Kinsale shows off Ireland's best eats
Since it first began, Kinsale's Gourmet Festival has been a magical occasion, and this year will be no different
My love affair with Kinsale goes back a very long way. It's the place where many of the special events in my life have taken place.
It's where I spent my first weekend away as a teenager with friends. It's where I spent my honeymoon. It's where my two sons, Aidan and Ian, took their first steps. It's where we have had birthdays and anniversaries, New Year celebrations and many, many more happy times.
Naturally, of course, the Kinsale Gourmet Festival has been a big part of our visits to this magical town - and it's incredible to think that we are coming up to Kinsale's 39th Gourmet Festival, which kicks off in less than two weeks' time, on Friday, October 9.
The first Kinsale Gourmet Festival, back in 1976, was an ambitious project in a country not particularly known for gourmet food. However an enterprising group of restaurateurs recognised the desire for good food and cleverly banded together to form the Good Food Circle, to raise awareness and make Kinsale a destination for foodies. Crucially, aside from promoting their own restaurants, they made a point of recommending other restaurants in the group if they didn't have availability.
Kinsale, with its picturesque, narrow, winding, Spanish-style streets, was always a magnet for artistic and colourful people, who would come for a weekend, fall in love with it and set up home. Sometimes they moved on to another colourful destination, sometimes staying there forever.
The late TV chef, Keith Floyd, was one such restless soul who moved to Kinsale for a period before eventually moving on.
Another 'blow-in' was Englishman, Peter Barry, who moved to Kinsale in the 1960s and stayed until he died a few years ago. He was a prime mover in the restaurant industry, having originally set up the very popular Man Friday restaurant, which was taken over in the late Seventies by Philip and Joss Horgan, and is one of Kinsale's best-loved eateries.
Barry had an eye for setting up things and moving on, which he later did with a couple of bars in the town.
He was a familiar figure who 'toured' the town every morning, with his black Labrador in tow, checking on what was happening.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Brian and Ann Cronin owned the Blue Haven Hotel on Pearse Street, while Wendy Tisdell operated the very sleek Max's Wine Bar, where part of the furniture were her two Doberman dogs, Max and Kelly.
Hedli MacNeice, the widow of the very famous poet, Louis MacNeice, ran The Spinnaker Restaurant, while a Swedish couple, Lars and Birgitta served planked steaks and dill sauce, exciting stuff at the time, in their Bacchus restaurant. Heidi Roche had The Bistro, while a charming elderly Italian had an eponymous restaurant called Gino's.
Another super restaurant, The Vintage, was run by a great pioneer of Irish food, the late Gerry Galvin, who moved on to Drimcong and who sadly died a couple of years ago. The Kinsale Gourmet Festival made the town a huge destination for visitors from the USA, Canada and many other countries.
Moving forward, there's still a great bunch of people in Kinsale flying the flag for the Gourmet Festival, including festival organiser Maria O'Mahony, who will be donning her Alice in Wonderland costume again this year, leading the merry revellers at Saturday's Mad Hatters event.
Martin Shanahan will be in full flight, producing fabulous fishy tasting bites, as will Ciaran Fitzgerald of the Blue Haven. Liam Edwards, of Jim Edwards Seafood Bar & Restaurant, and chairman of the Kinsale Good Food Circle, will be serving his fantastic seafood and rare beef, while Pearse and Mary O'Sullivan of Toddies at The Bulman will be playing a blinder, as always.
What I have always loved about the Kinsale Gourmet Festival is that it is a tight-knit affair; everybody is together at the different events, so there is a sense of unity and getting to know people. There are 11 Good Food Circle restaurants hosting the event this year and they all go to huge lengths to display the talents of their chefs, with stupendous displays of food for people to taste.
The fun, food and games, all kick off officially on Friday evening at a Laurent Perrier Champagne reception in The Trident Hotel. The guest of honour is Minister Simon Coveney, and the American Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin O'Malley, will also attend.
We are promised all sorts of luxurious canapes at the reception, followed by a five-course 'Taste of West Cork' dinner in a Good Food Circle restaurant of your choice. The Tasting Menu will include dishes showcasing produce from Clona Dairy cream and butter, Kilbrittain lamb, Courcey beef, Skeaghanore duck, Christy Hurley's prawns, Ballinaclashet mussels, Horizon Farm salads and beets, Milleens, Gubbeen and Durrus cheeses, to name but a few.
The madness takes place on Saturday at the Mad Hatter's Taste of Kinsale.
This is an escorted foodie walking tour like no other!
Alice, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Fieldmouse lead four separate groups to four venues over the afternoon, for an amazing lunchtime spread.
This is not for wimps and you have to be seriously hatted - because every year the millinery creations get ever more elaborate and wild. Last year a group of English guys were all dressed a la Sherlock Holmes with deerstalkers. They were tame, so think mad, mad hats - a la the famous Ascot mascot Mrs Gertrude Shilling, who was known for her outrageously wild hats.
I've seen reindeers on heads, mad piles of fruit, fantastic stuff. It is wise, however, to pace yourself on this expedition and don't overindulge in the first venue.
Every year, you can recognise the newcomers, who think all their birthdays have come together but fall at the fence by the third venue!
The festival concludes on Sunday with a splendiferous four-course Fruits de Mer lunch including lobster, crab, prawns and other fishophile delights. The late Derek Davis, who was MC at this event for many years, will be sadly missed for his quick entertaining humour, while keeping the crowd in order.
Daithi O'Se, who is fresh from hosting the Rose of Tralee, will be taking up the baton this year. I hope he doesn't expect us to recite a poem or do a little rince!