Charcuterie, escargot, potato vodka, seaweed pesto: Irish food is having a moment
Once, 'stout and spuds' summed up our national cuisine. now innovative Irish producers are serving up our island's natural bounty in mouthwatering modern ways
"For many years, the reputation of Ireland has been that the food sucks." So says the late Anthony Bourdain to Irish restaurateur Joe Macken on his Travel Channel show, The Layover. Now available on Netflix, the Dublin episode tracks 36 gout-inducing hours of Bourdain atin' and drinkin' his way around town.
And some damn fine eating he does too. Indeed, Bourdain is quick to add that he has always eaten well in Dublin, a city he has loved since first visiting in the booming early Noughties.
Their straight-talking unfolds over some finger-licking offcut steaks in Bear, a restaurant concept that Macken has since retired into hibernation while he focuses on newcomer Hey Donna and recession-chic stalwarts Jo'Burger, Crackbird and Skinflint.
The meal is one of many that Bourdain packs in. There's coddle and trotters in The Gravediggers; lamb breast and sweetbreads in The Chophouse; crabmeat with cucumber jelly and deep-fried Irish sea spaghetti in Chapter One. And there's a champion breakfast of oysters and stout in Matt the Thresher, the morning after Bourdain and Macken crawl the city's finest public houses before a late-night Roma II feast that is as Irish as you can get: smoked cod, curried chips, spice burger and worley burger (a battered quarter pounder in a bun with salad and sauce).
An impressed Bourdain enquires how these uniquely Irish takes on fried food came to be. The answer proffered - that we can thank the Celtic Tiger - is something of a truism. Those affluent years encouraged us Irish to release our inner gourmands and embrace international culinary influences. We also had the funds to conduct our own Bourdain-style travels, fostering more adventurous palates and a better appreciation for our high-quality homegrown produce. We've realised that Irish food can be something to take pride in.
Recent research shows that the gap Bourdain identified between the perception and reality of Irish food remains, however: most visitors to Ireland arrive with low expectations of old-school stew, spuds and beer, but leave pleasantly surprised by our modern Irish food offering.
Fáilte Ireland's new Food and Drink Strategy 2018-2023 aims to close this gap, building on the work of ambitious events like Galway's Food on the Edge, an international chefs' symposium that is putting Ireland on the global food map.
Food on the Edge 2018 was officially launched last month in Barcelona, at superstar chef Albert Adrià's Hoja Santa restaurant. Adrià returns to Galway in October for the symposium, having attended the inaugural event in 2015. "Irish cuisine is very little-known," he says, "but the produce is very good." He admits he arrived with limited expectations - "only that people drink beer and eat potatoes" - but left impressed by Irish lamb, duck, oysters, Dublin Bay prawns and farmhouse cheeses.
"This is why a symposium like Food on the Edge is so important," he adds, arguing that similar symposiums in Spain helped make Spanish cuisine a "world reference".
So, what can our visitors expect to be surprised by? Today's Ireland boasts a truly modern food and drink culture thanks to innovative producers and chefs who now have the confidence to marry inspiration from heritage ingredients and recipes, international influences and a bountiful natural larder. It's a great shame Bourdain is no longer with us to make a return visit, though he'd need to factor in more than 36 hours this time around.
Move over, yesterday's sides; today's spuds are taking centre stage: think potato flatbreads topped with Irish cheeses, onion and cider purée, and Iona Farm nettles at The Legal Eagle; or fermented potato cakes with bacon cream and pickled cabbage at Forest & Marcy, both in Dublin; baked potato and smoked cheese agnolotti or potato risotto in Waterford's Bay Tree Bistro, where chef Keith Boyle is a fan of the heritage potatoes grown by Maria Flynn of Ballymakenny Farm in Co Louth. These include the vivid purple Violetta as well as Red Emmalie, Yukon Gold, Harlequin and Pink Fir Apple potatoes.
Meanwhile, clever distillers are embracing the spud - look out for Ruby Blue Small Batch Potato Vodka from Hughes Craft Distillery in Lisburn, Co Antrim, and Ballykeefe Artisan Irish Potato Vodka from Cuffsgrange, Co Kilkenny.
