Food glorious food is not a song that has been traditionally sung with any great conviction by generations of tourists travelling to Ireland and while the country might have done many things exceedingly well, food was not widely considered to be one of them.
There were exceptions but they tended to prove the rule that food in Ireland was poor. Things started to change as a new century dawned and a generation of homegrown foodies grew tired of the same old fare and started asking for more.
Michelin stars sparkled like never before and spread across the country like fire flies while pubs with vision started moving away from the tired carveries of times past and began offering food and drink sourced with love from local producers.
Today, when tourists on the way out are asked what their view of Irish food is, there is a very good chance they will express pleasant surprise. The authorities here want to take that surprise out of the picture and reposition food and drink as one of the compelling reasons to visit Ireland – and not an accidental benefit.
It is not hard to see why. Someone who comes to Ireland for a three-day break will have nine distinct interactions with food providers and their breakfasts, lunches and dinners can either leave a sour taste or give people a reason to return and spend more money.
Tourists spend around €2 billion on food in Ireland each year and Fáilte Ireland wants to grow that by €400 million by 2023. Its key challenge is what it euphemistically describes as “an insufficient understanding and appreciation of value across visitor offerings”. Or to put it into layman’s terms it needs to work out how to stop dodgy restaurants ripping people off.
“What tourists are looking for is good quality food, more choices and more local food,” says Sinead Hennessy , Fáilte Ireland’s food tourism officer.
She suggests that the food on the table in Ireland has improved dramatically in recent years but points to breakfasts as an area that could do with improvement. “There are some who are doing breakfast very well but there are others who continue to regard it as an ancillary thing despite the fact that the international visitor considers the Irish breakfast to be very important.”
She also points to pub food and says “some places have got it absolutely right and others are struggling. There are parts of the country that are moving faster than others”.
There aren’t too many countries in the world where you can go to a restaurant and order fish that has been taken from the water maybe 100 yards away
She makes reference to L Mulligan Grocer in Dublin’s Stoneybatter describing it as a brilliant example of how a pub can do food incredibly well by making some simple changes and focusing its ethos around quality, sustainability and locally-sourced food. “That is a really good example of great pub food.”
Seáneen O’Sullivan opened Mulligans in 2010 and from the beginning her food philosophy was straightforward. “We have always thought local food is special and worth celebrating,” she says. “I grew up in Western Australia and it seemed obvious to me that we should try and use the best produce on the island and just let it shine on the plate.”
She has won fans all over the world and rave reviews in publications including the New York Times but she is not resting on any laurels and remains determined to stick with her mission to change how tourists perceive Irish food. She has contacted fellow chefs asking them to share images of their dishes on social media with the hashtag thisisirishfood. “As soon as we did that there were all these beautiful images of raw Irish cheese and fabulous seafood from the west. It really was amazing to see how different the food on offer was to the bland and colourless food that many tourists expect.”
Irish food is not, she insists, “all about Irish stew and corned beef, cabbage and potatoes. But having said that we do have amazing potatoes and we should celebrate that as well. It is not about turning our backs on our food heritage but embracing it”.
When asked about the genesis of the food revolution in Ireland, O’Sullivan doesn’t skip a beat before answering. “ Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe. She really is the woman if we are looking for the cradle of modern Irish cooking. So many chefs now are looking to her philosophy of being thankful for the ingredients we have and celebrating the local produce. It goes beyond the trite ‘from farm to fork’ expression and extends it to being thankful for and having mutual respect for every stage of the food process.”
A fly in the soup is the availability of staff who can make the food, but Hennessey says it can be overcome by keeping things simple and doing a few things very well. She stresses that not every chef needs to be able to turn their hand to fine dining at the drop of an apron. “Chefs are in huge demand but what we would say to pubs and local restaurants is that they can make their food very simple. I think a really good place just needs to have two or three things on the menu that they can do really well.”
Martin Shanahan of Fishy Fishy in Kinsale , Co Cork, does more than two or three things really well and his menu, made up largely of locally-sourced fish, has been proving a huge draw for tourists and locals for more than a decade. “Our food culture has improved hugely,” he says “There aren’t too many countries in the world where you can go to a restaurant and order fish that has been taken from the water maybe 100 yards away. I hear all the time from guests about how the quality of our food is phenomenal.”
He says that when it comes to food, Irish restaurants and hotels need to work together. “If someone is here for three days they will eat nine times – breakfast, lunch and dinner. I want all nine meals they eat, no matter where the guests are, to be good, that is what brings people back to Kinsale and to Ireland.”
Gareth Mullins is the executive chef at the Marker Hotel in Dublin and he too is singing off the locally-sourced hymn sheet.
“I left Ireland in 2000 to go to Australia and when I came back in 2006 I really saw a difference,” he says. “A lot of the changes have been down to how people are prepared to spend their money. They just won’t tolerate bad food and they want what they are eating in restaurants to be locally sourced and artisanal.”
He says chefs are using better ingredients than ever before and “we should all be shouting about where we source our food from the rooftops. I pay more for my smoked salmon and for my beef and my dairy produce and all my ingredients in fact but it is a price worth paying because I can stand over it. We have as much food heritage and as much quality as France or Italy and I think people are starting to recognise that fact and celebrating it.”