Galway: The beating heart of Ireland's food scene

Drawing from a wild western larder, Galway is the beating heart of Ireland's culinary scene. How did a small Irish city come so far so fast?

By Pól Ó Conghaile
Published 28 Apr 2018, 09:00 BST

The Twelve Hotel's manager and sommelier pauses for a second, wondering if he's tempting fate. He pauses, then doubles down.

"We want our Michelin star," says Fergus O'Halloran.

The Twelve Hotel's manager and sommelier pauses for a second, wondering if he's tempting fate. He pauses, then doubles down.

"Yep, I'm gonna put that out there. I'm saying it this year."

The Twelve's lounges and gastro-bar, with their pizzeria, bakery and cosy couches, recall living rooms in Bearna, a Connemara fishing village long since gobbled up by suburban Galway. After our chat, I finish off my pint of Stout — a chocolatey brew created by the hotel and the local Spiddal River Brewery — and Fergus leads me upstairs to his star in the making: West Restaurant. On the way, we pass framed photos of local suppliers with melodic monikers: Marty's Mussels, Solaris Tea and The Friendly Farmer. My first bite is a crispy snack of kale sprouts topped with a shard of McGeough's air-dried lamb.

It's the tasting menu, and the local riffs keep coming. A langoustine plucked from the Atlantic off the Aran Islands to accompany sea beets and crab cannelloni; plummy duck breast with seasonal sloe jelly. At one point, chef Martin O'Donnell stops by to talk seaweed — his grandparents harvested it to sell at Galway Market, and he now forages for it. Fergus chooses the wines; Martin plates up the landscape — a compendium of chilly seas, green fields and clear, cold lakes and rivers. Each mouthful feels like a new page in a story.

"To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world," Salmon Rushdie writes in Midnight's Children. It's a line that reverberates on this visit to Galway — a coastal city that's home to just 80,000-odd people but one that's long driven the nation's foodie revolution.

How did it come so far, so fast? Growing up in the nearby market town of Ballinasloe, there were regular visits to Galway; browsing on Shop Street, elbowing through the market near St Nicholas' Church, stopping for buns and cakes. Galway was a college town with busker-busy medieval streets; a summer festival hub where you could rock up to have the craic, or stroll the Long Walk — made famous in the Steve Earle song Galway Girl.

It still is all those things. But it's no longer quite the drinking town it once was. Back then, the very notion of their city being a gourmet hotspot would've had the locals choking on their Guinness (although they may well have enjoyed an oyster first).

Today, every time I come back, I'm armed with a list of new restaurants, pubs and cafes to try. Galway and the West of Ireland are a European Region of Gastronomy 2018. As part of this, there are food festivals, food tours and two Michelin-starred restaurants (Loam and Aniar). There's a sense of liberation, of fresh life breathed into old food skills and local ingredients, of a community buying in — from culinary students at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology to crowds queuing for brunch at Dela Restaurant, Kai Cafe and Restaurant and McCambridge's. To understand the city, you need to swallow the West, and that's exactly what I plan to do.

Dela Restaurant. Image: Pól Ó Conghaile
Dela Restaurant. Image: Pól Ó Conghaile

At Handsome Burger, based at the Caribou craft beer bar in Woodquay, Rory McCormack talks me through the evolution of his eponymous burger. He and business partner Cathal O'Connor honed the recipe at his mum's kitchen table, settling on a mix of chuck and short rib from Brady's Butchers, a third-generation business in Athenry, before taking a mobile grill to local markets. Today, the burger is a permanent fixture at Caribou, where I bite into its pinkish heart, chomping through a soft brioche bun, punchy pickles and gooey cheddar. A shot of juice squirts through my teeth and trickles down my thumb. I could tell you the percentage of fat, but I'd have to kill you.

"It's all about the juice," Rory smiles. Sitting with us is Sheena Dignam, who runs her Galway Food Tours in the West End and Latin Quarter. Joining one, I taste everything from courgette-and-lime cake at Cupán Tae to market oysters with buttermilk. Sheena grew up in France's Loire Valley, and believes a boom in overseas travel by the Irish has been pivotal to the development of their food scene. "When I go home to France, it feels stale," she says. "It doesn't have the same energy."

