Samantha van Egmond tracks down the top farm-to-table experiences to try in Ireland
A new generation of talented chefs and artisan producers is proving that modern Irish cuisine extends far beyond potatoes and Guinness. Earning its place on the map as a food lover's must-visit destination for 2020 by picking up six new entries in this year's Michelin Guide, the Emerald Isle boasts an profusion of fresh flavours and creative dishes that showcase its exceptional natural bounty.
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One thing that hasn't changed throughout Ireland's culinary renaissance, however, is its producer-to-plate approach to cooking and dining. "Sustainably sourced" and "locally grown" are not buzzwords here – the slow food movement is ingrained in Ireland's rich gastronomic history. From whiskey trails and seaweed foraging to acclaimed cookery schools and lively village markets, there are plenty of ways visitors to Ireland can experience a true sense of place through its unique fare.
Plan your visit around a food festival
The Irish love to celebrate, particularly when it comes to food. With a vibrant programme of culinary-focused events, it is definitely worth taking a look at what's coming up before booking your trip. Taste of Dublin (June 11-14) is a highlight on Ireland's summer calendar, with the four-day festival drawing world class chefs to the city's Iveagh Gardens to host masterclasses and demonstrations.
In September, Galway International Seafood and Oyster Festival (September 25-27) – claiming to be the oldest oyster festival in the world having launched in 1954 – marks the start of the region's annual oyster harvest season with a weekend of street parades, seafood feasts and shucking championships. Fancy a road trip? Take a drive outside the cities to find every flavour of food-centric events, from strawberries and gin to craft beer and chowder.
Forage for seaweed along the coast
Foraging for seaweed, mussels and other ocean delicacies is a great way to discover Ireland's scenic shores, and with more than 1400kms of coastline there are plenty of opportunities for exploration. Much like foraging for wild foods along hedgerows, this Irish pastime involves a keen eye and an adventurous spirit – a little expert advice also comes in handy.
Atlantic Irish Seaweed has been running seaweed discovery tours along the Wild Atlantic Way for more than a decade, teaching foragers how to sustainably harvest, dry and store their finds. On the island's southern side, The Sea Gardener takes visitors for a forage along Waterford's Copper Coast followed by a seaside cook up that might feature soup and seaweed scones. This is especially fun for young children, who love to lead scavenger hunts around the rock pools and shoreline.
Book a table at a seasonally focused restaurant
One thing that makes Ireland's ingredients so special is that many can be difficult to find abroad, whether it's milk from Jersey or Wicklow's wild venison. Luckily, if you're visiting in 2020 you'll be able to try them for yourself at one of the many eateries showcasing local and seasonal produce.
Farmgate Cafe in Cork prides itself on traditional and regional specialties, with a menu that lists the origin of many of its ingredients. In western Ireland's county of Clare, Wild Honey Inn – the country's first Michelin-starred pub – is influenced by the surrounding landscape and its distinctive ingredients. A dessert of wild strawberries and woodruff, a marzipan-tasting perennial flower, evokes flavours of Ireland that can't be replicated anywhere else in the world.
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Take the whiskey trail to Dublin and beyond
It's no secret the Irish know how to make an exceptional whiskey. The renowned golden nectar is readily available in just about every corner of the globe, and while we appreciate the convenience of enjoying a glass at home, there's nothing quite like seeing, smelling and tasting Irish whiskey at the very region it was made. Can you think of any place more satisfying to sip a smooth, caramel-hued whiskey than by an open fire in a traditional Irish pub?
Dublin has enough distilleries to keep you busy for days – the famed Jameson Distillery and the hip Roe and Co are much-loved stopovers for whiskey connoisseurs – but why not head further afield to the fertile soils of the Boyne Valley or the pristine waters of the Wild Atlantic Way to see where the area's unique botanicals are harvested and processed? Perhaps the ultimate Irish souvenir, you'll definitely want to save some room in your suitcase to take a bottle home.
Volunteer at a working farm
If you don't mind getting your hands dirty, consider offering to help out at a local farm or dairy. This option might not be for the faint-hearted, but being rewarded with an immersive taste of rural Ireland and its food systems can be well worth the effort. The National Trust offer short working holidays for a small fee, which includes food and accommodation, and while many are not specifically food-focused, they can teach volunteers rural skills such as farming, food production and even cider making.
The more adventurous can sign up to World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), where properties provide food and board in exchange for four to six hours of unpaid work per day. Stay anywhere from a week to a few months, undertaking jobs ranging from milking goats to harvesting potatoes. WWOOFing experiences vary widely, with some properties accommodating couples and families, so it pays to do adequate research beforehand to find the best fit.
Meet the producers at a local market
Glistening oysters, artisan cheeses... A great place to find Ireland's finest and freshest produce is at one of its many thriving food markets. These tasty gatherings, most often held at weekends, provide the opportunity to meet the farmers themselves while you wander from stall to stall to take in all the sights, sounds and aromas. Pick up a loaf of Irish soda bread, some smoked salmon and a bunch of fresh dill for a true producer-to-plate afternoon tea.
Cork's English Market is a must-see – trading since 1788 it's one of Europe's oldest covered markets – while Belfast's award-winning St George's Market attracts visitors from near and far who come to stock up on gourmet goodies such as organic eggs and honey, as well as its famed selection of seafood. Don't limit yourself to the large city markets though – there are local gems to be discovered in many of the smaller villages, so pack your market basket and check ahead for times and locations.
Head to a hands-on cookery school
In case you needed another reason to venture out to one of Ireland's bucolic castles and manor houses, many now offer onsite cooking classes where guests can forage for ingredients in the kitchen garden beforehand. Galway's Michelin Star Aniar Restaurant offers classes in baking, gastropub classics and contemporary Irish cooking. Try their tasting menu for inspiration, which consists of 16 dishes influenced by the west coast of Ireland – think smoked cheese, elderberry and sea radish.
For a quintessential Irish farm-to-fork experience, the renowned Ballymaloe House in the East Cork countryside is as celebrated for its cookery school as its beautiful guesthouse and restaurant. Set on 300 acres of farmland, the estate comprises an organic farm and dairy that complement its cooking workshops. Courses ranging from half a day to 12 weeks in duration and cover everything from homemade butter to beekeeping for beginners. The property also hosts supper clubs and garden-to-table events throughout the year.