Irish food. It’s all potatoes, potatoes and more potatoes, washed down with Guinness, right?
Well, no, not really – and the lovely people at Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) are on a mission to dispel that misconception and introduce the world to the wealth of wonderful produce and products that Ireland has to offer. But I did start wondering if they were losing the plot a little when they invited me to attend Bloom in Dublin earlier this month. As far as I knew, Bloom was Dublin’s answer to the Chelsea Flower Show – more of an event for horticultural bloggers than food bloggers, right? Well, actually, wrong again! A sizeable area (three pavilions) has been set aside for showcasing Irish food and drink, from brewers to Irish farmhouse cheese producers, to artisan bakers, to purveyors of fine meat and fish. It was at these food pavilions that Andrew, Ailbhe and I arrived, fresh off the plane, one sunny Friday earlier this month. Here are some highlights of our day:
8 Degrees Brewery: Handcrafted in the rugged Ballyhoura region in Ireland by Scott and Cam, a Kiwi and an Aussie, the latter of whom was on hand to pour for us in Dublin. The pair were perplexed by the lack of craft beers in Ireland when they arrived in the emerald isle and set about founding their ow microbrewery to fill the gap. The name is clever on many levels as it represents the line of longitude that runs through the middle of Ireland; and it is also the perfect temperature at which their beers should be served. Although they are still referring to themselves as Ireland’s newest craft brewer, if their refreshingly hopsy Howling Gale Ale is anything to go by they will be around for many years to come.
After a brief visit to O’hara’s to try their new subtly smoky Smoked Ale No1, Dungarvan Brewing Company was our next stop where Cormac O’Dwyer tempted us with their Coffee and Oatmeal Stout. I loved this – the coffee added a bitter bite while the oats rounded out the flavours, with a surprisingly clean finish.
TJ Crowe pulled pork sandwiches: We realised pretty rapidly that we could not carry on tasting beers much longer without some sustenance to soak up the alcohol and so we checked out the options on offer in the fast food area. My brain stopped as soon I saw the words “pulled pork sandwiches” and I was particularly pleased to see that they were using Old Bay seasoning for the authentic Southern taste TJ Crowe raises organic lambs and happy pigs on their farm in Co. Tipperary, where artisanal bacon and sausages are also made. The sandwiches were huge and delicous, with tangy coleslaw and beauiful meat – my only slight technical criticism would be that the are roast pork rather than pulled pork sandwiches… but it seemed churlish to mention it!
Murphy’s ice cream: What better way to cool down (and believe me, it was SWELTERINGLY hot!) and round off lunch than with an ice cream. The queue outside the Murphy’s ice cream stand told its own story and we were not disappointed. I tried dark chocolate (super-indulgent) and honeycomb (subtle, but a winner if you love honeycomb like I do); Ailbhe tried the honey lavender (delicious and not too floral); while Andrew picked a winner with the champagne and elderflower sorbet, which was frozen perfection. Murphy’s never use preservatives, colours, mixes, powdered milk or bottled flavours – and it shows in the taste. Check out their website for other flavours, including their least-favourite flavour ever made.
Knockdrinna farmhouse cheeses: Knockdrinna have been making cheese since 2004 at their farm in Co. Kilkenny. Although they started out making cow’s milk cheeses, they now source goat’s and sheep’s milk from local farmers to produce a range of artisan cheeses. There is also a farm shop and a café on the farm and farm visits and cheese tours are in the pipeline. We tasted the Meadow Sheep’s Cheese (a semi-hard sheep’s milk cheese with a rind washed in an organic white wine wash); Knockdrinna Snow (a soft goat’s cheese with a bloomy penicillin rind which looks a little like soft snow, hence the name); and my personal favourite the Knockdrinna Gold Goat’s Cheese with its white wine washed rind, creamy texture and nutty flavour. The wedge that I bought was heavenly with preserved green figs in syrup!
Glenilen Farm yoghurt: Ailbhe insisted that we track down and sample some Glenilen yoghurt. I figured a yoghurt is a yoghurt – what’s the big deal? But that was before I tasted Glenilen yoghurt. Owner Alan Kingston’s family have been farming on the same dairy farm in Co. Cork for generations but it was only in 1997 that wife Valerie started using some of the farms’ high-quality milk from its happy cows to make cheesecakes for local markets. What began as a hobby grew and grew, and today they manufacture a range of milk-based goodies including cheesecake, yoghurt, pannacotta, mousses, cream cheese, clotted cream and butter (which was even served to Queen Elizabeth on her recent visit to Ireland!). The lovely Valerie very kindly took time to chat to us over a class of Glenilen lemonade and gave us samples of the vanilla pannacotta as well as the small raspberry yoghurt pot and the lemon cheesecake – we adored all the design and packaging. The pannacotta was trembly and vanilla-seed-studded; the cheesecake after a night wihout refrigeration had sadly liquified but tasted terriffic with a real lemon kick and excellent biscuit base. But my favourite was the little yoghurt pot – so perfectly tart and packed with raspberries – and packaged in a glass pot that screams “prop!” to any food blogger. Here is a list of their UK stockists (including many branches of Waitrose – hurrah!)
