The luck of the Irish

The skies might have been grey overhead, but the stars of Ireland’s food scene (including a transplanted Kiwi) shone brightly when Lauraine Jacobs visited recently.

While reviewing Massimo Bottura’s book, Bread is Gold (about the restaurant he established in Milan to use food waste from the 2016 Expo to feed the city’s hungry) I spied Jessica Murphy and her recipes among the pages of profiles.  I vowed to meet this extraordinary New Zealand chef, born and raised in Wairoa, who had moved to Ireland 14 years ago. And so there we were, after a long trek via Hong Kong and Dublin, eating her delicious food with her, in her restaurant in Galway City.

With her Irish husband David, Jess established her own café in 2012. Kai Restaurant sits at the end of a row of joined-up shop fronts. Like almost all quaint ‘high streets’ in Ireland, each property is painted a bright colour and Kai presents a soft green façade to the street. On Sundays the queue for Kai’s brunch marches past the print and design shop, the laundrette and the excellent food emporium Ernie’s, all of which Jess patronises for her business. It’s a very close community, and with limited space in the Kai kitchen, it’s likely that her ice cream and other frozen specialties will be stored in a neighbouring shop.

We received a great Irish welcome, albeit with that pronounced Kiwi accent that Jess has never lost. “Hāere Mai” proclaims a sign over the kitchen door, and a large photo of a beautiful wāhine has pride of place on the restaurant wall. It’s a portrait of her great-grandmother Marguerite Lockwood of Ngati Porou, taken in 1895 when she lived in Tolaga Bay.

Jess has garnered attention in Ireland, and across Europe as part of the women’s Parabere Forum. She’s won many awards for her fresh interesting food, her championing of outstanding local producers and for embracing the food community with sympathy, love and a huge heart. She writes a regular column for the Irish Times, sits on various committees related to Irish food, and travels to food events and gatherings all over Europe.

Earlier this year after working with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, on the 2018 Refugee Food Festival, Jess had agreed to travel to Lebanon and Jordan to meet with refugees to document some of the food heritage that risks being lost after eight years of war. After learning of the Christchurch terrorist attacks she was more determined to go than ever, thinking, “This could happen here too.” Her experiences there were profound, strengthening her belief that food is the one subject that transforms and transcends borders. After sharing stories, recipes and meals with many exiled people, she’s put a book she was writing of her own recipes on the backburner, and is working hard to collect refugees’ recipes for a fund-raising book that she hopes to publish by Christmas.

Over our dinner of fresh, tasty fare including some great Irish fish garnished with tiny local mussels, local pork, delicious salads and her own version of dark chewy Irish soda bread, she invited us to a pop-up event she was collaborating on with JR Ryall. JR is the pastry chef at the famous Ballymaloe House and had just won Best Trolley in the World for his sweets. Could we come? Would we what!

We instantly rearranged our itinerary so we could attend what turned out to be a fantastic evening of feasting. Jess did what she does best – dazzlingly delicious fresh seasonal food for 60 people who had journeyed from all over Southern Ireland. On arrival we were seated in an old stone barn behind Pot Duggan’s, a pub in Ennistymon, Co Clare, and we began an absolutely outstanding dinner, despite the tiniest of pub kitchens Jess and JR had to work in. A grazing platter of sweet radishes with turnip butter, was followed by a fantastic foraged salad with her favourite goat cheese, a lively fresh interpretation of vitello tonnato, the most fragrant version of bouillabaisse imaginable, and divine enormous Violetta spuds absolutely slathered in Ballymaloe butter. (It would not be an Irish meal or true Irish hospitality without Irish spuds – they are literally on every menu.)

And then that trolley. Spectacular! When I posted a pic of that night’s stunning desserts on Instagram, the question was posed, “Did you try everything?” I have to admit it was tough but my choice of a very large spoonful of carrageen pudding and a small fresh first of the season green gooseberry tartlet, allowed me to truly savour early Irish summer flavours, and I earned admiration for my restraint from our dining companion, no less than Rory O’Connell, founder with his sister Darina Allen of the Ballymalloe Cookery School. The places you go, the people you meet!

And the rest…
My 11-day trip around southern Ireland was wet, grey and constantly cloudy. Despite the awful weather of late May, the food was everything I hoped it might be. The Irish are a little ahead of New Zealand in terms of food tourism and promotions, through the organisation and promotion of Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board – why haven’t we got one here in Aotearoa?) It’s very easy to love Irish breakfasts, Irish cheese, Irish meat and, dare I say, that creamy Irish butter. Darina Allen and her mother in law, the late Myrtle Allen have led the way with their tireless promotion of Irish cuisine in the lovely country B&B, Ballymaloe House and the nearby Ballymaloe Cookery School. There are farmers markets on weekends everywhere, even in the smallest towns and some great restaurants where the food is simple, fresh and modern.

One of the highlights was our two night stay at Inis Meiann Suites on Inish Maan, the middle of the rocky Aran Islands in Galway Bay. The largest island, Inish Mor, attracts almost 1.5 million visitors a year, while Inish Maan has a mere 4000 visitors. We were lucky enough to garner a booking, as the five suite-rooms are snapped up for the whole season on the day the calendar opens, almost a year ahead. The windswept island is harsh and seemingly impossible, yet centuries of farmers have used the dark flat rocks to make the tiniest of tiny paddocks, building up soil with decaying seaweed, to grow a few vegetables and to shelter their animals from the incessant winds coming off the Atlantic.

The Suites may be one of the world’s most unique and distant destinations, but the Irish hospitality was big-hearted and the “elemental cuisine” superb. Breakfast was delivered to our room in a stout wooden box filled with delights, lunch was a thermos of soup and Irish soda bread packed in a backpack, and the evening’s four course dinner featured tasty food grown in the host’s gardens in the short summer, and seafood and weeds foraged around the island, presented in a very sophisticated style. I’d willingly return for a dose of isolation but not sure Murray’s keen!

Other highlights of our trip were pub meals of oysters followed by sparkling fresh fish and always, always savoury spuds and rich inky Guinness to accompany. The charming and compact city of Galway was truly worth the visit and I am sure the Ring of Kerry which we drove around in the prescribed anti-clockwise direction is stunning but we hardly could even see the sea, even though the road drops away to meet it in most places – that damned rain, mist and fog clouded any views we’d hoped to have. Worth stopping at were the Cliffs of Moher where the icy wind blew my hair horizontal, Dungarvan where we cycled the Waterford Greenway, Inchydone Island Spa where we bathed in hot seawater pools and walked on an endless stretch of sandy beach, and of course the must-visit Ballymaloe Cookery School with its fabulous farm shop and gorgeous vegetable gardens. We also, for the fun of it, drove into the Trump golf course at Doonbeg – a testament to the owner the locals will tell you, as it has brought much needed employment to the area. We did not stay for the very American-style lunch however.

To end there was Dublin, a wonderful city that has Trinity College and St Stephen’s Green at its heart and some world-class restaurants. And any trip to that city would be incomplete without a visit to the Guinness Brewery. Now in the hands of the giant Diageo, the building and self-guided tour is slick, informative and completely crammed with tourists from absolutely everywhere in the world. But at least you get a very large glass of fresh Guinness included and I can tell you that it never tastes quite as good as when it is freshly brewed and consumed where it is made.


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