Thursday, 1 September 2011

A Taste of Kilkenny

After a couple of days around Dublin catching up with family and friends it was time for another day of food touring, and this time my destination was Kilkenny. Kilkenny is a rising star of the Irish food scene and Ann Phelan had been charged with promoting some of the brightest lights of the scene in the guise of Trail Kilkenny. After a coffee and a chat about what I was hoping to do in terms of a food tour in the region we set off towards Stoneyford and our first stop was at Knockdrinna Farm shop and Artisan café.

Here I sampled a number of cheeses including a semi-firm goat's milk cheese in the classic French Tomme style that had been served to the queen on her recent state visit. Well I was impressed by it! And apparently I was not alone as Mary explained that people had been driving in from all over the country to sample it. The farm has a number of animals – pigs, goats, turkeys, massive rabbits etc that children love to come out and play with. Mary also produces very well regarded free range rare breed pork.

Our next stop was Jerpoint Glass, a maker of beautiful handmade glass. There is a small shop showcasing the works of glass including some stunning pieces but the highlight was watching the glass blowers at work. From Jerpoint we stopped off at Goatsbridge Trout farm where Margaret explained the process of trout farming and why trout farming was no longer a dirty word. She was clearly very passionate about what she did, and had a lot of plans for the future.  We stopped briefly into Jerpoint House, a stunning housewith very gracious hosts, on whose grounds are some very ancient ruins. I was given a quick “goose dog” (you’ve heard of sheep dogs?!) show. See here for what this means!

From here we headed down to Thomastown where we stopped into the beautiful Blackberry café run by the energetic owner Jackie. Here I had a delicious lunch of Knockdrinna quiche and a side salad while watching one of the village’s oddballs wandering around with a tame fox on his head. I swear I had had nothing to drink at this point!

We dropped in to the Truffle Fairy, an award-winning chocolatier where I was shown around and Mary explained the process of making chocolate and agreed that she would be happy to do a chocolate demo for our clients. We stopped briefly into a quirky craft shop called clay creations where Brid gave us a short demo on how she makes her most famous pieces.
As time was now running short we headed back to Kilkenny, and after a quick visit of the beautiful Kilkenny castle it was time for me to catch the train back to Dublin, tired but excited about the prospects for an excellent food tour in Ireland if we can tie all the pieces together.

Day three in Dingle

After a great sleep and another top quality gourmet breakfast with all locally sourced ingredients, and delicious bread and scones baked fresh by Brian every morning, I headed out to explore a little by myself. It was Friday so Artie was busy with the farmer’s market so I had some free time to explore and take some photos of Dingle. It is a small quaint village with a great vibe, a small picturesque port, and more pubs than you can shake a stick at.

But my first stop was the aquarium, which has been growing steadily in size and popularity since it was opened. The whole thing was very well done but the main highlights were the sharks, the giant tortoises and in keeping with the Tom Crean theme, penguins. There was also any number of exotic and colourful fish, lobsters, crabs, star fish and plenty more besides.
I wandered up to the Friday Farmer’s market. I could smell Artie’s lamb burgers before I could even see the market, and the length of the queue  for them was not that surprising. The market was small but varied, interesting and full of passionate food producers – bakers, chocolate makers, pie makers, cheesemakers, farmers selling organic vegetables, pastry and cake makers, olive sellers, and makers of various takeaway products like hummus, pizza, teas, sausages and more. The location was perfect too, right in the middle of the town attracting both locals and curious tourists.

Across from the farmer’s market was a fish and chip shop called Reel Dingle Fish, selling the day’s fresh fish battered in award winning batter and made the traditional way without blanching the fish to ensure you taste the fish and not just the batter, and served in paper the old-fashioned way. Mark, the owner and founder, explained the process to me and the concept behind the shop and how the locals had quickly taken the place to their hearts. It is now the number one fish and chip shop in town. I sampled a mixed fish platter – hake, ray, monkfish, cod and with freshly cut potato chips - and I saw why.  It was divine. The fish was flaky and full of flavour, melting in your mouth, the batter light and crispy with perfectly cut and fried chips.  Great food doesn't have to be complicated.

