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A taste of Galway, from oyster ice cream to peaty poitín

The capital of Connacht county is enjoying a culinary revolution, aided by produce from the mountainous region of Connemara.

Published 13 Feb 2022, 06:00 GMT, Updated 15 Feb 2022, 09:03 GMT
The town of Clifden, in Connemara.

The town of Clifden, in Connemara.
 

Photograph by Getty

The restaurant: Aniar

The late-summer sun is sinking over Galway’s Westend and spirits are high among those swelling the bars on the banks of the River Corrib. I’m equally excited to be en route to Aniar, a restaurant that’s helped redefine the city’s food scene since it launched a decade ago — the Michelin star it’s held since 2013 making it one of Galway’s most sought-after reservations. Here, inside a sleek dining room lined with jars of pickled elderflower, wild garlic and alexanders, I get to grips with a tasting menu that showcases ingredients from Ireland’s west coast.

“You have a great mix here between sea and land,” says co-owner and head chef Jp McMahon the next morning. “There’s Connemara on one side and east Galway on the other, where you have great dairy.” Accompanied by his collie-setter cross, Sam, Jp has joined me for coffee across the road at Tartare — the second of three Galway restaurants he co-owns — where he walks me through some of last night’s star dishes. “Everyone knows how good our lamb or cod is here. Our focus is how we take the flavour of the landscape — the seaweeds, sea herbs and foraged wild foods — and use that as a seasoning. Fermenting and pickling also give us a really interesting larder to play with all year.” 

It’s an impressive affair, with the region’s produce elevated using a range of New Nordic and Japanese techniques across 18 courses, each executed with finesse. Familiar staples are given an Aniar spin, arriving at diners’ tables adorned with anything from sea aster and pickled redcurrants to Irish truffle. There’s an umami-rich seaweed broth; lamb fat-brushed potato bread, accompanied by a few verses from Irish poet Brendan Kennelly (Seamus Heaney partners a homemade sloe gin later on); and seared Connemara duck with ceps. A particularly memorable oyster ice cream, which Jp admits can “mess with your mind”, comes served in its shell with a sprinkle of milled sea lettuce, with neighbouring diners casting glances to gauge my reaction as this salty, creamy custard temporarily catches me off-guard. 

Later, I’m treated to a beautiful honey pannacotta infused with marzipanny notes of meadowsweet, a plant once commonly used for pain relief. “There’s a disconnect in terms of ingredients that we would’ve commonly used centuries ago when there were no shops,” says Jp. “I talk to generations of foragers who tell me that, when supermarkets opened here in the 1960s, foraging was stigmatised as it meant you were poor. Now there’s been a welcome reversal — I feel it’s important to engage with your environment and know which bits you can and can’t eat.”

It’s certainly working, with Jp a central player in Galway’s growing food movement. His annual Food on the Edge symposium brings the world’s leading chefs to the city for a series of talks and events each autumn — and it’s an event that’s seen Galway become part of a global conversation. “People often come here thinking it’s all potatoes, lamb stew or Guinness,” Jp says, “but I hope that when they’re in Aniar, whether Irish or American, that they go away with a different perception of Irish food.” 

Meadowsweet ice cream with brown butter crumb and cornflowers, Aniar.

Photograph by Aniar

The city walk: Galway Food Tours

“There’s just something about this city,” says Gosia, my companion from Galway Food Tours, “It’s bohemian, it’s villagey and there’s both a very international feel and a very Irish feel — it’s this mix that makes Galway so magical.”  

We meet on Shop Street, outside McCambridge’s of Galway, the family-run restaurant and deli that stocks a range of cooked hams, smoked fish and whiskies. After bringing me up to speed on the City of the Tribes’ buoyant indie food scene, we drop into Little Lane Coffee Company for a full-bodied filter and pick up freshly baked cinnamon buns from sourdough specialist Marmalade Bakery — all of which effectively illustrates her point. 

