Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Foodie Road Trip (Northwest/West of Ireland): Part III

The Epic Feast at VM @Viewmount House, Co Longford

Stepping inside we were greeted by one half of the Viewmount House team, Beryl Kearney, who owns and runs the place with her husband James. Her manner, like her Georgian guesthouse, is full of warmth and pretension-less ease. We were welcomed and seated in the cosy reception area, where Beryl entertained us like the kind aunt of some students who’d just come home from a school trip and were chattering away about their adventures. Then we ordered another bottle of prosecco – this time a pink one – and settled in to work through the menus.

We were in no rush. As we discussed the promising options we noted that four is really the optimum number for a group on a foodie excursion. As was the case in most of our previous dining experiences, we resolved to order every single dish to share – with four you get to try most of the menu and the group is neat enough to share around without too much hassle (or without the risk of any dish getting hogged by some person in an advantageous corner of the table). We have few rules on the foodie road trip, except the golden two: every one eats everything and everyone shares everything. Failure to comply with the latter especially will result in food mugging followed by expulsion.
Quail slider with tomberries

No fear of that with our group of foodies thankfully, and we all looked forward to the meal ahead as we were led into the expansive stylish yet rustic dining room. We were seated by a window with a view of the front garden – a rabbit actually frolicked by just as we were admiring the scene (perhaps bribed by the house with a bag of acorns... although that’s probably unlikely). Then without much delay, a pre-appetiser of mini quail burgers was brought out.

Tasting of pork
Inside the little slider, the nugget of quail meat was tender and succulent, while the other fillings, including caramelised onion and fresh rocket, were delicious and apt in their gourmet burger-ness. The toasted bun was just right, not too dense, and the accompanying tomberries and balsamic reduction on the plate gave a refreshing zing at the end. We scoffed them, and then wanted more.

As we awaited our starter, the server advised us not to eat too much of the fresh baked bread he’d just put in front of us, considering the number of courses we were about to consume. Not ones for restraint, however, we finished off the Guinness and treacle, olive focaccia, and French baguette with the cherry pepper hummus dip accompanying them, and then found ourselves asking him for more. I pity the fool who tells us to stop eating!

'Beef wonton'
Then came the starters: (1) Lissadell mussels with ‘Asian Junction Green Curry Coconut Broth’ (with shiitake mushroom, pineapple, scallion and coriander); (2) ‘Anise Orange Cured Thornhill Duck Leg Confit’ (with beetroot, mushroom, tarragon and sherry ragout); (3) ‘Wonton of Slow Cooked Donald Russell Beef Cheek’ (with Yorke's Swede, butternut squash, onion jam, ratatouille and pickled cucumber); and (4) the glorious ‘Tasting Plate of Irish Pudding and Rare Breed Pork’ (Jane Russell's black & Clonakility white pudding terrine, manuka-glazed rare breed pork cheek, pulled shoulder confit, and vegetable spring roll).

You may probably guess, as we rotated the dishes about the table with the precision of structural engineers, that the pork plate was the big crowd pleaser. Unctuous ribbons of tender meat in mellifluous culinary adonrments …I realise this is flouncier food writer tosh than I normally commit to paper (or screen), but I’m struggling to communicate the deliciousness of this pork dish without resorting to such loquacity. It was freakin’ amazing tasting, okay! Likewise the duck, while not the celebrity that pork has become these days, was equally delicious as it did it’s own thing. Rich gamey leg meat which was enveloped in the mouth by a pleasing balance of earthy and sweet flavours, all comforting and hearty. The beef cheek wonton was another goodie, with umami and sweetness reminiscent of the quail burger (sooooo good) with an added twang of acidity. Finally the mussels – which struggled to get a look in next to the meat dishes (lets face it, meat rocks) – were, of course, also beautiful to eat, with flavours that were delicate yet individual and interesting and made you keep digging until the very last bite was gone.

Second course in and we were reveling in pure satisfaction. The foodie equivalent of wanting to light up after a mouthgasm (as Ed Hick would say …love that man). The plates were cleared and we sat smiling stupidly at each other – I think I hallucinated another rabbit in the window – and we waited for our ‘middle courses.’

Gardens at Viewmount
We ate more bread.

