Ireland took my heart hostage – that’s obvious by now! It’s scarred history and its wild beauty were perhaps the two obvious reasons to fall for its charms. But for me there was an unexpected (and delicious bonus), and that was the food. I didn’t go to Ireland for the food – but if I had, I would not have been disappointed.
I’d come from balmy afternoons eating wonderful food in France, both in my friends’ home, and in quirky street cafés, and then from the delights of London’s Borough Market, and the delicious Eating London Tour, so I was kind of sated. Plus, when I scanned the schedule for Fáilte Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way tour, packed with glimpses into history, the environment, and sports and leisure activities, I presumed that food would be fast fuel to propel us to the next stop – I couldn’t have been more wrong!
I suppose my awakening had begun in Cork, with the outstanding Boardwalk Bar and Grill, and the sumptuous breakfast at the Montenotte Hotel; and continued in Cork’s iconic English Market, where homemade pastries jostle with Mediterranean olives and Irish pies, and the café and bar on the mezzanine level give “a quick lunch” a whole other meaning.
To go from Dublin to Sligo, as we did initially on this trip, is to traverse the country from east to west, with photo op stops that’s three or four hours or so, so refuelling was necessary. The stop we made for refreshment en route should have been my first clue. At the Mullingar Park Hotel in Westmeath, despite our tardiness (the beginning of this feature of our journey already!) a welcome afternoon tea awaited us. Even though most of us had missed lunch there was going to be no way we could do justice to the mounds of fresh sandwiches and cakes we were offered.
Some of the stops we made were longer than others, depending on the schedule we had for the day, but quality of food, friendliness of service, and generosity of both marked every single one.
Our all too brief elevenses at the Grianan Hotel in Inishowen featured enormous Irish scones and cream; what was described as a “light” lunch at Slieve League Cliffs Ti Linn Artisan Café was a feast of homemade soups and scones; dinner in the Tra Ban Restaurant in Strandhill gave “pub grub” a new meaning; and Ubiquitous Restaurant in Buncrana skilfully and creatively mixed local produce with touches of international cuisine to make their own signature dishes. Arriving late (and at the only point on our trip where I felt truly chilly) at Nancy’s Barn in Ballyliffin in Co Donegal, I don’t know which warmed me more, their delicious soup, or the welcome. They describe their dining room a having a “home from home atmosphere,” and I can vouch for that. I took this snap of their cakes and desserts on the way out – to remind me to go back when I have more time!
Inevitably, places stand out in your personal memory, sometimes because they slide comfortably into that place in your soul where they settle in with like-minded corners of the world, or you think, “Dealt a different set of cards this is where life might have taken me.” I discovered two of these. I don’t doubt that in addition to their wonderful food, the locations of both these restaurants, overlooking the ocean, has a lot to do with my enchantment.
The first was Shells Seaside Bakery and Café in Strandhill Co Sligo. Because the café was reserved for us, we entered through the gift shop, yeah, I know, “as they say” – but this one actually tempted me with its artisan goodies and bric a brac! (Perhaps Ryanair is in cahoots with my bank?).
Outside the sun was drifting gracefully over the horizon, and the day’s last surfers were trudging home. These sights are familiar to me, but when set against the hot colors of the subtropics, and not in this pastel setting. Seaside décor reflected the mood outside. I chose fish ‘n’ chips, with brownie for dessert, because these are favorite, familiar things and I was curious to see how this place, which appealed to me so much in other senses, would measure up to expectations when it came to food. It surpassed them all.
And that evening, body weary from having to rise at 5.30 to catch an early train to Dublin (because Cork were in the hurling finals and later trains and buses were all full), the seeds of my love affair with Ireland, which had been planted in Cork, took root and began to flourish.
After a walk, which satisfied both body and mind, the next morning our group descended on the Harbour of Mullaghmore in Country Sligo, and Eithna’s By the Sea.
This setting was utterly idyllic, the sheltered picturesque harbor on the wild coast, and the restaurant, its blue exterior reflecting the colors of the ocean. Another warm welcome, and I will swear that everyone sighed as we entered the upstairs dining room – take a look at the pictures and you will see why! Did you ever see such a pretty table?
Eithna sources all foods locally where possible. Fresh fish and seafood, accompanied by homemade seaweed pesto and chutneys, tasted every bit as fresh and delicious as you would want it to, and in case you’re wondering if that elderflower lemonade tasted as good as it looks? The answer is yes! Eithna gave us interesting tidbits about her cuisine and the local area, even dragged in her dad to say hello. Of course, we couldn’t let him go without hearing about his organic farm, which supplies the veggies to the restaurant.
The traditionally elegant dining room of Harvey’s Point Hotel on Lough Eske in Donegal might seem worlds away from a colorful cottage-style restaurant by a tiny harbor, but it was simply the other side of the coin. Harvey’s Point is about elegant, nouvelle cuisine style dining, and yet effortlessly combines an abundance of that same Irish warmth and hospitality. It’s a lesson other hotels would do well to learn, to acknowledge that friendliness does not mean inferior service. Real Irish smoked salmon, (whose flavor so far surpasses the stuff you buy from the supermarket that you may never buy it again), flavourful lamb and rich, mouth-watering desserts at dinner, all artistically presented, and breakfasts which included a specially cooked gammon and omelettes cooked by the chef in the dining room to order as well as an abundance of the usual suspects
I took away three things from this culinary extravaganza. One: Ireland is probably sadly under-rated as a foodie tourist destination. Two: the friendly welcome everywhere is totally in proportion to the quality of the food. And three: there is a pride and a dedication to sourcing the best Ireland has to offer, which speaks volumes for both its past and its future.
I can’t finish this post without mentioning Guinness, now can I? Well, to be fair, I should also mention Murphy’s, which I sampled in Cork. And no way am I going to come down in favor of one or the other without trying them both side by side, sip by sip! However, Guinness proved to be more than just a beverage – it is also a destination!
A complete contrast to almost everything we had experienced on the Wild Atlantic Way, Fáilte Ireland hosted an opening night event for TBEX at the Guinness Storehouse, where we washed down tapa sized portions of beef in Guinness, skewered prawns and lamb kofta, confit of duck and chilli chicken lollipops and other tasty delights with pint after pint of the black stuff. This was sophisticated, capital city catering, another indication of that fusion of tradition and creativity that evidently is the signature of 21st century Ireland.
Oh – and for the record – yes Guinness does taste better in situ than elsewhere. Ah, well, as if I needed yet another reason to go back to Ireland!
If you hadn’t gathered from the post, I took this trip along The Wild Atlantic Way as a guest of Fáilte Ireland. The well-worn phrase goes something like “All opinions are my own”. I very much hope that’s obvious. I can only say a huge thank you to Fáilte Ireland for this incredible glimpse of their country, and say I will be back to search for those pieces of my heart in the not-too-distant future!