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Magical memories of eating my way around Ireland

Joe McNamee recalls great journeys, people and places he encountered and the tables he has sat around along the way

When I was 11 years old, I won a scholarship to go and live on a tiny 10-acre subsistence farm in the Gaeltacht of Chorca Dhuibhne on the Dingle Peninsula, a total immersion Irish language programme that saw me live with a local Irish-speaking family and attend the local national school, where all subjects were taught through Irish.

I hated school, but I loved farm life, throwing myself into the daily chores, from first rising at dawn to bring in the cattle for milking, and all the other daily chores that followed.

I especially relished helping with calving at all hours of the night or harvesting the hay for the winter ahead, I had grown up in a household where food was functional and not remotely pleasurable and this was my first exposure to simple yet delicious Irish food and life in the country, a revelation to this city boy.

I’d fill my straw hat with freshly sprouted field mushrooms for breakfast. I’d sip still warm milk as I brought a jug from the milking parlour to the kitchen.

Taking in the summer harvest, we ate great slabs of heavily buttered batch loaf sandwiching home cooked ham and drank sugared milky tea that had been stashed under hay in the early morning but was still piping hot.

Most Sundays, I called up to a neighbouring couple in their late 80s, Micilín and Bridín, who lived in a traditional stone cottage where a turf fire smouldered the whole year round.

Electricity had only arrived in the house three or four years before and I doubt if there were more than three light sockets in the house.

Bridín would make me a duck’s egg while I sat, turf-smoked, reading about the new phenomenon of punks on the King’s Road in the turf-smoked Sunday World, drinking turf-smoked tea and eating wedges of turf-smoked brown soda bread lathered in turf-smoked butter and turf-smoked homemade raspberry jam.

When I finally returned home to Cork, it was with an appetite for food and tastes I knew I’d never find at home.

By the time I was 14, 15, myself and a pal would take off, hitchhiking, first all over West Cork, and then further afield, telling our respective parents we were on sleepovers in the other’s house.

Early expeditions were all about survival, and we often went hungry for a day or two at a time. I recall a district nurse picking us up and, I suspect, quite shocked at our youthful demeanours, bringing us on a few of her rural house calls before eventually treating us to vegetable soup and chicken sandwiches in the Eldon Hotel, in Skibbereen, that still ranks as one of the most welcome and therefore exquisite meals of my life.

After-show dining on the Mary Black tour

In my early twenties, I worked as a roadie, eventually looking after stage setup for the Mary Black Band, and my first real introduction to the extent of the country as we toured the 32 counties of Ireland.

A roadie’s diet is entirely varied, depending on the venue and location. Overnighting in a B&B always carried the promise of a decent full Irish breakfast but lunch/dinner was invariably a mixed bag — in Ireland of the late 80s and early 90s, you could occasionally root out a superb cafe or restaurant but for the most part it was grim fare and my most favourite food memory is of gorgeous locally-sourced steaks that I cooked in butter and garlic for the crew, using the kitchen of Winkle’s Hotel, in Kinvara.

The hotel was shuttered for the season but the owner had let us stay over on our rare night off and as we sat in our post-prandial haze, shooting the breeze with our host, we were interrupted by a raucous American voice bellowing down a long corridor leading from kitchen to the street, where the hotel’s coin-operated phone box was mounted just inside the open door.

“Hey, I’m gonna use your phone,” bellowed the Yank, not waiting for a reply or permission.

He spent the next ten minutes fruitlessly firing in coins, frustrated cursing growing ever louder until eventually he roared down the corridor, “Hey! The Goddam phone isn’t working!”

“You’ll find that,” replied our host laconically, as we dissolved into laughter.

Eventually I began to spring for my own accommodation. An early favourite, especially when courting, was a trip to Timoleague to dine and stay overnight in the late, lamented Lettercollum House, where Con McLoughlin and Karen Austin were early precursors of the locavore movement, serving delicious food cooked from superb produce, much of it grown on the grounds, and though now sadly closed to the public, it continues to supply their lovely little Clonakilty shop, The Lettercollum Kitchen Project.

Clare has always been a favourite destination, home to two of my most favourite hotels in the world — namely Gregan’s Castle Hotel, in Ballyvaughan, and The Wild Honey Inn, in Lisdoonvarna.

There’s nothing better than a wintery walk through the glorious Burren sufficient to work up a good appetite before heading back inside to a roaring open fire and a good pint, then sitting down to some of the best food in Ireland. Aidan McGrath’s Michelin-starred cooking in the WHI is Michelin-starred; Robbie McCauley’s equally superb fare, in GCH, should be.

It’s hard to know whether I believe Galway to be a city or an ongoing party that I’ve slipped in and out of for more than 30 years but some of my finest eating has been done there, from first visits evangelising on behalf of the Cork Olive Company where an old comrade Danny and I would set up stall in a nascent Galway Farmer’s Market by St Nicholas’s Church, lunching on the fare of our fellow stallholders and then dining in the evening at Nimmo’s, on the quays.

A memorable meal

One of my most favourite meals was an evening dining solo at Kai, where Jess and Dave Murphy run one of the most special restaurants in the country, just me, my book and some of the finest produce in the country served up on the plate as quite delicious dishes, although I paid my book scant attention, relishing instead the overheard conversations from surrounding tables filled with the Galway glitterati.

Galway seems to be especially conducive to solo dining for a far more recent visit to Éan cafe and restaurant was an equally splendid affair, where chef Christine Walsh is finally making herself know to the country at large as one of the best chefs in Ireland.

A night in the Tannery, in Dungarvan, followed by a trip around the corner to stay in the wonderful Tannery Townhouse, and the newly opened Old Bank has added another fine restaurant to the town’s burgeoning gastronomic offering.

The West Cork troika of Elaine Fleming and Rob Krawczyk’s Restaurant Chestnut, Ahmet Dede’s Dede at the Customs House, in Baltimore, and Sadie Pearce and Mark Jennings’s Pilgrims, in Rosscarbery, are three of the very best restaurants in the country and only add to the myriad edible reasons why West Cork is my most favourite destination in the world.

Motorhome memories

But it was a camper van odyssey up the West of Ireland during the first year of the pandemic that remains the pinnacle to date of my staycationing in Ireland. Swimming in crystal clear azure waters at Roundstone, buying two fresh black sole and a whole kilo of prawns from a van for just €20 and cooking them over charcoal at our campsite in Clifden.

Kayaking and then more swimming, this time in colder waters off Achill, in Co Mayo, before going back to the campfire once more, this time to grill Calvey’s Achill Mountain Lamb chops and sausages.

Deciding we wanted fish and chips and so altering course to head for Linnane’s Lobster Bar, at New Quay, in Co Clare, to eat clams, lobster and chips and sup fine Riesling.

Eventually, I finished the night with a Dingle single malt from my own ‘drinks cabinet’, sitting on the quay wall at midnight, watching the lights of Galway twinkling across the water, before tumbling all of ten feet into bed in the camper.