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Eat, Drink, Galway: A whistlestop tour of Ireland's culinary capital

A foodie tour of Galway takes Sophie Donaldson from craft stouts to afternoon tea and turnip sushi...

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Sitting outside Tigh Neachtain's in Galway. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Sitting outside Tigh Neachtain's in Galway. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Oysters in Galway City. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Oysters in Galway City. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

Sheena Dignam of Galway Food Tours. Photo: Andrew Downes, xposure

Sheena Dignam of Galway Food Tours. Photo: Andrew Downes, xposure

Galway - Eyre Square-Kennedy Park

Galway - Eyre Square-Kennedy Park

Stout and oysters at Tigh Neachtain. Photo: Sophie Donaldson

Stout and oysters at Tigh Neachtain. Photo: Sophie Donaldson

A lobster roll at Galway's oyster festival. Photo: Sophie Donaldson

A lobster roll at Galway's oyster festival. Photo: Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson in Galway

Sophie Donaldson in Galway

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Sitting outside Tigh Neachtain's in Galway. Photo: Fáilte Ireland

As a regular visitor to Galway, I always thought I had a pretty sound knowledge of the city’s food scene. It turns out, I had a lot to learn.

I expected to devour some excellent food, maybe try a few new dishes - I did not expect to find myself, mid-morning, sipping a stout made with oat milk while nibbling on turnip sushi (more on that later).

But first things first: tea. Lots of tea. More tea than you could dream of, in fact - a seemingly endless array stacked on floor-to-ceiling shelves.

In search of an afternoon pick-me-up shortly after arriving into the city, we head to Cupán Tae (cupantae.eu), a whimsical, fine-china laden tea room in the city centre. It’s a typical late-September afternoon, in which shards of white sunshine occasionally pierce the sodden clouds overhead. Several clever locals have taken refuge inside with pots of tea, slices of cake and newspapers, while a steady stream of damp tourists trails through the doors.

Over steaming pots of tea (a Darjeeling for me, the house favourite Dreamy Creamy Galway Tea for my wife), we delve into the tiered Afternoon Tea platter in front of us. It’s laden with savoury sandwiches- including a decadent egg salad infused with fruit tea - and delicate cakes.

It's just the start of our foodie tour, too.

Ireland's food scene is on a roll, as seen with last week’s freshly anointed Michelin stars. High-end establishments and trendy ventures cluster in Dublin, but here’s a lot of good food to had further afield - and Galway, which has two Michelin Star restaurants in Aniar and Loam (the latter won the Michelin Guide UK & Ireland’s first Sustainability award this month), is a great place to start.

Galway is “arguably Ireland’s most engaging city”, Lonely Planet said while naming it one of the world's Top 10 cities to visit in 2020 this week.

It's also arguably Ireland’s culinary capital.

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Take provenance. While largely on-trend nowadays, Galwegians have long been eating local, and the county has become renowned for its seafood, lamb, and more recently, seaweed. Aniar (aniarrestauant.ie), for example, has pioneered a hyper-local approach by only cooking with ingredients that can be grown in the region, which means common ingredients like black pepper aren’t used by the kitchen.

Special mention must go to the snacks that start our five-course dinner at the restaurant that evening; purple smoked potatoes poached in butter, crab wrapped in fermented kohlrabi and dehydrated beetroot with pickled rose petal look like prehistoric artefacts and are a joy to devour.

The menu changes daily and the night we visit is a pescatarian feast, with grilled oyster adorned with various seaweeds, a sliver of cod in a pond of tomato water, and turbot cooked so the flesh is silky and translucent, among the highlights. Aniar's kitchen has managed to grow six melons this year, and dinner is finished with a half-moon sliver of the juiciest, most intensely-flavoured fruit I’ve had.

As with most traveling, discovering Galway’s food offering is best done with a local and on foot. So after a rest at our base, the Ardilaun Hotel, we set off the next morning with Sheena Dignam of Galway Food Tours (galwayfoodtours.com, below).

Sheena is a fountain of knowledge and the morning is peppered with chat and gossip from the locals - as it happens, the first stop on our tour, Griffins Bakery on Shop Street, is set to close in two days’ time.

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Sheena Dignam of Galway Food Tours. Photo: Andrew Downes, xposure

Sheena Dignam of Galway Food Tours. Photo: Andrew Downes, xposure

Sheena Dignam of Galway Food Tours. Photo: Andrew Downes, xposure

By 11am, we are sipping on Poitín from Micil distillery located in nearby Salthill, paired with air dried and cured lamb. It’s like the most intensely savoury prosciutto you’ve ever had, and is the perfect accompaniment to a local goat’s cheese speckled with caraway seeds. From there, we make a pitstop at the buzzing Saturday morning food market, snacking on a thimble of fiery vegetarian madras, a freshly shucked oyster and hot cinnamon donut. We amble into the legendary Tigh Neachtain and hear a lively history of the pub while sampling that aforementioned sushi and stout; the former from Wa Cafe, the latter brewed locally by Soulwater Brewery (below).

The tour is wrapped up in Kai (kairestaurant.ie), the Michelin-Bib Gourmand restaurant owned by Kiwi chef Jess Murphy. On a homemade black sesame cracker is a generous mound of dressed Connemara crab topped with pink onions, coriander and a spicy peanut sauce. It’s the perfect mouthful of east meets west (of Ireland).

We are, collectively, stuffed and in dire need of a lie-down.

After emerging from that morning’s food coma, we’re ready for our pre-dinner drink and meet Elle, our guide from Galway Craft Beer Tours (craftbeertoursgalway.ie). We stop in Bierhaus, the mothership of Galway’s craft beer scene where we try ales from White Gypsy and Porterhouse breweries.

After trying a flight of craft beers in The Salt House, one of Galway Bay Brewery’s pubs, it’s time to head out of the city to the picturesque village of Barna. It might be a sleepy locale but it’s also home to one of the buzziest boutique hotels around. The Twelve (thetwelvehotel.ie) is a destination in its own right, all sexy dark walls and quirky decor. Upstairs in the chic West restaurant we try more local seafood, this time langoustine, Connemara scallops, and more delicious turbot.

Seafood is at the heart of Galway’s gastronomic identity. The Galway Oyster Festival celebrated its 65th year this September, when we visited, drawing visitors from around the world. Held in a lofty marquee right on Nimmo’s Pier, by Sunday afternoon the rain clouds have cleared as we meandered between stalls selling oysters along with lobster rolls, mussels and clams, fish and chips.

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Stout and oysters at Tigh Neachtain. Photo: Sophie Donaldson

Stout and oysters at Tigh Neachtain. Photo: Sophie Donaldson

Stout and oysters at Tigh Neachtain. Photo: Sophie Donaldson

Chef JP McMahon, of Aniar, holds court during a cooking demo where he effortlessly shucks twelve oysters while bantering over his mic, and produces a silky oyster soup. We sip a taster from a paper cup as the Michelin-star chef thanks the audience for attending and a swing band starts in the background.

It’s Galway’s food offering summed up in a single scene - unpretentious, seafood-centric and totally world-class.

NB: Sophie was a guest of Fáilte Ireland, whose Taste the Island celebration of Ireland’s food and drink is taking place across September, October and November.

For more info, visit its Taste the Island website.

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