Good food starts with good ingredients, so it was only natural for an artisan food movement to launch in Ireland. The island has always been home to excellent raw ingredients and communities with traditional skills like bread making and butchering, says Darina Allen, celebrity chef, author, and founder of Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry. That history has helped develop a strong farm-to-fork movement and young chefs creating exciting food with excellent produce, she explains. “You can get good food from one side of the island to the other.”
The culinary renaissance includes Northern Ireland, which marked 2016 as the Year of Food and Drink with new food festivals, gourmet markets, and food tours featuring local artisans and the region’s varied restaurant scene. The longstanding tradition of quality produce continues to grow at St. George’s Market in Belfast, a Victorian market building dating to 1896, which sees more than a million visitors a year.
While there’s no shortage of must-try menu items in Ireland, we’ve compiled a list of our favorites.
Cheese making dates back to the days of the monasteries here but nearly died out. It helped get the artisanal food movement going when it was reestablished in the mid-1970s by the makers of Milleens and Coolea cheese. Sheridans Cheesemongers, with shops in Dublin, Galway, and Kells, features over 50 Irish cheeses in a variety of styles from more than 30 artisan producers, plus their own 15 Fields matured cheddar. Sample before buying or head to the wine bar above the Galway shop for tasting platters to share.
The Wine Cellar at Fallon & Byrne in Dublin offers sharing platters of cheese and charcuterie from their stocks in the food hall. Try the Baked Mont d’Or Cheese with a splash of white wine. Dromoland Castle in Newmarket-on-Fergus offers an Irish cheeseboard at breakfast and doubles the size to wind up dinner in its Earl of Thomond Restaurant.
The bounty of the sea is celebrated in festivals and on menus across the island. One of the biggest festivals is the Galway International Oyster and Seafood Festival at the end of September. Alternatively, sample Irish bivalves from various regions at renowned oyster bars in The Saddle Room at The Shelbourne Dublin or the Mourne Seafood Bar in Belfast and Dundrum. Learn the secrets of the Mourne Seafood chefs in classes at the Belfast Cookery School.
Award-winning seafood restaurants include Fitzpatrick’s Bar and Restaurant in Dundalk, which currently holds the title of All-Ireland Chowder Champion, and Fish City in Belfast, a 2017 finalist in the National Fish and Chip Awards. Chef Eithna O’Sullivan of Eithna’s by the Sea in Mullaghmore, Sligo, incorporates local seaweed into entrées, bread, and pesto sauce. Her signature dish is lobster, most popularly served as Goan lobster curry.
Enjoy traditional music in the Bridge Bar at the Moorings Portmagee while gorging on their seafood tasting platter featuring local Kerry shellfish and seafood like Portmagee crab claws, Cromane mussels, three different varieties of salmon, and smoked mackerel.
Salmon has been eaten in Ireland since prehistoric times and ties into Celtic mythology—the Salmon of Knowledge was considered the wisest of creatures. Smokehouses around the island smoke salmon with oak, beech, or turf, and restaurants typically serve it as an appetizer with brown bread. At Oysters Restaurant in Strabane, County Tyrone, visitors can order a Guinness, treacle bread, and traditional smoked salmon from The Haven Smokehouse, which peat-smokes the fish in a thatched cottage in Donegal.
Ummera Irish Smokehouse in Timoleague, Cork, offers certified organic smoked salmon produced with eco-friendly practices. It’s cured with artisanal Portuguese sea salt and raw Costa Rican cane sugar, then smoked over smoldering oak from sustainable forests. Connemara Smokehouse in Ballyconneely, also certified organic, employs a slow process to ensure flavor and texture, fanning beech wood smoke around the fish in the kiln for up to 10 hours and storing it in a cool room for another 24 hours. Take their Wednesday smokehouse tour in the summer to see filleting, salting, smoking, and slicing firsthand.