Ann picked me up after I had eaten my fill and we drove out to An Riasc Brewery, a small scale brewery in the nearby village of Ballyferriter.  Paul, the proprieter, showed us around and explained about the process of brewing and happily posed for me in the same spot the Irish Times asked him to sit he told me.  I felt more like a professional photographer after hearing that! Finally he cracked open a bottle of stout and I got to try it - smooth but meaty, this was a beer you would describe as “a session beer”. It certainly tasted of more.
Ann dropped me back to Dingle and I wandered around its buzzing streets for a while before heading out to catch a little of the Dingle Races, an amateur horse race that certainly draws in the crowds. There was plenty of buzz down on the racetrack and there seemed to be more bookies than punters.
After watching a couple of races it was time to head out to An Riasc B&B in Ballydavid where I was met by the owner Denise with a glass of bubbly and a smile. After freshening up I was served dinner. For starter I had organic gem lettuce, roasted brie, toasted walnut and warm cherry tomatoes. Light and simply delicious.  
For main I had fresh Dingle Bay hake and cod served on a bed of potato and chive mash with a vegetable cassolet. Heaven! I didn’t even recognise the courgette as the texture was so different to what I was familiar with, meatier and more solid. Denise put it down to the fact she had grabbed it from her garden only an hour previously. It certainly worked for me.
 For dessert I managed a small bit of the rhubarb crumble with a hint of orange. I wouldn’t normally go for rhubarb but this was superb. Sticky, slightly crunchy and only slightly sweet with a very light cream that I knew couldn’t be good for me.  Ah sure Id work it off when I got home! I chatted with Denise about the food scene in West Cork where she’s originally from and Dingle and how much things have changed over the last ten to fifteen years and even less before turning in for a badly needed early night.  This was the right spot to relax alright.

Day two in Dingle

This morning I wandered down for breakfast and the whole experience was truly top end. There was a good range of options but as an Irishman I couldn’t resist the Irish breakfast. On my plate were sausages from Jerry Flaherty’s butcher’s I’d seen made the day before as well as Black pudding from Annascaul and of course, Chicken George’s eggs. Everything was perfect and I polished it all off. I started to realise I would have to work off this trip when I got back to London!

Artie dropped me down to the waterfront and I boarded the “Fungi boat”. Fungi is a dolphin who made the unlikely decision to adopt Dingle as his home in late 1983, a fact no one can really explain. But he has been in Dingle Bay ever since and his existence has meant a living for a number of ex-fishermen who bring tourists out to see Fungi who likes the choppy waters the boats creates and comes to play. So much a fixture of these waters is Fungi that tourists only pay for the boat ride if they see Fungi, which means they always see Fungi. And true to form Fungi came out to play – gliding alongside the boat and jumping out of the water close to the side of the boat to the delight of all but especially the children on the boat.

Richie, the skipper, originally from Dublin had been a fisherman in Dingle for over thirty years and was glad of the chance to still make a living from the waters around Dingle, even if fishing was an industry in decline. We chatted about Bolivia, his favourite country, and one I had also spent some time in, and about why Fungi might have come to Dingle. Richie gave short shrift to any theories pertaining to why Fungi decided to settle here thinking they all ascribed too many human characteristics to the beloved dolphin. I tended to agree.

I was back on land very briefly, and back out on a fishing boat for a couple of hours. Other than myself there were a couple of families – from Dublin and Northern Ireland - on the boat. Paul, the skipper, told me the weather wasn’t great for fishing as it was a bit choppy but after trying a couple of spots we found a good one and we all started to catch some fish – mackerel mostly but also pollack and one sardine..

The children quickly got over their squeamishness around the fish. Back onshore Paul quickly and expertly filleted the fish and we divided it up between us, and I met Artie and Danielle from Failte Ireland, the Irish Tourist Board, and we went to a pub opposite the harbour for lunch.

I handed them some mackerel fillets and a couple of pollack too and as we chatted they cooked the fish I had caught. No arguing about the freshness of this lunch! And it was delicious, perhaps even more so knowing where it came from.

After lunch we went out to the Dingle Brewing Company. This is a new venture and their new beer , Crean’s, named after the famous Arctic explorer Tom Cream, one of Dingle’s favourite sons, has only recently been launched in the local pubs.  We met Xavier, “the cook”, the main onsite brewer who explained the brewing process and gave us a sample of the newest, still in process, version - version six. With a new yeast with which he was very happy it was a full flavoured lager with a lovely hoppy finish. He explained that the new yeast gave it a better balance and that it had more predictable results which is a must for brewers. He was clearly very excited about the whole thing. A distillery is in the process of being built and there is a little museum as well. The whole thing was very well put together.

