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.


  1. Severe food jealousy happening here.

    1. Thanks Ruth, understandable! I must mention - since Darren Bradley's pizzas are only available for special occasions - other dinner possibilities in the area include The Red Door in Fahan (http://thereddoor.ie), Rathmullan House hotel and restaurant (www.rathmullanhouse.com - accessible via the ferry from Buncrana May-Sept), The beach House in Buncrana (www.thebeachhouse.ie), McGrory's in Culdaff (www.mcgrorys.ie) and Caratrá pub and guesthouse in Culdaff (www.caratraculdaff.com)

  2. Hi Caroline!

    Greetings from the Mystic, CT USA. I hope you are well and enjoying the summer. I'm wondering if you would be so kind to offer some excellent restaurant recommendations. I'm the group leader of sixteen (4 families) who are traveling to Ireland for the first time. Our basic itinerary is below. Even a few suggestions would be very much appreciated. As a fellow foodie, I'm excited to enjoy Irish cooking at its best, and I thought you'd be the best person to offer advice.

    Here's our itinerary
    Day 1: Dublin (Trinity Capital Hotel)
    Day 2: Donegal (Mill Park Hotel)
    Days 3 & 4: Connemara (Ballynahinch Castle)
    Day 5: Ballyvaughan (Hylands Burren Hotel)
    Days 6 & 7: Killarney (The Malton Hotel)
    Days 8 & 9: http://www.dunravenhotel.com (Adare)
    Day 10: Depart

    Thank you in advance for your time. I look forward to hearing back.

    With very best regards,