We spend the morning crisscrossing the Latin Quarter’s medieval streets before pausing for crab claws and craft ale outside Tigh Neachtain, a charismatic boozer that’s been a meeting point for Galwegians for centuries. Several stops later, we arrive at Galway’s Saturday market, which sprawls in all directions from St Nicholas Church and brings together the region’s farmers, fishmongers and craft producers. “I love the fact that here in Galway you can find a really contemporary take on Irish food, as well as a really savage chowder,” says Gosia as we finish up with oysters from Galway Bay and contemplate the queue at New Yorker Danny Rosen’s Boychik Doughnuts stand. 

It’s been an eventful day, but I’m not yet done exploring. Later that evening, I pay a visit to Sheridans Cheesemongers, which doubles as a biodynamic-focused wine bar after dark. The Italian manager, Elena, pours me a peppery glass of Catalonian red and explains how western Ireland’s high rainfall and lush pasture, coupled with a renewed passion for the craft of cheesemaking, have resulted in Irish cheeses to rival those anywhere in the world. “We’re seeing a real resurgence in cheesemaking,” she says as I sample a cheeseboard that includes Galway’s own ash-dusted Cnoc Dubh goat’s cheese, savoury gubbeen from County Cork and the creamy, well-rounded Crozier Blue from Tipperary. “There are lots of new producers exploring traditional techniques,” says Elena. “These guys are like rock stars now.”   

Tigh Neachtain pub in Galway’s Latin Quarter.

Photograph by Alamy

The distillery: Micil Distillery

Glance at a map of Connemara, and between the peaks you’ll see a landscape dappled by lakes, inlets and vast blanket bogs. These swathes of peatland create a unique habitat for vegetation, including the native botanicals that Pádraic Ó Griallais puts to good use at the Micil Distillery. Occupying the back room of Galway’s Oslo Bar, his nascent enterprise, which sees him follow in the footsteps of his great-great-grandfather, is making waves with its focus on poitín — the storied Irish spirit that was illegal for centuries.

Within seconds of my arrival, Pádraic pours me a peaty, spicy measure of ‘heritage edition’ poitín and explains its origins. “Going back a bit, monks brought acquavite to Ireland, which they made here using malted barley and bogbean,” he says, passing me a sprig of the peat-loving aquatic flower that’s a key part of his distillation process. In Gaelic, this spirit was known as ‘uisce beatha’, with the word ‘uisce’ being later anglicised as ‘whiskey’ as the spirit evolved. But when domestic distilling was outlawed in 1760 and the British Crown taxed whiskey production, poitín emerged as its illicit, home-brewed cousin, its fiery potency securing its place in Irish folklore. 

Happily for Ó Griallais, poitín was legalised in 1997. Subsequent EU measures introduced stricter standards to curb rogue distillers who were cutting corners during production and using cheaper ingredients, harming poitín’s reputation in the late 20th century. “We’ve had to educate a lot of people that it’s no longer illegal and not made from potatoes,” he says, handing me a poitín-enhanced take on the moscow mule. “Public perception is improving, helped by some of our best bartenders adding it to their menus — such as at Dublin’s Bar 1661, which is Ireland’s first poitín bar.” 

Micil Distillery also produces gin made with heather and bog myrtle and is soon to release its first whiskey. But it’s main passion is undoubtedly poitín, and if anyone can overhaul the spirit’s ‘moonshine’ reputation, and restore its role in Irish celebrations, it’s Ó Griallais.

Sunrise over the Twelve Bens, Connemara.

Photograph by AWL

The seafood hotspot: The Sea Hare

There’s a saying in this part of Ireland that if you don’t like the Irish weather, just wait an hour. It proves sage advice on a dramatic drive to Connemara. We start with slate-grey skies in Galway, but as I drive along the coast past the villages of Barna and Spiddal, shards of sunlight pierce the gloom, turning Galway Bay turquoise and illuminating the Aran Islands in the distance. The Twelve Bens mountains are the backdrop as I continue past lochs and down lanes flanked by vivid montbretia before reaching Cleggan, on Connemara’s northwestern extent, now bathed in sunshine.

