Weekend break: How Dingle became a top food destination

How did Dingle, once a poor, little fishing port, evolve to become one of the most important towns in the Irish food world? Ahead of the Dingle Food Festival - and the Blás na hÉireann Irish National Food Awards - Joe McNamee pays tribute.

Weekend break: How Dingle became a top food destination

One wintry January evening, in 1977, I was driven from my home in Cork City down to Dingle, arriving long after nightfall, the small fishing port shrouded in blustery, wet darkness.

I was met by the family with whom I was to live as a Gael Linn ‘scholar’ for the next eight months and we headed out into the pitch-black peninsula to their little farmhouse in An Riasc, near Baile an Feartearaigh.

The Gael Linn Gaeltacht Scholarship was a total immersion programme, a far removed from any halcyon memories of the more usual Irish college summer camp.

For a start, I was on my own, living with a family whose daily language was Irish. I would attend the local school, taught entirely through Irish.

All daily interactions would be conducted through Irish. To all intents and purposes, I was in another country.

My Irish may have been sufficient to win the scholarship but, having arrived in Ireland just three years previously, I was far from fluent. On my first day in the tiny school, all ages crammed into a couple of rooms, I was the class imbecile in every subject other than English.

Neither was the welcome from local pupils overly warm. Just 11 years old, it wasn’t surprising that I succumbed to a profound attack of homesickness.

But I struck gold with my host family — Cáit and Ben Ó Loinsigh and their two young sons, Gearóid and Colmán — who adopted me as one of their own from the off.

Cáit decided I needed time away from school to settle and, one morning, the pair off us set off on a skite and for my first sighting of Dingle town in daylight.

Cork City in the 1970s was no ‘Samba Town’ but that day Dingle had its own brand of bleak rural minimalism down to a fine art: streets glistening with just-fallen rain, plain-faced buildings and shops, shorn of signage or livery, all a monochrome grey, akin to the pinched January sky.

I would become very fond of the town but it is a first impression that lingers to this day.

It truly was another time and place, near impossible to reconcile with today’s cosmopolitan culinary mecca, most especially when the food festival is in full flight and the chow hounds are scrumming down on every street corner.

"How on earth did this poor, little fishing port evolve to become one of the most important towns in the Irish food world, the inaugural winner of the Restaurant Association of Ireland’s inaugural Food Destination Town, in 2014?

Stella Doyle believes it all kicked off with the film, Ryan’s Daughter, filmed in the locality and starring Robert Mitchum.

Many more in Dingle and beyond believe it actually kicked off with the arrival of Stella Doyle herself, most especially, when she and her husband, John, opened the now-nationally renowned Doyle’s Seafood Restaurant in 1973.

“John and I came down in 1970, from Dublin. He was in advertising but we ‘dropped out’. He bought a fishing boat. It was great, we were down a year or two but the fishing wasn’t really making a living.

"Ryan’s Daughter was starting to draw tourists to the area and they all seemed to be looking for fish, crab, lobster but there wasn’t really anywhere in the town so decided to open a fish restaurant. Everyone thought we were mad.

"We took a premises on John St, which was just a back street at the time. We were young and we weren’t thinking too much about that and literally from the word go we were full.

"Fish was almost penitential and Irish diners weren’t as sophisticated as they are now and most thought we were mad but we were full of Americans, French, English and some Irish.

"The locals were terrific in how they would support you and gradually they too came in more to eat.

"By the time we sold up in ’98/99, there were a lot of restaurants in the town and we had made the Michelin Good Food guide and the Egon Ronay guide and Dingle had really come on the map, people were coming to eat.”

Kieran Murphy and his brother Seán are the owner/operators of the justly-renowned Murphy’s Ice Cream.

“I grew up in New York. My father is from Cork and I had been thinking of making my home in Ireland when my parents ended up buying a holiday home in Dingle, that was the catalyst.

"Gourmet or artisan foods were taking off and ice cream seemed like a really fun business. There were lots of tourists and tourists like ice cream!

"I was involved in setting up the food festival with others. Dingle had very good restaurants for a town of its size but everyone was doing different things and we wanted to encourage collaboration. To me, what makes a ‘food destination’ is ‘good food’.

