To dine for in Dingle

 

Foodies are in for a real treat next month when a celebration of local produce takes place in the Co Kerry village, writes KATY McGUINNNESS

IT’S LUNCHTIME on a Thursday in late summer and in Chowder, a casual new restaurant on Dingle’s Strand Street, chef and owner Charlie Childs is working hard to produce the dishes that are responsible for the happy Italian faces that fill the small room.

They’re asking for Charlie’s signature seafood chowder, of course, which in and of itself would be enough to keep most trenchermen going ’til dinner time, but they’re also ordering the steak sandwiches, which come with garlic bread and a mountain of hand-cut chips, and the pan-fried mackerel – an excellent choice, by the way – distributed around the small room by Charlie’s blue-haired daughter. Chowder has only been open since early June; Charlie starts with breakfast and continues on right through until the end of dinner. Despite – or perhaps because of – his lack of a wine licence, he’s doing a bomb.

For a small town, there’s plenty of foodie action going down in Dingle these days – and there’ll be even more during the first weekend of October, when the fourth annual Dingle Food and Drink Festival and the third annual Blas na hÉireann Irish Food Awards take place.

It’s a far cry from the days when the west Kerry town was very much the poor relation to its more sophisticated foodie cousins across the county border in Cork. Barely a decade ago, holidaymakers in Dingle had precious little choice when it came to finding a decent meal. At the upper end of the scale The Chart House and Doyle’s – both excellent, granted – were the principal options, while the middle market that should have catered for the families who holiday here in their droves and other visitors on a budget was almost non-existent and the options that did exist were sad and dispiriting. And as for sourcing interesting local and artisan produce from which to rustle up meals in the kitchen of your rental house . . . well, you’d have been whistling.

How things have changed. Dingle is rumoured to be on the list to be designated one of the nation’s foodie capitals by the Restaurant Association of Ireland in 2011 and there is a vibrant local food culture evident in the shops of the town and its weekly market. The restaurants and other food businesses of the town are coming down with Bridgestone plaques.

Artie Clifford, chairman of the Blas Awards and a man who appears to be on first name terms with every single person in town, credits the local Garvey’s Supervalu – where the presence of Daíthí O Sé’s brother, Danny, on the butcher’s counter causes a ripple from time to time – with having played a huge part in the development of Dingle as a foodie destination. Manager Richie Quaid, a blow-in from Tipperary, stocks produce from more than 25 local suppliers and has one of the best wine selections in town. In the summer months, Garvey’s turnover is three times what it is in the winter – evidence, if it were needed, that the barristers who have made this corner of their country their own are fond of their food and drink.

Ted Browne’s smoked salmon is divine and his fantastic crabmeat is picked fresh and pasteurised in its own juices so that it retains all of its sweetness. (In a fascinating diversification, the shells are turned into compost for golf courses.)

From down the road in Annascaul comes the legendary Ashe’s black pudding, produced in the cake-slab form common in this neck of the woods, along with white pudding and fabulous, peppery sausages.

Pióg pies, produced by Brid ni Mhathuna and Steven Neiling, are wonderfully old-fashioned, made from Kerry lamb, free-range chicken and other high quality ingredients that are so good that there’s no need to beat yourself up that you didn’t make them yourself.

And there is Dingle Farmhouse Milk, with its lovely, happy packaging and nostalgic layer of cream on the top – milk that tastes like milk should – produced by dairy farmer Tom Bric, who also makes a fine semi-hard cow’s milk cheese in a successful venture into alternative farm income.

Up the hill, butcher Jerry Kennedy is the man to talk to if you’re hoping to nab some Blasket Island lamb. You’ll be lucky, though, because the dark, herby meat disappears out of his shop as quick as you can say “Baa”. If you miss out, console yourself with some of his sublime rosemary and thyme sausages.

On Fridays, the Dingle market set up by Mark Murphy, the number two chef at Global Village, is buzzing with foodie activity. All the stallholders come from within a 50-mile radius making it a truly local market. If you get there early enough you’ll be able to buy some of the great breads from Niall and Orla Naessens’ Bacus Breads from Brandon and some Dexter beef – the Irish equivalent of Kobe – produced by Paddy Fenton who moonlights as the county vet when he’s not making Dexter burgers and sausages for special occasions.

Maja Binder’s Dingle Peninsula cheeses (which feature on the menu at the swanky Sheen Falls over in Kenmare) and Olivier Beaujouan’s On the Wild Side sea vegetables, fish and charcuterie are also available.

