Last month, my husband and I went to Dublin, Ireland, to make up for an earlier visit that was ruined by a bad oyster. We still wanted to see this city, and so we returned. As for food, we had no particular agenda except that we wanted to go to the same place several times just for that feeling of having a place in a strange city.
We’ve always like the food at the Avoca stores, which we knew from living in Ireland. Avoca features Irish products, from woolens to oatcakes, and Dublin’s store also has a restaurant that offers food both traditional (fish pie in cream under mashed potatoes) and contemporary (accompanied by a salad of micro greens). The staff was friendly the way the Irish tend to be, so when my husband forgot his hat that first jet-lagged day, from then on we were greeted and teased not to forget it again. There’s something to be said for being a regular someplace, but the other side is that once you’ve eaten a good way through a menu, you’re hungry to explore other choices.
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On our previous visit in 2005, I, who did not get the bad oyster, was doing a piece for Gourmet magazine to accompany a story on Dublin. I ate at the most expensive restaurants, but only one of them was seemingly concerned with provenance. When we finally gave up our place at Avoca and turned to “eating out,” we had quite a different experience than in 2005. Here were menus where the source of every item, from vegetables to fish to game to breads, was named, along with those who made the bacon, made the cheese and smoked the haddock. It was surprising, astonishing even. The food was absolutely delicious and I was only sorry that we didn’t have another week to dine our way through the offerings at The Winding Stair, Chapter One and L’Ecrivain, among others.
Among the dishes we enjoyed was an earthy Jerusalem artichoke soup with ceps (they do not shy away from homely vegetables); Irish boxty with flat-cap mushrooms; Irish Hereford beef shin with colcannon (tender and oh so good); salmon cured with buttermilk whey; a spelt pearl risotto with beets and shaved fennel (and clearly a lot of good Irish butter); slow-cooked pork belly; and Ted Browne’s crab claws. Despite walking miles every day in chilly air, the desserts — of the rich and filling variety — were sadly unapproachable because there was absolutely no room for them.
Good Food Ireland a common theme during travels
One thing in common was that these restaurants claimed to be proud members of Good Food Ireland. What was that? Essentially, it’s a non-governmental industry group that links producers of Irish food to those who serve it. That sounded good, but was it for real or was Good Food Ireland (GFI) an organization that was just hitching a ride on the trend for the authentic and local?
As luck would have it, a few days after returning to New Mexico, Darina Allen, the doyen of Irish food and Ballymaloe Cookery School, called. She happened to be in Santa Fe, so we went to lunch and I asked her about Good Food Ireland. “Oh, that is a wonderful group!” she enthused. “And yes, they are the real deal!” Knowing that Darina’s opinion is based in reality, I was relieved. I liked the idea of Good Food Ireland. A lot. I wanted it to be just what it claimed.
GFI was started in 2006 by a woman named Margaret Jeffares, who was in the marketing business and lived on a farm in Wexford. It seemed obvious to her that there was a gap between the wonderful, authentic foods of Ireland and places where they might be experienced. Wouldn’t Irish tourism, both local and international (and with it farmers, producers and providers), be better served if there was a way to have a brand that established connection and authenticity to particular eateries? GFI is all about promoting Irish foods and linking food sources to restaurants to create “a trusted standard for authentic local food experiences.” The meals we ate at The Winding Stair, for example, certainly reflected this linkage, and to think that six years ago we never saw a menu that had so much transparency (or any, for that matter) regarding food sources.
Hearing Jeffares talk about founding GFI is to realize, as is always true with success stories, that her simple, obvious idea took an incredible amount of work to realize and its success was based in part on collaboration with the business sector of Ireland, with which she was familiar. She saw that “food tourism,” in which people should be able to experience the best foods a region had to offer, would benefit Ireland and its food producers and tourism in general.
As with Slow Food, Vermont Fresh Network and other movements here that promote authenticity and a true farm-to-table experience, even successful efforts involve a relatively small segment of the food-producing population. “Such establishments will always be in the minority,” Jeffares admits, in Ireland, too. But even so, there are more than 500 businesses committed to GFI’s core values of using locally produced food and products of high quality and service standards. And these core values apply not just to high-end restaurants but to B&Bs, hotels, pubs, cafes, cooking schools, farmers markets, food shops and more. It’s a great model for any country, but it probably helps to be a smaller one, like Ireland.
If you go to Ireland, look up Good Food Ireland and use it as a guide. You can even make your own tour based on where its member businesses are, if an authentic Irish food experience is what you want. And in my limited experience, I’d say it’s well worth having.
Photo: Cheeses for sale at a Dublin, Ireland, farmers market. Credit: Deborah Madison