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Monday 23 April 2018

Get a real taste of Ireland

Pol O Conghaile

Mention Ireland abroad and eyes glaze over at the thought of green fields, chatty people and creamy pints of Guinness. Mention Irish food and eyes simply glaze over.

Sure, you'll get polite inquiries about Irish stew. Previous visitors may even hail the fries dished up in Irish B&Bs. But for most who have yet to visit, food and Ireland simply don't compute.

That's a shame, because food and Ireland definitely do compute. Right now, in fact, it's no overstatement to say that Irish cuisine is undergoing a revolution.

Within the space of a generation, Ireland has transformed itself from a society hooked on shepherd's pie and Angel Delight to a producer of some of the best speciality meats, cheeses and breads in Europe.

We have gone from treating food as fuel to the brink of becoming a foodie hotspot.

Travel, diversity, determined chefs and tireless ambassadors such as Georgina Campbell, John and Sally McKenna and Clodagh McKenna (pictured) have all helped Irish food find its mojo. But nobody has done more than brave family farms and artisan producers themselves.

Look at the results. This May, Michelin-starred chef Ross Lewis oversaw a State dinner for Queen Elizabeth using exclusively Irish ingredients. Earlier this year, 'Le Guide du Routard' dubbed the Irish dining experience "as good, if not better, than anywhere else in the world".

Last year, a black pudding made by McCarthy's in Kanturk pudding won a Gold Medal at La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Goûte Boudin. This March, Catherine Fulvio showcased a salad with north Cork pancetta and Wicklow blue cheese, among other dishes, on MSNBC's 'Today Show'.

But a lot remains to be done. We are still slaves to supermarkets, we spend more time watching cookery programmes than we do in the kitchen, and far too many restaurants and cafés out there continue to cruise along using catering chicken and bulk-order paninis.

Of course, you don't have to be a gourmet to enjoy a holiday in Ireland. But lazy and ignorant establishments lower the bar for everyone. The tourist who eats a nuked ham and cheese panini in a country café is not going to give good word of mouth.

But the tourist served a Waterford blaa stuffed with Mount Callan Cheddar and local greens ... well, she just might.

Get it right and a healthy business can follow. In 2009, tourists spent almost €2 billion on food and drink in Ireland -- one reason Fáilte Ireland is pushing a national food tourism framework.

Of course, Ireland has its disadvantages. It is not an established international food brand such as France or Italy. Its restaurants, though improving, will never reach the heights that markets such as Paris or London can sustain. And potential visitors still think (often deservedly so) that Irish food is expensive.

But it has just as many advantages. People come to Ireland for the people. And Irish food is all about people. Think of Neven Maguire or Peter Caviston.

Think of Murphy's ice cream in Dingle, the Doherty brothers' enthusiasm for Inishowen produce at Harry's in Bridgend, or Barron's Bakery in Cappoquin, a family business that first fired up its Scotch brick ovens 125 years ago.

Irish food can be a winner for so many reasons. It gives identity to a region, it tells a story, it's good news, it's quirky and, more often than not, it's tasty.

Food connects people and landscape -- the two things tourists say again and again that they come to Ireland to experience.

The message to those tourists should be loud and clear. Ireland's food is every bit as exciting as its heritage or music. Tuck in!

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