After visiting a few more accommodation options I checked in Castlewood House for the night. Their Trip Advisor awards lined the lobby and the whole place was expertly managed by my welcoming hosts, Brian and Helen. I headed out for dinner with Artie in Paudy’s pub, a more modest meal than the night before but still very tasty.  I went for the burger on Artie’s recommendation and it was succulent and the portions enormous.

We stopped into John Benny’s pub where an excellent local band, Lumiere, were playing – two superb female vocalists and an excellent acoustic guitarist. It was very much my kind of thing but I wasn’t alone and everyone seemed to be really enjoying it. I headed back to Castlewood House for the night, tired but happy with another very nice day.

Arrival in Dingle

After an early start and a flight from Stansted to Kerry I was met at the airport by Artie and Ann, my local foodie expert and guide, respectively.  Our first stop was for a quick coffee at the Phoenix cafe en route from the airport, a quaint little café with herbs and vegetables growing in the garden and some quirky accommodation options in the garden.

From there we were off to meet Greta, originally from Cork but long since settled on the Dingle peninsula, and the local herb specialist. It was late in the season so there wasn’t much left to see but Greta happily showed me around anyway, and explained a little about the herbs she grows – mostly for culinary use but some for medicinal purposes too. From Greta’s we drove past the mussel growers in Cromand Bay and on to the Annascaul Black Pudding Company where they showed me their handmade sausages, their organic black pudding (pig’s blood sausage) which they made without the usual barley and with fresh blood unlike most black pudding which gave it an especially smooth texture and meant it could be either fried or grilled.  The factory produces about 1,800 sausages per day but it is a labour-intensive process and the place was abuzz with activity. One of their newest products was a combination black pudding sausage which looked great but unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to sample.

Our next stop was “Chicken George’s place”, the local free range egg guy who showed us the sorting process and the machine tasked with the delicate process of sorting the eggs by category. Such a gentle machine I don’t think I’ve seen before. George showed us the hen house and the gentle process that encourages the hens to lay indoors in the central shaft so that the eggs all come out on a conveyor belt and completely clean. When they are not laying the hens have the free run of the field outside.  I had never seen a hen farm before so it was interesting to see the whole process for real. Their “hen dog” (as opposed to the traditional sheep dog) stood at the open door to make sure none of the hens came out other than the way they were meant to!

From there we headed back into Dingle town we had lunch at the Garden Café, and I tasted the famous Dingle Dog, a locally baked bun custom made with two of Jerry Flaherty’s sausages inside and some caramelised onion. Truly delicious! One of the main initiatives in Dingle Food is the “L” that is seen on many menus throughout the town and the peninsula, which signifies that all ingredients are locally sourced. There are a very large number of artisan producers delivering top quality local food so the whole idea works very well.

After lunch I checked into the lovely Emlaugh Appartments, and on arrival Chicken George pulled up in his van with his delivery of eggs for the following morning.  Myself and Artie took a wander through the town once I had settled in and he showed me some wood carvings in the church grounds from a Peruvian artisan who came in search of the local priest who he had heard was a patron of the arts and was duly commissioned. Impressive stuff and a great story. We visited Jerry Kennedy’s butchers who explained a little about the process of making his sausages and about the Blasket Island beef that had just come in that day but wouldn’t be ready for sale for another five or six days.

After a little more wandering we found ourselves in a pub that was also a hardware shop, a quirky combination but not especially unusual in rural Ireland. Across the road we visited another pub, Currans, which would have been an ideal spot for a photo diary with people sitting behind the counters reading papers, shirts hanging from the shelves and all sorts of old and interesting tidbits all over the place.
Next door we went for dinner in one the town’s top restaurants, the Global Village, rated one of Ireland’s top 100. And the food lived up to its billing – I chose a crab and cognac bisque as a starter and the flavour was superb and the texture was soft and lovely. For main I had delicious Pollack while Artie had lamb, and we opted for a cheeseboard for dessert. There was a good selection of cheeses – gruyere, cheddar, a creamy goat’s cheese - but the highlight for me was a cheese from West Cork called Gobeen which was lightly smoked and had a slight sharpness. I put it on my shopping list immediately!

Myself and Artie headed down to the waterfront after dinner for a nightcap and to watch some local musicians in one of the local pubs who were pretty good. A long but very enjoyable day I have to say.