IN JUNE, the Spanish tourist board launched its Tasting Spain initiative to help the 1.3 million Irish tourists who visit Spain annually to encounter the very best of Spanish gastronomy while on holiday. The aim is to steer tourists towards things like the hidden pintxos bars in San Sebastian, the best cider houses of Asturias, or family taverns in the hills of Tenerife that serve the ultimate vieja sancochada (sea-bream stew).
Why aren’t we doing something similar in Ireland? The Wall Street Journal last month laid out a tour of the artisan cheese farms of Ireland, with details of the best farmers’ markets and shops to visit along the way. I recently toured Ireland trying to survive on Irish-made produce for TG4 and, while Irish food proved hard to find, the quality of the artisan products I came across was overwhelming. Highlights included the smoked fish of the Burren Smokehouse, the sourdough breads of Butler’s Pantry and Blazing Salads, and the foraged Connemara fare served in the glorious Galway triumvirate of Aniar, Ard Bia and Kai.
Lonely Planet lists the Galway Oyster Festival (next weekend) in its book of the world’s greatest festivals – up there with the Kumbh Mela, Mali’s Festival au Désert and Burning Man. There are many other fantastic food-related initiatives, but nothing that links them all for tourists to Ireland. The first week of October has two unmissable food events. First up is the Clare Harvest Banquet, on 7th October, where there will be Clare-churned butter from Clare cattle, wine from east Clare, salt from west Clare’s coastline, salad and sea vegetables from Kilrush and Ennistymon, Burren-reared meat (slaughtered and butchered in Clare). The point is to celebrate great food, but also to cast light on the 26,000kms that the average Irish dinner travels before reaching one’s plate.
The presence of Irish Seed Savers in Scariff has helped nurture an awareness in Clare of our heritage foods. They now have about 600 heirloom vegetable varieties and 140 native apple varieties, and continue striving to safeguard our vanishing tastes. I have 12 of their apple varieties growing, just because I want my grandnephews to know the complex, marvellous tastes of the Irish apples that we were reared on.
We all have a duty to plant a few of the rarest specimens and even recently in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris I saw a newly planted Ballyvaughan Seedling. (If you can tell me where it is I’ll send you a copy of my novel Oddballs.) The workshops held at Seed Savers make any visit an illuminating lesson in survival: the food-foraging session today is booked out; tomorrow it’s country-wine making; next weekend there are classes on canning and storing, and making herbal remedies. The Apple Farm in Caher, Co Tipperary, which has links to Seed Savers, is having its annual apple and cider festival this weekend. But, I digress.
The second great food event in early October is the Dingle Food Festival, 5th-7th October, which has a gourmet safari, where one can eat one’s way around 60 different venues in the town, including hat shops and pottery studios. There are also tasting menus in the renowned An Daingean restaurants, and workshops in cheese-making, seaweed-gathering and curing your back-yard pig, then making fudge from the bacon.
Surely tourists coming to Ireland in October would like to hear about these events? Good Food Ireland is launching a software programme soon to allow visitors create their own countrywide trails based on their particular gourmet obsession. What we really need to do, however, is to steal the Tasting Spain idea and make it our own. Just like they do with our fish.
Manchán’s Déanta in Éirinn will be on TG4 at 10pm, Thursday