Soul Bakery breads: It’s not often that I go ga-ga over bread, but the Soul Bakery stand had both me and Andrew positively slack-jawed with admiration – and one look at the photos will tell you why! Based in Dublin, they sell mainly at markets all around the city, but after they gave out samples of one of their fruit breads (I think it had apricots and/or figs in it?) we made sure that some of these baked treasured made their way back to London in our suitcases. They make a range of breads, from the decadent sweet apple & walnut or custard, apple & almond logs; to traditional soda breads; to spelt loaves; to spectacularly good gluten-free fruit breads like the sultana, walnut and sesame seed loaf that I brought back with me. Heaven with a smear of salted butter.
J Hick & Sons bacon jam: Yes, you read right – bacon jam. Niamh had written about it. Ailbhe had told me about it. But I wanted to see (and taste it!) for myself. And bacon jam could scarcely have a better spokesperson than the hilarious and charming Ed Hick of J Hick & Sons. ”There’s a lot of flavours going on in there”, he said as he passed around samples of the bacon jam and he was not kidding. Tasting like the lovechild of a bottle of chutney and a jar of pork rillettes, it’s meaty and salty and sweet and intriguing – all at the same time. Yum. J Hick & Sons also produce sausages, bacon and all manner of artisanal pork products.
Harty’s pepper jelly: Right next door I spied the Harty’s pepepr jellies – how could you resist them, al red and glistening like rubies! Originally from Ireland, Melanie Harty travelled to the US where she fell in love with chillies and the Southern idea of pepper jelly as a condiment. In 1993 she launched her range of pepper jellies at US markets and in 1996 she returned to Ireland to launch the range here. I tasted a couple of these and each one was better than the last – a particular favourite was the original hot pepper jelly with its sweet heat and the char-grilled bell pepper jelly which had a real depth of smoky flavour – can’t imagine anything nicer with cheese.
The Scullery Christmas puddings: Florrie Purcell founded The Scullery in Co. Tipperary back in 2004, making simple, old-fashioned foods without additives or chemicals. Keeping to this philosophy, she has now expanded her product range to 21 items and has collected a slew of awards along the way and she is one of the most engaging people we met at Bloom: unpretentious and super-enthusiastic about her products. She makes a range of pickles, relishes, sauces and sweet preserves – but what she really wanted us to try was her Christmas pudding and brandy butter (which is now being sold in the cylinders above in the form of four mini puddings). I loved it – not as heavy as some Christmas puddings and simply packed with fruit – and I can’t wait to try the plum pudding she gave us to take home. She also hinted that some of her products might soon be gracing the shelves in Selfridges, so keep your eyes peeled. (And would you believe – the little girl on the packaging is Florrie herself as a child!)
Slane Castle whiskey cocktails: Slane Castle Irish Whiskey has been specially created for Henry, the Eighth Marquess Conyngham, head of the Conyngham family that, since 1701, have lived in Slane Castle in Ireland. It is distilled by the nearby Cooley distillery (more on them in a moment) and is a fairly light whisky with caramel and vanilla notes – making it the perfect base for whisky cocktails! We spent a happy half hour on the grass under the trees enjoying a Sunkiss (whisky, creme de cassis, fresh lemon, and ginger beer).
Cooley Distillery Irish Whiskey: Our logical next stop was the Cooley distillery stand, where Cooley global brand ambassador (now there’s a job I’d like!) John Cashman guided us through a tasting of their four brands. Greenore is unique in that it is a single grain Irish whiskey made from maize rather than a blend of malt and grain It is matured for 8 years in bourbon casks and this translates into a caramelly, velvety palate – almost like drinking a liqueur (and I LOVE the bottle). Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey is a classic blended whiskey made in the world’s oldest distillerey, founded in 1757. It has a classic flavour blending Tyrconnell is a historic single malt Irish whiskey, named after a racehorse that beat the odds and won a legendary race at odds of 100 to 1 (you can still see the horse on the label). I thought it tasted rather like Armagnac, but Andrew begged to differ! And if you like your whiskey peaty, you have to try Connemara, their single malt peated whiskey. The smoky peat flavour comes from drying the malting barley over peat fires and often I find the flavour overwhelming in a whisky (yes, Laphroaig, I am looking at YOU!) – but this is perfect for my palate: a hint of smoke rather than death by smoke inhalataion. Just lovely.
Cheese tasting plate from Cais (the Irish farmhouse cheesemakers’ association): Our last stop of the day was to rest our weary legs and try a plate of Irish farmhouse cheese. By now I was no longer making notes (hmm, could be the preceding whisky tasting) so cannot give you detail about what we had… But at a guess, the plate included Carrowholly cow’s milk cheese with herbs; Glebe Brethan (a comté-style cow’s milk cheese), a blue cheese (possibly Cashel); Killeen Farmouse cheese; and a fresh soft white cheese filled with berries. All were delicious, but the sun made good pictures inpossible – hence the picture of Andrew and Ailbhe doing the traditional Irish cheese-worshipping dance (!) in a vain attempt to create some shade!
From there it was a short walk through the floral pavilions back to the media centre and our life to the hotel, so I will leave you with a few gratuitous flower shots. If you love flowers, artisanal food, or just enjoy chatting to people who are passionate about what they do, Bloom is a fantastic way to spend a day making new discoveries. Thanks to all the lovely producers who took the time to chat to us and a huge thank you once again to Maeve and Bord Bia for flying us to Dublin; and to Tess from Food Matters for organising the smooth running of our visit so well. A couple of extra pics are available in my Bloom Flick album.