The region’s busiest fishing port a century ago, Cleggan has become a popular escape for city dwellers, as well as a jumping-off point for trips to Inishbofin island. My visit coincides with the ‘Mussels and Pints’ 

Sunday lunch at The Sea Hare, a pop-up restaurant launched in 2019. With views over Cleggan Bay, where most of the menu is landed, what better place to sample Connemara’s legendary seafood. 

“We do hyperlocal food here,” says co-founder Sinead Foyle, introducing me to Abel, a French fisherman who delivered the pollock used in her sushi rolls, and organic farmer Louis, whose vegetables bring vibrancy to the mezze plates. “That wasn’t intentional, but we have such high-quality produce here,” Sinead adds. “Our approach is simple: we put four or five items on the board each day, all of which showcase what we’ve got on our doorstep.”

As Sinead flits between tables, chatting with locals and brokering deals with holidaymakers for fresh crab, staff serve pints of Guinness alongside mussels from the nearby Killary Fjord. Mine are steeped in a chorizo and tomato broth and accompanied by feckinaccia — a soda bread-focaccia hybrid made with buttermilk that’s perfect for mopping up the remnants. 

With local lobster the special on Saturdays and The Sea Hare hosting secret suppers in stunning settings, there are plenty of reasons to return — a message seemingly reaching all corners of Ireland. “Last year, we had the president and various ministers in,” says Sinead. “Although as long as they’re enjoying the food and the vibe is good, I don’t care who’s here.” 

Two more County Galway favourites


Seaweed: Once a local staple, the region’s vitamin-rich kelps, wracks and dulses are back, cropping up on restaurant menus as seasoning and in stocks and salads. Connemara-based Mungo Murphy’s Seaweed Co offers foraging walks that showcase these sea vegetables, which are then plated up with shellfish alongside stunning sea views. 

Food trucks: Connemara’s food truck scene is thriving. Sitting amid the mountains on Kylemore Lough, Dooncastle Oysters’ van dishes up bivalves from acclaimed oysterman John Ward. For more epic views, plus great coffee, pastries and local mussels, head to the Misunderstood Heron, overlooking Killary Fjord.

Seafood and seaweed chowder by Jp McMahon.

Photograph by Ginger and Sage

RECIPE

Jp McMahon's seafood and seaweed chowder

Serves: 4    Takes: 1 hr 25 mins 

INGREDIENTS
2 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
250ml dry cider 
25g dried kelp or kombu
3 cloves garlic, peeled
2 bay leaves
a few sprigs of thyme
500g mussels, scrubbed clean
500g clams, scrubbed clean

For the chowder
15g butter
1 onion, finely chopped
600g potatoes, cubed
2 leeks, diced
250ml double cream
300g pollock fillet, skinned, boned and cut into small chunks

To serve
chopped dill
finely milled nori

METHOD
To make the stock, heat the oil in a large pan set over a medium heat. Add the onion, carrot and celery and sauté for 10 mins until starting to caramelise. Pour over the cider and cook for a couple of mins. Pour in 1 litre water and add the seaweed, garlic, bay leaves and thyme. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 40 mins. 

Cook the mussels and clams in the stock for 3-5 mins until they open. Remove from the stock and place in a suitable container, discarding any that haven’t opened. Once cool enough to handle, pick the meat from the shells and discard the shells. Strain the stock through a fine sieve.

To make the chowder, melt half the butter in a large saucepan set over a medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for 3-4 mins until translucent. Add the potatoes and leeks and stir. Add the seaweed stock and season to taste. Bring to the boil, then simmer for around 15 mins until the vegetables are tender. Pour in the double cream and warm through. Add the pollock and cook for 2 mins. Finally, tip in the mussel and clam meat and remove the pan from the heat. Allow to stand for 5 mins. 

To serve, fold the dill through the chowder, then divide between four warmed bowls. Garnish with a sprinkle of milled nori.

Essentials


Ryanair and Aer Lingus have regular flights to Shannon, which is just over an hour from Galway. Car hire is recommended to access the region’s beautiful, remote beaches and mountains. Stay at The House Hotel in Galway’s lively Latin Quarter (from £90) or, for a romantic Connemara retreat, try The Quay House in the market town of Clifden (from £146).  

Published in Issue 14 (winter 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food (UK)

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