An appetite for the West

March 20th, 2011

Embark on a food tour of Connemara, from the luxury of Ashford Castle to simply prepared meals in the pubs and restaurants writes Martha Kearns|Sunday Business Post|Travel

Steaming hot mussels dripping in white wine and garlic, slivers of freshly sliced smoked salmon piled high on thick slices of brown bread and salty oysters chased down your throat by a gulp of dry Guinness. These are some of the images and tastes that a foodie tour of Connemara evokes.

As well as being blessed with one of the best landscapes this country has to offer, Connemara is also one of the finest destinations for tempting seafood dishes, solid home-cooking and fine dining – all using the finest local produce.

One of the best places to start a tour of the region is in one of Connemara’s gateway villages, Cong in Co Mayo. Famous as the setting for John Ford’s The Quiet Man, Cong has long attracted tourists from the United States as well as being a destination for generations of Irish family holidays.

If you can afford it, there is no better place to stay in Cong than the magnificent Ashford Castle. Driving through the expansive grounds and rounding the corner to see the 13th century building is like wandering onto the set of a BBC period drama.

The castle has views across Ireland’s second largest lake, Lough Corrib, that may have not changed in more than six thousand years. It has been used as the backdrop to many films and television programmes – including The Quiet Man itself.

Even if you are not staying at the hotel, which is set on an estate of 350 acres, it is the ideal place to start your foodie experience. The hotel is currently offering a €69 table d’hote four-course menu in its formal George V dining room, which is worth every penny.

Although it would probably be almost impossible to choose something that wasn’t good, the seared scallop starter [€19 from the a’ la carte menu] with creamy seafood barley, caramelised pears and fresh basil was particularly delicious.

The roast rack of Mayo lamb [€32 from the a’ la carte menu] was a star among a host of mains prepared by acclaimed resident chef Stefan Matz and came with braised lamb shoulder on sweet potato.

Even if you are a wine expert, it is well worth having the suggested wine listed on the menu for each course – chosen by the castle’s restaurant and wine programme manager, Robert Bowe.

The Chateau Minuty, Prestige, Cote de Provence, 2009, [€15 a glass or €60 a bottle] brought the flavours of the scallops to life, while the Chateau La Bertrande, Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux, 2006, [€15 per glass or €60 per bottle] is a treat – with or without the lamb as an accompaniment.

Meanwhile, as there is always room for dessert, the chocolate soufflé with a caramel croquant [€15 from the a’ la carte menu] was well worth the short wait and gives you a chance to finish off the bottle of Bertrande.

Moving on from Ashford into the village of Cong there is a wealth of dining options, including Lislougrey Lodge, which, while on the grounds of the castle and a former residence of the castle’s previous general manager, is no longer connected to the castle.

However, it also boasts magnificent views and is a more contemporary place to stay and eat with both formal and casual dining available, although still not as formal as Ashford’s George V, where a jacket and tie is expected of the male diners.

The choices at Lisloughrey include the more formal, but still relatively relaxed, Salt Restaurant and the more casual Malt Bar and Brassiere.

At the moment, it is offering a good value deal on its dinner menu at the Salt restaurant for €55 to include an amuse bouche, a starter, main course and either cheese or dessert as well as tea and coffee.

Some highlights here include the starter of organic goat’s cheese tart with caramelised onion, pear, walnuts and rocket [€13 a’ la carte] and a main dish consisting of west Cork sole with langoustine lemon and caper brown butter, green olive couscous and citrus salad [€30 a’ la carte]

There are also a number of local pubs in the village, including the popular Crowe’s Nest in Ryan’s Hotel, which offer an even more casual experience which could be all you want after the long drive to Cong.

And you will always get a nice plate of local mussels and a chunk of brown bread to dip in it while getting drawn into the local banter at the bar.

However, just be warned that the pubs can lose a lot of atmosphere – and food choices from their menus – outside the tourist season.

For a quick lunch, there is the Hungry Monk Cafe, which is open all year around and has a strong emphasis on home cooking. It offers a nice pits top if en route to a tour of Connemara or before you go for a stroll in the castle estate, one of the entrances to which is located across the road.

