Something’s happening in Galway. After a six year hiatus, I’m back and I can tell you, it’s exciting. I fell in love with Galway as a student. With the kiss of the sideways rain smudging my makeup and frizzing my hair, I wandered the streets eyes-wide uncovering city secrets; it’s small theatres, the rushing river, with time on my hands and pennies in my pocket. Friends were made and problems solved over tea and scones in providence Market Kitchen after a night out in Neachtains, a dance in the Roisin (and the inevitable chips at Vinnie’s).
But something important happened to me here in Galway. I stopped buying pesto from a jar. I discovered McCambridge’s deli and St Nicholas’s Market and hey presto-pesto! It was an important revelation on two counts 1. Any eejit can cook for themselves 2. Galway has everything you need – fresh produce, fish, meat and a wide range of it plus the restaurants to show what miracles may come of what’s in the sea and on the land. My life in food began. I would get up early on Saturday’s and be thrilled to be heading down to the market, buying fresh veg or biting into one of Danny’s heavenly doughnuts.
So what’s happening in Galway? I’ve just finished a preview of the Galway Food Festival (Easter weekend 13th-17th April) and it’s clear to me that Galway is heading towards an epicurean apex, carefully and passionately curated by Tribe innovators, producers, chefs and bakers. Let me walk you through what I discovered. The festival theme this year is ‘Food and the Community’. In its sixth year now, the festival has really hit the nail on the head on what makes Galway’s food scene unique: the Tribe, the people.
My first stop was with Festival Chairperson, JP McMahon who warmly welcomed us into his Michelin starred restaurant Aniar on Dominick Street, home to all that’s truly of, and by, the west. McMahon describes Aniar as terroir based cuisine to describe the food which is specific to Galway and the West of Ireland. There is magic happening behind those kitchen doors. We were presented with a selection of bites including an incredibly moreish Smoked Cheese and Kelp Tart alongside a sparkling pear aperitif, culminating with a Fermented Hay Mousse with Crystallised Fennel and Dried Ants (citrusy in flavour). There is imagination, flavour and straight-up Irish bouldness here.
Our taste buds awakened like never before, we were ready for everything the preview tour could give us. Next stop, Galway’s beloved McCambridge’s. Natalie McCambridge gave us a short history of its rise as a humble deli in 1925 to fully fledged food destination. We gathered around their tasting table to sample spirits by outstanding Irish producers including Green Spot whiskey and Longueville House Apple Brandy, paired with Aran Island Goats Cheese by Gabriel Faherty and ending on a sweet note with an awesome Venezuelan bean chocolate from Hazel Mountain Chocolate.
Our next stop was very exciting. With the salt on our lips from the vast Atlantic outstretched before us, why is it that Galway has not been the capital of seafood in Ireland? That is now changing. We have four top Sushi restaurants: Kappa-ya, Cafe Wa, Raw and Tomodachi. Paul Gosling, lecturer at GMIT tells me that our lactose tolerant genes made us primarily a dairy based culture so our backs were to the sea and hands on the soil. We’re now turning outwards. That is a real change and that is exciting.
We piled into Kappa-ya for a taster of head chef Junichi Yoshiyagawa’s Celtic-Japanese cooking. We started with super-fresh Bluefin Tuna Belly and Red Mullet Sushi, before moving on to some classic fusion style flavours with Grilled Blue Cheese and Miso Black Pollock. All of this was washed down with a trio of sakes from Kappa-ya’s collection of thirteen rare varieties. I looked around and wondered why I hadn’t properly awoken to Galway as Ireland’s sushi capital before.
After enjoying an equally astounding lunch in Tomodachi on Saturday, as well as a turnip sushi roll, which I first looked at suspiciously but then, well, imagine discovering your bashfully shy librarian is a superhero goddess; this is the turnip sushi roll. I am completely convinced that something special is happening with the rise of these remarkable people committing themselves to the edge,no, this blade of Ireland and this edge of cuisine. Liam, head chef of Tomodachi, will be hosting a Sushi Making Demo and Tasting on Friday if you need further convincing.
After a quick taxi ride we arrived to a flurry of pink umbrellas outside the g Hotel, where we were whisked inside out of the misty rain. A quick shake of the coat and we can appreciate the awe inducing surroundings of the lobby. General manager Triona Barrett told us Philip Treacey designed everything with the sea in mind. The doors handles are like shells, the silver ball chandelier like some kind of seaweed makes you feel as if you are under the sea.
She led us down the seductive pink corridor opening out onto room after room of bars and lounge areas of varying moods and colour schemes, before arriving at Restaurant Gigi’s to a sea of sprawling seashell shaped couches and booths to feast upon some 5 star concoctions. We chose between Galway’s signature meat – lamb as well as the less carnivorous option of a delicious Baked Three Cheese Semolina Gnocchi.
