Stews are old news in the new, foodie-friendly Ireland

Sashimi-grade fish for a fishing outing offered by Wilderness Ireland in County Kerry.
Sashimi-grade fish for a fishing outing offered by Wilderness Ireland in County Kerry. Photo Credit: Kerryann Fitzgerald
Felicity Long
Felicity Long

Like a lot of Americans of Irish ancestry, my great-grandparents left Ireland to escape the Great Hunger, the devastating potato famine that caused mass starvation and so much misery in the mid-19th century.

In this context, it's been interesting to see the country's emergence in recent years as a serious foodie destination. There's irony there, and even more than a century later, while my family always encouraged us to celebrate the high notes of our heritage -- talented writers and musicians, killer scenery and famously friendly people -- cuisine, quite frankly, wasn't among them.

In fact, in my parents' day, visitors to the Emerald Isle would be more likely to be served black pudding (don't ask) and stews with mutton, goat and whatever else was on hand than, say, poached salmon served with a sparkling rose.

All that has changed. Irish chefs are garnering their share of the international spotlight, and great meals are readily available, and even expected, not just in Dublin but in eateries throughout the country.

To prove the point, earlier this month Michelin awarded its 2019 stars to 16 restaurants in Ireland, up from 13 a year ago. One of them, the Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, has two. Five are in Dublin: L'Ecrivain, Chapter One, the Greenhouse, Heron & Grey and the aforementioned Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud.

This year three restaurants in Cork, a city that has gone from drab to fabulous in recent years, made the list for the first time: Ichigo Ichie, Restaurant Chestnut and Mews. Meanwhile, Kilkenny's two Michelin eateries -- Campagne and Lady Helen -- kept their stars. The House at Cliff House Hotel in Waterford; the Wild Honey Inn in Country Clare; Aniar and Loam in Galway; and Ox and Eipic, both in Belfast, stayed on the list with one star each.

All that said, visitors don't need to break the bank at Michelin-star restaurants to get a first-rate meal. Urban restaurants and country inns, including members of Ireland's Blue Book properties, focus on high-level cuisine, and pubs and cafes have upped their game with menu options that range from modern takes on traditional fare to full-on international cuisine. And the trend toward farm-to-table cuisine has also firmly taken root here.

This year, Wilderness Ireland, an adventure travel company that specializes in integrating locals and visitors to create authentic experiences, is putting a spotlight on Irish cuisine by highlighting great products in different regions.

Delicacies like foraged greens, freshly caught ceviche, seafood chowder and handmade cheeses are among the favorites, and suggested programs include hiking Connemara and the Cliffs of Moher to visiting a goat farm on Inis Mor and following the Sligo Food Trail on a biking and yoga escape in Ireland's northwest region.

While this flowering of the new Irish cuisine is gratifying from a tourism point of view, to me it's especially impressive for a country where its people once, not so very long ago, had nothing to eat.

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