Moving even further westwards, a food-lover’s tour of the area would not be complete without a visit to the Connemara Smokehouse, at Bunowen Pier at Ballyconneely in Co Galway.

The drive from Cong to Ballyconneely takes about an hour, but on the way, you can pass through Maam Cross and Leenane and the spectacular scenery makes the journey fly by.

Leenane is worth a stop, as the village was the backdrop to 1989 film The Field.

It is easy to see why Jim Sheridan decided to locate the iconic film here.

While not in any way spoiled by commercialisation, the area – especially Gaynor’s pub, which is now usually simply called The Field pub – is proud of its association with the film and definitely is one of the reasons it’s a picture opportunity stop off for tourists, especially Americans.

As good a reason as any to stop off here is to have a pint of Guinness, a bowl of soup with brown bread and a bag of Tayto served up at Gaynor’s, where the famous pub brawl scene was shot.

On to the Connemara Smokehouse, which is owned and run by the charismatic husband and wife team, Graham and Saoirse Roberts, along with four handy helpers – their two sons and two daughters.

The Smokehouse was set up in 1979 by Graham’s parents, John and Bridget, using a smoking kiln that was first put to work in 1946.

Every single product that comes from the Smokehouse is prepared by hand and in the traditional way, with the skills of filleting and smoking already being passed with love down to the third generation of the Roberts family.

‘‘A fish can take between eight to ten hours for smoking and another eight to ten for drying, depending on the weather.

I can tell by the look and feel of a fish if it’s ready or if it needs more time in the kiln or to dry.

It’s something I just know instinctively and wouldn’t know how to teach it.

I just learned it by being around my father so much growing up,” says Roberts.

‘‘Now, my ten-year-old is picking it up from me and can already tell when a fish is ready. We base our business on quality and if we are going to tell people our product is the best, then we better make sure it is.”

The family produces a range of smoked fish products including smoked salmon [wild, organic and farmed are all available], tuna and mackerel and a delicious smoked tuna mousse.

Some of its products have won many awards including the Best New Seafood product from BIM for its Honey Roast Smoked Salmon.

The Smokehouse is included as one of Rick Stein’s ‘‘superheroes’’ in his Food Heroes Book and also supplies the chef with its unique smoked tuna.

On average, Graham Roberts will fillet between 40 and 50 fish an hour by hand and for every one hour he spends filleting, he spends another one and a half taking out the bones by hand.

Visitors can drop into the smokehouse all year around to chat to Graham, who’ll also show you how to fillet, salt, smoke, slice and package a salmon from start to finish, during a relaxed and humorous tour.

Samples are also available and – to put it mildly – will whet your appetite for the products you are inevitable going to buy there and take home.

Products from the Smokehouse – which has views of the castle of Connaught’s own pirate queen Granuaile (Grace O’Malley) the Twelve Bens mountains and, of course, the roaring Atlantic – can also be bought online at www.smokehouse.ie or by e-mail, fax or over the phone. Given the expanse of Connemara, this is only a taste of what is on offer for food lovers.

The best way to discover the area for yourself is by using a few of these suggestions as a base and then discovering your own favourite places to eat – from baked oysters in a fine restaurant to a lamb stew soaked up with crusty bread in a roadside pub – that’s the greatest fun of Connemara.

Connemara Factfile

The only way to travel around Connemara is by car, as you want to be able to stop whenever the mood takes you or when the scenery takes your breath away.  Next month Ashford Castle has a midweek special where rates start at €360 for a one-night dinner and bed and breakfast package.

A two-night weekend special includes two nights bed and breakfast with one evening meal, with rates also starting at €360 (www.ashford.ie.or 094-9546003).  Alternatively, stay at Lisloughrey Lodge and avail of the Ashford grounds, as well as Lisloughrey’s own ten-acre site.  The hotel is currently offering a package where, if you stay one night, you get the next night free for from €88 per person sharing (www.lisloughreylodge hotel.ie)

Stop off at the Connemara Smokehouse for some smoked fish (www.smokehouse.ie or 095-23739) For more information on the region, check out www.connemara.ie

Behind the scenes at a five star – the g in Galway

March 7th, 2011

It’s funny that despite how messed up Ireland is at the moment, our food culture is punching way above its weight in a worldwide context. Among farmers, artisan producers, restaurants and hoteliers there is a strong awareness that not only is Irish food worth 8 billion in exports yearly but it is the one area bucking the recessionary trend.

