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Take a food tour through Dungarvan, Ireland, a hotbed of farm-to-table excellence

DUNGARVAN, Ireland

Remember the old joke about the Irish seven-course meal? That's a sixer of Guinness and a potato. For generations, Irish cuisine has been a bit of a punch line, sturdy rib-sticking stuff like stews and pasties and black pudding (sausage made from cooked pig's blood). As in so many other places, times have changed.

I recently got to spend a couple of days in Dungarvan, a coastal town and harbor in County Waterford on the south coast of Ireland. Because of its setting — separated from the open ocean by a shallow, eastward-facing bay, at the mouth of the Colligan River, and with lush rolling agricultural land — it has emerged as a hotbed of farm-to-table excellence. These days growers, fishermen, artisanal food producers and restaurateurs work together to showcase the local bounty. Here are some of the folks with whom I had the good fortune to chat, and the local businesses they help run.

Comeragh Mountain Lamb

We began our tour by heading up to the Comeragh Mountains to meet Willie Drohan and his flock of Scottish blackface sheep. We pulled into his driveway greeted by four lovely redheaded daughters and an impatient sheepdog named Sally, piling into Drohan's pickup, a vehicle that likely had not seen a vacuum or cleaning products in more than a decade. It was a short but bumpy ride out to his sheep, Drohan talking the whole time.

Only one problem. He paused and looked over at me.

"You don't understand a word I'm saying, do you?"

I didn't. It was the kind of thick Irish accent that skewed vowels in all directions, consonants swamped enough so that I was getting only every fourth word. He slowed down, enunciated, and then we started seeing his sheep, their backsides sprayed an electric turquoise to differentiate them from the neighboring farmer's far-ranging herd.

Drohan pointed down as we walked: fescue grass, moor grass, deer grass, herbs like tormentil and sorrel, wildflowers and heather. These sheep eat well. He's a sixth-generation sheepherder but it wasn't until 2008 that he and his brother-in-law made the leap to selling their own premium lambs direct to restaurants, high-end retail shops and farmers markets.

His 650 ewes (there's one ram for every 50 ewes; "he has a good three weeks") spend about six weeks in March and April down in the lowlands, heading up at the end of May with their babies to roam 1,600 acres of the privately owned mountain "commonage." Self-sustained for most of the year, they are fed barley in the winter.

Lambs are slaughtered by a local artisanal butcher, the meat dry aged for 10 days.

We watched Sally strut her stuff, communicating telepathically with Drohan as she rounded up a bunch of skittish blue-butts. And then we said our farewells and headed off to lunch.

The Tannery

In 2013 it was awarded the Irish Restaurant of the Year by the Restaurant Association of Ireland, its owner Paul Flynn regarded as one of the foremost Irish chefs. He started the Tannery in Dungarvan in 1997, long before farm-to-table fervor had taken hold.

Why here?

"Because I'm nuts," Flynn said while showing us around the adjacent Tannery Cookery School and small Tannery Townhouse inn. "I'm from here and I wanted to do something special. Ireland can be Dublin-centric. You have to rattle the cage a bit."

And why the cooking school?

"Cooking is not a mystery or a science. You shouldn't have to be Stephen Hawking."

In the restaurant, he uses Willie Drohan's lamb as well as products from a number of other local farmers, but our lunch was freewheeling, from crispy Asian beef salad to braised pork belly and strawberry and basil Eton mess, a traditional dessert. Still, Flynn, one of Ireland's most recognizable celebrity chefs, sees what he's doing as quintessentially Irish.

"The canon of Irish recipes isn't huge. It's based on slow cooking and humble ingredients. But you put Irishness into things by having an awareness of ingredients. That's the real pleasure of cooking — it's like taking a song and doing a cover of it."

Harty Oyster Farm

Dungarvan Shellfish Ltd. was founded in 1985 by Jim Harty and his sons Shay, Ray and Joe. They were looking to diversify from their dairy farm in Dungarvan Bay, an area that seemed perfect as an oyster bay.

"When he started, everyone thought he was mad," said office manager Bernadette Foley, who showed us around one day. She was holding down the fort with a couple of watchful German shepherds because "the lads are all out on the tide now."

In the only native Irish-speaking part in the southeast of the country, the Harty family began importing Pacific Gigas oyster seed from France, putting the tiny bivalves out in oyster bags tied to trestle tables, turning them frequently to optimize shell shape. A pioneer, Jim Harty recognized the potential for growing oysters in the Celtic Sea, with the nutrient-rich waters of the Atlantic and Irish seas combined with the local rivers and streams surrounding the bay.