The Irish take pride in lamb from specific regions—Connemara Hill lamb even has geographical protection from the European Union. Mary Gleeson of Gleeson’s Townhouse & Restaraunt, Roscommon, says it’s the sweet, grass-reared Roscommon lamb that makes her stew so tasty and admired. She cooks it in fresh thyme and rosemary-flavored broth with onions, carrots, celery, and potatoes. The Roscommon Lamb Festival in the spring offers a chance to taste local lamb cooked a variety of ways.
Enjoy Wicklow lamb shanks cooked in red wine and rosemary along with musical merriment and Irish dancers at The Merry Ploughboy, an Irish music pub in Rathfarnham. It was named Best Traditional Dinner/Entertainment Event in Ireland three years in a row. Peter Hannan of Hannan Meats in Moira, County Down, sources free-range, organic lamb from Glenarm Castle Estate and dry ages it for two weeks in his Himalayan salt block chamber to enhance and seal in flavor. Air-dried lamb made by McGeough’s Artisan Butcher in Oughterard, Galway, is a flavorful, unique product. It’s marinated in herbs and spices, air-dried for at least eight months, smoked with beech chippings, and sliced thin like prosciutto.
Soul-sustaining bread is a staple for the Irish, notably soda bread with a cross cut into the top. The soda bread master is Peter Ward of Country Choice in Nenagh—heaps of his crusty round loaves are gone before day’s end. The Northern Ireland specialty is oatcakes, with artisan baker Robert Ditty setting the standard at Ditty’s Home Bakery & Coffee Shop in Castledawson and Magherafelt, County Londonderry. Smoked oatcakes and walnut oaties are popular variations. The terms "Waterford blaa" and "blaa," referring to the traditional soft white rolls dating to the 17th century, have earned protected status by the European Commission. Third-generation bakers Michael and Dermot Walsh make fluffy blaas at Walsh’s Bakehouse in Waterford City. Try them warm with butter or as a stuffed breakfast blaa.
Great places to find artisanal bread include the Limerick Milk Market, The English Market in Cork, and St. George’s Market in Belfast. Look for small-batch butter and home preserves to go on it. If you want to learn to make bread yourself, take the ferry from Cunnamore Pier, West Cork, to Heir Island and roll up your sleeves for a one-day course at Firehouse Bakery Bread School with celebrity baker Patrick Ryan. He offers evening bread baking courses at his Delgany, County Wicklow, location too.
Ireland drinks more tea per capita than any other place in the world except for Turkey. There are charming tearooms all over Ireland and Northern Ireland, as well as luxury hotels offering elegant afternoon tea. The Old Post Office in Lisbane, County Down—housed in an 19th-century thatched-roof cottage—is the perfect spot for this tea room and pantry. Enjoy hot cinnamon scones, pies, and tarts by a cozy peat fire. Queen of Tarts in Dublin serves up signature Baileys cheesecake made with Tipperary cream cheese and Baileys Irish Cream, plus strawberry rhubarb crumble, and more. You can enjoy Vintage Tea Tours’ afternoon tea while passing Dublin’s iconic sites aboard a vintage double-decker bus with white tablecloth appointments and 1950s jazz.
For formal afternoon tea with three-tiered presentation, Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, can’t be beat with a table by the fireplace, views over Castle Hume Lough, and celebrity chef Noel McMeel’s edible creations. In addition to traditional afternoon tea, you can choose among the Gin, Sparkling, Champagne, or Chocolate Afternoon Tea options. Enjoy Art Tea in the Georgian drawing rooms at The Merrion, in Dublin, which impresses with pastries that echo some of the famous works of art in the hotel’s private collection.
Craft Apple Juice and Hard Cider
Gourmet drinks made with apples—alcoholic and nonalcoholic—are popular in Ireland. These small batch offerings are dry and crisp, not supersweet; some are infused with berries and other flavors. The hard cider is typically lightly carbonated. The Apple Farm in Cahir has a farm shop where you can buy apples, as well as sparkling apple juice, hard cider, and apple juice mixed with strawberry, raspberry, or blackcurrant juice. Kilmegan Cider, based in Dundrum, County Down, continues to win awards—the dry Real Cider was crowned 2016 Reserve Supreme British Champion Cider, and the Wild Elderflower Infused Cider won a top award in the 2016 International Cider Challenge.