I keep thinking that with the continuing drive of passionate chefs, producers and the food agencies, there is no reason why we can’t make Ireland a food destination like Piedmont in Italy, where people visit here for not just hospitality and landscape but for food.

Last week I attended a food event in the g Hotel in Galway which illustrated this connection perfectly. The g is a five star hotel, but ten years ago in Ireland, five star hotels created bland menus that “ticked all boxes”, with Italian food, trophy steaks, Caesar salads and mid-Atlantic staples that resembled a watery mix between Sheraton, Radisson and Celine Dion playing in the lobby. Sometimes a throwaway Irish dish to might make it onto the menu but far more important was the approach of trying to please too many people with descriptions and presentation of food while little thought was paid to where it came from.

Last week’s event in the g proved that happily, things have come a long way. Their “g is for Gourmet” dinner mirrored their overall policy in sourcing as much food as possible from local producers – the lamb was from local farms, scallops and prawns from Gannets in Galway, salmon and beautiful smoked tuna from Graham and Saoirse Roberts’ Connemara Smokehouse and cheese from Keane’s Bluebell Falls herd of goats.

Executive chef Stefan Matz who heads up both the g and Ashford Castle made the point that it’s no longer enough to talk about local food – “you have to practise what you preach and go and put it on the menu”.

From the producers standpoint it’s a win win situation – they see their food on top menus in Ireland which in turn sell it to an overseas audience. It is also wonderful to see a product like Bluebell Falls cheese transformed into three separate desserts; with three very different complex tastes – very technical cooking was in evidence but with a basic local foodstuff – it was a real eyeopener in what you can do with good simple quality produce.

Graham Roberts/Connemara Smokehouse & Regis Herviaux/Head Chef G Hotel

To view more….

Foodie Experience at The G

February 24th, 2011

The G Hotel, located on the edge of Galway city with its Philip Treacy designed interiors isn’t just a stylish place to stay, it has gained a reputation as a gourmet destination.  Head chef, Regis Herviaux and Stefan Matz who is executive chef of The G and  sister hotel Ashford Castle are totally dedicated and passionate in their cooking which is complimented by excellent service and natural, unassuming hospitality.  Stefan who is a native German has lived in Ireland for over 20 years and has received more than 20 awards and accolades, including a star rating in the Michelin Guide to Great Britain and Ireland. Stefan has also featured more than once on screen and has been a guest on the Afternoon Show.  Stefan’s most recent accolade is being named as ‘Best Chef’ in Ireland in the Ireland Good Eating Guide.

 


Stefan Matz along with Nevin Maguire and Kevin Dundon cook for 700 guests at the Irish Restaurant   Industry’s largest and most prestigious event of the year “2010 Irish Restaurants Awards”.

Connemara Smokehouse were recently invited to participate in “A taste of the West” at the G Hotel. The food is a celebration of the producers and the produce from the West, the sea and land. Before each course, each artisan producer introduced their wares and each course was accompanied by wines supplied by Frank Kineen of Vineyard Wines.

First up was Connemara Smokehouse Smoked Tuna Served Warm and Cold introduced by Graham Roberts…

© Connemara Smokehouse Limited

Chilled smoked tuna & pear gateaux, white wine and cabbage soup with crisp tuna tuille, warm tuna & leek oat crumble


Next was Crisp Abalone, Creamy Barley and Fresh Basil supplied and introduced by Stephane Griesbach of Gannet Fishmongers.

