When people think of Irish food they tend to focus on the mythology of the humble spud – or pints of creamy Guinness. Yet what many don’t realize is that while the Slow Food movement may have been born in northern Italy, it first gained traction and was embraced in Ireland. Almost a generation ago a new breed of Irish chefs who had trained abroad and saw the creeping spread of pesticide-grown, antibiotic-riddled foods realized that back home the burgeoning globalization of agribusiness had yet to invade their country. The good stuff, as it were, was still being produced locally on small farms: beef and lamb that tasted of the pastures where they were raised, fresh dairy that didn’t have to travel across a continent, produce within a stone’s throw, and fish and shellfish foraged from the surrounding ocean. At the same time, the growth of the Celtic economy saw a wave of returning emigres, and suddenly there were artisanal cheese-makers sprouting up near the dairy farms in Cork and Kerry, smokehouses outside the fishing villages in Clare, and stone-ground mills in the rolling hills of Wicklow: sustainable, affordable, and deepening the country’s connection to the land. The little island was a big Greenmarket. To be a locavore wasn’t so much a political statement – notwithstanding the colonial legacy of enforced exportation of most homegrown foods in return for nutritionally poor imports – it was a practicality. England may do the gastropub with more spit and polish but walk into any humble village pub in Ireland and you’re likely to find a menu with unadulterated ingredients sourced within a five-mile radius; they just don’t crow about it so much.
Of course like anywhere, you can eat a bad meal in Ireland, too. But I didn’t have that problem in Doonbeg: crab claws with tomato concasse, samphire and chili butter; foie gras and cherry confit; loin of Clare lamb, roasted girolles and eggplant; pear sorbet; and a board of farmhouse cheese.