Inch House in the Top Ten destinations! -Georgina Campbell’s Ireland
There’s a growing feeling that Ireland is now ready to focus on the needs of the ‘food tourist’, as opposed to the visitor who simply enjoys good food as part of the overall experience. The true food tourist (international and domestic) will choose their holiday destination specifically to explore it through its food. This highly discerning visitor will want local, seasonal food, will be interested to meet producers, and will choose places to stay and eat where there is a philosophy of supporting artisan and specialty producers, and showcasing their foods. Ireland has a growing number of these wonderful places – here are just ten for starters.
Shanagarry near Midleton Co Cork
Half a century before the idea of ‘food tourism’ was born, Myrtle and the late Ivan Allen, and some likeminded friends in other country houses (most of them destined to become founder members of what is now known as The Blue Book), were quietly laying the foundations of the richly diverse food culture that we enjoy today. Sourcing the highest quality ingredients, and supporting the people who produce them, is central to everything at Ballymaloe. Much of the produce comes from their own farm and gardens, and the rest comes from valued local producers – including smoked seafood from Frank Hederman in Cobh, Bill Casey’s Shanagarry smoked salmon, and Willie Scannell’s spuds from Ballycotton – and this relationship of mutual respect between producer and customer was a founding principle of the chefs’ organisation Euro-Toques Ireland (www.euro-toques.ie/about; “custodians of Irish culinary heritage and the food culture of Ireland today and tomorrow”), which Myrtle Allen established in 1986. The food experience and activities around Ballymaloe House, and Darina Allen’s nearby Ballymaloe Cookery School (www.cookingisfun.ie) and LitFest (www.litfest.ie), make this a must-see for any first time visitor to Ireland with a serious interest in food and hospitality.
Macreddin Village Co Wicklow
An essential destination on any food tourist’s must-visit list in Ireland. BrookLodge offers excellent wedding and conference facilities, a spa, and an equestrian centre, but it is much more than an hotel. The driving force is Evan Doyle, one of three brothers who saw potential in a huddle of ruins on a remote hillside some twenty years ago and made their dream a reality. A pioneer of the organic movement with his Killarney restaurant, The Strawberry Tree – which relocated here when the hotel opened and remains Ireland’s only certified organic restaurant – the main USP at BrookLodge is their stance on wild, seasonal and organic food, and the wider principles of working with the environment (it is also Ireland’s only BIO hotel). Evan is a Director of The Organic Trust, a member of The Slow Food Movement and Euro-Toques Ireland (see above, under Ballymaloe), and is Chairperson of The TASTE Council (www.tastecouncilofireland.com) who hold their National Food Forum at this inspiring place each summer. Evan is also one of the prime movers in establishing Ireland as a food tourism destination and it’s not hard to see why. You don’t have to be a food tourist to love BrookLodge, but it certainly ticks all the boxes.
Gregans Castle Hotel
Ballyvaughan Co Clare
In addition to offering simple joys like warming turf fires and unparalleled views across the uniquely fascinating Burren landscape, Simon and Freddie Haden’s quietly luxurious country house hotel has earned a reputation in recent years as one of Ireland’s top food destinations. Local and organic produce has always been a key feature – all fish is caught locally around Galway Bay, for example, and their Burren lamb and beef come from local butchers – and a stunning, daily changing Tasting Menu is offered. And not only does the very talented head chef, David Hurley, take enormous pride in showcasing the wonderful foods of the locality in his creative cuisine, but the owners are deeply involved in sustainable local development including the Burren Food Trail (www.burren.ie/food-dining/burren-food-trail); a great example of local cooperation which makes a brilliant starting point for any food lover exploring the area, it was the Irish winner of the 2015 EDEN (European Destination of Excellence) Award, for developing a tourism offering based on local gastronomy and one that balances sustaining the local environment with the promotion of tourism. The Burren was also the national winner of the RAI (Restaurants Association of Ireland) ‘Foodie Towns’ competition in 2015. This quietly restorative place is an absolute one-off.
MacNean House & Restaurant & Cookery School
Blacklion, Co Cavan
Thanks to Neven Maguire, some of the best cooking in Ireland is to be found in the little border town of Blacklion. The prospect of a meal here brings devotees from all over the country, and far beyond, and it is notoriously difficult to get a weekend table. He is Ireland’s most successful chef-restaurateur and, along with exceptional talent and a deep rooted love of food that goes back to the many hours spent here in his mother’s kitchen, the secret of that success lies in his generous spirit, hard work and total dedication to family and place. There was a time when critics suggested he should move to the big smoke, but Neven had other ideas and the world now beats a path to Blacklion. Despite his immense popularity as a TV chef, cookbook author and celebrity supporter of food events, Neven’s commitment to the restaurant that can now rival plenty of famous international destinations never waivers: his exact, perfectly judged food makes the most of meticulously sourced, mainly local, ingredients from the and artisan producers he so strongly advocates, and is an experience to treasure. Long before provenance became a central issue for chefs, Neven was seeking out the very best local producers and has always taken great pride in promoting them – they and his valued kitchen team are the cornerstone of the business, which now includes a bijou cookery school, next door, and lovely accommodation, in thoughtfully furnished rooms. A very special place, and one that Irish people hold in affectionate regard.
Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites
Aran Islands Co Galway
This wonderful place on the most tranquil and least visited of the Aran Islands group has earned an international reputation as one of Ireland’s – indeed Europe’s – most desirable destinations. Chef Ruairi de Blacam, a native of Inis Meain, and his wife, Marie-Therese, offer a unique experience, serving beautifully simple food in a modern restaurant giving a panoramic eat-the-view experience of the island, sea and sky. Suites are designed to help guests discover the peace and quiet of the island, with fishing rods, bicycles and books instead of TV, with an Inis Meáin Breakfast Box, HotPot Lunch, and Exploration Kit delivered to each suite early in the morning to reduce decision making and help guests make the most of their time here. The modern architecture, minimalist interiors, very seasonal food (a surprising amount is produced on site, as well as sourced and foraged locally) and pared back cooking all work in harmony. Everything is designed to emphasise the clean environment and simplicity of life on the island; each course of the 4-course dinner menu has just two elements – Ruairi calls it Elemental Eating. Stays of two or four nights are offered but they fill up fast; at the time of writing (April) there are only a few late season slots available. However, non-residents are welcome to make dinner reservations (Wed-Sat).
Rathmullan House Hotel
Rathmullan Co Donegal
Set in lovely gardens on the shores of Lough Swilly, the Wheeler family’s gracious nineteenth century house was built as a summer house by the Batt banking family of Belfast. It was opened as an hotel in 1962 by Bob and Robin Wheeler, whose son Mark and his wife Mary Wheeler now run it. Renowned for their food – including tremendous breakfasts, and Bob still makes the marmalade – cooking here is upbeat traditional and creative head chef Micheal Harley’s meticulously-sourced menus are based on the very best of local and artisan foods. Working closely with Bob Wheeler, who is a keen gardener, Micheal uses fresh produce from their own lovely restored walled garden (where a sunny corner has been requisitioned, to provide a nice little outdoor dining area). Casual dining in the cellar bar offers a brilliant local pizza menu (using the famed Kemal Scarpello bases, baked near Burt), also the full range of five local craft beers by Kinnegar Brewing, made just up the road and available on draught. Donegal is a star destination in itself, and Rathmullan is always a joy to visit.
Dunbrody Country House Hotel & Cookery School
Arthurstown Co Wexford
Catherine and TV chef Kevin Dundon’s elegant Georgian manor on the Hook Peninsula is known especially for its food. The Harvest Room restaurant looks over lawns to a productive organic vegetable and fruit garden (complete with pig ark), and local suppliers are enthusiastically credited – Kevin Dundon’s ‘eat local’ philosophy comes through on all his menus, featuring fresh fish delivered daily from nearby Duncannon harbour, shellfish from Kilmore Quay, and local meats like rack of Wexford lamb often top the bill. And behind their bijou cookery school and spa, in a former coach house, the Dundons have succeeded in providing something that is usually lacking in country house hotels – a rustic bar, with an authentic rural pub ambience. Aptly named ‘The Local’, this late week bar offers a laid-back experience and wholesome, hearty fare – also live music and a taxi service to nearby villages at weekends. The pub is now supplied from their own micro-brewery, with beers which change on a regular basis, and the ABC (Arthurstown Brewing Company) Brewery, the larger commercial brewing operation that they built in 2015. Beers produced here are based on locally grown grains, some on a neighbouring farm (others ‘more distant’ – by which Kevin means Wellingtonbridge!), hops grown on site and their own spring water. As Kevin has a particular interest in pairing food and drink, the beers are designed especially to work well with food.
The Twelve Hotel
Barna Co Galway
Fergus O’Halloran’s unique hotel is handy to both Connemara and Galway City and, since opening in 2006, has achieved national recognition for its fresh style, hands-on management and an exceptionally focused food and wine offering. Their motto “True to The Region, True to The Season” sums up a philosophy that can be seen at work in every aspect of the hotel. Great all day food and drink in The Pins Gastro Bar includes craft beers along with excellent pizzas and breads, baked next door in their own bakery, while the wine-centred fine dining restaurant, West, showcases outstanding local foods and producers: try a dish such as their West Surf & Turf -panfried lobster claw, crisp lobster leg, and McGeough’s pork belly, with wild garlic & lovage gratin, and seagrass & saffron aioli – and you will not forget it. An outstanding Artisan Cheese Menu invites diners to “Take a gourmet tour of Ireland’s finest examples of hand crafted cheeses. €3.60 per ounce” (offered with tasting shots of three ports). Very unusually, the menu also gives an In Season This Month guide – which, in mid spring, includes celeriac, parsley, carrot, sorrel, asparagus, spinach, mint, mussels, lobster, rhubarb, oysters, and wild garlic. Magic.
