Kinsale was the first place in Ireland to have a gourmet circle – a group of restaurants that marketed themselves as places devoted to good food. It may have been in operation earlier, but back in the 1970s we used to drive down from Dublin to try out the restaurants.
In those days the trip took many more hours than it does today, so we'd tend to stay for a night or two. I can still remember my first experience of Kinsale when we stayed in Acton's Hotel and went out shark fishing during the day.
It's a postcard-pretty little town, with picturesque shops and narrow streets which reminded me of some of Cornwall's little havens. I was down for the Kinsale Arts Festival, a week-long extravaganza of events, one of which involved me talking about wine in The Mill House, where several local suppliers had put together a remarkable tasting of interesting wines.
In particular, I loved the new dessert red from Mas Amiel – designed and blended specifically to go with chocolate – and was equally delighted with a semi-sparkling Moscato from Italy with just 5pc abv.
I was a guest of Mareta Doyle, who started – and continues to run – the festival. After the wine event was over she took me to see The Black Pig, one of Kinsale's newest eateries. It has a fine list and serves tapas, as well as a couple of hot dishes as daily specials. Looking around, most of the customers were attacking the excellent wine list and dabbling with the menu.
Any wine list that lets you choose a Manzanilla sherry from its list, especially a Lustau, gets my approval. If you don't know Manzanilla, it's a dry sherry made in the town of Sanlucar – about 30km from Jerez – by the sea. People with subtler palates than mine claim you can taste the sea salt in the sherry.
The Black Pig is definitely very chic and trendy, but if you wanted to eat a proper meal Kinsale offers you an abundance of choice. Mareta took me to see Finn's Table, another new restaurant that began trading this year. It has a very interesting menu with lots of produce from local suppliers, as well as lots of fish dishes. With starters running up to and over €10, and main courses from €25-€34, it's not a place for cheap eats.
On my second night there, I met up with Marian Gale and her husband Laurie in The Man Friday, one of the longest-established restaurants in Kinsale. I arrived in the evening, a bright sun in the sky, and found them sitting out on a newly created terrace overlooking the harbour. We were joined by Caitriona O'Driscoll, her brother PJ and his wife Judy, so we were six.
A lot has changed in the Man Friday since my last visit. The new terrace can now be used as an outdoor dining area, a real plus, and indoors the decor has moved to soothing pastels. The other major change is that Daniel, the son of owner Philip Horgan, has taken over the kitchen.
Wonderful as it was to sit in the sun, we went indoors to our table. We'd chosen our dinner from three menus – an early bird, a table d'hote and an a la carte. The early bird is available up to 7.30pm and it's €26.50 for three courses; the table d'hote is €38 for three courses plus coffee or tea.
Lastly, the a la carte has a lot of dishes listed, with starters in the €8-€13.40 range, main courses from €19.50-€31 and desserts at €6.
Even with all those choices available, there were still the daily specials to reckon with. There was a sweet-potato soup with lime creme fraiche and coriander, a warm lobster salad with orange, fennel and samphire at €15, seared scallops and prawns with hazelnut butter, and lemon posset for dessert.
Between us, we picked dishes from all the menus. I ended up on the early bird, as two dishes on it immediately took my fancy: the breaded mussels as a starter and the fish pie as a main course. The lobster salad was the most ordered starter – we ordered three – and for our main courses there were two scallop dishes.
Get people together on the south coast, or the west coast, and they will order fish in a restaurant. That's a change from the east coast, where fish is rarely eaten. The real surprise is when you compare this habit to Italy, where if you dine on fish in a restaurant, you'll pay almost double what you'd pay if you eat meat.
In Italy, fish is an expensive treat; in Dublin it seems that it's still treated as a penance for Fridays.
I really liked the two dishes I'd picked. The mussels were large and fat and had been crumbed and then crisped under a grill. I made short work of them before Marian offered me a taste of her lobster salad.
Lobster can often come to the table quite tough, but this was perfectly cooked and very tender. It was surrounded by sprigs of samphire, one of my favourite vegetables, which worked well with the lobster.
My main course was the fish pie, which was very prettily presented with piped mash potato topping a filling of salmon, white fish and shell fish. I judge fish pies by the variety of the fish inside and by the amount of liquid. Personally I don't like very wet pies, but too dry doesn't work for me either.
Like Goldilocks, I like them not too dry and not too wet, which is what I got.
We had two good wines with this dinner, a Sancerre for the white and a Gigondas from the Rhone for the red, both perfect for dinner. These brought our bill to €356 for the six of us.