So, on to round three and out arrived our ‘Taste of the Midlands Salad’ (containing O’Halleran’s free range egg, spinach leaves, Kelly’s organic soft cheese (as in the Moonshine Dairy), Rogan’s whiskey oak-smoked bacon, capers, herbs from the Viewmount garden (as seen earlier in Gary O’Hanlon’s hand, fresh from said garden), red onion, red wine vinaigrette, and roast pear). Times two. Also arriving for our delectation was a very special chicken and sweet corn soup, prepared using the early sweet corn from local Carrickboy grower David Burn (whose produce is showcased in Chapter One’s legendary sweet corn soup and is much vaunted by fellow advocate Ross Lewis). Soup was also times two.

The salad was fragrant and beautiful to look at and eat, bringing to mind the artistry we’d seen at Kai in Galway earlier that day. It was the kind of dish that could be used as a billboard for Irish tourism – a real reminder of how far Irish gastronomy has come and an example of how lucky we are in this country in terms of everything we have on our own doorstep. The soup, on the other hand, was pure comfort and deliciousness. While the salad eaters were waxing lyrical about its beauty and freshness, the soup eaters were making non-verbal sounds, head down and not handing it over. It was meaty and sweet and rich (probably quite fattening) and just gorgeous to eat. You could happily guzzle a big bowl of it for a meal – dangerously good stuff.

Mutiple mouthgasms (Hick, 2011). At this point, our waiter announced that chef was treating us to some special palate cleansers, and within a short while some jewel like little pots of vibrant pinky red rhubarb jelly topped with Moonshine Dairy organic natural yoghurt appeared. We were instructed to make sure to eat both together, as the rhubarb was too sweet and the yoghurt to sour to eat solo, while together they made a perfect combo. This was sound advice. Yummy. Also delivered were two bouls of mojito sorbet, each topped with a purple sprig of mint from the garden. The consensus quickly reached was that it was good mojito, frozen or not.

After the cleansing reprieve, we resumed course on our culinary extravaganza and eagerly awaited the mains, even though we may have been feeling a touch full at this stage (not enough, naturally, to slow down the expedition to the top of mount glutton). For round four, we received: (1) ‘Finnebrogue Farm Oisin Venison Saddle’ (with candied Yorke's Swede, red wine celeriac, and Valrhona chocolate berry sauce); (2) ‘Raz el Hanout rubbed Roscommon Spring Lamb Rack (with curried celeriac remoulade, kromeski (croquet) of lamb shoulder and natural yoghurt); (3) ‘Mapel Manuka-glazed Thornhill Duck Breast’ (with beetroot confit, roast butternut squash, parsnip and swede, and garlic pureé); and finally, (4) some perfectly baked Donegal Coast plaice (with a ‘spaghetti of vegetables, Clogherhead prawns, crayfish and lough Swilly crab, in coriander lime broth).

I’m almost out of language to describe the food by now – also the memory of it as I sit here writing about in detail is making me very hungry. Once again, all was delicious. The venison was especially successful – although one of our group wasn’t as partial to the ubiquitous truffle oil which had been dotted about the plate, and also added to the large gourmet potato croquets which came as a side (along with finger-licklingly buttery mash and some al dente seasonal veggies). To others it was pleasing though. The duck was perfectly pink and butter-like as the knife went through, and very attractively adorned by delicate little spears of wild asparagus and minimalist-looking root veg. The lamb was also well-received, its interesting North African spice blend a welcome wake-up from the brink of food coma. While the fish, with its delicate seafood and complimentary vegetable and herb flavours, was like a breath of fresh sea air.

I’ve talked so much food, I imaging it’s hard to take in any more description, so feast you eyes on the pictures instead. Eat a thousand calories from these pictures, or however that saying goes.

You might think we’d be too stuffed to eat anything else after all that, and you’d be correct. That didn’t stop us, however, having no less than FIVE desserts! I know, I we should be ashamed… but we’re not. After a break, the kitchen sent out: a very decadent chocolate dessert which consisted of a cylindrical dark chocolate casing containing a chocolate, Kaluah and espresso genache with a chocolate sorbet; an assortment of house-made sorbets (mango and blueberry) and vanilla ice cream; a green tea crème bruleé; an utterly moreish passion fruit parfait; and a sweet little rhubarb tart (in perfect puff pastry) with vanilla ice cream. All thanks to pastry chef Sammy who’s been at VM since it opened three years ago.