It’s not just the quality of the raw materials that has improved in Dingle. From the superlative eggs Benedict and decadent bread and butter pudding on the breakfast menu at Brian and Helen Heaton’s luxurious Castlewood House BB, to the monkfish and chips at possibly the best chipper in Ireland, Reel Dingle Fish, the possibilities for eating out are now radically better than they were a decade ago, with good options at every level.

The Chart House, where chef Noel Enright is at the top of his game with a menu that handpicks the best of everything local and good, is still going strong. Its main competition at the upper end comes from Global Village, where Martin Bealin’s confident bio-dynamic cooking goes from strength to strength (no visit to Dingle should pass without sampling his signature Dingle Bay lobster on a rosti potato cake with a soft poached free-range egg and hollandaise sauce) and Out of the Blue, Tim Mason’s seafood shack on the waterfront where the schtick of “No chips, nothing frozen, always fresh or alive” keeps the place chock-a-block all summer.

In the mid-range, The Garden Café and Ed Mulvihill’s Goat Street Café are the places to head for and The Diner’s user-friendly offering is popular with families with a variety of demands to satisfy. Veggies will find themselves well looked after at Cúl Gairdín.

Over on Holy Ground, Reel Dingle Fish (motto “Keeping it local, keeping it reel”), open a year and a huge success, is where every chef in town heads for fish and chips between or after shifts. Mark Grealy (“I came down sailing and never went home”) and Fintan Smyth admit to a touch of OCD about the way they conduct their business – all the fish is fresh and landed locally, each piece probed individually to make sure that it is cooked, the chips prepared from Maris Piper potatoes from scratch each morning, then blanched and cooled before being fried.

When they run out they shut up shop – there is no freezer by way of back-up. The fish offering includes pollock, monkfish, calamari and their own smoked haddock as well as more familiar options, all in cornflour batter. They also sell Jerry Kennedy’s sausages and burgers made by Fintan from the beef that Jerry grazes himself.

In a town where everyone seems to know everyone else and there is a genuine sense of food community, it’s just another example of Dingle’s metamorphosis into a place that is exploiting its terroir with integrity and deserving of a stopover on any foodie itinerary.

A feast of food, from cheese to chocolate

THERE WILL be 50 participants in Dingle’s Taste Trail – the highlight of the festival – including the majority of the restaurants in town as well as less obvious outlets, such as Kathleen McAuliffe’s charming hat shop, where you can sample local artisan chocolates along with the millinery, and Susan Callery’s Greenlane Gallery, which keeps a regular stock of Blas na hÉireann award-winning produce alongside some serious art.

The seafood barbecue at Curran’s Bar – Artie Clifford’s own gig – is not to be missed. Taste Trail tickets (€20 for a book of 10) are available from the festival office on Green Street and other outlets around town. Cookery demonstrations will take place in St James’ Church (prices vary) and expanded farmers’ markets will run over the course of the festival. There will also be children’s events and creche facilities.

Workshops at the festival include: an introduction to bee-keeping; cheese-making; keeping hens; chocolate-making; organic and bio-dynamic vegetable growing; and alternative farm incomes. Fees range from €5-€15. Contact Mark Murphy at murpmark@gmail.com for further information or to reserve a place.

Blas na hÉireann

The Blas na hÉireann Irish Food Awards, now in their third year, are the only Irish food awards to use the sensory analysis method of assessment, designed to ensure a level playing field and make it impossible for entrants to be identified by the judges. Working in conjunction with the Food Science Department at University College Cork, the organisers whittle the entrants in each of 25 categories down to six finalists, from which the gold, silver and bronze awards are made by a judging panel that includes journalists, chefs, retailers and members of the public.

For further information about the Dingle Food and Drink Festival which takes places from October 1st to 3rd see dinglefood.com

Dingle hot spots

Castlewood House BB, The Wood, 066-9152788, castlewooddingle.com,

Chart House Restaurant, The Mall, 066-9152255, thecharthousedingle.com.

Chowder, Strand Street, 066-9151061.

Cúl Gairdín, Main Street.

The Diner, Holy Ground, 066-9151010.

The Garden Café, Green Street, 087-7815126.

Global Village, Upper Main Street, 066-9152325, globalvillagedingle.com.

Goat Street Café, Goat Street, 066-9152770.

Greenlane Gallery, Holy Ground, 066-9152018.

Jerry Kennedy, 8 Orchard, 066-9152511.

Kathleen McAuliffe, Green Street, 066-9150644.

Murphy’s Ice-Cream, Strand Street, 066-9152644, murphysicecream.ie.

Out of the Blue, Waterside, 066-9150811, outoftheblue.ie.

Reel Dingle Fish, Holy Ground, 066-9151713.