Day One of Irish Food Trip: the sun and the moon

Yesterday had a cyclical feel to it, a sun and the moon of a day. It was focussed on a great sweeping meander in and around Waterford city – but it always came back to the food. Which is quite right for Day One of my Irish Food Trip in the company of five of the country’s best young Euro-toques chefs and Caoimhe Ni Dhuibhinn from Failte Ireland.

After a light breakfast in Waterford Castle’s beautiful consevatory with the sun striping in through the wrought iron windows (when I say light breakfast, I mean a mini-croissant filled with sweet ham and artisan cheese) we headed out with the hotel’s head chef Michael Quinn to meet some local food legends.

First stop, one of the regions few remaining small abattoirs run by O’Flynn’s butchers, who finish cows on their farm before slaughtering and butchering – just the thing after breakfast eh? Actually the place was spotless with a pervading scent of salt in the air. Even the words being bandied about were slightly bloodless if a little chilling: the ‘stunning box’ in the ‘killing room’ where the animals are dispatched before being ‘broken’ into various parts. Carcasses of beef hung from hooks beside bundles of offal including a lolling tongue and pointed oxtail (which looked more appetising in Sunday night’s DELICIOUS croquettes, see yesterday’s post for details). In one of the chilled rooms were tubs of pork tails and chuck bones – apparently they’re mad for these value cuts in Waterford, as anyone who has been to a GAA match down here is said to know.

In another room, hunks of ham were transforming into bacon in baths of salted water (no nitrates/nitrites here which means no gooey white gunk on those rashers) and a vac-packed bundle of O’Flynn’s rashers gave us a hint of what we’d be having for our breakfast this morning. Well, it’d be rude not to, Waterford being the original home of the rasher (no, I hadn’t known that either). We also got a preview of last night’s dinner in the form of O’Flynn’s beef which was hanging in all it’s glory – but later would be served up to us in l’Atmosphere in the city.

Then it was off to visit M&D Bakery where Dermot ‘Blaa’ Walsh is one of four producers in Waterford’s blaa producers’ group who are in the final throes of applying to the EU for PGI status (Protected Geographical Status). No-one from anywhere near the river Suir needs an introduction to these local treats, but if you’ve never had one, a blaa is the simplest white bread roll made of just flour, water, yeast, salt and perhaps a touch of sugar. Though it is traditionally filled with ‘red lead’ luncheon sausage or maybe Tayto crisps, we had a gourmet version in the legendary Ardkeen Supermarket a little later in the day, filled with glazed pork and onion gravy (and washed down with Ponaire coffee from Limerick-based artisan coffee roasters). Because it has no preservatives the blaa is traditionally eaten by lunchtime, but freezing now allows Dermot to sell his blaas all over the country. Look out for it at Dublin’s Guinness Storehouse, Café Rua in Castlebar, Mayo or at Jane Russell’s stalls in Naas, Dun Laoghaire and Marlay Park where she fills it with her real pork sausages.

Before we left M&D Bakery we got a glimpse of some ‘Sallylunn’ fruit buns going into the oven. Like the blaa, the Sallylunn was introduced by the Huguenots who took refuge in the port town of Waterford from religious persecution in their native France. The name is a bastardisation of ‘soleil et lune’ (sun and moon) just as ‘blaa’ is a local take on ‘blanc’. Well. There’s poetry in the eating too.

Before lunch we skipped up the mountains to visit Willie Drohan and his fine looking herd of black-faced Comeragh Mountain Lamb. Willie used to sell his lamb for the basic factory price, but he knew he had something special – it’s not every herd that calls the remote, untouched Comeragh ranges home for over half the year. Clambouring up the steep inclines, grazing on heather and wild herbs, rambling up to the blanket bog – all of this makes for a unique animal. Three years ago he gave some to chef Michael Quinn to sample to see if there would be market for it as a premium product; now Willie sells about 20 lambs a week direct to the likes of Ardkeen Supermarket as well Dublin restaurants including Thornton’s, Moloughneys and Restaurant Forty One at Residence. Michael uses nothing else at Waterford Castle where Willie’s milk-fed lamb will be coming on the menu from late May – and he swears you can taste the sheep’s heather diet in the resulting jus.

The ewes are down in the foothills now, ready to lamb, but they once they’re strong enough again they’ll head back up to the heights. Willie couldn’t keep his sheep in such a remote part without the help of his neighbours to bring them in when he needs to – not to mention his trusty sheepdogs (who you can watch in action in a following video post). He also likes to enlist some unusual help at times – if there’s foxes in the area, Willie has been known to blast a little reggae on loud speakers through the night, and says it works for two or three nights anyway!

We had built up a thirst so Michael took us to the brandnew home of Metalman Brewing Co where Grainne (Ireland’s only female craft brewer to the best of my knowledge) gave us a whistlestop tour of the new premises and a taste of their current test-brew (at all of 1.5% ABV). Then it was back to The Island to sit outside Waterford Castle in the fabulous sunshine and down a pint of the real deal, which is now available on tap at the hotel’s bar – and outselling Guinness & Heineken too! It’s a great Pale Ale, with a grapefruit twist that makes it for perfect sunshine drinking.

Like one big happy #IrishFoodTrip family at this stage, we all traipsed off to l’Atmosphere for our dinner which was cooked for us by co-owners, chef Arnaud Mary and pastry chef Patrice Garreau, both of whom have worked for Joel Robuchon in previous lives. It was served up in family style, with three casserole dishes taking pride of place in the meal, featuring three different dishes: a six-hour cooked lamb, a cassoulet with foie gras and a beef cheek bourguignon (from O’Flynn’s butchers of course). Before that two rounds of starters: bite-sized braised beef skirt; a homemade farmhouse terrine with cornichon; and a home-made black pudding that spread like a pate onto gorgeous homemade bread. Round 2 starters were an ode to the amazing seafood in the region: scallops from Kilmore Quay (where we’re off to tomorrow) with a whipped cauliflower cream; morsels of the freshest lobster and seabass; and crab claws with a kick-ass alioli. And at the other end of this rustic feast, a showcase of classic French desserts: including what was introduced as “the original 1981 Joel Robuchon chocolate tart” which was as delicious as its incredible glossy sheen suggested, and a classic Iles Flottants featuring poached meringue so light it dissappears in a puff.

And then it was time to float back to our own island over which Waterford Castle lords it, with a gorgeous new moon in the sky to guide us, and memories of an unforgettable day in the sunny South East to treasure.

For the first day of a four day tour, it wasn’t such a bad start eh?

You can follow the action live on Twitter (@holymackers, #IrishFoodTrip), and tune in tomorrow for all of today’s action, including a two dairy farming neighbours who have put their milk to different uses in Knockanore village; a family business celebrating 125 years in the same premises; a craft brewer reviving the art of bottle-conditioned beers; and a masterclass with the legend that is Paul Flynn of The Tannery…

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