I am now officially out of food writing words. Suffice to say, in spite of how full we were on finishing off the mains, we left nothing of the desserts. At this point though we were well and truly stuffed. When the pots of peppermint tea and pretty little petits fours arrived, we could only manage a nibble of the macarons (crisp to the tooth, then meltingly soft on the inside) and handmade chocolate truffles (also divine).

Now prepare yourself readers for the biggest shock of all: the dinner menu at VM costs only €58 per head! And €53 if you leave out the dessert course, which in our case was total over indulgence. The wine list is ample, well thought out and reasonably priced, and the early bird is only €35!!

This is why I say VM was the ‘pièce de résistance’ of our journey. It epitomises the excellence and value of Irish food at its best – something we can be so proud of and should be boasting about as far and wide as we can. Likewise Beryl and James Kearney in Viewmount House (and Alan Rooks and Brigene Clafferty in Linsfort Castle) are quietly providing the kind of hospitality you couldn’t get anywhere else. Uniquely ours, worth every reasonable penny and then some, and worth the schlep to these places less visited in our lovely country. So my wish is that other people will read this blog and follow our road trip. You won’t be sorry, you just won’t want to go home.

A Foodie Road Trip (Northwest/West of Ireland): Part II

TUESDAY: Sligo town and a mad one in Galway

Beautiful Sligo by blogger/photographer

On to day three and we couldn’t believe it was time to leave Inishowen already. And seeing as we had a bit of a journey ahead of us, we prepared a hearty breakfast of scrambled free range eggs (fresh from Wexford Lad’s farm), with some generous slabs of Jack McCarthy’s black pudding (as in McCarthy’s of Kanturk, Co Cork, naturally) and thick toasted white batch with butter. Not the healthiest start to the day but sure start as you mean to go on.

With the car loaded up, we said goodbye to Dunree and Inishowen and headed south for Co Sligo. From here our plan was quite loose, so it wasn’t until somewhere between Ballyshannon and Bundoran that we reached the decision to stop in Sligo town – primarily to pay a visit to a friend of Clonakilty Lass who owns a little café called Grappa in the town centre, but also to have a bit of snoop about for whatever else looked good. After around two and a half hours or so on the road, we pulled up by the Garavogue River and sauntered down Rockwood Parade towards the café.

Hargadon's traditional pub and restaurant in Sligo
After a coffee and a gossip in Grappa – a sweet little café that's very attentive to the needs of coeliacs, just FYI –we looked for a suitable spot to luncheon. (Ed note: We went to Conrad's kitchen which is now shut down, but a terrific spot if you're in the area is Source, a wine bar cum bistro cum cookery school offering an exceptional experience in locally sourced seasonal food and intelligently selected wines. Another is Hargadon's gastropub (and wine shop with their own South of France vineyard), a traditional pub/restaurant that offers hearty home cooking the like of which you'll be looking for on a trip like this, and where they know how to serve a pint.)

Overstaying our meter by a mere 20 minutes, thankfully sans clamp, we set off on our way once again towards Galway. With the addition of a quick pit-stop at Galway Girl’s family farm for some tea and fig rolls, it was approximately a further hour and a half before we were glamming ourselves up for the night ahead in Galway city – make-upping and preening within the confines of our bunks in our en suite dorm in Barnacles hostel (the only show in town for hostel accommodation, in my not very humble opinion).

Obligatory olde bike outside 'hip' Ard Bia
Heading out for dinner, I was curious to see how Bar No.8 was doing since the departure of Jess Murphy (now ensconced in her own restaurant, Kai), however the inclement weather and inappropriate footware I’d brought prompted me to point our group towards the slightly closer Ard Bia. Finding them in their new(ish) abode at the Spanish Arch, we bundled into the small entrance way and discovered the restaurant to be quite packed for a Tuesday night (always a good sign). After a short wait we were shown to a table in the back close to the kitchen. For some reason it took a ridic amount of time to be given menus or, more annoyingly, to make eye contact with the woman hustling busily to and fro past our table without as much as a nod in our direction.

