With the dawning of each New Year, many of us like to compile lists of the things that we would like to do and to achieve over the coming months. Quite often we start thinking about summer holidays abroad and places that we would like to visit. Whilst the lure of sunnier climes may seem impossible to resist, I still love holidaying around Ireland and exploring this wonderful country of ours. I am also fairly philosophical about our weather because the rain plays a large part in producing the lush green pastures on which our livestock feeds and has resulted in Ireland having some of the best beef, lamb and dairy products in the world.
One of the most successful homegrown tourism initiatives in recent years has been the Wild Atlantic Way campaign which sets out a 2,500 km route stretching from Kinsale in Cork, around the Atlantic coast along Ireland’s western seaboard up to the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal. Visitors are invited to travel the route, take in some stunning scenery and to experience Irish hospitality at its best. Cynics may dismiss the initiative as a mere marketing exercise but its success cannot be denied.
On a personal level, I recently realised that whilst I was familiar with the southern and western stretches of the Wild Atlantic Way, It had been a number of years since I had last visited Donegal, so I decided to whisk my eldest daughter away for a short break at McGrory’s Hotel in Culdaff on the Inishowen Peninsula just before Christmas.
For nearly a hundred years McGrory’s has operated as a hotel. It is family-owned and has a reputation for serving great food so it seemed to fit our requirements perfectly. It is also known as a live music venue and is famed for its traditional music sessions. Many top musicians have performed there throughout the years and I was particularly fascinated to learn that the reclusive Peter Green, original front man with Fleetwood Mac was amongst them.
We arrived after a lovely – if long drive – through some breathtaking countryside from our home in the midlands. From the outside the hotel has a charming roadside tavern feel to it which we found immediately appealing. Inside we were greeted warmly and shown to our spacious bedroom to the front of the hotel overlooking the main street in Culdaff. The room was tastefully decorated with a gigantic and extremely comfortable bed. McGrory’s has 17 bedrooms all of which have fabulous modern en suite bathroom facilities. Many of the rooms, including ours, feature the exposed stonework of the original building and remind you that this is an establishment steeped in history.
After refreshing ourselves we decided to head downstairs to the hotel’s Front Bar for a pre-dinner drink. The bar has a fantastic traditional Irish pub feel to it and we could immediately see why it is a popular spot with visitors to the area. The walls are crammed with attractive artworks and photographs of the musicians who have performed there over the years. In amongst all the images was a photograph of some of the cast who celebrated at McGrory’s when filming Star Wars Episode VIII finished at nearby Malin Head over the summer which impressed my teenaged companion no end!
Dinner at McGrory’s is served in the Front Room Restaurant – a cosy space, which – like the rest of the hotel – has been beautifully decorated. We took our seats at a slightly elevated area in the corner and examined the menu, which given the time of year had a festive theme. Head Chef Gary McPeake is originally from Scotland and during his career has worked for some of the UK’s top chefs including Gordon Ramsay at both his Glasgow and London restaurants. Gary moved to Ireland in 2002 where he has worked in a number of places including Crocketts on the Quay in Ballina and The Drift Inn in Buncrana.
We kicked off our meal with a couple of classic crowd-pleasers – Prawn Cocktail with Baby Gem Lettuce & Marie Rose Sauce for me and Fivemiletown Goat’s Cheese, Sun Blush Tomato & Kalamata Olive Bruschetta for my daughter. Both dishes went down a treat and I especially enjoyed the rather retro but incredibly tasty prawn cocktail which was packed full of sweet prawns and even a langoustine or two.
Next up was a plate of Turf-Smoked Salmon dressed with thin batons of apple, the freshness of which contrasted perfectly with the rich salmon. Micro-coriander added a lovely herbaceous note whilst the slight sweetness from the cure came through nicely but didn’t detract from the outstanding quality of the salmon that had been used. For me this dish represented all that is great about Irish food on one plate; – top quality ingredients treated with love and attention to detail.
Our main courses were also fantastic, no-nonsense plates of food. My Pan-Fried Fillet of North Atlantic Salmon with Creamy Champ and a Champagne & Sorrel Sauce had been beautifully cooked with a crispy skin and most, succulent flesh. The accompanying champ was comforting to eat and the clever addition of sorrel to the creamy sauce added a much needed tartness that cut through the overall richness of the dish. Across the table, Slow-Cooked Sirloin of Beef with a Hennessy & Green Peppercorn Sauce was hitting all the right notes with my daughter and both of us agreed that this was some of the best beef that we had ever eaten – it literally melted-in-the-mouth. We enjoyed a side of nicely cooked seasonal vegetables with our main courses.
Trilogy of Festive Desserts served with Boozy Custard completed our meal and included A Chocolate Brownie, mini Lemon Tart and Toblerone Cheesecake – a plate which had something on it to please everyone.
This was deliciously old-fashioned food… but this is in no way a criticism but rather a validation of how little needs to be done to food when the best ingredients are used. Gary McPeake really knows how to exercise restraint and get the best out of the produce he uses. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal.
After a great night’s sleep in our extremely comfortable room we enjoyed a hearty breakfast in the dining room. A buffet with fresh fruit, bread and cereal is available along with a number of cooked breakfast options including the ‘Full Irish’. I decided to go for Poached Eggs on Toast with Bacon which I washed down with loads of strong hot tea. My daughter had Sausages and declared them to be the tastiest that she had ever eaten. We later learned that they were supplied by a local butcher and are a firm favourite with guests.
McGrory’s is an ideal place to stay in if you are interested in sightseeing around the Inishowen Peninsula and want to explore Ireland’s North Atlantic coast. There are loads of activities available nearby including golf, hill walking and surfing. Culdaff’s Blue Flag beach is situated close to the village and is a picturesque place to enjoy some water-sports. Feeling relaxed and rejuvenated after our stay in McGrory’s we decided to do a little sight-seeing in the area and headed up to Malin Head, Ireland’s most northerly point looking out onto the ocean. I was surprised to find that you can drive right up to it along winding coastal roads and once there the wildness and beauty of the ocean stretching out in front of you is truly awesome.
We loved our stay at McGrory’s and would recommend it without hesitation. The hotel has an old-fashioned charm but with every mod-con you could possibly want. The rooms have been lovingly renovated to soothe the souls of even the weariest of travellers. As a guest you feel welcomed in as if you are part of the family and this makes it somewhere that you will want to visit again. There are loads of things to do in the area and we were both sorry not to be staying longer. It is somewhere that we will definitely come to again.
Niamh believes Ireland produces some of the best food in the world, and travels around the country; seeking out the best food producers, and places to eat.
An accomplished cook and baker, Niamh is also a previous MasterChef Ireland finalist. During the competition she had the opportunity to cook in some of Ireland’s top restaurants and experience life on the other side of the kitchen pass.
Working with TheTaste allows Niamh to write about her experiences and to share her passion for food and cooking with a wide audience.
Visit Niamh’s blog The Game Bird Food Chronicles.