Long- known for its beloved oyster festival, in recent years, Galway has raised its food game considerably, displaying a strong drive to place itself on the international food map.
The city hosts a plethora of food events; the Galway Food Festival is held every Easter while Food On the Edge, a symposium headed by Michelin starred chef JP McMahon, brings together some of the world’s top chefs to debate the future and sustainability of food.
The city was also recently announced as one of two European Regions of Gastronomy for 2018, an award which recognises innovation and integration in gastronomy, tourism, culture and economy and will offer a year-long showcase of the region’s produce.
Galway won the award for its ‘Food from the ground up - feeding our future’ pitch but most visitors to the region don’t have such esoteric thoughts in mind.
They simply want to dive in and devour the best of the West’s produce.
They will quickly find that the region’s food scene says a lot about its people.
Many Galway restaurateurs and food producers hail from families that have been in the hospitality and food business for generations.
Others are adopted Irish who came to visit the west coast, loved it enough to stay and are contributing to its growing food industry.
We can’t begin a foodie tour of Galway without stopping off at Aniar ( www.aniarrestaurant.ie ) smack bang in the centre of town on Dominick Street.
JP McMahon’s Michelin star restaurant looks like a simple eaterie but is truly about substance over style.
McMahon invents dishes using only produce from the west of Ireland.
In keeping with the Nordic food movement, he doesn’t use pepper, lemon or chocolate at Aniar and replaces ingredients from far-flung places with local alternatives to create sublime and innovative flavours.
As well as running Aniar and Galway’s second Michelin star restaurant, Loam ( www.loamgalway.com ) is a stone’s throw away on Fairgreen Road.
Chef Enda McEvoy is an adopted Galwegian, having grown up in county Cavan.
He left Aniar in 2013 to set up Loam with his wife and specialises in creative simple cuisine that’s strongly based on seasonal produce.
At the recent 2016 Irish Restaurant Awards, Loam won best restaurant in Connacht while McEvoy won Best Chef in Ireland.
A typical Loam menu looks pared back but the sparsity of words makes space for high quality local produce to do the talking.
Current dishes include crab with cabbage and yoghurt, squid with shitake and seaweed, and monkish, squid and brocolli.
Next on our tour is Martine’s restaurant and wine bar, owned by Martine McDonagh from one of Galway’s best-known families.
Most visitors have at some stage eaten fish and chips from McDonagh’s fish café across the road and in fact, Martine grew up on Quay Street, right next to her restaurant.
It’s is now run by her son Enda but Martine has long been and remains an influential voice on Galway’s food scene ( www.winebar.ie ).
One of the pleasures of eating out in Galway is the concentration of restaurants in a small area, all with their own story to tell.
Joe O’Flaherty’s Brasserie on the Corner (Eglington Street) pays homage to the late Gerry Galvin, who was loved for his cuisine at Drimcong House in Moycullen ( www.brasseriegalway.com ).
On High Street, the King’s Head is a stalwart of Galway’s comedy and arts scene and part of the very fabric of the city. Its bistro offers a more casual dining experience for visitors who want to wander in for a platter of crab claws, scallops and prawns ( www.thekingshead.ie ).
Just a couple of miles away, situated on the banks of Lough Corrib and on the edge of Connemara, the recently refurbished five star Glenlo Abbey hotel ( www.glenloabbeyhotel.ie ) offers one of the most unusual and scenic dining experiences in the west of Ireland.
Its Pullman restaurant is set in two of the original carriages from the Orient Express, with stunning food and views to match.
Leaving the city’s confines, we drive to Barna where both O’Grady’s On the Pier and The Twelve Hotel offer up fresh seafood. Twelve also boasts an award-winning sommelier for those who like to pair wines with food courses. ( www.thetwelvehotel.ie ) ( www.ogradysonthepier.com ) .
It’s in this area that we meet some of the region’s local and adopted food producers.
We also get to pick Sheena Dignam’s brain for foodie info during her Connemara & Aran Island Food Tour ( www.galwayfoodtours.com )
Moving on from Barna, we stop in Spiddal, not just to enjoy the big skies and stone walls of Connemara but to meet Canadian woman Heather Flaherty who has opened a café within the grounds of Spiddal craft centre.
An Builin Blasta café and bakery serves home-made dishes and on any day of the week you’re likely to sit next to Ros na Run crew and actors or TG4 presenters who work very nearby ( www.builinblasta.ie ).
Onwards to Rossaveal and we come across one of the region’s most intriguing food production stories. Cindy O’Brien grew up in Orange county suburbia in California before moving to Ireland and falling in love with the place.
She also married an Irish man and now runs an abalone farm along with daughter Sinead, braving all seasons of Connemara’s weather to cultivate this unique shellfish.
Abalone is most popular in Asian markets but as well as exporting to the UK and selling to Asian food stores, Cindy has supplied the shellfish to top restaurants in Galway, including Kai, the Twelve hotel and in Dublin, to Thorntons restaurant and Musashi noodle and Sushi bar.
Participants on the Connemara & Aran Island food tour make a half hour visit to Cindy’s abalone farm and get to taste the numerous dishes she creates with it, including a Vietnamese broth and more intriguingly, cakes and cookies.
Leaving abalone behind, we go in search of Gabriel O’Fatharta and his herd of Inis Mor goats.
We hop on board for an eight minute scenic flight to the largest of the Aran Islands, taking in stunning views of the Cliffs of Moher and Dun Aengus as we go.
The tour is worth it for the flight alone and even more so when we meet Gabriel, a former fisherman who turned to goat farming and now produces goat’s cheese.
Full of character, Gabriel takes visitors through the process of making his award-winning cheese, followed by a tasting, lunch at Tigh Nan Phaddy and coffee at Gearoid’s café.
Gabriel also offers his own tours with the option of travelling by plane or ferry and overnight packages on Inis Mor.
We finish our island visit with a stop at the Independent brewery where Kevin O’Hara and his team brew a range of beers inspired by the sea life of Connemara - if that isn’t a genius twist on the region’s food tourism industry, nothing is.