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Sláinte!

Food and Travel’s Anthea Rowan take us on culinary journey to visit a few of the Emerald Isle’s latest Michelin-starred eateries and more

Sunburn is just about the last thing you expect in Ireland. Guinness – yes. Black pudding – sure. A battle to understand what people are saying – probably. And you know for certain that you will get rain, But sunburn? No way. Yet that’s exactly what we got. For the whole week in mid­September that we spent on the Emerald Isle, the skies were mostly a clear cerulean blue and the temperatures surprisingly high. No “soft Irish days”, then, the typically cheerful Irish view of what amount to plain old wet days, just blazing near­Mediterranean climes. When we got home, I showed a friend a photograph. “Guess where?” I asked. “Mauritius,” he offered. “Nope.” “France?” “Wrong again.” “OK. Italy then?” “Noooo.” “Oh, alright then, I give up.”

We arrived in Shannon in County Clare on the west coast of Ireland one blazing Friday afternoon and collected our hire car. For me to drive. Because my husband had forgotten his driver’s licence. How convenient, I glowered. He thought he was very clever; he thought he was the first man in the world to pull this trick – no licence and he couldn’t drive. No driving meant he could enjoy a few pints. The man at the car rental company, when I proffered my driver’s licence and assured him that yes, I would indeed be the only one driving, smiled knowingly. We hadn’t been on the road to Galway for more than 30 minutes when my husband decided it was time to stop at a pub. “It’s somewhere for us to meet up with your brother,” he offered, when he noticed that I was taking a rather dim view of his plans. The pub he chose, on the square in the small town of Gort, was raucous with post­market hilarity. We stepped in to be met with much warmth and laughter… and many questions.

The guide books will tell you that the Irish are friendly. The Irish will tell you that the Irish are nosy. Husband drank his pint of black and I primly sipped my tea. We were both relieved to see my brother, who has lived in Ireland for almost 30 years, step across the threshold to act as our interpreter. Thick Irish brogues can be difficult to understand, particularly when they’ve been thickened by an afternoon’s worth of Guinness. By which time my husband had erroneously swapped me for an ancient Land Rover with an old boy called Mick who lived in County Clare. Or perhaps not erroneously at all? Mick’s wife looked resigned to her fate. She must have witnessed many similar transactions over many other pints. And so to Galway. With me at the rental car’s wheel and my husband chortling to himself in the passenger seat. Galway is a beautiful city on the west coast of Ireland. It sits on a bay that concertinas the coast so that we found ourselves facing back towards County Clare, which we’d thought we’d left miles behind us.     

Known as the City of the Tribes, Galway is one of the fastest­growing and trendiest cities in Europe, offering excellent shopping and a university that is held in high regard. It has a young, buzzing character, and at the same time feels sedate and authentically historic. It’s the birthplace of the iconic Irish Claddagh ring (two hands holding a heart, signifying love and friendship) and is sliced through by the mighty Corrib River, on its way to the sea. We admired the river from one of the city’s bridges. The colour of tea, the water foamed and gurgled and boiled as it raced on its way. “That’s a lot of water,” exclaimed my husband (recently arrived from drought stricken Africa). “What do you expect?” asked my brother, “It’s done nothing but rain for two months.” (Soft Irish Days not so soft after all?) But not now. Now the sun sizzled down on us and the Irish were out in force on the beaches, armed with buckets and spades, but not with enough sunscreen it would seem, judging by the pale skin being fried like bacon rashers.

Blue and white skies and seas, a beach the colour of butterscotch and bright pink skin. Where was the green, I wondered? Where were Ireland’s ubiquitous forty shades of green? My great-uncle Eddie, a Catholic priest (every family worth their Celtic salt has at least one!), talked about the “forty shades” incessantly. I was astonished to discover, given that I had not taken him to be much of a music fan, that the phrase was coined by the singer Johnny Cash. He’d visited Ireland in the early 60s and subsequently devoted a whole album to this country, including a rather sentimental track called Forty Shades of Green.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch at Moran’s on the Weir near Clarinbridge, where we ate oysters because we had conveniently timed our visit to coincide with the town’s annual Oyster Festival. The thatched cottage on the banks of the Dunkellin that is globally renowned Moran’s was once a bar ­ it opened in the 1700s ­ that slaked the thirst of farmers who came to gather peat and seaweed Situated close to Galway’s native oyster beds, the pub didn’t begin its now famous trade in seafood until the 1960s – ten years after the Galway oyster festival had been founded. Many people have waxed lyrical on Moran’s ­ today’s it’s the social media crew, but once it was poets: Seamus Heaney described “laying down a perfect memory” in the “cool of thatch and crockery” in his poem, Oysters. There were no greens to be seen in the bay that Indian summer afternoon: only hot­white and smoked blue. But they were in abundance as we – sorry, I – drove east from the coast all the way across to Dublin and down towards Wexford. There was the green, I thought: bright green, dark green, light green, olive green, bottle green, lime green, sage green, jade green and yes, inevitably, emerald green. All of it rendered all the more vivid by the continuing sunshine.