Eventually though, the menus were delivered (and a bottle of prosecco ordered before they hit the table cloth), and we were back on track. On account of our impromptu feed in Conrad Gallagher’s bistro earlier – and the big breakfast before that…. and tea and biscuits afterward – we decided we’d split a mezze plate for starters. Three very tasty versions of hummus, including a beetroot one, and a delicious lamb sheek kebab, served with some lovely fresh salady bits and some decent pitta, went down a treat. For the mains, the three chefs couldn’t resist the offer of ray wing on special, so all three went for it: beautifully fried and served with crab butter, albino beetroot, and pak choi. We also scoffed the local Killary mussels with great chunks of chorizo and a hot and spicy (we suspected harissa) broth. This was actually a starter but the kitchen very obligingly made it into a main size portion and furnished some crusty bread for mopping up the tasty sauce. All dishes were well appreciated by our discerning palates, and yet again we found ourselves in receipt of good value for money. On the prosecco (which was decent) and a bottle of delectable Paddy Borthwick Paper Road Pinot Noir we scarcely spent €60, while the food over-delivered at the lower end of mid-range prices.

From there we headed out into the night, and what happened in Galway stays in Galway! Suffice to tell you it happened in the Quay Street vicinity, involving pubs including The Kings Head, The Quays, and The Front Door. Enough said.

Galway (most fun town outside Dublin). Pic from An Taisce
WDENESDAY: Galway again, Athlone and the journey to Viewmount House, Longford

Thanks to a prior arrangement to meet a friend for coffee in the morning, we got ourselves and our hangovers up at a ludicrously early our and hit the road before 9.30am. Painful it was but we were glad in the end. The early start cleared the heads in advance of brunch so that sensible decisions could be made about where to eat. Since über-talented New Zealander Jess Murphy had just opened Kai, it really would have been inexcusable to have missed it during our short visit to Galway – especially in favour of going for hangover grub at some unspeakable outlet, such as the kind that pours liquid cheese on your chips.

Thankfully, with our heads clear(er than they had been), we made our way to Sea Road to find her new eatery. Given that we were more than half an hour early for lunch, we tucked ourselves into a quaint but stylish banquet and ordered some of her bespoke herbal tea (a calming chamomile number with lavender and other ingredients) and a delicious buttery home-baked apricot scone with freshly made seasonal fruit jams (strawberry and vanilla and damson berry). The server (Jess’ husband) was relaxed, friendly and totally obliging, in spite of the fact that we’d tarnished the cool bohemian atmosphere of the place with copious trashy magazines, from which we read aloud causing maniacal giggling and other hideous noises – such was our frame of mind. They didn’t seem to mind at all, there was nothing but friendliness. Then finally, our wait paid off, and the lunch options for the day were written up on the board. At this point we noticed the small room was starting to fill up, the anticipation building as we looked on with delight at the menu being revealed.

Example of beautiful simple food at Kai
Everything was in season and local as possible: a beetroot and miso soup; a colourful peperonata with organic leaves and edible flowers on toasted ciabatta; a fragrant salad of roasted broccoli and organic leaves with feta and caramelised hazel nuts; some Ortiz tuna in a coriander mayonnaise on toasted bread; and a gooey moreish cheddar and bacon quiche with light but satisfying pastry. It may sound simple on paper, and perhaps it is all quite simple, but to achieve simplicity this beautiful requires skill and artistry. To achieve simplicity this delicious requires that very rare talent bestowed on only a handful of chefs. Once again, we ate food that over-delivered on the price we paid.

You won’t find a current menu on their website, because Kai doesn’t roll that way (what with everything being so local and seasonal it changes every day) However, you will find a sample of the fabness to be found there, as well as other important details like how to find them... I can’t stress enough though that Kai is a special place worth finding.

On to Athlone...

So, after another magical encounter of the foodie kind, we got back in the car and decided to head to Salthill for a walk and an ice cream. Sadly, however, the weather had taken a turn for the worse, so we changed our course for Athlone, partly thinking of conditions improving as we headed east, and partly thinking of finding somewhere to hang out and enjoy ourselves some more.

The Left Bank Bistro in Athlone provided the very thing. I’d not been in since 2009, when I reviewed it as part of a piece for Food & Wine on places to visit over Easter – it has just the right kind of comfy vibe that makes you want to hang out and indulge a bit. Perfect for long weekends (or Sundays when you’re just in that kind of mood), and I was happy to find that the place was the same as the last time I’d visited. We parked ourselves in the café-like front of the bistro and – you’ve guessed it – ordered a few glasses of wine for the girls (who still hadn’t shared any of the driving with our long suffering friend Wexford Lad). As we sipped and chatted, we glanced nonchalantly over the menu. We never did get those ice creams in Salthill so it wouldn’t hurt to sample a little something, surely? It would have been rude not to!

