REVIEW OF THE CULINARY TOUR OF IRELAND  –  THE FOOD ISLAND

 

              The Culinary Tour of Ireland ended on Saturday 7 October, and was a ‘phenomenal’ success.  The testimonials written by the 18 participants indicate that it ‘far exceeded their very high expectations’. Needless to say I am delighted at the success of the tour, and I have been asked to do another Tour. The entire group on the tour - 18 people (including two on the ground in Ireland) bonded so well together, it was wonderful.  There were no hiccups or set backs and that was terrific. Everything went very smoothly and fell into place as planned without a hitch. Among the group were 11 IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) members, who thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Some said it was the best Culinary Tour they have been on. There was plenty of variety in the activities throughout the tour, and the participants came from across the USA, Canada, the UK and Ireland.

 

              In Ireland, everyone was treated as a VIP throughout the tour by the Irish government, the other sponsors and all those involved at the places visited by the group. While all said it was very difficult to decide which events and visits they liked best, probably the most popular ones were the first day spent as guests of Bord Bia (the Irish Government Food Board) in Dublin; and the day at The Orchard with Baileys Irish Cream in Co. Wicklow. We were shown how the liqueur is made, and went outside "to meet the ladies" - the workers or put correctly, ‘the cows’!  The latter was definitely one of the highlights.

 

              At Board Bia, Maeve Bracken greeted the group and spent the day with them. In the morning, there was a demonstration by Margaret Short on traditional Irish foods and Soda Bread. And, in the afternoon, a tasting of Irish Cheeses, when Kevin Sheridan did an excellent presentation. Several  journalists joined the group for a delicious traditional Irish lunch.  I enjoyed seeing Gerry Galvin again. He traveled from Galway to be with us. Gerry is known as the Grandfather of the New Irish Cuisine, and at one time, owned The Vintage restaurant in Kinsale. I gave him a copy of an article I wrote about him in the 1970s, when he won a national Chef’s contest to promote and develop the new Irish cuisine, sponsored by Bord Failte, the Irish Tourist Board. Gerry was delighted as he had not seen that article before. It was published in the Irish Weekly Examiner, where for 6 years, I had a commission to fill a double page weekly titled ‘Out & About with Noreen’.  In the evening, the group was entertained to a ‘Black Velvet’ Reception at Brooks Hotel, followed by an excellent dinner. They were so full of food after a day of eating and drinking, that they found it difficult to finish the lovely meal; but thoroughly enjoyed meeting the Chef when he came out to to greet the diners, and explained many of the different foods chosen from the a la carte menu. Black Velvet is a very popular drink at parties in the UK and Ireland. It is made up half & half with Champagne & Guinness, and is always served in Champagne Glasses.

 

              The group was delighted and excited after their amazing experience at The Orchard in Co. Wicklow. There, they were the guests of Baileys Irish Cream.  The Farm surrounding the conference center was right out of a picture book of the Gardens of Ireland. Peter O’ Connor from Baileys, and Joe Hayden, Director at the farm were very gracious hosts. Peter gave an excellent presentation on the history of Baileys, and demonstrated how Baileys Irish Cream is made. Joe told us the history of his family farm – ‘The Orchard’, and how in time they became involved with Baileys, whereby they provide the cream that goes into the delicious liqueur. His brother Michael joined the group for lunch, after they toured the farm and met ‘The Ladies’.   

 

              Catherine Fulvio's Cookery School in Co. Wicklow was a great hit. Everyone loved Catherine. She has lots of personality and is full of fun. Colman Andrews, former Editor-in-Chief of Saveur wrote to me sometime ago, and said that he thought Catherine is one the best Cooks in Ireland today. How true! Colman wrote an extensive article on Irish food in Saveur in March 2006. It is not surprising that endless groups of foreign journalists and camera crews end up visiting Ballyknocken Cookery School, to enjoy a day with Catherine. We thoroughly enjoyed a ‘hands-on’ morning preparing and cooking a 4 Course lunch under the supervision of Catherine and her staff.  ‘Yours truly’ volunteered to do the task that most folk hate to do…..peel the potatoes and apples! It allowed everyone else the chance to enjoy their cooking experiences. My cooking partner John put his mind to preparing a very tasty apple dessert, and asked me to show him how to core the apples. He was delighted to see how simple it is to do this task.

 

              Everywhere, the food was superb and plentiful, and there is no doubt that Ireland today deserves its given title ‘The Food Island’. Another lady who was very popular with the group was Regina Sexton, the Irish Food Historian. She joined us for dinner one night at The Overdraught Pub, and gave a talk on the history of Irish food.  It was a most enjoyable evening for all.

