'We had a group walk out this morning because there was no fry on the menu' - how the Irish breakfast is BACK!
As our vote for the Best Irish Breakfast opens, Katy McGuinness explores how the most important meal of the day has been re-imagined
At Castlewood House in Dingle, the breakfast menu is a far cry from what you might have found in an Irish B&B even 20 years ago.
Guests at Brian Heaton and Helen Woods Heaton's distinctly superior establishment - one would hesitate even to call it a B&B - can choose from a menu that includes dishes such as Dingle Bay kippers with scrambled eggs, French toast made with toasted brioche topped with whipped vanilla mascarpone dusted with cinnamon, and a black pudding and goat's cheese frittata with garlic and shallots, served with red onion marmalade on the side.
It's no wonder that Castlewood won the award for Best Breakfast in Ireland at last year's Weekend and Independent.ie Reader Travel Awards (voting is now open for the 2018 awards at independent.ie/travelawards).
"I suppose you could say that the menu has really evolved since we opened 12 years ago," says Helen, modestly. "Tastes change, people are better travelled and we have visitors from all over the world. You eat with all your senses, so we try to deliver a really holistic experience. As our guests come down to breakfast, they can smell the vanilla from the bread and butter pudding, or the turmeric and cardamom that Brian adds to the Champagne with dried goji berries and cranberries in which he poaches the pears. It's not just the Full Irish, or an omelette, any more. We are always experimenting, challenging ourselves."
She pauses. "Well, Brian is. He does all the cooking. I can't really claim any credit."
As word of the delights on offer at Castlewood has spread, there are simply not enough rooms to accommodate everyone - so now non-residents can book in for breakfast too, from €19pps, and Brian will cook whatever they want to order.
Unlike a city hotel catering to a mix of business and leisure guests, those at Castlewood tend to be in holiday mode, which means they're more likely to indulge in treats such as American-style pancakes with maple syrup and home-made blueberry compote, or the porridge topped with Cooley Distillery Irish Whiskey, Irish Mist or Baileys, brown sugar, drunken raisins and fresh cream, that Helen says is her guilty pleasure.
Some of the guests even like to have the porridge (with all the trimmings) as a starter, before their main course, but not everyone lets him or herself go to that extent. "Sometimes you'll get people coming down and saying, 'I'll be good', and they might just have scrambled eggs and toast. But that'll be just one day of their stay. We've noticed a lot more dietary requirements [the bane of every Irish kitchen], and the odd person orders an egg white omelette - but they might have bacon on the side! We do a frittata with sundried tomato that's full of flavour but pretty healthy, and that's popular with those who are trying to keep a rein on things.
"People love the buffet," adds Helen. "You'll hear them saying things like: 'Oh, I haven't had stewed rhubarb since I was a child…' We have a lot of German guests, so we include ham and salami, and a few cheeses."
Despite the vast array of exotic choices available to the guests at Castlewood, the Full Irish is still popular.
"In the years since we started, there is more available locally in terms of local produce," Helen says.
"Ashes make really good handmade sausages, they are spicy and tasty, and everyone loves those.
"And Ted Browne's organic smoked salmon is delicious - Brian makes Eggs Benedict Supreme with it that is absolutely gorgeous." With food this good, Helen says that the guests tend to linger.
"No one's in a hurry here - they'll have a second pot of coffee and relax."
At weekends, breakfast and brunch have become increasingly social occasions, providing an opportunity to meet up with friends and family over a meal that doesn't have to involve alcohol. And Helen and Brian are not the only people in the Irish hospitality world to recognise the importance of a good breakfast when it comes to attracting visitors. At Fáilte Ireland's Food Connect conference last year, Erik Wolf, founder of the World Food Travel Association, said the Irish breakfast was a "gem beyond price".
Earlier this year, Georgina Campbell of the Ireland Guide launched a dedicated breakfast awards in association with Fáilte Ireland, with Dublin's Merrion Hotel and Connemara's Ballynahinch Castle amongst the winners.
And chef Kevin Thornton's new Tipperary Breakfast (pictured left) turns the notion of the traditional Full Irish on its head without abandoning everyone's favourite ingredients. His take is lighter and healthier and includes toast with warm apple and blackberry compote, natural yoghurt with grilled bacon, and black pudding with local apple juice.
Back in Kerry, at the five-star Sheen Falls Hotel in Kenmare, manager Seamus Crotty says that while there is still demand for the Full Irish, he and his staff are seeing more interest in healthier options on the buffet.
"The coeliac buffet is very popular," he says. "Even with those who are not coeliac…"
As at Castlewood, the focus at Sheen Falls is very much on artisan products with exemplary provenance, such as sausages from Peter O'Sullivan in Sneem, and black pudding from Ballinwillin Farm. Eggs are free-range, and the kitchen bakes three types of fresh bread each morning.