Even the humble crisp has had a modern make-over: Keogh's Crisps use quality Irish ingredients like Irish Atlantic Sea Salt, Llewellyn's Cider Vinegar, and Dungarvan Black Rock Stout, and their online 'Spud Nav' allows you to track each individual packet of crisps back to field it originated from.
Pests and Weeds
More producers and chefs are utilising what were once dismissed as weeds and pests. Polish-born Eva Milka of Gaelic Escargot is fostering a local and international market for Irish free-range snails, setting up Ireland's first snail farm at Garryhill, Co Carlow, and sharing knowledge and resources with over a dozen new snail farmers through her Research & Development Centre for breeding Irish snails. Eva currently exports to Europe but is working with Teagasc to develop a cooked product for export to Dubai and Singapore after direct interest at Food on the Edge's artisan producer market in 2016. "For Irish customers, it's still all about education," Eva says, but Irish chefs have been extremely creative: Stephen Gibson of Pichet makes a parsley risotto with escargot, shaved Parmesan and rocket salad.
Seaweed is another traditional ingredient that has made a major comeback, appearing in everything from pestos (such as WASi's Ginger and Sesame Seawrack Pesto or Eithna's Wild Atlantic Seaweed Pesto) and butters (Abernethy's Dulse and Sea Salt Butter) to gin (An Dúlamán Irish Maritime Gin from Sliabh Liag Distillery in Co Donegal, featuring Sugar Kelp, Dulse, Pepper Dulse, Carrageen Moss and Channel Wrack harvested at low tide under a full moon).
Meanwhile, a new 'all-island' restaurant opens this autumn at the Cliff at Lyons under the creative guidance of Cornish chef Jordan Bailey, formerly of the three-Michelin-star Maaemo in Oslo, who is committing to Irish-only ingredients at the 24-seater Aimsir restaurant. He's busy building a natural larder of foraged and preserved ingredients for use in the kitchen and bar. He plans to infuse dried hogweed seeds into Irish gin to add a bitter orange-peel flavour for their own take on Campari, as well as into their own homemade organic mead fermented with natural airborne yeasts.
The Kinsale Mead Company produce three very smart takes on this ancient Irish drink, using Spanish orange blossom honey as their single-source floral honey for a traditional-style Atlantic Dry Mead, and combining forest honey with Mr Jeffare's Wexford blackcurrants for a Wild Red Mead (or 'melomel'), while a limited-edition Hazy Summer Mead is bursting with soft-fruit flavours. Their meadery's visitor centre in Co Cork's original food destination is a great place to savour the infectious enthusiasm of producers Kate and Denis Dempsey.
Supplies of Irish honey are too unpredictable to prove a reliable source for the Dempseys' enterprise, but there are several fantastic Irish honey producers, some hailing from rather unlikely spots. Dublin Honey Company sell single-origin honeys from various city postcodes, including their "purest Irish rooftop honey harvested from bees living in Belvedere College, Dublin 1" and "purest Irish orchard honey harvested from bees living in UCD, Dublin 4". In Dunleer, Co Louth, fourth-generation Irish beekeeper Eoghan Mac Giolla Coda won the World Cup for best honey at the 2014 London Honey International Show. You can sample his Lannléire honey in Chapter One's sublime 'Taste of Irish milk and honey'.
Dunany Organic Flour produce excellent wheat, rye and spelt flours based on grains grown, dried, milled and packaged in Dunany, Co Louth by the Workman family. But it is the natural spelt berry itself - an ancient predecessor of modern wheat that is low in gluten and high in essential amino acids, vitamins and dietary fibre - that is taking a star turn on sassy menus. Hey Donna serve Dunany's nutty-tasting spelt berries with grilled radicchio, grape, almond, honey and Boyne Valley Blue Cheese (made from raw goat's milk).