                              

              The visit to Guinness was fascinating, with a private guide, a private dining room for lunch, and an opportunity for anyone who wanted to learn how to pull a pint. Afterwards, as happened in different places, the group received gifts as they left the brewery. When they saw the long lines of people standing outside waiting to get in, they realized the special attention they had received with no waiting time or self service food in the cafeteria.

 

              Another very popular day was spent as guests of the Irish Dairy Board and Kerrygold Butter. The visit to the one and only Butter Museum in the world was of considerable historical interest. It was followed by an hour exploring the English Market in the center of Cork City. It is a fascinating place. Everyone said there is nothing like it in the States. Afterwards, they were still the guests of the IDB/Kerrygold for lunch in the Farm Gate, overlooking the market below. They were amazed when Kaye Harte told them she has no storage facilities at the restaurant, and goes downstairs to collect the foods that are prepared and cooked daily for lunch. It could not have been fresher than that, and so much of it is organic. Kaye also arranged for the diners to taste several traditional local specialties during the meal. After the superb lunch, a visit to Blarney Castle was on the itinerary. It was an opportune moment to take a brisk walk through the grounds around Blarney Castle and visit the Blarney Woolen Mills.  David and Parisa were very energetic, and walked up to the top of the Castle, where David kissed the stone.

 

              Some energetic folk also did a pre breakfast walk up to the Rock of Cashel  that overlooked Cashel Palace where we spent a night in Co. Tipperary en route to Kinsale in Co. Cork. And after breakfast in Cashel, we headed to nearby Cashel Blue Cheese. Louis Grubb gave an extremely interesting talk on the history and development of the famous cheese; and his daughter Sarah took the visitors on a tour through the production areas, ending with everyone enjoying several samples of cheese.  As happened in several places in rural agricultural Ireland, we had to put on special gear – hats, coats and foot wear. Health regulations and insurance companies dictate, and it makes sense to ensure that the areas remain free of possible contamination.    

 

              The history of food is the history of mankind; and wherever we went in Ireland, the visits were not only deliciously edible, but filled with historical interest. It was the same when we went to Irish Distillers in Co. Cork. After the historical tour of the distillery, 6 folk volunteered to sample various whiskeys; then everyone tucked into a tasty Irish stew ‘a la Jameson’ style. After lunch, the group stopped at the Stephan Pearce Pottery Showrooms in Shanagarry. It was not a scheduled stop, but several people on the coach requested it. Once there, the shoppers in the group had a ball, returning to the coach with bag loads of pottery gifts. Finally, we left  for the 5 minute drive to nearby Ballymaloe Cookery School.  At the school, we were shown the herb gardens, the cooking school and the shell house, followed by afternoon tea with Darina Allen.

 

              Other visits to the Temple Bar open air market; Wicklow Fine Foods to see how chocolates and cookies are made; Molaga Honey, and SeaStar were all too short, but very interesting and different. At SeaStar, we watched the production of smoked crab, and saw salmon being filleted. It was followed by a ‘tasting’ lunch, where one enjoyed sampling a variety of smoked fish, washed down by a welcome glass of wine. Carla Blake, noted Irish Author and journalist joined us for the tour and lunch. 

 

              We were very fortunate to have an excellent coach driver John O’ Neill, who had one and all in stitches with his Irish stories and jokes. John entertained us to some amusing Irish songs and limericks too. It is not easy to drive round Irish country roads, especially in a coach. The old roads are narrow with many bends, twists and turns. One participant said to me: “What do you do if someone is coming the other way?”  Fortunately throughout Ireland, the traffic in country areas is still minimal, and only occasionally one encounters another large vehicle. When it happens, somehow both drivers have a knack of getting by each other without any problems! John was a great hit with the group, and thoroughly enjoyed participating in all the culinary activities too.

 

              On the Sunday during the 8 day tour, the group spent the day in traditional Irish fashion…..a drive into the countryside to a special venue for Sunday lunch. On this occasion, the group left Dublin and headed for the Gardens of Ireland – Co. Wicklow, where the scenery is magnificent. They went through to Co. Wexford and Marlfield House, a lovely old period house that today is a superb luxurious private hotel. It still retains its traditional beauty, complete with antique furniture and 17th Century oil paintings. We were the guests of the Irish Government Fisheries Board - Bord Iascaigh Mhara. The meal was outstanding with excellent presentations of a wide variety of Irish fish.  After the incredible meal, Catherine Morrison from BIM took us to a Trout Farm in Co. Wicklow. Stephan had agreed to give up his Sunday afternoon off, and with great pride, showed everyone how the fish farm operates.

