An Irish Food Festival in Kilkenny

Kilkenny, in southeastern Ireland, might be the next Irish food capital

The center of the Irish food scene these days (and yes, there is an Irish food scene; get over the potato jokes), as anyone will tell you, is County Cork, in the far south of Ireland — hotbed of the Irish artisanal food movement and home of the famed Ballymaloe hotel, restaurant, and cooking school. In the past few years, County Tipperary, slightly more towards the middle of the country, has been getting some gastronomic attention, much of it centered around specialty-food merchant and indigenous food enthusiast Peter Ward of Nenagh.

The next part of Ireland to make an impression might very well be Tipperary's neighbor, County Kilkenny, at least judging from some of the things I ate, people I met, and culinary passion I saw all around me at Savour Kilkenny, an annual three-day program of seminars, cooking demonstrations, food producer tours, and special meals, built around a 75-stall open-air food market, held in and around the small city of Kilkenny itself in late October. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/Joopey)

That city, with a population of about 22,000, was first mentioned in a medieval manuscript in 1085 A.D., but the area was a major monastic center as early as the eighth century. The 13th-century Kilkenny Castle rises above the pleasant, low-key city center, alongside the broad thoroughfare called The Parade, down one side of which runs a row of restaurants, pubs, and shops.

Savour Kilkenny's open-air market was set up on The Parade on October 29th and 30th, offering ample tastes of mostly artisanal food products from the county and its neighbors. One stand belonged to the current star of the local artisanal food movement, Helen Finnegan of Knockdrinna Farmhouse Cheese, whose semi-soft, washed-rind goat’s cheese, Kilree, was just named Supreme Champion (as well as Best Irish Cheese and Best Semi-Soft Cheese) at the British Cheese Awards, a competition that this year boasted 904 entries from 181 cheesemakers from all over Ireland and Great Britain.

Wandering down The Parade, on a day that swung, in typical Irish fashion, from torrentially rainy to sunny and mild, I also sampled both hot- and cold-smoked trout from Ger and Mag Kirwan's 50-year-old Goatsbridge trout farm, near the 12th-century Jerpoint Abbey in neighboring Thomastown; a strip of locally grown Piemontese beef loin raised by John Commins in County Tipperary (this is the same cattle breed featured at Eataly in New York City, though theirs comes from Montana); a roast free-range pork sandwich, with meat from another Tipperary producer, Oldfarm; a taste of Julie Calder-Potts' patented Orchard Syrup, from organic apples grown at her Highbank Orchards in Cuffesgrange, a Kilkenny farm first established in the 17th century — a syrup as dense and naturally sweet as anything tapped from New England maple trees; a rich chocolate truffle from Mary Teehan of Thomastown, who styles herself "the Truffle Fairy"; and a spoonful of Madagascar vanilla ice cream from Kilkenny's Cramers Grove, which makes their products using milk and cream from their own dairy herd. Among the stands I bypassed was one selling BBQ kangaroo skewers, which I guessed were probably not based on a locally grown product. (Photo courtesy of Colman Andrews)

I also stopped in at the demonstration tent to say hello to Garrett Byrne, longtime chef at the Michelin one-star restaurant Chapter One in Dublin, who is from this region and returned here three years ago to open an establishment called Campagne, which serves first-rate modern European food based on superb Irish raw materials. Byrne's is, to my mind, the best restaurant in Kilkenny, but it gets competition from the Lady Helen, the dining room at Mount Juliet, a 1,500-acre golf, fishing, and hunting resort just outside the city. Here, chefs Cormac Rowe and Ken Harker lightly cook the Kirwans' trout sous-vide and serve it with seaweed butter, combine scallops from Kilmore on the nearby Wexford coast with jerusalem artichokes and crubeen (pigs' feet) croquettes, and grace Knockdrinna's award-winning goat cheese with pear foam, walnuts, and truffle honey.

 

Other well regarded local establishments include Rinuccini, a popular Italian place; Zuni, which serves meats and seafood from the region along with such "new Irish" specialties as warm chile chicken salad with cashews and sweet potatoes and seared tuna with sesame seeds, bok choy, coriander rice, and pickled ginger; and Sol Bistro, where the specialties include Cashel blue cheese bruschetta with plum and mango chutney, and roast Irish chicken with Indian spices and toasted couscous. Savour Kilkenny even concocted a "Blasta [tasty] Trail" map of restaurants, pubs, and hotel eateries that serve small dishes, otherwise known as, yes, "local Irish food tapas-style".

Besides the open-air market and a number of cooking demonstrations at several venues — among the featured chefs, besides Garrett Byrne, were Donal Skehan (pictured), a sort of young Irish Jamie Oliver, whose Kitchen Hero is a popular show on TV here, and Mary Carney, who won first place on the first season of Ireland Masterchef — the focus of Savor Kilkenny was Foodcamp, a daylong program of seminars and presentations at the city's Newpark Hotel. Speakers addressed such topics as "How our shopping basket affects Irish food producers and our health" and "A Bloggers’ brainstorming session for what’s next," conducted by the Irish Food Bloggers Association. Other programs concerned community gardens, the importance of "free-range" and "non-GMO," and an appreciation of a "dying food product," boxty — the northern Irish potato pancake, typically made with leftover mashed potatoes and raw grated ones. (Photo courtesy of Pat Moore)

The last event on Saturday was billed as a "food fight" on the theme "Traditional Irish Cuisine — an embarrassment of riches or just an embarrassment?" John McKenna, who edits the Bridgestone Irish food guides with his wife, Sally, moderated the panel discussion of what turned out to be something of a straw man of a topic. The Swedish-born, County Clare-based salmon smoker Birgitta Curtin, Irish Times food writer Catherine Cleary, and Kevin Sheridan of Sheridans Cheesemongers, Ireland's best-known cheese shops, were supposedly "speaking up for all that is good about [Ireland's] food heritage," while the "just an embarrassment" position was to be held by author and journalist Suzanne Campbell, food historian Regina Sexton, and myself.

The problem was that none of us were willing to say that Ireland's food traditions were an embarrassment. We were all more or less on the same side. I did allow, however, that I thought it was slightly embarrassing that more young Irish chefs didn't seem to know much about their island's culinary heritage. I read a few brief accounts of meals eaten in 19th-century Ireland, and specifically mentioned some 1840-vintage recipes I'd found for pickled salmon, lettuce braised in lamb stock with sorrel and onion, and "oyster rolls" made with toasted French rolls filled with oysters in cream sauce (Irish po' boys?). I'd wager nobody in the room would have even identified these as Irish — yet they came from estate papers I once found in the National Library in Dublin, the estate in question being Ballytobin, about 15 miles from where we were sitting.

For information on next year's Savour Kilkenny, check savourkilkenny.com early in 2012.

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