Longueville House in Mallow, Cork, is an apple lover’s destination, as the Georgian mansion hotel has apple orchards on the estate. Owner William O’Callaghan makes hard cider and apple brandy that is double-distilled in copper pot stills then aged four years in oak barrels. Try the home-reared pork loin with cider sauce followed by apple tart with apple brandy ice cream and caramel sauce in the restaurant.
The Irish gin scene is flourishing with wild, native botanicals to infuse the flavors of the countryside. Shortcross Gin, made by Rademon Estate Distillery in Downpatrick, County Down, incorporates apples, elderberries, and wild clover with classic botanicals such as juniper. The aromatic, complex elixir has a long, peppery finish and took silver in the 2016 International Wine & Spirits Competition. It’s completely handcrafted, all the way to signing labels with batch and bottle number.
The Exiles Irish Gin is traditionally pot-distilled and is the only gin in the world to include shamrocks. It’s also infused with honeysuckle flowers, red clover flowers, rowan berries and bog myrtle, and has floral and citrus notes. Dingle Original Gin made by Dingle Distillery incorporates fuchsia, heather, bog myrtle, hawthorn, and rowan berries—mostly sourced locally—in its lineup of 16 botanicals to give it the essence of the Kerry landscape. It won a gold medal at the 2016 World Gin Awards in London. Jawbox Belfast Cut Classic Dry Gin is Ireland’s only single estate gin, distilled at Echlinville Distillery in Newtownards, County Down.
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Although Guinness is pervasive in Irish pubs, there’s a microbrewery boom across Ireland and Northern Ireland, now counting about 80. You’ll be spoiled for choice with more than 300 craft libations at the Irish Craft Beer & Cider Festival in Dublin in September. If you’re an enthusiast, book a table at L. Mulligan Grocer in Dublin, which pairs each menu offering with a recommended craft beer or (for desserts) whiskey from their list of over 200 craft beers and 200 whiskies. Check out their five unique cask beer offerings too.
A number of microbreweries are open for tours, such as Hilden Brewing Company in County Lisburn, the isles' oldest independent brewery. Franciscan Well Brewery in Cork offers weekday tours and tastings of their award-winning range. The brewery, brewpub, and beer gardens are located at the site of an ancient monastery and well, renowned for miraculous healing powers. Go for the Jameson-Aged Stout, an International Beer Challenge gold medal winner.
The best way to get exclusive access to craft breweries not normally open to the public with tastings is on a five-day package trip taking in eight breweries with Brewery Hops of Ireland. Their Wicklow day tour is also popular, with tours of two breweries and a five-course, beer-paired lunch.
Irish whiskey is one of the fastest growing spirits in the world. There are over 200 whiskey expressions, including iconic brands such as Jameson and Bushmills, plus start-ups like Dingle Distillery in County Kerry and Teeling Whiskey in Dublin. Both offer distillery tours and whiskey tastings. The Dingle Distillery Single Malt Cask Strength won a gold at the 2016 Irish Whiskey Awards, while Teeling Whiskey 24 Year Old Single Malt won World’s Best Irish Single Malt in the 2016 World Whiskies Awards.
Dublin’s Celtic Whiskey Shop stocks everything available, plus many rare bottlings, and you can sample some of them before buying. Learn more at the shop’s weekly whiskey master classes and monthly tasting events. They’ve recently opened the Celtic Whiskey Bar & Larder in Killarney featuring 1,000 whiskies at the bar, plus seven Irish whiskey masterclasses daily through the Irish Whiskey Experience. For a personalized, tutored tasting, allow whiskey expert John Moriarty at the Park Hotel Kenmare in Kerry to select your perfect lineup from the bar’s 150 selections. An Irish whiskey emporium, The Friend at Hand, recently opened in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter with a mini museum. Enthusiasts will enjoy the two-day whiskey school presented periodically at Dingle Distillery and Dublin’s Whiskey Live event in the fall.