“San Sebastian is a ‘food destination’. When it ceases to have ‘good food’ then it is no longer a ‘food destination’. It’s not something that comes down from heaven, it’s just down to the people.

"We have some incredible produce available to us and good resources from the sea but so do a lot of other towns. Sometimes, I think it might just be one or two families who can make the difference and change the food culture of an entire area.

"Like the Allens, of Ballymaloe, in East Cork, Or Stella Doyle, in Dingle. They brought a love of good food and helped to instill that locally.”

Artist Adrienne Heslin arrived in Dingle 30 years ago, first working summers and then moving for good in 1989.

She married a publican, Padraig Brick, of the renowned Tig Bhric, in An Riasc. After he died tragically, she set up a craft brewery, Beoir Corcha Dhuibhne (West Kerry Brewery), with Padraig’s cousin, Paul Ó Loinsigh and another local publican, Donal Ó Catháin.

“I eat and drink my way through days, it is a very sensual connection. Also being an artist, I’ve a very creative connection to living so everything is creative and that led to the brewing. I’ve a cooking approach to brewing — I cook beer!

"One of the most important things in Dingle is the produce. We are spoilt rotten with our dairy to begin with and, with the rain, the feed the animals are getting is brilliant, the meat, the fish is top dollar because we are so close to the source.

"There is a pure unadulterated connection to nature and that is reflected in the food. For me it’s all about terroir and that comes across in the beer.

"I am not trying to replicate any other beer but trying to create something that is unique to west Kerry, using our own botanicals and the water from the well under the pub.”

The Blás na hÉireann Irish Food Awards began in 2008 are an integral part of the festival but have evolved very much into a separate entity in their own right under the aegis of Artie Clifford.

“I came from Drogheda 25 years ago as a commercial fisherman. I joined a boat, the MV Shannon, and commuted home for a year whenever we were ashore.

"One weekend, my wife decided to come down for a visit instead, fell in love with the place, went home and sold our house. We had two children at the time and our third was born in Kerry.

"The awards bring a huge influx into the town, producers, buyers from home and abroad, journalists, the media. It is a very important date in the Irish food calendar.

"The festival was founded as a showcase for what Dingle has to offer and its overwhelming success has led to the return of people throughout the rest of the year.

"Dingle is continually evolving. One of the biggest things was probably the Food Destination award in 2014. We have access to the very finest of local produce and the restaurateurs concentrate on using that produce.

"With the growth of the restaurant trade here, they’re all vying to be top dog and that means they’re continually evolving, continually changing menus, sourcing local food, growing their own or foraging.”

Chef Mark Murphy is a founding member of the festival and co-chair, a highly visible presence on the local food scene, he also set up the local farmer’s market and, with Muireann Nic Giolla Ruaidh, established the Dingle Cookery School.

“I came down from Co Carlow about 13 years ago, I went down for one day and never left.

"When I arrived, one of the first things that grabbed me was there were so many restaurants. Tourists and food go hand in hand.

"Fáilte Ireland were driving food tourism so we became one of the pilot towns.

"It gave us a platform and allowed us to take the value of our producers and get them involved.

"But it’s still early stages and when people arrive, they are aware of it as a food destination but that sets standards you have to meet and exceed.

"But we have so much, not just the producers and restaurants but all that is married to the culture, the language, the scenery, everything really!”

You may notice all the above contributors are technically ‘blow-ins’, drawn by Dingle’s unique charms, charms so persuasive, they never left.

The formerly picky and pale little 11-year-old had no choice but to return to Cork, but he returned so ‘fluirseach’ in the Gaeilge, each night, he dreamt in Irish.

He was also as brown as a berry and with a horse’s appetite to boot and I fancy he’ll keep returning to Dingle and Corca Dhuibhne til the day he dies, in search of the piece of heart he left behind — and, of course, for a right good feeding!

Dingle Food Festival runs throughout this weekend until Sunday Oct 2 www.dinglefood.com

Winners of the 2016 Blás na hÉireann Irish National Food Awards will be announced today, Oct 1, in Dingle.


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