Thing is, Irish people wouldn't eat oysters, so they began selling their wares as an Irish "speciale" for the French market, until that market nearly collapsed a couple of years ago. These days they are producing 600 tons a year, largely for the Chinese market. In addition to the Chinese, the Hartys' oysters are sold to some of the area's top restaurants, such as the Tannery and the Cliff House.

Because they are Class B oysters that need to be purified with UV light before being consumed, we didn't get to try the meaty beauties with their deep cups (a consequence of growing in a shallow bay). We saw the sorting facility and heard about the nursery they started three years ago, the tiny seed spending a couple of months in tanks before living 18 months to two years in the bay. The nursery produced 6 million oysters in its first year.

"There were none in these waters," Foley said, squinting out toward the oyster trailers at the bay's edge. "And now there are millions."

Knockanore Farmhouse Cheese

We left the oyster farm and drove to the ancient parish of Knockanore (or Cnoc an Oir, "the hill of gold") to spend a little time with Eamonn Lonergan, who was in the process of doubling the size of his cheesemaking facility thanks to some funding from the Waterford Leader Partnership. These days he makes 70 tons of cheddar a year in six different styles (smoked, black pepper and chive, garlic and chive, etc.) with the raw milk from 120 Holstein-Friesian cows.

Lonergan, a man with the gift of gab, showed us his facility while talking about the challenges of scaling up. Many artisanal cheese producers choose to stay tiny, selling direct to high-end restaurants. He has taken it in another direction, selling now to Trader Joe's and Dean & DeLuca. He was recently in talks with Costco, but the warehouse giant's minimum order of 1,200 wheels proved too daunting.

He got into the cheesemaking business in a roundabout way. In 1987 there were milk quotas in Europe that led to people stockpiling oversupply. (Lonergan talked about the specter of "butter mountains," a disquieting vision.) It came down to figuring out what to do with his excess milk.

"Our cheese vat takes 6,000 liters of milk, filled every second day," Lonergan explained on the tour. "We start the fermentation process with a bacterial culture and we use an all-vegetarian rennet which coagulates the milk. Then the curds are pumped into a second vat, packed into molds for 24 hours and sent to the maturing room for six to 12 months, vacuum packed."

His cheeses won two gold medals and a silver in 2009 at the International Cheese Competition in Dublin, with loads of other awards since then. Despite the large scale, most everything at Knockanore is done by hand.

"We're caught between manual and automation," Lonergan said before pressing a package of cheese wedges into my hands. "But we're getting a laser cheese cutter."

Barron's Bakery and Coffee House

And then it was lunchtime, so we headed on to the small river town of Cappoquin and the oldest working Scotch brick ovens in Ireland. Esther Barron, a fifth-generation baker in this town, met us at the counter and ushered us back into the bakery to take a peek in the cooling ovens. Much as it probably happened in 1887, the breads are baked late at night in falling heat (all of this eyeballed, as the ovens have no knobs or controls), the signature loaf a huge hand-molded pull-apart bread bought by the "hand." Really, the length of your hand.

Traditional Irish wheat doesn't develop the appropriate glutens and was thus not suitable for yeasted breads (this explains the tradition of Irish soda bread), so founder John Barron would bring in wheat through Belfast. Most bread in Ireland these days is factory made, the Barrons the rare holdouts. Their loaves — from bloomers and doorstep sliced, to barmbrack (a white yeasted bread studded with fruit) and flour-dusted rolls called blaa — are arrayed beautifully in the small shop and cafe.

"Blaa is unique to west Waterford," Esther said as we sat down to lunch. "It was traditionally made with scraps of dough."

The soft doughy white rolls weren't much to look at, but there was nothing "blah" about them. Pleasantly pillowy and delicious with a big dab of salted Irish butter, these rolls are special enough that they were awarded "Protected Geographical Indication" status in 2013 by the European Union. Only four bakeries, including Barron's, produce them, locals fiercely loyal to their favorite blaa baker.

Joe Prendergast, who joined his wife in the business in 1993 and has a kiosk at the Dungarvan farmers market each week, credits Esther with the development of the on-site coffee shop. She continues to add to the bakery's lineup, pastries, coffee cakes and lemon meringue pies crowding the shop case, all of it made here.

Prendergast added: "Even Esther was made here."

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.

Take a food tour through Dungarvan, Ireland, a hotbed of farm-to-table excellence 08/29/16 [Last modified: Monday, August 29, 2016 5:01pm]
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