After missing last year’s Inishfood I certainly wasn’t going to let that happen a second year in a row so to say I was looking forward to Inishfood 2012 was an understatement. Driving to Harry’s restaurant at Bridgend in Donegal on the Saturday morning I was full of anticipation as to what I would learn, who I would meet and what I might taste.
When I arrived at Harry’s the restaurant was buzzing, sourdough bread was baking, and people were chatting enthusiastically amongst themselves. I took my seat in time for the panel discussion on the future of Irish fish chaired by ‘Holy Mackers’ herself Aoife Carrigy and listened to the views of Seamus Sheridan Green Party spokesperson on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Amy Caviston third generation fishmonger, Elena Piana Marine biologist at Goatsbridge trout farm and Michael Cavanagh local fisherman.
Riveting stuff but worrying in the extreme to think that fishing villages like Greencastle or Killybegs might not survive, unless these coastal communities rethink their long-term sustainability. The slow decline of coastal communities is already happening across the country. I’ve witnessed this first hand in Ardglass, once one of the busiest fishing harbours in Northern Ireland and now a ghost town. Although the relationship that Harry’s has with their fish suppliers and the Foyle Fisherman’s co-op shows that a sustainable model can work, benefiting all parties involved and helping local communities to survive.
On Sunday there was a farm visit lead by Broadcaster Ella McSweeney, who talked about Ireland’s native cattle breeds. There were some beautiful examples of Irish Moiled, Dexter, Shorthorn and Kerry cattle on show, and farmers who were there to answer any questions, including the lovely Christopher and Helen Kelly from Lough Bishop House. Donal Doherty had a rib roast of Moiled and a slow roast shoulder of Dexter for us to taste. Another great education in Ireland’s native rare breeds, which are starting to become a passion of mine.
Next up it was a drive to Linsfort to the beach where renowned food writer Sally McKenna and Chef of the moment Enda McEvoy took us on a shore foraging trip, tasting seaweed and wild plants such as Sorrel and Scurvy Grass. The shore forage culminated with a beach picnic of freshly shucked Donegal oysters, mussels, winkles, bottarga, and fresh sour dough bread slathered in a butter flavoured with dulse, dished out by food writing legend John McKenna no less.
Enda McEvoy had also made a couple of different dashi in two flasks, one flavoured with smoked ham and the other a plain dashi. Both were sublime and pure, full of umami, a delicious roundness in the mouth, the essence of the sea, made all the more special and vivid thanks to our location and surroundings. As John McKenna said ‘you could feed nations on the stuff.’
This picnic on the beach in such prestigeous company was the highlight of my weekend – the locally foraged food, the ruggedness of the Donegal coast, the taste of the sea water in the air, all shared with such passionate individuals was about as good as it gets!
The last event of the day was a trip to Harry’s walled garden which supplies the restaurant with their vegetables. Trevor Sargeant, ex-Minister of State for Food and Horticulture and once leader of the Green Party was there to extol the virtues of growing your own and shared some interesting snippets about the rich history of walled gardens in Ireland. I thought is was amazing that in the glory days of walled gardens in the 19th century, if your garden was able to produce a pineapple, this was seen as a status symbol. As only the most skilled gardener could produce such an exotic fruit, which meant you had the money to pay for such a gardener. The pineapple would then take pride of place in the centre of the dinner table, and these pineapples would actually get rented out by other familes who couldn’t afford to grow their own!
It was also amazing to think that Harry’s walled garden dates back some 250 years and Donal told us that records showed the garden actually supplied grocery shops in Derry. Sad to think that it was the First World War that was the death of walled gardens in Ireland.
Dermot Carey, Head Gardener then talked us through the different produce, with some tastings and gave us some insight into just how much skill, passion and hard work it is to grow such a variety of quality produce.
What a weekend and what a lot of inspiration to take home. For me Inishfood 2012 was about celebrating what is on our door step and our history, for example Ireland’s rich history of native cattle and growing food in walled gardens. It was also about seeing familiar old faces, meeting new ones and realising what is important in life. We have so much to be proud of. Food doesn’t need to be dressed up if it has provenance and quality, there is a purity that should shine through, which is clearly evident in the cooking in Harry’s.
Such a weekend just goes to show what can happen with passion, good will, zero funding and of course having someone to front it all such as the outstanding Donal Doherty. My experience at Inishfood has inspired me to shake things up a bit here in the north and perhaps start something similar, need to get some heads together and make some noise!
It occurred to me as I drove home on the Sunday afternoon, physically knackered but with a head full of thoughts, that I had been part of a weekend that demonstrated what Colin Tudge talks about in his seminal book ‘So Shall We Reap.’ Tudge claims that the future of food belongs to the gourmet:
‘The correspondence between good farming, good nutrition and great gastronomy is absolute, and wonderful. Lose sight of the principles of any one, and the others are compromised…Truly the future belongs to the gourmet. Here is one of the outstanding serendipities of human existence.’ – Colin Tudge.
This little food festival called Inishfood, fronted by Donal Doherty of Harry’s restaurant fully understands the true value in this great serendipity of human existence. It is people like Donal who are the guardians of this great triumvirate of good farming, good nutrition and great gastronomy, the importance of which cannot be expressed enough, as it is these three pillars which will ensure the survival of humanity!