Saturday 23 September 2017

The sweet and succulent taste of home

Aingeala Flannery

Merry's Bar & Restaurant

Lower Main Street, Dungarvan, Co Waterford.

Tel: 058 24488

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The sweet and succulent taste of home

It's far from Michelin stars that I was raised, albeit that Waterford now boasts the only etoile outside Dublin. No, we got our nourishment from simpler things: tripe, liver and every morsel of the pig from its tail to its snout. It's said the only part of the pig they won't eat in Waterford is the squeal.

My uncles were salmon fishermen on the River Suir, yet I never ate fish as a child.

Not after one of them threw a salmon at me when I was four-years- old. I was standing on a chair washing dishes, when it shot through the kitchen window like a torpedo, skidded down the draining board and landed in the sink. It was as long as I was, its eye was dead as a stone, and it had the most menacing jaw I'd ever seen.

That was it for fish and me until I was in my 20s.

My teenage years were spent in Dublin, where we lived across the road from a supermarket. It was full of convenient and exotic food: satsumas, kiwi fruit, cream cheese, frozen pizza and strange coloured salty ham called Parma, which my mother wouldn't have in the house because "you had to eat it raw".

Oh, to be as well travelled as an olive. Waterford was too provincial to be publicly grieved when you were desperately trying to be a sophisticated city girl.

But, in the privacy of my suburban box room, I often longed for a warm buttered blaa and a bottle of Bubble Up.

But back to the present, and to how Waterford has become the destination du jour for road-tripping gourmands.

When they hear it's where I'm originally from, they emit a knowing "ah hah!" -- as the penny drops through a crack in the floor. "No wonder you write about food."

I don't bother upsetting them with the truth, or indeed the Dickensian justice of the child who goes to school with a pig's ear in one pocket and a Portlaw apple in the other, growing up to eat fancy food and write about it in the paper.

Nobody talked about Waterford as a place to eat until Paul Flynn opened The Tannery.

By the time The Cliffhouse in Ardmore won its Michelin star, nobody could shut up about it. Now, the gourmet cognoscenti season their chat with references to Knockalara cheese and Copper Coast Ale, and how you've no gastronomic credibility until you've eaten at O'Brien's Chophouse in Lismore.

But all this talk of a food revolution bugs me, because what's happened in Waterford is an evolution, and its popularity was hard bloody won.

It was a matter of restaurants and suppliers throwing their lot in with each other.

In the town of Dungarvan, this partnership has worked so well, you have to go out of your way to find bad food.

Take Merry's public house and restaurant --it's a regular-looking place, but the menu makes promises few gastropubs can keep.

I went with The Brother, who was ravenous and irritable after driving from Dublin. The mountainous dinners being delivered to nearby tables mellowed him. He had struck hungry man gold.

Merry's list of starters includes chowder with homemade soda bread, "plain Jane" chicken wings sold by the half dozen, and slow-cooked racks of pork ribs.

Salads are substantial: duck with roasted beetroot and horseradish cream, Cashel Blue with local apple and toasted nuts, and a Caesar salad, which includes chicken and bacon, rather than offering them at extra cost.

We ate from the "potted" meat and fish menu. My pot came with a butter lid, beneath which salmon was mixed three ways. The first layer was steamed with lemon zest, the next was poached with "Cajun butter", manifesting in random and occasional jolts of chilli heat.

These were, in turn, cooled by a soothing layer of smoked salmon folded into cream cheese, cut with tiny fronds of dill.

It was served with crisp young salad leaves in a citrusy dressing and as much crumbly brown soda bread as you could eat. If nothing else passed my lips, I'd have been happy.

And so to The Brother's pot, which was filled with slices of roast suckling pig, moistened by the sweet juices of slow cooking rather than by fat, each layer trimmed with delicious herbed crackling. It came with tomato chutney.

I thought an opportunity was missed here to pay homage to the local orchards, although The Brother, who raided enough of them in his time, wasn't complaining.

He wasted no time in emptying the pot, and an entire basket of soda bread besides.

He continued in the pig worship vein for the main course -- a monumental serving of pork belly, slow-cooked in plums, a three-way splice of glistening crust, fat and meat, perched on a hill of cubed chorizo and potato, all topped with a spray of toasted pine nuts.

A lesser man would have buckled under so many fat-laden calories, but not The Brother.

My shoulder of Slaney lamb was patiently slow-cooked in white wine, with anchovies dissolved to a grainy salt.

It was served at the point where fall-apart texture and optimum flavour meet, on a four- spud mountain of buttery mash that gradually soaked up the savoury, almost musky flavour from the meat's cloudy juices.

Fennel and sundried tomato were an unlikely but welcome addition, but best of all was the freshly-picked fist of supernaturally bright, sweet and crunchy green beans.

For dessert, we shared a lemon meringue roulade.

A delicately spun shell, not your typical fossilised chunk of Styrofoam -- it was all at once stiff and chewy, tart and sweet.

If it wasn't the best dessert I've tasted in a long while ... and -- gracious me -- in a public house. But that's the pleasure of eating out in Waterford, standards and expectations are so high, even the pubs step up to the plate.

TYPICAL DISH: Slow-cooked Slaney lamb

RECOMMENDED: Potted salmon/lemon meringue roulade

THE DAMAGE: €62.85 for two starters, two mains, one dessert, two coffees, a pint of Guinness and a pint of Copper Coast Ale

ON THE STEREO: Willie Nelson

AT THE TABLE: Tourists and locals

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