Thurles Co Tipperary
This magnificent Georgian house outside Thurles was built in 1720 and managed to survive some of the most turbulent periods in Irish history – but it is the current owners, John and Nora Egan, who have made it the handsome, comfortably furnished period house that guests enjoy today. Good food has always been at the heart of life at Inch House and they are keen members of the Tipperary Food Producers Network so – in addition to Nora’s famous Inch House Black Pudding (made with fresh blood) – they are proud to promote other producers and likeminded businesses in the area. They offer food breaks and a suggested food trail is detailed on their website, where you will also find information about cookery classes offered to their guests. The trail introduces visitors to iconic Tipperary characters like Peter and Mary Ward of the famous Country Choice delicatessen and café in Nenagh; the Traas Family at The Apple Farm at Cahir; and James Whelan’s Butchers in Clonmel, Supreme Champion winner of the 2015 Great Taste Awards for his beef dripping – a great way to discover an area through food.
The Tannery Restaurant, Cookery School & Townhouse
Dungarvan Co Waterford
Paul Flynn was way ahead of the posse when it came to ‘going local’. In 1997 he forsook a high-flying career in top kitchens and took what looked like a seriously big gamble to open this stylish contemporary restaurant in his home town, with his wife Maire – ultimately making Dungarvan a food lovers’ destination, although there must have been many moments of doubt in the early days. Now a trusted TV chef (often partnering with equally trusted seafood chef, Martin Shanahan of Fishy Fishy in Kinsale) Paul’s career has come more or less full circle, but fame has not changed him. Deceptive simplicity is the key to his skilful cooking; menus with a strongly Irish feeling are based mainly on local ingredients, which Paul supports avidly and sources with care – local seafood of course, meats including pork and bacon supplied by renowned local butcher JD Power, also their own home grown seasonal produce. The popular Tannery Cookery School is just around the corner, and also the Townhouse, which offers simple accommodation with a New England vibe.
The Mustard Seed
Ballingarry Co Limerick
Dan Mullane’s famous restaurant The Mustard Seed started life in Adare in 1985, then moved just ten minutes drive away to Echo Lodge, a spacious Victorian residence set in lovely gardens, with mature trees, shrubberies, kitchen garden and orchard – and luxurious accommodation. The combination is wonderful and brings regular guests from all over Ireland (and beyond), and it is the food and hospitality, in particular, that keeps people coming back. Ingredients are carefully sourced from organic farms and artisan food producers nearby and Dan – who is a loyal supporter of local businesses – gives full credit to suppliers on menus. But it is actually their own wonderful organic gardens that supply the kitchen with much of the seasonal produce for the restaurant and, considering their size and the amount of produce grown, it is astonishing that they manage to find a use for everything in-house. Even the fruit – including top fruit from a good-sized orchard – is all used; any surplus goes into preserves of all kinds and Dan enjoys tucking a jar or two into guests’ hands as they leave. Do allow time to see the gardens before dinner and, perhaps, hazard a guess as to what will be on the menu – or perhaps pop out and select your fresh eggs for breakfast. A treat by any standards.
Beech Hill Country House Hotel
Derry, Co Londonderry
Just south of Londonderry city and beautifully set in 42 acres of peaceful woodland, waterfalls and gardens, Beech Hill dates back to 1729 and retains many original details. The hospitable proprietor, Patsy O’Kane, attaches a high value to the food of the region, and this has relevance to everything served in the Ardmore Restaurant overlooking the gardens. Menus showcase quality ingredients, citing use of local seafood, dry-aged local meats, free-range pork and Thornhill duck, award-winning cheeses – all of which is interesting and confidence-inspiring. But there is more. In 2013, the hotel partnered with Lady Dunleath from Ballywalter Estate to promote food heritage and the benefits of growing your own seasonal produce. The walled garden is the main focus of this project and the kitchen team is developing historical recipes from a 150 year old cook book which they have inherited. The book references the walled garden and the dishes the author could create throughout the year, making a fascinating project for these very different times. A really interesting place for any food lover to visit – and Patsy is especially generous with her time when there’s a fellow enthusiast staying in the hotel.