A special treat is the hotel's smoked salmon. "During the season, the salmon we use is caught in the river outside the restaurant," says Crotty. "And if a guest is lucky to catch a fish him or herself, then we can smoke it for them and send it anywhere in the world so that they can enjoy it for breakfast when they get home."
Provenance doesn't get much better than that.
A very different kind of breakfast is on offer at Meet Me in the Morning on Pleasants Street in Dublin, where the offering is focussed on organic produce that the cafe gets from its most important supplier, McNally Family Farms, based in north County Dublin, supplemented by house-made Nut Eile (blitzed roasted hazelnuts, with raw cacao, sprinkled with sea salt) and peanut butter served with Le Levain sourdough, washed down with good coffee from any one of a number of guest roasters.
"We had a group walk out this morning because there was no fry on the menu," says Kevin Powell who co-owns MMITM with Brian O'Keeffe. MMITM offers breakfast from Tuesday to Friday from 8am to noon; at weekends the portions are bigger and they call it brunch. On average, the cafe serves more than 400 breakfasts a week.
"Our most popular breakfast dish is a seasonal take on eggs and greens," says Powell. "At the moment, we're serving a poached egg with roast pumpkin and sautéed chard, with yoghurt topped with sumac that we foraged in Smithfield and Fairview. In the summer, it was Toonsbridge ricotta with beetroot crush.
"The greens change each week depending on what McNally's have for us. We use their potatoes for hash and we interchange the roots and greens. The morning hash happens to be gluten-free and vegan, but we don't make a big deal about that on the menu - at the moment it's pan-fried potatoes, beetroot crush, kale and lots of pickles."
Powell doesn't see the restaurant introducing a Full Irish any time soon.
"Our menu is quite curated and the quality of what we use is very important to us. We never intended to be veggie; we just make the food and list the ingredients and if it happens to be vegetarian or vegan, that's no big deal. What McNally's give us is so good, we have to find a use for it - we don't need to be buying in other things. There is never any raw meat here, but we do offer Jack McCarthy's black pudding and Gubbeen chorizo on the side."
Sadly, not everywhere in Ireland puts as much effort into their breakfasts as these three establishments. On a recent visit to Galway, it was back to the bad old days with a hotel breakfast buffet replete with soggy, fatty bacon, rubbery scrambled eggs with a grey tinge and rock-hard 'grilled' tomatoes. Not a great way to impress visitors.
A favourite as voted for by our Facebook community!
Makes 12 pancakes
3 Qtr pint milk
1lb self-raising flour
1 heaped tsp baking powder
Butter, to cook
Firstly, separate your eggs and beat the whites in a bowl until stiff peaks form. Place the four egg yolks in a separate bowl with some of the milk.
Sift the flour and baking powder into a third, larger bowl and slowly add the egg/milk liquid, mixing with an electric hand whisk.
Add more milk until the mixture resembles a thick but runny consistency and then fold the egg whites into the mixture.
Put two pancake pans on a medium-high heat and add a knob of butter. Do not let the butter burn. Ladle on a large spoon of the mixture and cook until little bubbles form - then carefully flip over to the other side.
The butter gives them a lovely, crispy outside, while keeping them fluffy inside.
We serve our pancakes here with maple syrup and fruit compote but you can try bacon, chocolate sauce, mascarpone… the sky is the limit really.
Bread and Butter Pudding
We serve this each morning but it is traditionally a dessert. Delicious served with crème fraiche, whipped cream or just on its own.
8in pottery baking dish
10-12 slices of buttered white bread with crusts removed
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
4 large eggs
175g /6oz caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
Arrange four slices of the buttered bread on the baking dish (buttered side up). Sprinkle with some cinnamon and some sultanas. Arrange another layer of bread, buttered side up, over the fruit and sprinkle on the remaining sultanas and cinnamon. Cover with the remaining bread, buttered side up.
In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs then add the sugar, vanilla essence, milk and cream. Pour the mixture over the bread and leave to stand for one hour or ideally overnight. Preheat the oven to 180C degrees/350 F/Gas 4.
Cover the dish with tin foil and place the dish in a bain-marie (large baking dish half filled with hot water). The water should go halfway up the sides of the dish. Bake in the middle of the oven for 40 minutes to one hour depending on oven, removing the tinfoil 5 minutes from the end to ensure the top gets crisp and golden.
6-8 plums (not soft)
200g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
500ml fresh orange juice
Honey, to taste
Cut the plums in half, removing the stone, and place them in a baking dish facing up.
Mix the sugar, vanilla essence and orange juice in a bowl and pour over the plums before drizzling the honey on top. Place in oven for 20 minutes at 180C/350F/Gas 4.
My Favourite Omelette
Use quantities to your liking
2 large eggs
Baby leaf spinach
Salt & pepper
Mix the eggs with a little milk, salt and pepper and cook on a small omelette pan on a medium gas. Crumble in the feta cheese and cook until set, but still soft. Place the spinach and tomatoes on the top and cover with grated Gouda.
Cook under a hot grill until the cheese melts.