Saturday 23 September 2017

Beautiful Barna: Escape to Connemara's gastronomic gateway

Short breaks in Ireland

Sunset at the Galway bay in Barna
Sunset at the Galway bay in Barna
The bakery at The Twelve can make you a hamper if you want to enjoy a picnic in the wilds of Connemara
The Twelve
Jerome Reilly

Jerome Reilly

When I was growing up, Barna was always considered a cut above buttermilk.

It was the seaside enclave where the surgeons from the Regional built five-bed mansions overlooking Galway Bay and the merchant princes from the City of the Tribes clattered around in Volvo estates - popping in for a pint on the way home from golf at a time when you had to have a few bob to play that infuriating game.

Some kept a gallant Connemara pony which they thought might make the show in Clifden at the back end of the summer, and they'd throw an eye on the colt while their wives headed to Standun outside Spiddal to look for something elegant for the races at Ballybrit.

Barna wasn't the real Connemara, of course, but it was the gateway into that wild and wonderful place and it had something about it, a distinct and pleasing identity.

The granite of the neat little harbour contrasted wonderfully with the grey limestone walls and vividly green fields that seldom saw frost. There was also a handful of great pubs where you could actually get good food in the early 1980s.

And there was enough young backpacking exotica from the States, France and Germany passing through on their holidays to keep the place interesting for the local lads and lasses.

The bakery at The Twelve can make you a hamper if you want to enjoy a picnic in the wilds of Connemara
The bakery at The Twelve can make you a hamper if you want to enjoy a picnic in the wilds of Connemara

And you know something, it hasn't changed that much.

Standun is still standing and thriving - though you are more likely to buy the latest collection for AW17 from a Danish designer du jour in alpaca or cashmere than an old-style Aran Sweater - though you can still smell the sweet lanolin of the real thing in one corner of the shop.

And they still do great scarves in thick pure wool that we will all be craving in a few weeks time as we enter winter's harbour.

We had pitched up at The Twelve Hotel in the heart of Barna at the height of what has been a good-enough summer in the west in terms of weather, and we struck lucky as we really could actually see the sun setting over Galway Bay - in my experience a phenomenon rarer than the Northern Lights.

The Twelve is classed as a boutique hotel in the argot of the hospitality trade and it has all sorts of design flourishes in colour, decor and artwork to make for an interesting yet cosy entrance.

But hotels are all about people, and a welcoming drink for all guests and a genuine and warm greeting from reception staff made us feel right at home. It also has a good bar rather grandly called The Pins Gastro Bar which has won an AA Rosette and was a winner of Best Gastro Pub in Ireland.

The Twelve
The Twelve

That makes it sound a little snooty. In fact on this sunny evening it was packed and humming with hotel guests enjoying pre-dinner cocktails or pints and a casual trade of locals, holidaymakers staying in Connemara and more adventuresome souls who were doing the Wild Atlantic Way. They were enjoying a more casual but still rather fine dining experience.

The menu is constantly changing, I'm told. The bar has fat comfy sofas and is generously proportioned. The focus is on seasonality and locally sourced produce. There's organic Connemara sea trout, salmon and shellfish from up the coast and bread from its own bakery.

As well as cocktails made to order (and made well), it has an exhaustive list of fine spirits, Armagnac, cognacs, whiskeys and craft beers.

Of course everywhere now boasts a bewildering selection of gins. Once considered something of a dullard of the spirit world, gin appears to have got itself a college education in recent years, with prices to match.

I confess when I first saw two inveterate pint drinkers of my acquaintance nursing large, rather effete balloon glasses filled with ribbons of cucumber and high priced gin boasting half a dozen botanicals, I considered the world had gone quite mad. Now I join them.

But back to The Twelve. There is a rather hip vibe about the place, and the bedrooms are spacious and well appointed. A welcome package of fruit and pastries with fizzy water came with our suite. The shower was enormous and there was a fridge, good coffee, microwave and a couple of flat screen TVs.

We had time to take a stroll down to the sea and a short walk on the beach before returning for a couple of drinks before dinner.

Of course we were famished. I could have eaten one of those Connemara ponies trapped between two bread vans, and we were also expectant as The Twelve has become a real foodie destination.

We clambered up the stairs to West Restaurant where executive chef Martin O'Donnell holds sway. He is an inventive and innovative cook who marries local produce with the best ingredients from further afield. The menu is eclectic, and West also boasts an unrivalled wine list for which it has won a host of awards.

Liam was looking after us and knew his stuff, guiding us through the menu with precision and charm.

This was where hunger got in the way of research. We should have been thinking about a gastronomic adventure - taking a real food journey.

But straight away my eye was drawn to the Prime Hereford 28-day dry-aged Cote De Boeuf which is served for two with Cashel Blue bernaise sauce and triple-cooked chips.

And what to drink? An Argentinian Malbec was a perfect marriage.

And what a steak it was, probably the best I've ever had.

The rest of the menu will have to wait until the next time.

The next day we headed into Salthill for coffee and a stroll and then into the city proper for a day browsing in bookshops and sitting outside a Shop Street pub arguing over who was going to have driving duties back to the hotel.

I won that one, just.

And there was still time for another walk on the beach before The Sunday Game.

Get there

Award-winning boutique hotel The Twelve in Barna, Co Galway, is offering a gourmet escape break for lovers of fine food and wine, inspired by local and seasonal ingredients.

Enjoy a two-night stay with dinner on the evening of your choice in the atmospheric and award-winning West Restaurant featuring the finest local produce and one of the most extensive and eclectic wine lists in Ireland.

The deal includes breakfast, cooked to order in the Pins Gastro Bar. The package, which also includes free parking and wi-fi, costs from €180 per night for two people sharing.

Contact 091 597000; thetwelvehotel.com; westrestaurant.ie.

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