our visit a new page was turned in history, with men employed by Guinness awarded 6 months paternity leave, equal to a woman’s.

As well as recipes featuring Guinness, there’s even a restaurant serving some of those dishes.

Upstairs, there’s that harp again, along with Guinness on tap to be enjoyed with a view of the city. It’s a perfect end to a mighty find journey.


NOTE: This was a self-funded tour of Ireland.