© Connemara Smokehouse Limited

Creamy barley of poached abalone & basil, deep fried abalone in basil tempura

James McGeough of Connemara Fine Foods introduced Organic Connemara Lamb, Black Olives, Butter Beans and Caramelised shallots

© Connemara Smokehouse Limited

Braised lamb on creamed butter bean & olive, slow roasted and char grilled silverside on chunky chip, roasted topside on fondant potato with caramelized shallot, olive crusted rack on crushed potato & green bean

Finally, desserts with Paul’s Goat Cheese, Granny Smith Apple and Lemon Balm introduced by Paul Keane of Bluebell Falls Goats Cheese

© Connemara Smokehouse Limited

Chilled goats cheese cake with apple glaze, warm goats cheese souffle with apple sorbet centre,           sweet goats cheese & lemon balm crème brulle with crisp apple, lemon balm scented white chocolate & goats cheese mousse

After this fine culinary feast, General Manager Damien O’Riordan introduced the restaurant team from behind the scenes, 10 young,talented and eager chefs led by Stefan and Reggie. The whole waiting team make you feel right at home from the moment you arrive and the restaurant manager, Orla Colleran can only be described as excellent, everywhere she should be, she is and seems to be everywhere else too.  The whole team throughout the hotel just gel together in seamless perfection and demonstrate their hard work and dedication to excellence.

© Connemara Smokehouse Limited

 The G Team

The G Hotel gastronomic getaway, Thursday March 3 and Friday March 4, is a fantastic excuse for foodies to sample an epicurean menu in the award-winning restaurant Matz at the G, as well as getting a professional cookery lesson and some of the finest local producers will be on hand to introduce their products.  Some will also be available to chat after the meal on Thursday about any questions people may want to ask about their respective trades. One such producer is husband and wife team Graham and Saoirse Roberts of The Connemara Smokehouse who are avid foodies and have enormous pride and obvious passion for their work. They will be delighted to talk with like minded people and explain what goes into everything they do.  The two-night package starts at €225 per person sharing for the weekend.

Connemara Smokehouse

February 10th, 2011

Lifestyle » Food & Wine

Galway Advertiser by Willie Shaw, February 10, 2011.

Graham Roberts

All the supermarkets and even our convenience shops have stocks of smoked salmon, many of which are labeled in such a way to make it difficult to separate the good from the great and the good from the not so good.

Some of the wording is difficult to understand at first glance; ‘Irish Smoked Salmon’, may in fact mean that the salmon came from God knows where, but was “smoked in Ireland”. ‘Smoked Irish Salmon’ may mean that the salmon is Irish but was smoked in God knows where.

I have been sampling lots of different smoked salmon over the past few months and have to say that most have been disappointing. Needless to say there are exceptions and during a visit to Ashford Castle I asked where it sourced its smoked salmon and the answer from a very enthuastic Stefan Matz, the executive head chef was the Connemara Smokehouse in Ballyconneely. I have always been impressed with the smoked salmon in Ashford as it is consistently excellent.

I had met Graham Roberts, the owner of Connemara Smokehouse, at food demonstrations and knew he was a serious and very energetic producer. I had also seen that he was an official ‘food hero’ as appointed by Rick Stein and has now been bestowed with the title of ‘super hero’, The title of super hero is for those whom Rick deems to be the best of the best.

To get to the Connemara Smokehouse is quite a trip but is worth it, if only to experience the unbridled enthusiasm of Roberts. Drive out to Ballyconneely, (you should allow one hour 30 minutes ) then a little further out to the most beautiful place one could possibly work and live – Aillebrack, next stop is Boston. I would recommend it as a trip for any food lover and even better if you have visitors staying with you and are wondering where to take them in Connemara to make it interesting. If it is a fine day be sure and bring some brown bread so that you can make a picnic with whatever you buy in the smokehouse as the sandy beach next door is simply to die for. On your way home call into James McGeogh the famous artisan butcher in Oughterard for another dose of passion and try some of his fantastic products.

The Connemara Smokehouse always welcomes any visitor and you can see what is happening on the day. However during June, July, and August there is a proper full demo of the process every Wednesday from 3pm.

