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.
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