Thursday 22 March 2018

Local Heroes: How local food is fuelling Ireland's tourism boom

Reader Travel Awards 2017

Student chef Liadan Sheehy, at the launch of the Dingle Food Festival. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Student chef Liadan Sheehy, at the launch of the Dingle Food Festival. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Dingle harbour, Co. Kerry. Photo: Getty

John McKenna

Local Irish food and drink are fuelling the tourism appetite like never before, writes John McKenna.

When I looked at the booklet for the 2016 Dingle Food Festival and saw that food lovers could visit 76 separate destinations in the little town to enjoy local foods, I knew the Irish food revolution had triumphed.

A total of 76 Taste Trail destinations featured everything from Annascaul meatballs in Foxy John’s, to Ashe’s oyster shots made with Dingle vodka.

I loved the brisket beef with homemade sauce from the Dingle Cookery School, the Grey’s Lane Bistro ling fishcakes, and to this day regret that I didn’t make it to An Gailearaí Beag for the Dingle Gin Soup.

From Green Street to Goat Street, from The Wood to The Holy Ground, food was everywhere. And it was all good. Well, almost all: there were deep-fried Mars Bars too, but I’m not that brave.

If you try to understand how something like Dingle’s Taste Trail can offer such an abundance of riches, look first to the grass roots. In particular, look at craft beers, and look at coffee. Ireland used to be synonymous with Guinness, but today the black stuff is often first out the door when publicans decide to specialise in craft beers.

John McKenna of
John McKenna of
Student chef Liadan Sheehy, at the launch of the Dingle Food Festival. Photo: Don MacMonagle

Five years ago, there were six or seven craft breweries in Ireland. As I write, there are 63, and they also brew for a couple of dozen others.

The beers are multifarious, and they are the equal in terms of quality and variety to craft beers from any other country in the world.

Likewise, it used to be well-nigh impossible to get a decent cup of coffee in this country. But about 10 years ago, a bunch of mavericks started taking coffee seriously: the sourcing, the roasting, the cupping, the service. Coffee needs hard work and tried experience to deliver the perfect cup: it’s a demanding zone.

Read more: Revealed: Ireland's Top 10 home holiday destinations

Today, virtually everywhere you go in Ireland, you can hunt down that perfect cup of Joe (yes, Dingle has its own speciality coffee house).

Coffee and beer matter, because they are everyday things that make our lives better. Bread matters also, and bacon, as do milk and butter, and porridge and meat. Ireland is forging ahead in these areas because at the grassroots, people are working hard to create something that is world-class. And when it comes to food tourism, that’s even more important than fancy restaurants.

Dingle harbour, Co. Kerry. Photo: Getty
Dingle harbour, Co. Kerry. Photo: Getty

Why? We are told that tourists today are experientialists: they travel in order to enjoy an experience in a particular place that is unique. For a tourist to be able to drink Dingle Single Malt in the Dingle Distillery in Dingle town is an experience that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world.

Our food and our artisans are delivering that unique experience, but not just to tourists. The grassroots revolution isn’t about fine dining: it’s about the things we want to eat every day. That’s why it’s working, and working so well.

Still sore about that gin soup, mind you.

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