Ireland is now blessed with many skilful sourdough bakers, such as college sweethearts Shane Palmer and Charlotte Leonard, a pair of chefs-turned-bakers who worked with top bakers in San Francisco and before opening Scéal bakery in 2016. As well as producing a range of exceptional loaves (think toasted sesame seeds and barley miso sourdough), they also produce sensational cruffins (croissant-meets-muffin) with seasonal fruit like McNally's blackcurrants with dark choc custard or savoury Danishes with McNally's courgettes with thyme, olive oil and St Tola goat's cheese. Grab them at the Saturday morning market in Stoneybatter's Penders Yard in Dublin, or watch out for once-weekly deliveries to Proper Order, The Fumbally and The Hopsack, also in the city.
Many would argue that Irish butter is the best in the world, thanks to the milk of our grass-fed dairy cows, but one savvy producer believes she has made it even better: by transforming it into ghee, by clarifying and removing the milk solids to leave a nutty-tasting oil that has a high smoke point of 252º°C - far higher than butter (177º°C), olive oil (191º°C) or even coconut oil (232º°C). This makes it great for frying or roasting, but Sophie van Dijk of Dollop Ghee also recommends stirring it into porridge oats for extra indulgence.
Sheep's milk is the basis for Michael and Aisling Flanagan's aptly named Velvet Cloud sheep's yoghurt - a chef's favourite, thanks to its wonderfully creamy texture and mild sweet flavour - but the Co Mayo couple behind this recent success story also make a brilliant new sheep's cheese called Rockfield. Watch out too for Shepherd's Store, a semi-hard sheep's gouda from the makers of Cashel Blue cheese, and Cáis na Tíre, a collaboration between two young sheep farmers in north Tipperary and Marion Roeleveld of Killeen Farmhouse Cheese.
Blood and bones
When Hugh 'The Smokin' Butcher' Maguire scooped the 2017 Great Taste Supreme Champion Award for his extraordinarily good Smoked Black Pudding - one of an increasing number of traditional Irish puddings based on fresh pig's blood, but smoked with beechwood by this Ashbourne-based butcher - one judge wondered, "Why has nobody smoked black pudding before?", decreeing it "genius". Actually, James McGeough of Connemara Fine Foods in Oughterard, Co Galway (the butcher who brought us the brilliant Connemara Air-Dried Lamb), has been turf-smoking a black pudding for some six years, and has tweaked the recipe recently to help integrate the flavours with a more breathable natural casing. You can sample its subtle charms at Powers Thatch pub in Oughterard, where McGeough's smoked pudding is served with a goat's cheese croquette and apple chutney - magic washed down with the local Wild Bat Sonic American Pale Ale.
Elsewhere, the bones themselves are the hero. Produced by ex-equity trader Carol Banahan using Irish beef bones and organic Donegal vegetables, Carol's Stock Market Bone Broth comes in handy pouches ready for drinking as a high-protein breakfast or sleep-promoting bedtime broth, or to use as a flavoursome stock base. Bone broth also contains hyaluronic acid, which is understood to reduce pain in patients with osteoarthritis, as well as glucosamine and chondroitin, which are believed to be helpful in the management of inflammation, arthritis and joint pain.
Meat and seafood
The Irish charcuterie scene is now thriving, thanks to producers such as Eavaun Carmody of Killenure Dexter Gourmet, who collaborates with Olivier Beaujouan from On the Wild Side to produce excellent jerky and salamis from native Irish cattle raised in Tipperary; Gubbeen Smokehouse's definitive chorizo and venison salamis; Forage & Cure prosciutto, bresaola and salamis from Rick Higgins, a fourth-generation North Dublin butcher of Sutton; Irish Biltong dried-beef snack from Co Kildare; The Wooded Pig salamis, coppa and pancetta from free-range pigs raised in native ash and oak forests in Tara, Co Meath; and the aforementioned Connemara Air-Dried Lamb from McGeough's of Oughterard.
But it's not just meat that this is being air-dried: Niall Sabongi of Klaw Seafood Café is experimenting with air-drying fish to improve the texture and flavour. Niall also operates the wholesale Sustainable Seafood Ireland, giving him access to lots of off-cuts that would normally be discarded: he is currently working on innovative ways to serve the collar and tails of Clare Island organic salmon, to join dishes like rayback (the meaty spine of ray, also known as skate) served chicken-wing-style in a buffalo sauce and cod collar with a spicy salsa.