I’ll admit, I was sceptical. Over the last decade or so, publications such as Food & Wine and the New York Times have expounded on Ireland’s exciting new food scene, revelling in the capital’s locally sourced ingredients and highlighting new chef talents along the country’s southern coast. Even Saveur magazine’s 2015 Good Taste Awards named Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way – a 2,500km route that stretches from County Donegal to County Cork – as the world’s best culinary road trip, noting the influx of artisanal producers in villages big and small.
But I’d been to Ireland three times in the last 10 years, and I never remembered having a meal worth writing home about. In fact, the first time I visited, I was hard-pressed to find a pub serving food past 7 pm.
And yet, here I was, in a standard pub in Doolin – a tiny musical hub in County Clare on Ireland’s west coast – looking at a menu that offered such delights as Atlantic chowder garnished with seaweed dust. I had just ordered a starter of pan-seared scallops with black pudding and celeriac puree, followed by a fillet of Atlantic salmon with local Burren honey. My fiancé Dan’s seemingly traditional beef stew was elevated by the accompanying nettle dumplings and creamy colcannon. Each dish – from the local seafood trawler to the 24-hour slow cooked bellied rib of pork – had a suggested international wine or Irish craft beer pairing. The pub even brewed its own Dooliner Beer: a smooth Irish red ale with a lightly hopped, tea-like flavour that (so they say) comes with a no-hangover guarantee.
All around me, the sights of Ireland were the same as the times I’d been before. The pubs were just as lively, the traditional music just as rich, the people just as friendly. But the food was surprisingly delicious; innovatively prepared and locally sourced. And sitting in Fitzpatrick’s Pub that night – in a land where the passion comes from the music you hear and the people you meet – I felt as though the food had been the country’s missing piece: the thing that intensifies their world-renowned warmth and makes their famous hospitality even richer. This was not the same Ireland I’d been to before.
“Ireland as a food destination is really going to take off,” said Niall Hughes, proprietor and chef at Doolin’s Sea View House B&B. “Italy has the name. France has the name. In five to 10 years, Ireland will as well. Sometimes big movements take little steps – and if you end up with enough of them, you make massive changes.”