I'd like to set the record straight about Ireland.
Ireland's food culture gets a bad rep among travellers as being "boring" or "bad," and I'm not sure where this urban myth originates. The truth is, the Emerald Isle is a gastronomic playground for foodies and ale enthusiasts.
(Photo: Courtesy of Tourism Ireland)
There are loads of farm to fork experiences, culinary institutes, food festivals, award-winning restaurants, and microbreweries to explore. In recent years, upscale Szechuan, Indian, and Thai restaurants have popped up across Dublin, some serving exceptional Irish fusions. There's so much more than meat and potatoes.
So before you start talking smack about Ireland's food scene, read about these six fabulous foodie experiences. You'll be eating more than crow.
1. Learn Irish Cookery with a Celebrity Chef
Fulvio is one of Ireland's top chefs and food writers, best known for hosting three TV shows and appearing on NBC's "Today Show" and BBC's "Saturday Kitchen." When she's not appearing on the telly or writing award-winning cookbooks, Fulvio teaches people how to make "everyday exceptional" on her 280-acre family farm.
"We cook everything here, from Italian to Irish to Asian," says Fulvio.
Foodies flock to Ballyknocken Guesthouse and Cookery School to learn the art of Irish cookery. Every culinary class has a theme, ranging from Irish baking to "Guinness is Good For You," and part of the classroom experience also involves picking fresh fare from the backyard. You may leave with a few extra pounds, but also some practical cooking skills to use in the kitchen.
2. Become a Guinness Connoisseur
The Guinness Storehouse in Dublin has a special experience for beer lovers. For the Guinness Connoisseur Experience, a small group of ale enthusiasts are ushered into a backroom bar, hidden from the public view, for a private tasting. It feels like the Willy Wonka tour of the Guinness factory, minus the Oompa Loompas and chocolate.
"It's a 75 minute tutored tasting of four Guinness variants," says Eibhlin Roche, media relations manager at Guinness Storehouse. "Our Connoisseurs speak to the different variants of Guinness over time, what foods go well with each, and demonstrates the perfect serve."
This workshop, however, involves more than pulling pints. You learn the terminology and science behind Guinness ale-making, as well stories about the family and company. Best of all, tastings usually include Guinness variants not always available at home, such as the Dublin Porter: a special brew based on an original recipe from 1796.
3. Forage for Food with Wild Kitchen
"Literally all around us, there is wild food," says O'Dwyer. "You just bypass it all the time."
On a misty morning, we scavenge in the fields and forests, plucking berries and tasting leafy wild garlic.
Afterwards, O'Dwyer demonstrates how to prepare and cook the bounty into impressive dishes: from wild garlic pesto to "chickweed" pakoras (chickpeas and Irish seaweed) to salted seaweed chips.The forests and fields just won't look the same anymore.
4. Go "Session Drinking" at the Burren Brewery
"Here, we like the idea of session drinking," says brewmaster, Peter Curtin. "It means you drink lots of pints."
Curtin owns The Burren Brewery and Roadside Tavern in Lisdoonvarna, a tiny coastal town near the Cliffs of Moher. It may be Ireland's smallest microbrewery, but it's mighty. On the second floor of the pub, Curtin brews a handful of malty ales and none are bottled.
"You can't get these brews anywhere else but here," he says. "It's difficult enough to keep up with the local demand!"
When it comes to brewing, Curtin has strong opinions: rejecting hoppy ales ("we're traditionalists"), encouraging patrons to make beer their breakfast ("I describe my stout as a liquid sandwich") and firmly believes in "session drinking."
"This is not one of these little tasting panels where we swirl it around and spit it into a bucket," he says. "None of that bullshit here! You only do that after twenty-five pints."
5. Feast on Smoked Irish Salmon
Next door to the Roadside Tavern, Peter Curtin and his wife, Birgitta, operate The Burren Smokehouse, blending the smoking traditions of Ireland and Sweden. The Celtic way "cold smokes" the fish at 30 degrees Celsius, keeping the fire outside. Whereas the Scandinavian technique involves "hot smoking" fish - plain or spiced - at 85 degrees Celsius.
"The hot smoke is completely different for texture and taste. The fish gets meatier," said Birgitta. "It goes back thousands of years, to preserve the fish for travelling and wintertime."
If your tummy is rumbling, order the Roadside Tavern's tasting board. It features hot and cold smoked salmon fresh from Ireland's west coast, each slice marinated with flavours like whiskey and fennel, or mustard seed and paprika.
6. A Culinary Journey to Where the Wild Things Are
A restaurant with a full-time food forager? You bet.
An hour outside of Dublin, the concepts of "local" and "seasonal" are taken seriously at The Strawberry Tree, Ireland's only certified organic restaurant. Chef Evan Doyle, expert gatherer and author of Wild Foods, features foods grown on nearby farms or foraged from the surrounding fields and woods.
Dining involves a five or ten courses, such as a fizzy Wild Berry Soda (below), grilled strip loin of Irish beef, Wild Wood Pigeon, or goat cheese ("fresh from the udder!"). As for dessert, there's an organic chocolate plate.
And for foodies can register for the Wild Foods Masterclass with Chef Doyle.
"It's a one day course," he says. "We go outside for a forage, and learn to gather, cook and preserve using old school methods."
Bring an appetite: the workshop includes a two course lunch so you can taste the bounty.