My next stop is Aniar, a tiny, 24-seater restaurant on Lower Dominick Street. Its chef de partie, Killian Crowley, has just been named San Pellegrino's Young Chef of the Year for the UK & Ireland. I find him prepping for tasting menus named after the Aran Islands (Inis Mór, Inis Oírr and Inis Meaín). Freshly baked breads cool beneath a window bearing a slogan laying out the restaurant's philosophy: 'Contemporary Irish dining inspired by the West of Ireland'. It could be a manifesto for the city.

"When I was growing up, we'd have floured whiting in a frying pan and it was absolutely disgusting and you'd never want to eat fish!" laughs Aniar's chef-patron JP McMahon. But Ireland is waking up to the pristine produce under its nose. "We have the best ingredients," he adds. "We just need to put the pieces together and present them in the best possible way. And that's often the simplest way."

Galway oysters. Image: Tourism Ireland
Galway oysters. Image: Tourism Ireland

Small town, big ideas
If you want an insight into JP, look at his tattoo-splattered arms. One of them is a butcher's diagram of a pig, depicting the various cuts of pork. Together with his wife and business partner, Drigín Gaffey, JP has been hugely influential in Galway's foodie evolution — their culinary empire includes Cava Bodega, an Irish tapas bar (think Connemara mountain lamb with lentils and harissa, or Cork chorizo with local potatoes and wine); and recently opened Tartare Cafe + Wine Bar. JP also set up Food on the Edge, an annual two-day symposium in the city that's attracted superstar chefs like Virgilio Martínez, Angela Hartnett and Magnus Nilsson. But it's at Aniar where he takes his artisan, organic and ethical approach to the nth degree — to the point of eschewing imported pepper and lemon.

"The big goal for me is to change Irish food culture," he proclaims.

There's a small-town feel to the way everybody seems to know, or has worked with, everybody else. But Galway is no artisan utopia (stepping off the train, the first cafe I see is a Starbucks). Nonetheless, it feels intimate and artsy, rather than commercial or clinically hipster. Its best food businesses seem be about philosophies, not bottom lines. "Restaurants are willing to take chances," JP tells me. "And their customers are willing to go with them."

Typifying the mix of country charm and cosmopolitanism is McCambridge's, a third-generation deli, food emporium and restaurant on Shop Street. Here, I find shelves crammed with everything from Galway Gin and Bridie Murphy's brown soda bread to Killeen goat's cheese and stoneground goodies from Hazel Mountain Chocolate.

"The chefs take inspiration from the shelves," general manager Natalie McCambridge tells me, pointing to the bustling restaurant, a first-floor space that used to be the family's living room. The chefs aren't the only ones; like Galway, the shop is a hugely social space, from hobnobbing customers perusing hampers to school kids joshing as they queue for lunchtime ham rolls. The local riffs keep coming, all right.

"When I came here, I swear to God I thought the 1960s had never left," says Ali Jalilvand, greeting me at Hooked, a funky seafood restaurant on Henry Street he runs with his daughter, Nuisin. Ali grew up in Iran, left during the Iranian Revolution, and ended up selling fish in Bearna. He proudly shows off his crammed fish counter before we tuck into a feast of monkfish cheeks with chorizo, and a tuna poke bowl. "Before the crash, nearly every restaurant was fine dining, three-course meals," he muses. "Now they're a home from home. That's good, because I think Galway people are pretty easygoing anyway.

"You'd have to have no heart not to fall for the place."

What next?
Galway City is a 2.5-hour drive from Dublin Airport, and an hour from Shannon Airport (both are widely served by Aer Lingus, British Airways and Ryanair, among other airlines). Stena Line and Irish Ferries sail between Holyhead and Dublin.

The Twelve Hotel offers rooms from €99 (£87), B&B.


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