I couldn’t resist the latter and it was a good choice. If you can match your signature dish in taste with pasta and cheese, then bula bus. Jason O’Neill, head chef of the hotel will host “Fish Face-off: Wild Salmon v Farmed Salmon” on Friday. It’ll be interesting to see how farmed and wild compare in terms of flavour and sustainability.
We headed back into Galway centre to Upper Abbeygate street. We were met by a mystery man and led through an even more mysterious doorway and emerged onto a rooftop bar akin to something you might imagine in Morocco. Welcome to Glasshouse at Electric Galway.
The bar was fired up and ready to go as the skilled barmen got busy with flames, herbs and poitín. Speaking of which, poitín master himself, Pádraic Ó Griallais, was here to talk with us. He is the man behind Micil Poitín, distilled in his micro brewery in Galway using the process in his family for six generations. Micil himself was Pádraic’s great-great-great grandfather but Pádraic is the first member of the family to produce the Irish poitín legally.
Transfixed by the mystical rooftop and Pádraic’s tales of illicit liquor, we were presented with a specially brewed cocktail based on the spirit. In true illicit style Pádraic will play host to a Sibín Fancy Dress Dinner Party in McCambridges on…you guessed it: Good Friday. The revellers will be transported back to the 1800’s to enjoy a 7-course menu inspired by the food community of the Wild Atlantic Way.
In dream-like fashion we were swept back down the candle-lit hallway, Poitín still on our lips and onto the final venue of the night. The Meyrick Hotel is right in the heart of Eyre’s Square and one of those Galway landmarks to situate yourself and find your bearings. It boasts a chic lobby area featuring a sweet coffee bar not dissimilar to an independent Ladurée, with pastries piled high and a mixture of mint and marble décor.
We were in the right place to move onto the last course: dessert. Gaslight Bar and Brasserie hosted us at one long sprawling table where we chose between a Blackcurrant Mousse or Classic French Fraiser alongside a strawberry clad glass of Prosecco.
I feel a surge of energy and excitement reflecting on the myriad of tastes, textures and fabulous surrounds. I’m certain that it would be difficult to walk into an eatery in Galway and find a really and truly mediocre meal. This is down to the people. Every person I’ve met, from the smallest café to the plainest pub have all cared deeply about their product and nothing is taken for granted.
It is this dedication and raw passion for the food they produce, serve and make that is fast-tracking the city into its role of European Region of Gastronomy 2018. Almost any Irish person now can recognise Galway’s food hero JP McMahon, who works hard to educate on the ethical aspects of food, as well as organizing the now annual Food on the Edge chef symposium, to name only one of his endeavours.
Heather Flaherty is another. While not organising the festival she is busy running her café bakery in Spiddal, Builín Blasta, where we headed to for a demo on Saturday morning. I couldn’t resist getting stuck into the pillow soft dough and volunteered myself to roll out a baguette under Heather’s watchful eye.
She made it look so easy! Of course it is, as they say, harder than it looks. We wandered out into the welcoming café where she served up cinnamon rolls warm from the oven and good coffee. A bakery worth its twenty minute drive outside the city and a view of the sea to boot.
The highlight of the Galway week is undoubtedly St Nicholas Market on Saturdays. It sprawls down Church Lane outside the beautiful St Nicholas church on one side and Sheridan’s Cheese on the other, making an afternoon cheese plate and glass of wine in their wine bar upstairs overlooking the action all the more attractive. There are the familiar faces: Danny Doughnuts, with his freshly made creations hot in your hand, Michael shucking Galway oysters, TGO Falafel and some of the freshest produce straight from the growers there in person, soil on their hands.
Sheena Dignam is another hand on deck championing Galway food through her thriving business Galway Food Tours, where tours take on themes such as ‘Sweet Tooth Food Tour’ and a ‘Whiskey Tour of Galway’. For the festival she will focus on the market with ‘Around the Market Place’, which she treated us to a taster of after we returned from Spiddal.
She has a keen awareness of her customers too and was quick to magic us into Neachtains for a sit down alongside a beer tasting, just before we got tired. She will run her market tour throughout festival weekend Thursday to Sunday. If you only make one thing, this is the one to give you a broad selection of Galway’s talent.
The idea of food and community will culminate in the festival’s closing event, ‘Breaking Bread’ on Easter Monday, where Galway Food Festival and Galway 2020 will host an outdoor community feast celebrating the food of the many cultures and communities in the city. You must bring along a non-perishable dish as a donation to get involved in the conversation and try some of the fare on offer; it is your way of saying what food and community means to you.
To further the reach into the heart of the community, festival organisers invite people to bring “Breaking Bread” into their lives by hosting their own event and continue the dialogue among friends and family over stories of the food that shapes us. And remember, if there’s sideways rain – it’s only wanting to kiss ya. Love from Galway.
For more information on Galway Food Festival click here.
Sarah is back in Galway from London where she was owner of Mint & Broom, a north London micro-bakery featured in her local food market. She is excited about joining the west of Ireland food movement, spreading the word through freelance writing and working the west into her own brand of baking at farmer’s markets soon.