One of the reasons I like visiting a place like this is that you can buy the freshest of the fresh produce there and then, plus there is usually a sample to be tasted. So why is it so good? First, of all it is the raw material; wild salmon, organic salmon, and farmed salmon (five per cent of production). The wild salmon speaks for itself but because of its scarcity is becoming very expensive and hard to get although they always have some in stock. The organic salmon is what Graham Roberts focuses on. It all comes from a place off Clare Island where the fish are farmed in the open sea with a stocking density of two fish per ton of water. The fish are fed a natural diet of herring, mackerel and plankton. The waters they live in are classed by the E.U. as A1 i.e. the best that there is. There is a constant flow of water through the pens at a rate of two knots with lots of tidal water exchanges. This means that the need for dousing the fish pens with chemicals is kept to a minimum. The Clare Island salmon are certified as organic in Germany, France, Switzerland and Ireland and audited annually by officials from these countries. The fish are all hand filleted and the fatty bits are cut away. This is a particular bug bearer of mine; it is very annoying that one has to cut away up to 20 per cent of smoked salmon to get rid of those brown inedible edges. The Connemara Smokehouse salmon that you buy is all edible. The raw fish fillets are then salted for eight to 10 hours. The salmon is washed and put into the cold room for the night to draw the water off. Some salmon producers use liquid brine that is injected into the fish, sometimes with the addition of weight enhancers, thus adding to the weight we are paying for.

The fish is smoked with beech wood for eight to 10 hours. There is no timer on the smoking ovens as Roberts makes a point of judging when everything is ready by look and feel. If this has to be emptied at 3am then Graham and his family do it. He has a slicing machine but as it takes three hours to clean down he prefers hand slicing. The picture shows the salmon that Roberts sliced with each piece still attached to the skin, the next step is to run the knife under these slices and hey presto a salmon ready for vacuum packing.

There are several products available including line caught tuna and this is one of my favorites, it is sweet and filing and it is fabulous. The gravadlax comes with a sachet of dill sauce and would be my preference over smoked salmon. He also smokes haddock, kippers and mackerel. What I really like is the care and attention to every little detail. The whole place is a clean as physically possible. Robert’s products are certainly more expensive than some on the supermarket shelves, but hey what price a super hero? Everything can be ordered on line at www.smokehouse.ie

The Connemara Smokehouse is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm, it closes for lunch between 1pm and 2pm, and is open all year around apart from bank holidays. Telephone: 095 23739 / email info@smokehouse.ie

Survival Solutions – Gastronomic Getaways

February 8th, 2011

Ireland’s Guide

Connemara Abalone - Meet the producers

by Gerogina Campbell

One of an occasional series on diversification and added value in Irish hospitality – finding new ways for hotels and restaurants to thrive also brings good news for customers. All over Ireland, hotels have been taking an especially hard hit during the current economic crisis.
Drastically reduced prices quickly became the norm but, while this initially seemed like great news for consumers, it became clear that it would quickly become unsustainable.But the canny ones – either taking out insurance ahead of the gathering storm clouds, or simply seeing opportunities not obvious to others – diversifed to make their offering more attractive to guests, and concentrate on giving added value rather than simply slashing prices.

Something interesting is happening at various unrelated locations all over Ireland: inspired by their customers’Graham Roberts - Connemara Smokehouse growing interest in local produce, and recognising the all-round value of supporting local producers and suppliers, some hotels have begun to offer ‘producer dinners’ which showcase the specialities of the area and may even have producers in attendance to introduce their products personally.

Some prestigious establishments have been involved in this new movement. At Knockranny House Hotel in Westport, Co Mayo, for example, acclaimed chef Seamus Commons recently created a Pig Weekend tasting menu for invited guests, that included some of the area’s most famous products, notably Kelly’s of Newport black puddings and sausages, and free range pork from Roy Eastman’s 12 acre farm at Kiltimagh – but what made it unusual was that the guests had been taken to visit the producers during the day.

