Irish cuisine doesn’t tend to elicit much excitement. But Celtic grub is well worth getting out of bed for. In fact, it’s worth getting on a plane for, which is precisely what I did a few months ago when I found out that the annual Galway Oyster Fest, held every year in September, was under way. And I didn’t stop at the Oyster Fest (you can only eat so many molluscs, no matter how juicy they are). I took the opportunity to discover many of the country’s culinary offerings, from hot pink smoked salmon right through to the ever controversial black and white pudding.
The beautiful thing about going in search of a country’s cuisine is that it leads to other, non-food related discoveries about the people and culture. I was fortunate enough to start my adventure in Mayo, a spectacularly green, almost eerily misty county in the Southwest of Ireland. Mayo was one of the most adversely affected counties during the Great Famine, and landmarks from that time – dilapidated stone huts and grooved hills – dot the landscape. Another visual characteristic that is hard to miss is the constant presence of livestock. Much like a seafarer feels the presence of waves even when landed, I couldn’t help but hear the bleating of sheep, even when there were none around.
My first night, I stayed at Ashford Castle; indeed, an actual castle, dating back to the 13th century and once part of the Guinness estate. Since converting to a hotel in 1939, it has housed more celebrities and dignitaries than could fit in this article, but we’ll settle for naming just a few: U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, and actors John Wayne, Brad Pitt and Sharon Stone (not all together, mind). Naturally, the estate has its own helipad to personally accommodate any notables who might want to spend the weekend.
There is no shortage of activities amid the estate’s 350 acres, and I happily whiled away an afternoon gliding down the onsite river in a rowboat (though I could have just as easily taken up fishing, falconry or horse-back riding). While eating breakfast the next morning, I sunk my teeth into the best black and white pudding I’d ever encountered; spicy, tender and utterly beguiling. However, one of my breakfast companions was less charmed.
‘I can’t eat it. I just don’t like the thought of eating blood,’ she said. While I’ve always loved both black and white pudding, I couldn’t alleviate her fears, because I didn’t actually know what went in to either meaty staple. I decided to head to the source: Enter, butcher Sean Kelly of Newport.
Kelly, a short, ruddy faced chap in a boater hat, is definitely what one would call ‘a character’. He runs his father’s business, Dominick Kelly’s, along with his brother and two sons. When I asked him what he uses to spice his puddings, he leaned right in close and said, ‘I’d tell ye, but I’d have to kill ye’. This somewhat clichéd taunt wouldn’t have seemed so unsettling if it hadn’t been for the fact of the giant butcher’s knife the butcher was sporting, held in a holster on his hip. Kelly spent decades perfecting the recipes for his puddings, and his efforts have paid off time and time again with a slew of awards and a loyal and growing fan base. He explained that black pudding isn’t simply congealed blood, as many believe. It’s a combination of blood (sometimes sheep’s, sometimes cattle’s), suet, oats and spices. The mix is then cooked in a casing (in the old days, it was cooked in a well-cleaned lamb’s stomach, a delicacy that is known as putog, and which Kelly sells during the holidays). White pudding is made of a similar combination, only minus the blood.
Outside of a top-secret combination of spices, the secret to Kelly’s success is the freshness of his meat. Kelly’s Butchers operates its own licensed abattoir where they slaughter all their own locally sourced lamb and beef. The result is fresh meat that is pure (no antibiotics here).
Kelly sent me off with a package of black pudding, although at this point my sweet tooth was pounding. I headed to nearby Westport and visited the aptly named Marlene’s Chocolate Haven. Before I met with the owner, Marlene Foy, I had anticipated another weathered tradesperson, but was instead greeted by a baby-faced young chocolatier. Foy opened up her own business shortly after university. On the day that I visited her, she was in the middle of moving to a larger shop space; business undoubtedly doing well. Foy makes over 30 varieties of truffles, each of them by hand in her shop. She is a big believer in making things from scratch. Her ice cream and hot chocolate are also homemade.
I was starting to notice a theme with the purveyors I visited; not only are they proud of their craft, but of their local ingredients, too. When I spoke to Aran McMahon, who runs Café Rua with his sister Colleen (it is the second branch; the first was opened by their mother, Ann McMahon, more than a decade ago), he became animated when the conversation turned to Irish produce. While he waxed on about his travels throughout Ireland, and his continued quest to find the best Irish cheeses, greens, meats and fish, I found myself lost completely in a salad of microgreens. I had never imagined that lettuce could capture my imagination to the extent this dish did, but the vegetables were so vibrant, and the dressing so simple that I was unable to focus on anything else. I continued to sample smouldering chunks of organic smoked salmon, care of the Burren Smokehouse on Ireland’s West coast. Stuffed and sated, I decided to get some rest before filling up on oysters the following day.
I checked in at the G Hotel in Galway. An Irish friend had warned me before I left that the place was, ‘mad, just completely, completely mad’, and even though I knew that the hotel, designed by famous haberdasher Philip Treacy, wouldn’t exactly be restrained, I still wasn’t prepared for the ultra-slick, über cool, modernist vibe of the place. One room boasted a triangle of baubles hanging from the ceiling, while another – decked out in bright pinks and swirly carpets – had a sort of hallucinogenic quality. Door handles, lamps and pillows all resembled Treacy’s chapeaus. That night, I think I might have dreamed of hats.
For the next two days, Galway was abuzz. Students, backpackers and oyster enthusiasts filled up the streets. Some grabbed their favourite instruments and played on the corners in large groups. At the Oyster Fest, hordes of people dined on a seemingly endless supply of the bite-size slivery snacks, and an international array of world-class shuckers competed on stage to find out who could open the most oysters in the quickest time (an impressive feat. Have you ever tried to open an oyster? It’s sharp, and it hurts).
It was the kind of festival where you couldn’t help but meet new people. I had met up with folk from Ireland, England and dozens of friendly fellow oyster fans from Holland. Afterwards we all headed to the King’s Head Pub, where we escaped the chill of the encroaching rain and drank thick, creamy Guinness, while a batch of fiddlers played traditional Irish music in a corner by the window. Galway may lack beach and sunshine, but it certainly doesn’t lack warmth. I patted my full belly. This, I mused, was definitely worth the plane trip.