New tourism initiative Taste the Island sets out to link visitors with Ireland’s food producers. Michelle Darmody meets the makers in Kilkenny.
Ireland has lush green pastures that are perfect for crafting many and diverse foods; from tart apple ciders, to excellent farmhouse cheeses, or breakfast oats.
I find it baffling when I chat with tourists and they are not aware of this. Ireland is seen from the outside as a place of fun, songs and craic — but it is not often celebrated for its delicious local produce and talented chefs.
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Perhaps one reason for this is that many people within the food industry are working extremely hard to make their cheese, juice, smoked fish, or whatever it might be, so even if they open their farms or dairies up to the public, it is not easy to find the time to publicise this side of the business.
Fáilte Ireland, however realise the value of these producers and have started an initiative to help them showcase their work.
With the Taste the Island initiative, they are joining the dots by linking visitors with food producers and highlighting food events that are scattered around different parts of the island. As one of their slogans says, Taste the Island provides an opportunity to “meet the hand that feeds you”.
Food festivals very often coincide with the late summer, early autumn harvest so Taste the Island will focus on the months of September, October, and November, which straddle the ancient fest of Samhain.
Over the course of these three months, there are more than 600 six hundred events are woven into the programme.
Many existed before the initiative but are now highlighted and marketed to a wider audience, both here at home and abroad.
I recently visited the surrounds of Kilkenny to meet some producers and see what type of farm tours are available.
Goatsbridge Trout Farm is located in the shadow of the Mount Juliet Estate. Their bucolic setting surprised me considering it is a busy fish farm. There are earthen ponds lined with grass verges and blackberry-filled brambles and the fast-flowing river feeds the ponds, providing fresh oxygen-filled water to the rainbow trout lazily swimming about in the pools. Goatsbridge are not only leading the way in smoked fish, but are using sustainable practices.
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@goatsbridge Trout Farm in Thomastown is run by Ger and Mags Kirwan. It was founded 54 years ago and was the first privately-owned fish farm in Ireland. Goatsbridge Trout supplies supermarkets, restaurants, delis and specialist fishmongers with fresh trout. They also produce award-winning prepared fish products, such as smoked rainbow trout, pâté and caviar. Goatsbridge Rainbow Trout is fished from the clear fast waters of the little arrigle river in Kilkenny, giving the rainbow trout a unique flavour and texture for you to enjoy #kilkenny #visitkilkenny #lovekilkenny #troutfarm #local
They catch the fish, gut them, and turn them into paté or smoked fillets onsite. As with many family businesses adding value to their produce is hugely important. When we arrived at the farm we were guided down to the earthen beds and the whole farming process as well as the family history was explained with enthusiasm.
The business has grown year on year, and is now producing trout caviar for export as well as the Irish market. The fishponds might feel like they are from another era, but the processing area is completely modern. There is a shop onsite where you can purchase some of the delicious produce.
If you are hungry after your visit there is a charming farm kitchen called Knockdrinna Café located a few miles away, in Stoneyford where you can have a post-visit sandwich or slice of cake. They also sell their award-winning cheese and local vegetables.
On the other side of Kilkenny city is Highbank Orchards and Distillery. When you visit you drive along a winding driveway though some beautiful lines of apple trees, it leads to an old courtyard.
The courtyard houses Highbank Orchard shop, distillery and offices. My first observation was that the boughs of the trees dipped almost to the ground, laden with pink and red globes. There is grass, clover, and daises pushing up between each tree, and a freshly-cut field of oats at the edge of the orchard.
We received a warm welcome from owners Rod and Julia. Rod took us through the beautiful orchards on an old train, like the one Dublin Zoo used to use. It is an open carriage strapped to the back of the tractor and trundles amiably through the farmland of ponds, lined with bull rushes and tall shaded patches created by Rod’s collection of old trees.
The whole farm is organically certified, and you can tell that both Rod and Julia are passionate about protecting nature and the farms biodiversity.
We then tasted the many delightful products made on the farm from their Highbank Orchard syrup to cider or an apple balsamic vinegar.
Both of these Kilkenny-based producers greet visitors with warmth and enthusiasm as will so many others dotted around the country.
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You can book tours or simply drop into farm shops to buy some of the delicious products straight from the source. All with a story to accompany them no doubt.
It is great way to deepen your appreciation for the food and to chat with those working hard to make it. Around 35pc of the country’s overall tourism revenue is spent on food. Imagine if every hotel, chef and bed and breakfast spent their budget on quality Irish-produced food, food that was crafted with care, by producers who operate using grassroots and sustainable approaches we could transform our food growing culture.
We have great reasons to be proud of the talented and interesting food producers in Ireland. Hopefully, Taste the Island will provide an outlet for many of them by helping to celebrate what they do well.
Businesses and individuals are invited to take part and there is plenty of information on the website: www.discoverireland.ie/taste-the-island.
Restaurant Rinuccini oozes old-world charm the food and wine selection are excellent.
Arán is primarily a bakery but its adjoining café serves delicious breakfast and lunch that includes a myriad of local produce.
Frank the owner of Petronella in Butter Slip Lane clearly loves his job. He holds court telling stories about the history of the building and his reasons for choosing the restaurant’s name.
Mount Juliet Estate has two food options amidst its grounds.
Highbank Orchard have an apartment to rent on a short-term basis. You can stay amid the laden fruit trees at the centre of their biodiverse landscape dotted with lakes, rush ponds and of course apple trees. The Pembroke is in the heart of Kilkenny town and many of the rooms look out onto the beautiful Castle grounds.
Newpark Hotel is located a little outside of the town. It has a pool, outdoor hot tub and guests can join in the classes listed in the gym.
Look out for the Harvest Moon Supper at Hook Lighthouse, where guests will dine by sunset and then watch the harvest moon rise over Hook peninsula as the meal goes on, or in Donegal there will be a feast set at the foot of Mount Errigal, where chefs will be working hard to create a unique dining experience celebrating local produce.
Try the Chocolate Making Experience at Bean and Goose. Their rural Wexford location, at Last Tree Farm, is integral to Bean and Goose chocolate. It informs their flavour combinations, the colours in the packaging and the products that they make. Ongoing workshops are available to create your own chocolate.
Mary Regan owns and runs Regan’s Organic Farm with the help of her sisters Helen and Ger and husband David. The organic chickens, ducks and pigs reared on farm can root and peck away at wild herbs and grubs to their hearts’ content, pigs can bathe in the dust or roll around in the mud.
Visit Johnstown Castle Honey Bee Festival on September 28. The weekend-long event will highlight Irish honey’s value in terms of food and medicine and illustrate the links between bees and biodiversity.
Experience the Galway International Seafood and Oyster Festival, including the World Oyster Opening Championships, on Friday September 27 to Sunday September 29.
The Sea Gardener Seaweed Foraging Workshops will take you through the process of foraging the tastiest varieties and incorporating them into your cooking, to enjoy the distinctive taste and health benefits.