Restaurant reviews: Paolo Tullio at The Cill Rialaig, Co Kerry
I hadn't intended to do a review of the Cill Rialaig Arts Centre Café, but the food was so good, so genuine, that I really had to.
There was a plan for my weekend: I was going to drive down to Ballinskelligs and open an exhibition of Suzy O'Mullane's paintings in the Cill Rialaig Arts Centre, and then, on the following day -- Saturday -- I had planned to stay in The Europe Hotel in Killarney and taste the food of Max Nahke, their head chef. That was the plan.
Marian Kenny, my son Rocco and I set off for Kerry on a cold, dull, rainy, cloudy summer's day, heading for The Kingdom. We left Dublin with the thermometer reading 11Â°C, but by the time we hit Kerry it had rocketed up to 13 degrees. Ah yes, the warm climate of the south.
As we drove towards Ballinskelligs, we had a few of those conversations that went like this: Rocco would say, "There's a brilliant view round this bend", then we'd get there and we'd see just 100 yards through the mist. That happened a few times, and in fact, I never even got a glimpse of the Skelligs.
We arrived at the Arts Centre in time for the opening and had a chance to look around. It's a building entirely in keeping with its surroundings, made of stone and with a thatched roof; it really looks the part.
Inside, there are a couple of rooms for exhibits and the central area was set up with tables and chairs. I was told, "Ivor O'Connor is going to do a buffet after the show and we're all invited to stay and eat".
It turned out to be one of those small-world moments. Back in the 1990s, I went to do an interview with racehorse trainer David O'Brien, who had bought ChÃ¢teau Vignelaure in Provence. I spent a couple of days at Vignelaure, where I also met Ivor, who was working there at the time. So, all these years later, I meet him again, this time in the furthest reaches of Kerry.
Ivor is what I would call a hands-on chef. By that, I mean there's no part of food production that he's not willing to have a go at. He's entirely passionate about finding the right ingredients and, if he can't find them, he'll make them from scratch. Here's an example: one of the dishes he'd prepared was a cassoulet done Italian style. He couldn't get the proper Italian salsiccie (sausages) so he made them. They tasted exactly as they do in Italy, flavoured with just a hint of fennel seed.
The first dishes he brought out to the buffet were the starters. There were salads, and then I spotted melon and prosciutto.
Now, I can honestly say that in all my years in Ireland I have never once been given a ripe melon. It seems that, like tomatoes, the ripe versions are entirely unavailable.
Still, I put a couple of slices on my plate because I knew I'd enjoy the prosciutto. And then, wonder of wonders, the sweet, exotic flavours of ripe melon filled my mouth, with just a hint of saltiness imparted by the prosciutto.
It was a Proustian moment -- suddenly I was transported to Italy. The taste was just perfect, and the reason why Italians combine melon and prosciutto was made obvious.
I wasn't the only person to notice; suddenly everyone was returning to the buffet for more melon, and very soon it was all gone.
Back at the buffet I found the wild sea trout, which Ivor had smoked himself. It was a light smoking, but it had given the fish a wonderful flavour. This was another dish that had me enthusing loudly to anyone who would listen.
Alongside the sea trout was wild salmon, which Ivor had also smoked -- this time in the classic way, creating a truly delicious and tender smoked salmon.
Ivor is also a passionate fisherman, who fishes the sea nearby. "So did you catch these fish?" I asked.
"It's illegal for me to sell line-caught fish, I can only sell fish that have been netted," came the reply.
Some day, I'm going to need an explanation for some of the more bizarre laws that pertain to fish and restaurants. It's as though the laws are created to ensure that the consumer never gets a chance to eat really fresh fish.
There were more goodies to come when Ivor began to bring out the main courses. I've mentioned the sausages in the cassoulet, but there was pork and duck.
It seems that not too far away there's a farm that has just started raising Aylesbury ducks, and Ivor is one of the first customers. He told me that prior to using these ducks, he was getting them from France, but with excellent Aylesbury ducks now being produced locally he was much happier to be buying Irish.
The same pork that was in the cassoulet was also on display as roasted rack, with a French trim and a coffee rub. "You should try this," said Ivor. "It's from an outdoor-raised Gloucester Old Spot pig." I did, and was delighted that I did.
These days, when the pork we are offered in supermarkets comes from battery-reared pigs, it's a real treat to taste pork that was raised naturally, as pigs should be raised -- outdoors on a real diet. Not only that, but some of these rare-breed pigs are almost on the endangered list, with only a few farmers taking the trouble to rear them.
Now, it has to be said that buffets like this are not the usual offering in the café. The menu is a simple affair, with most dishes costing under €10. But I'd be happy to try Ivor's penne Bolognese, since I know he's spent time in Italy and he'd know what it's supposed to taste like.
Also, every day there's a special, which depends on what he has managed to find in the market.
If you're in the southern tip of Kerry driving The Ring, take a small detour to the Arts Café -- you'll be well fed.
The Cill Rialaig
Tel: 066 947 9297