Gannet Fishmongers Galway

Other hotels thinking along similar lines include the stylish g hotel in Galway city, the Dylan in Dublin, and Ashford Castle – which is hosting a Seafood Appreciation event in March, with a visit to an oyster farm and a trip on a lobster fishing boat among the promised treats.Although initially started as promotional press occasions, these producer-led events are beginning to develop a more accessible theme.

Regis Herviaux & Stefan Matz

At Galway’s five star g hotel, for example, General Manager Damien O’Riordan, Executive Chef Stefan Matz and Head Chef Regis Herviaux recently welcomed guests to a press event which featured Connemara Smokehouse smoked tuna, Connemara Abalone (deep fried and served with a divine barley and basil ‘risotto’), McGeough’s of Oughterard organic Connemara lamb done three ways, and a delicious Bluebell Falls (Co Clare) goats cheese and apple dessert.Each course was introduced by the producer – and the next day, together with Damien, Stefan and Regis, guests visited Galway Market and then went on tour around Connemara to see their operations in action.

The g hotel aims to source all of its main ingredients from within an hour’s drive of the hotel. “…Having spent 20 years working with local food producers and sourcing the finest artisan produce, we are thrilled to work with a range of leading suppliers,” says Stefan Matz. “The local sourcing of produce ensures each dish at the g boasts a real taste of Galway, and indeed of the West of Ireland.”

Salmon SlicingAs a development from their successful ‘trial run’, and at a very reasonable €225 per person sharing, the g hotel is offering guests an opportunity to meet some of their artisan suppliers – and hone their kitchen skills too – at a similar gastronomic getaway on Thursday and Friday 3rd & 4th March 2011.

Their two-night “g is for gourmet” break, hosted by Stefan Matz and Regis Herviaux, includes a 5-course wine dinner at ‘Matz at the g’ restaurant, professional cookery tuition and a guided tour of selected suppliers.

Linking guests desire for an exciting and authentic food experience with the local economy and marketing it creatively makes commercial sense, and is a highly satisfying endeavour for all concerned.

Could this be the beginning of a new and mutually rewarding trend?

STYLE AND SUBSTANCE

February 5th, 2011

The Irish Times Saturday 5th Feb 2011

FOOD FILE | Marie-Claire Digby talks about food

The G hotel in Galway, with its Philip Treacy designed interiors, isn’t just a stylish place to stay, it is also a earning a reputation as gourmet destination. Regis Herviaux, head chef, and Stefan Matz (below), who is executive chef here and at sister hotel Ashford Castle, aim to source much of the restaurant’s produce from within an hour’s drive. Luckily for them Galway and Connemara produce a rich variety of fish, shellfish, meat, cheese and vegetables. A recent gala dinner they staged featured shellfish from Stephane Griesbach’s Gannet Fishmongers which has a stall at the Galway food market, smoked tuna from the Roberts family’s Connemara Smokehouse in Ballyconneely, abalone farmed by Cindy O’Brien in Rossaveel, Connemara hill lamb and wonderful air-dried meats from artisan butcher James McGeough, and Bluebell Falls goats’ cheese made by Paul Keane in Co Clare.

The line-caught tuna, which was then smoked, was served three ways: as a chilled gateau with pears , in a tuna and leek crumble, and as a crisp tuile on a creamy cabbage soup. Frank Kinneen of The Vineyard wine shop in Quay Street supplied wine pairings, and a smokey Staete Landt New Zealand Pinot Noir 2006 made an outstanding partner to the tuna. The abalone came deep-fried as a crispy tempura with basil and poached with creamy barley, risotto-style. The Connemara lamb was served four ways – braised, chargrilled, roasted and as an olive-crusted rack. The kitchen team also took a multi-faceted approach to show the versatility of Paul Keane’s Bluebell Falls goats’ cheese, serving it as a cheesecake and a soufflé as well as in a crème brûlée and a chocolate mousse.

You can meet some of these dedicated artisan suppliers and pick up some cooking tips in the kitchens at the G hotel at a two-night “g is for gourmet” event on Thursday and Friday, March 3rd and 4th. It costs from from €225 per person sharing, to include a five-course dinner with wine pairings, two nights’ B&B, a cooking class and a guided tour of some the region’s food producers.