He’s put in 30 years’ sterling (and dollar, and euro-generating) service to the Kerry town’s booming tourism trade, so it’s only right they’ve put a bronze sculpture of him by the pier. His outline, image and cheesy bottle-nose grin adorns bars, restaurants, tee-shirts, art and craftwork; the obliging pensioner is still punching in seven-day weeks, year in, year out, putting similar smiles on the faces of many of Dingle’s businesses. When Fungi finally does smirk his last, expect the arguments about stuffing him to rise to the surface — he’s just too slick and co-dependent an act to let slip away.
However, stuffing in a far more humane way was on the menu on a recent Dingle visit, in early October, during its annual Food Festival. It proved to be the icing on top of what have become many familiar weekend away ingredients down the decades, when making the welcome trek to this most beautiful, rewarding peninsula of the Kingdom. Once you crest the spectacular Brandon and Conor Pass approach (my favourite route), it’s downhill to Dingle all the way, slaloming between the sheep and lambs grazing the ditches, thoughts turning all the while to mint sauce.
At any time of the year, enjoying Dingle works up an appetite and thirst. It’s a supreme outdoor activity centre, with its hill and mountain walks, cycle routes, surfing beaches and swimming options. I usually chance a few strokes at Coomenole, dangerous and all as it is.
The appetite-whetting and sating October food event had drawn thousands onto the town’s streets in a shoulder wind-down month for Irish tourism. Unpredictable as ever, the sun cracked the stones and warmed the cockles all day Saturday, and then — naturally — rain spilled down all day Sunday. No matter, there was always indoor hospitality, and the obligatory Slea Head drive too to gaze over the Blasket archipelago and escape the town’s oft-madding crowds.
We stayed in self-catering accommodation, in the central Dingle Harbour Cottages — but sensibly didn’t self-cater, given the many and varied pros on the go. Kudos to the Chart House restaurant, by the way, as it held its Michelin Bib gourmand award for next year.
The town that has hospitality as its middle name (sandwiched between feisty Daingean Úi Chúis, and simpler, anglicised Dingle) took the swarming, teeming, grazing visitors in its stride — some 7,000 on the Saturday alone, with 28,000 snacks sampled on the 75-stop Taste Trail, according to chef Martin Bealin of the town’s Michelin-recognised Global Village Restaurant. Bealin, along with Mark Murphy of Tralee IT, and Muireann Nic Giolla Ruaidh, are setting up the Dingle Cookery School in 2014 to further build on the town’s food focus.
If you subscribe to the belly-laugh line that ‘food is the new drink’, well, we Irish have recently taken to decent dining like a duck takes to, well, to an orange jus or reduction. Apart from the dozens of food stalls on the streets, every bar, gallery, boutique and restaurant put out its glad rags and smorgasbords. The annual Blas na hÉireann taste award ceremony was held in the comfortable confines of an hotel, and a host of food preparation demonstrations was on the go, in venues from old schools to old churches. (Dainty little St James Church also hosts the Other Voices music event, coming around again Dec 6-8, with a music trail for those not able to get to the 80-seat venue.)
The food trail covered cod, colcannon and coddle, scones, scampi and sashimi, crab claws and legs of West Kerry lamb, some seasoned with Far Eastern spices, the world served up on a platter.
Since my earliest days of dips into Dingle, the town has gone seriously posh, a shopping mecca and magnet in art, craft and design — for those in funds.
Back in the early 1980s, a college-going gang of impecunious layabouts had the regular loan of a Conor Pass cottage, complete with water from the stream and heat from turf — apologies, but Dingle still makes me come over all Peig Sayers-ish.
Then, the most exotic you’d get was fresh ground coffee and a toastie in An Cafe Liteartha, great scones out at Slea Head’s pottery cafes, and, at a push, a bulb of garlic or perhaps a bell pepper in Garvey’s SuperValu.
Now, its food — like its visitors — comes from all sections of the globe, but the very best is reared on the hillsides or hauled out of the seas.
In Dingle, you can walk out the bay by the lighthouse and quite probably see free-ranging Fungi for free, or you can take one of the hourly boat trips from the pier to get even closer (and he really is a showtime must-see for small children). You can increase your knowledge in things undersea by visiting the Seal Sanctuary, or by a visit to the town-based Dingle Oceanworld Aquarium (€30 for a family ticket), with its sharks, turtles and platoon of Gentoo penquins on parade. If seeing these stand-up comedians of the Antarctic being fed gives you a pang for fresh fish, you can go out angling with Dingle Bay Charters, who offer a ‘catch and cook’ experience among their trips’ menu. Memo to self: having done the Blasket Visitor Centre (open March-October), next time, make time for an actual boat trip out to the Blaskets.
Dingle’s an all-year round, all-seasons, world-class venue, on the ocean’s doorstep. When the sun shines, it’s sublime. If it’s overcast or wet, the mood-music shifts and the mountains and islands get draped in cloud-cloaks, a painter or photographer’s dream. Flicks like Ryan’s Daughter, and the later and lesser Far and Away, have put it its raw, elemental, Blasket-blasted beauty up in Hollywood lights, but nothing beats a real-life visit. Despite best efforts, you’ll leave it hungry for more.
Dingle Cookery School c/o www.globalvillagedingle.com