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Dining in the Emerald Isle

Irish food gets a bad rap. While travelling the length and the breadth of this tiny but spectacular island on the Atlantic, to be sure, we ate some potatoes. But there’s much more to Ireland than the humble spud: outstanding grass-fed beef, market-fresh vegetables, rustic breads, handmade sweets – and a claim on the world’s best seafood. 

Like most culinary adventurers, we picked up the food trail in the capital. Dublin might be best known for its down-home pub meals served with creaming pints of jet-black Guinness, but it’s also home to no less than four Michelin-starred restaurants. Patrick Guilbaud’s Franco-Celtic cuisine has been collecting gongs since 1981, and Chapter One presents a polished if somewhat staid fine-dining experience.

However, it’s the new guard of Irish chefs championing fresh takes on traditional cuisine who are making truly exciting food. Overlooking the ancient grey roofs of Trinity College is The Pig’s Ear, a three-level venue fitted out like a comfortable, if eclectic, household. Chef Stephen McAllister has crafted a simple-sounding but deftly executed menu that favours local, seasonal and organic. A slow-cooked, glazed pork belly from nearby Crowe’s Farm served with burnt pear, butternut, pumpkin seeds and artisanal black pudding is a standout; as is roast cod with lardo, salt cod brandade, sweetcorn, hay-smoked butter, clams and samphire. Sharing a bottle of crisp, oily Albarino from a smart wine list only improves the fare.

Aforementioned pub meals are not to be sniffed at, either. Converted grocer-cum-bar, L. Mulligan Grocer, throngs with locals who queue for the tasty counter meals and craft beer. Think spiced potted crab with lemony croutes, or a free-range vegetarian Scotch egg with cheddar, mustard leeks and a house-made relish, served with a Kentucky IPA.

A traditional Irish dish is smoked salmon, served on sweet, dark-brown soda bread. Its best iteration was at Hatch & Sons. This casual cafe with raw wooden tables and reclaimed lamps serves us a cutting board covered in totally delicious dark-pink salmon with oat-dusted bread.

The city’s cafe scene is expanding, with local roasters opening up shop and baristas serving filter and AeroPress alongside the espresso double-shot. 3FE, founded by World Barista contender Colin Harmon, is roasting the country’s best coffee (and we drank a lot), with quality blends for the milky drinkers and single-origin filters for coffee snobs. Across the Liffey, there’s a new cafe called Oxmantown, which serves spot-on Reuben sandwiches and Cloud Picker coffee while you stare out dreamily into the street.

Across the border in the north, the Belfast food scene is also no slouch. It pains me to say it, but the best steak I’ve ever eaten came from James Street South Bar & Grill: dry-aged and cooked over an insanely hot, wood-fired Josper grill, and served with smoky Brussels sprouts – expertly simple. Up in the Cathedral district, where every alleyway opens onto a jumping little pub, there’s a hilarious (and delicious) Southern-style chicken diner named Yardbird. Again, the menu is simple: dry-rubbed free-range chicken cooked over coals and served in wholes, halves or quarters, with corn, coleslaw or fries on the side – genuinely finger-lickin’ good and a huge amount of fun.

But perhaps the foodiest city in all of Ireland is Galway. A port whose European influence is visible in its Spanish arches, but whose Celtic pride runs deep, Galway’s food culture is vibrantly alive. While its cultural influences certainly don’t hurt, it’s the quality of the produce that makes the West Coast so exciting. Culinary travellers flock to the annual Galway International Oyster Festival, but the seafood is good all year round. Moran’s Oyster Cottage has a reputation for top-quality oysters and smoked salmon stretching back to the 1760s. Sitting before the fire with a plateful of bivalves and pint of Murphy’s Stout is just as good now as it was then.

Of course, you needn’t go out when you can simply cook yourself. Galway Farmers’ Markets bring the best West Coast produce into town. We found foraged mushrooms, heirloom carrots with the dirt still on and bright green sprouts clinging to the stalks – all organic and locally grown. Across the square is Sheridans Cheesemongers, a fromagerie and wine-shop/bar with an international reputation. It has a careful selection of international cheeses and a broad range of excellent locals. Ireland’s washed-rind cheeses, grassy and bold, should be as world-renowned as the country’s whiskey.

So, foodies aren’t exactly starved for choice. But, even with the wealth of beautiful cuisine, it was a little Galway eatery named Ard Bia that provided our journey’s standout meal. Housed in a medieval stone building on the banks of the river, Ard Bia is equal parts cafe, pantry and à la carte restaurant. There’s a faint North African inflection to the unarguably Irish menu, with dishes such as Galway Goat farm fresh cheese, pear, walnuts, wild rocket; and local shellfish risotto, saffron bisque and pea shoots, changing seasonally. Proprietor Aoibheann MacNamara has a judiciously light touch, which transforms rustic, familiar dishes into something more refined. In fact, Ard Bia was so good, we went straight back the next night. How much are tickets again…?

 

Following the food festivals

If you’re a diehard foodie, it’s a good idea to organise your trip around Ireland’s many food festivals.

A Taste of West Cork Food Festival, which takes place in Skibbereen from 4-13 September, is one of the country’s longest-running. It features food markets and special dinners, along with a host of cooking classes and exhibitions.

Galway International Oyster Festival, running from 24-27 September is an all-out celebration of the region’s world-class shellfish. It’s actually the world’s oldest oyster festival and is held every year at the beginning of the oyster harvest. To welcome the bivalves, there are street parades, seafood trails, plenty of champagne and, obviously, rivers of stout.

But, if you really want to take things back to basics, 3 October is National Potato Day, with farm visits, spud roasts and celebrity cooking events all over the country.

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