 

              Ireland was enjoying its traditional ‘Indian Summer' while we were there, and the weather was excellent. Now and then there was a shower, but it always seemed to happen while the group was under cover at one of the venues we visited. And, when it was time to move on, out came the sunshine again. As several said: The Gods were smiling on us!

              Everyone fell in love with Kinsale, the final port of call for the last three nights, and no one wanted to leave again when it was all over. Jack Walsh, the Manager at Actons Hotel personally took charge of the group when they arrived. In the evening after a progressive dinner around the town of Kinsale, Jack hosted a Desserts and Coffee/Tea party, and folk  enjoyed his discourse on the history of Kinsale throughout the decades. For me personally, it was a trip down memory lane, as I lived in Ireland through the times when Kinsale established itself as the Gourmet Capital of Ireland in the mid 1970s.

 

              On the final night of our tour, Jack, Chairman of the Food Festival hosted the opening champagne reception of the annual Kinsale Food Festival, at the nearby Trident hotel. He welcomed several local celebrities, and guest of honor Derek Davis, known throughout Ireland on TV and Radio. Also welcomed were two US Senators, and our own group of Culinary Professionals.  I was delighted when Jack brought over a young man to meet me. Nigel O’Mahony told me he knew me well through his mother Ruth O’Mahony. Ruth is now retired from writing for the Cork Examiner newspapers, where she wrote several articles on my early work as the Pioneer of the new Irish cuisine.  I was also happy to meet Billy Crosbie and his charming wife Saran. Billy is the son of Donal Crosbie, who is sadly no longer with us. I knew Donal and Norma, his wife well. Norma came on many of my early Culinary Tours, and today lives in Cobh.  Donal and his brother George were the owners of the Examiner newspapers. It was George’s son Alan Crosbie who gave me the culinary column in the new Examiner features paper, the ‘Irish Weekly Examiner’ in 1976. After 5 months, the Managing Editor and Editor of the Cork Examiner  invited me to lunch, and I was offered the double page section that ran for 6 years -  ‘Out & About with Noreen’. I look back in amazement today at the incredible opportunities I had in those far off days. As one tour participant said to me: “Today, it is unheard of to get a double page in a newspaper.”  “I remember you well” said Billy. “You were writing the double page section when I first started working at the Examiner offices.” It was a nice feeling to have the next generation remember one after so many decades have gone by. Probably about 60% of the Irish population today were young children, or not even born when I was doing the Culinary Tours around Ireland.

 

              The hotels throughout the tour were all Grade A1 and very comfortable. One lady in our group, Carol, plans to take groups to Ireland on Culinary Tours. She enjoyed the opportunities to meet different Irish folk at various organizations, and had fun when I gave her the coach microphone, to talk on background history and information on some aspects of the tour. Carol found one of my earlier cookbooks which she passed round to one and all to read on the bus.  Carol asked me to autograph the book. It is a long time since I have done that, and I felt honored to do it. Good luck Carol with your Irish tours.

 

              Culinary Tourism has a great future everywhere today, and Ireland is a major player on the world food stage. It is ironic in view of its history and tragic famine in the 1840s. It should never have happened, as the superb excellent quality Irish food was always on its doorstep, but the knowledge on what to do with it was lacking for so long. Regina Sexton said to me: "Noreen, long ago you were running culinary tours all over Ireland, to show people what they could do with the excellent food available. Now, you are bringing folk into Ireland to enjoy the superb food and culinary activities everywhere."

 

              During the tour, the group visited the Cobh Heritage Museum, where there is an excellent presentation on the history of the Famine years; the millions who died; and the emigration of about one million people to the New World, in hopes of finding a new life. Sadly, so many died in the coffin ships when crossing the Atlantic. It was a great tragedy in Irish history, and people today are fascinated with the story. How different Ireland is now, in a period of great prosperity, known as the Celtic Tiger. Irish society is very affluent, and there is plenty of good food and drink for one and all to enjoy. Anyone who has not visited Ireland should do so, as it is a historical and delicious  experience that will create life long memories.  Irish hospitality is renowned worldwide, and the people are great fun. Visitors are welcomed everywhere with open arms. The comments that were repeated over and over again by members of our group said it all.  They could not get over the incredible genuine passion of the Irish people involved in their specific areas of work everywhere we went in the Emerald Isle. One lady in our group, Alice summed it up very aptly when she said: There is a great future for the country with the ’40 Shades of Green’.

 

                                                                                                                              Noreen Kinney

 

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