The chicken wings stared temptingly at us from the lunch menu, as did creamy ham and mushroom pasta. I remembered the heartiness of a beef and Guinness stew I’d eaten on my last visit and imagined how good those chicken wings and/or creamy pasta would be right at that moment. However, I did cop on in time to realise that this would have been pure gluttony and, much worse than that, would possibly ruin our appetites for the main event at VM in Longford later on. So instead we contented ourselves by perusing the home-baked cakes and confections perched on the counter, settling on a piece of light but rich lemon Madeira cake with a lemon curd filling, and another of coffee mocha Madeira cake with coffee butter icing. Each piece was gargantuan and served with fresh whipped cream (both under a fiver) and we demolished them quickly declaring the lemon as the winner. It’s hard to beat lemon curd, in fairness. Then we hung out for what seemed like another hour at least, chatting and relaxing without a care, or the need to order anything more.

Finally, though, we had reached the last leg of the journey – the one I was dying for – so into the car we got and away to Longford and Viewmount House for the ultimate and most grand feast of the lot.

The car rolled through the open country roads at pace, Lady Gaga blasting from the ipod – me singing atrociously in between giving wrong directions – and all of us now too excited to read any more stories about how bad Cheryl Cole’s hair was at the US X Factor launch (which was very, very bad, FYI). Finally, after three days of touring and eating and drinking, we arrived at the gates of Viewmount House, relieved to have made it after brains and google maps had sent us wrong – and I being a Dubliner couldn’t orientate myself when not travelling in a straight line from Dublin.

I had ventured up to VM once before in 2009, having heard some buzz about the place soon after it had opened. It’s only an hour or so from Dublin (which may surprise those not aware) and I had been impressed by the keen cookery and use of excellent local, seasonal produce. This time I was excited to see how things had progressed. As we got out of the car, I immediately spied chef Gary O’Hanlon coming from the garden on his way back to the kitchen to begin dinner service. Maybe it was his Donegal lilt as he gave us a big cheery welcome, or maybe it was the basket of fresh herbs and chive flowers in his hand, but as we entered the house we felt like we were going to feel right at home here. We also got the feeling we were in for something special.

...the remainder of the VM review is covered in its own blog post (as it was quite epic). See Part III to find out about what is clearly one of the best restaurants in Ireland.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Foodie Road Trip (Northwest/West of Ireland): Part I

After much discussion about how to ‘do’ a foodie road trip in Ireland, my chef BNBFs and I resolved to make it several, as opposed to just one, focusing on themes – such as regions, establishment-type, seasons etc. For our first jolly, we decided on a restaurant trail of sorts in the northwest, owing to the fact that I have the ultimate foodie contact in Donegal and, very helpfully, a holiday home in the same place.

I put in a call to my Inishowen friend, owner of Harry’s Bar & Restaurant and all-round lovely guy Donal O’D, and in the blink of a rare breed porker’s eye we had a plan. Two nights at my family farmhouse in Dunree (Donegal), a quick visit to Sligo town en route to Galway for a night, then a blast through Athlone en route to a final feast at VM in Viewmount House, Co Longford, before heading back to Dublin. With thanks to the inside help from Donal and some fortuitous timing, our foodie trip was jam-packed with great food and fun. In fact, we had such great experiences and great value for money, we reckoned that it’s our duty to tell everyone about it.

So this is the first chapter of our ‘How to Eat Your Way Around Ireland’ adventures. I'm actually splitting it into three separate posts (as it was turning into the War & Peace of blog posts), so what follows is our two days in Inishowen. We had four foodies, one car, three and a half days, a boot full of tuck, and one sat nav (which was surprisingly helpful in even the most remote locations).

SUNDAY: Head for Inishowen, Co Donegal.

As I had the Dublin City Soul Festival to attend to (judging the Soul Food Restaurant Trail) we didn’t take off until late afternoon, which is probably a bit late. Consequently, by the time we’d dropped off our bags and gotten the house in Dunree sorted, we didn’t make it into Harry’s in Bridgend until circa 9.40pm! A scandalously late hour to be swanning into any establishment on a Sunday evening, but being the lovely people that they are in Harry’s, we were welcomed in (literally with open arms) and treated to a royal feast without a word of complaint.