“Known as the City of the Tribes, Galway is one of the fastest- growing and trendiest cities in Europe”

From Wexford we travelled to County Waterford – famous for its wonderful crystal – where we took a sleepy detour down The Hook and over the ferry at Passage East to Arthurstown. We drove along the cliffs and watched the sea crash onto the rocks far beneath us. The water was steely grey, the sky less blue; fat clouds scudded along quickly, herded by a nippy, impatient wind. But the greens were just as green. Greener even. Inland we could see the spread of the Comeragh and Knockmealdon Mountains, their flanks draped in a shawl of forest green. At Dungarven we stopped for tea. (Tea for two. Not a pint for one, note). We watched, shivering, as a crowd of teenagers clowned around in the water with kayaks, one of them wearing the Irish colours. Orange, white and – predictably – green.

Our destination for the night is one of Ireland’s hippest hotels. The Cliff House Hotel is located in Ardmore, a delightful seaside village and a very cool place to stay. It has been left unspoiled by the Celtic Tiger that raced through Ireland during the country’s economic boom, often with insufficient regard for good architectural taste. Remodelled to the tune of over €20million, The Cliff House straddles a cliff, as the name suggests, and boasts unbelievable sea views: not for nothing was it named as one of the 10 Most Beautiful Clifftop Hotels in the World, second only to Monastero Santa Rosa on the Amalfi Coast in Italy. Our balcony offered a vertiginous perspective of the churning water below. And the bathroom was quite the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to bathe in. The bath was big enough to do lengths in, the glass shower presented not just the opportunity to shower à deux, but also to gawp at the vista of beach and cliff, sea and sky that sprawled beneath us. The complimentary toiletry products came in jumbo size and funky colours (acid orange, bright purple and – naturally – bright lime green).

The hotel’s restaurant, House, has (October 2017) again retained its Michelin star.

The beauty of a Michelin star, says the Cliff’s GM, Adrian Bartels, is that it puts you on the map, but the real challenge is that you can’t buy it – you have to earn it. And then ­ and this is the really hard part ­ retain it: a star can ­ rather coldly, be taken away so there’s no resting on your laurels once you’ve got one. The Cliff’s ‘House’ Restaurant was first awarded a star in 2010, two years after it opened its doors. The Cliff’s Head Chef, Martijn Kajuiter, once Head Chef in Restaurant De Kas in Amsterdam having worked in London for culinary luminaries such as Marco Pierre White and Pierre Koffman, agrees that “Having a Michelin Star means that we are doing something right and that the work we put in as a team gives the result we are associated with the crème de la crème of restaurants worldwide, something to be very proud of.”

The Cliff is part of a trio of hotels that showcase the best of Ireland: sea, city, country. Dublin’s Cliff Town House, with its edgy Urchin bar, enjoys everything the capital has to offer whilst The Cliff at Lyons in Kildare ­ the latest addition to the Cliff’s stables, acquired in 2016, is a gorgeous collection of historic creeper­clad buildings ­ including a mill and a dovecote ­ in beautiful grounds. We leave the Cliff reluctantly and head northwest towards the pretty little town of Adare, home to the ruins of Adare Castle, once some of the most impressive in Ireland. Building began as far back as the 12th century. This Anglo-Norman fortress was the seat of various aristocratic Irish families, mostly the Earls of Kildare, until it fell to English troops in 1578 after an 11­day siege. But the grandeur of Adare doesn’t lie in a pile of aged stones. In November the beautiful neo Gothic Adare Manor, set within almost 850 acres of stunning grounds and once home to the Earl of Dunraven, will reopen its doors after an 18 month hiatus and reported $120 million refit. The hotel stands tall, composed and graceful near the castle on the River Maigue, amidst spilling acreages of green and aside a world class golf course recently completely redesigned by world-renowned golf course architect, Tom Fazio.

The last leg of our journey took us back to where we’d started, Co Clare ­ home to Ireland’s latest Michelin starred restaurant. The first Irish pub to be awarded the accolade ­ the Wild Honey Inn in Lisdoonvarna ­ is run by chef Aidan McGrath ­ who once worked with the Cliff’s Adriaan Bartels as Head Chef at Sheen Falls Hotel in Kenmare. His star brings to 13 the total number of Michelin Stars in Ireland; lucky for some then. By the time we handed over the keys at the car rental company, we’d driven the breadth of Ireland. Twice. It’s a little place, so it’s easily done… especially if you have a partner who remembers their driver’s licence.

We were too broke to be seduced by duty-free prices into buying Real Irish Lace or Real Irish Leprechauns (how can a leprechaun possibly be real?), and our children were spared I LOVE IRELAND key rings, even if I do. Instead, we bought a couple of Cokes and a copy of the Irish Times and whilst husband flicked through the sports section in a bid to try to understand the complexities of hurling and Gaelic football, I watched an American lady powder her nose, admire her reflection and tip the ridiculous hat she was wearing at a jaunty angle, it sported the Irish colours: orange, white and green …  Obviously.

“The Cliff House Hotel is located in Ardmore, a delightful seaside village and a very cool place to stay.”

WORDS BY ANTHEA ROWAN

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