Inishowen rare breed porkers from Hamiltons Farm
A selection of starters were chosen and prepared for us in advance of our arrival (as we were disgracefully late): Perfectly pan-fried John Dory from Greencastle, Co Donegal, with an apple pureé, mandarin orange segments, and sweet organic pea shoots from Harry’s own walled garden were devoured with gusto; as well as some decadent pâté and hearty terrine served with a nicely spiced house-made relish. We drank a decent prosecco and then some ripe fruity Greenstone Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand, both reasonably priced around the mid twenties. For what they were, the starters were also astoundingly good value.

...and here's a delicious loin
For mains we chose platters of local Inishowen organic saddleback pork (succulent slow roast shoulder in a lightly spiced glaze) and roast rib of Donegal aged beef (aged in Harry’s own hanging room), to share between the four of us. With the meat we ate tasty rich dauphinois potatoes and good, proper chips as served in Donal’s parents’ café just a few doors up (famed locally for their chicken fillet burger), and some organic purple bok choy from the garden, tastily prepared with ample seasoning and flavour. Conversation was limited as we feasted – we left nothing. In spite of us being rather full, we ordered a rich but not too heavy dark chocolate and whiskey cake, and a Carrageen moss pudding on a ginger biscuit base. Both were delicious. To give you an idea of the value for money, a three course dinner at Harry's is €24 at weekends and €20 during the week. I’m not given to endless flowery summations in my reviews but suffice to say, our trip to Harry’s left us all (critic and chefs) still thinking and talking about what we’d eaten for some days afterward. It’s a very special and unique restaurant, as much due to the people involved (from supplier to front of house) as to the quality local produce it serves to showcase. Harry’s is THE foodie attraction of Inishowen, if not all Donegal. No trip up north is complete without a visit.

Fed and happy, Donal O’D showed us to the nautically themed Drift Inn in Buncrana for a G&T before we rolled home to bed.
the best way to burn calories

MONDAY: Dunree Fort, Malin Head, and Linsfort Castle

We woke to sunshine – a rare commodity – and immediately set off to take advantage while it lasted. Given the indulgence of the night before, we also felt a bit of exercise was in order. Not two kilometres from the house is the fabulous Fort Dunree (approx 7 miles from Buncrana), located on the top of Dunree Head and which affords some stunning views of the region, including Lough Swilly and the facing peninsula with beautiful Portsalon beach to the west, and the Urris Hills and other north Donegal mountains and surrounding hinterland to the east. The fort has a museum and interpretive centre but my favourite attraction is the walk around the head, which allows you to amble through the old barracks buildings and get up close and personal with the massive guns (actually in use in the last century). As a word of warning, there is quite a lot of uphill, however the views are so rewarding it’s well worth the effort – and if you’ve been to Harry’s the night before then a good uphill walk is what you need! For directions and details click here.

After a morning hiking and taking in the scenery, we headed for the farmhouse, just in time to dodge the rain. The great thing about travelling with foodies is that they always come prepared, so we were well equipped to kill an hour or so waiting for the weather to pick up again. Our Galway Girl treated us to some buttery Glebe Brethan (comte-style cheese from unpasteurised Montbeliarde cows’ milk made by David Tiernan in Co Louth), some lovely toffee-scented Coolea (semi hard cow’s milk cheese made by Dick and Sinéad Willems in Co Cork) and some salty Cashel Blue (un-homogenised cow’s milk blue made by Jane and Louis Grubb and their daughter Sarah Furno in Co Tipperary), which we nibbled along with her very own rhubarb and ginger relish. Our Clonakilty Lass provided a ripe Languedoc red to quaff with the cheese, and afterwards we had light little blueberry and lime sponge cakes (baked by Galway Girl) and good dark chocolate brought by our Wexford Lad. I can't stress how much of an asset it is to include chefs among your travelling companions...

When the sun finally broke through the clouds once again, we hopped in the car and made for Malin Head – Ireland’s most northerly point. Heading east from Dunree across a wild Donegal blanket bog and past the Mamore Gap, the scenery is once again quite stunning. We passed through the little towns of Clonmany, Ballyliffin, Carndonagh and eventually Malin, from where we headed north to the point past Five Finger Strand. When we reached it – by some miracle – the sun was shining and the day was fresh. Galway Girl, Wexford Lad and Clonakilty Lass were all blown away by the view, and I was very proud to have family ties with the county. Like a bunch of big kids we ran down the side of the hill and over the fence, all the way to the water’s edge, which was a bit rough but still made you want to jump in. It was breathtakingly beautiful – I was a bit giddy afterward. Then we scrambled back up the hill and went for coffee at the lone vendor’s van parked up in this remote, often windblown spot.

Now this was a real surprise. Caffe Banba (Ireland’s most northerly coffee and cakes) is actually pretty good. In fact, it’s very good, and all the way up there in the middle of nowhere. Proprietor (and lovely fella) Dominic McDermott previously brewed Java Republic’s Blue Earth Organic coffee, but has now switched to Bailies (a Belfast roaster), and tasty brew it is. We couldn’t resist nabbing a couple of slices of his lemon and ginger cakes while we were at it (home-baked by Dominic’s wife Andrea), and they were super too - moist and light. With refreshments in hand, we sought shelter behind a wall and looked out over the Atlanitc, smug with the success of our foodie road trip so far.

If you're lucky enough to find this part of the world, do stop at Caffe Banba - it makes Malin Head even more worth the journey.

The afternoon was drawing to a close and Harry’s Donal O’D had organised for us to spend the evening having homemade wood fire-baked pizzas at the home of a lovely couple who just happen to be foodies and who have a stone oven in their garden. They had been the centre of much buzz during the Inishfood Festival earlier in the year, when Mr Pizza (aka Darren Bradley) stoked up his oven and fed over 50 foodies in attendance just for the craic. However, his is not a commercial enterprise, only one of personal passion and big heartedness, so it was a real privilege to be invited (or at the very least, accommodated at the behest of Inishowen’s most persistent foodie, Donal O’D). That said, we weren’t exactly shy about barrelling in and making ourselves at home, cracking open the wine and sharing it around like we were all old friends. And what happened next was as unprecedented and fantastic a food experience as any I’ve had in Ireland to date.

Also at the wee pizza party were Alan Rooks and Brigeen Clafferty from stunning neighbouring B&B Linsfort Castle - armed with wine and apple butter and plum jam made from fruit grown in their own garden. They’re a warm couple that we liked instantly, and it wasn’t long before interesting conversation and good spirits were flowing. Then the pizzas started to appear. First a simple, wafer thin crispy base topped with a little rosemary and sea salt and a splash of olive oil. Delicious! The olive oil, we learned, was from our host’s parents’ olive grove in Umbria, so the simply topped pizza created the perfect conduit for tasting it. Next came a simple tomato sauce with rocket and parmesan, then some caramelised onion and goat log, then some spicy salami and mozzarella, then an utterly moreish butternut squash and soft goat cheese, then a couple of rounds of thinly sliced tender potato with rosemary and salt (which he referred to as ‘chip pizza’), then more salami. It was a gourmet pizza feast, served up by a big friendly guy who’d never seen us before in his life, amid interesting and friendly company, as we watched the sun go down over the Swilly.

After the embers began to die, we took a stroll down to the little beach behind the house to see the end of the sunset. Linsfort beach is without doubt one of my favourite beaches in all of Donegal (which is saying a lot considering the beaches in this part of the world). After thanking our host profusely for his incredibly generous hospitality, we were then invited to Linsfort Castle for some coffee and a look around. At this point, readers, I’m happy to say that all are welcome to visit this guesthouse and, personal bias aside, I reckon it’s possibly the best base for a holiday in Inishowen. As for Darren's amazing pizzas, come to the Inishfood Festival at the end of May and you might get lucky!

Brigeen’s gardens, while not only beautiful to walk through, produce fruit, vegetables, free range eggs (from a clutch of Blackrock hens) and honey, all of which are served up to guests in the B&B. Inside the house, her talented eye is evident in every room, each individually and tastefully decorated, as is every nook of the house. In the old kitchen where breakfast is served every morning, an old fireplace replete with traditional hob and pots, and an old still-working wireless give a certain country elegance. As does the vintage china from which we drank proper coffee after our tour of the house and gardens. In spite of their both being vegetarian, Alan had a stove purpose-built in the guest quarters for cooking bacon and sausages for breakfast each morning (sourced from Crowe’s Farm in Co Tipperary), although, true to form, there’s ample veggie options to choose from too. At the end of our terrific evening in Linsfort, Brigeen insisted on driving us home.

And that concluded our fab one and a half days in Inishowen. Between the people and the food, on leaving we felt as though we'd just been to the best place in the world. In Part II I'll fill you in on our foodie adventures in Sligo, Galway, Athlone and - la pièce de résistance - Viewmount House in Longford.