A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Food and drink, and not necessarily in that order, have long been two very particular reasons for visiting Ireland. And whichever of these two you may prefer, the ensuing craic, the Gaelic expression for ‘fun’, is an added and inevitable bonus. A weekend around East Cork left me with the strong impression that there are now even more distinctive reasons to relish Irish hospitality.
Part of this is naturally connected to returning economic confidence as restaurants the world over are a barometer of the economy in general. But there is also, at long last, the realisation among the Irish themselves that they need to lay down the necessary rules to protect what is so typically Irish.
The Irish Food Standard Authority has just announced tightened protection for four words that have hitherto had the capacity to confuse any restaurant goer. These are farmhouse, artisanal, traditional and natural. These adjectives will from now on be subject to much more scrupulous regulation: artisanal, a common and enticing adjective on so many menus, can now be used to refer only to an ingredient that has been made not just in one place but also in one that employs fewer than 10 individuals.
This important delineation is taking place against a rapidly expanding number of new producers, with over 20 new distilleries due to open over the coming year, as well as a more easily navigable background in which to enjoy them.
It is difficult to think of a single initiative that has been as welcomed by restaurateurs, chefs and travellers alike as the inspired decision of Fáilte Ireland, the National Tourism Development Authority, to christen the 2,500 km route along Ireland’s rugged west coast from Donegal to Cork as the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’.
Birgitta Curtin, who, alongside her husband Peter, runs the Burren Smokehouse in the midst of this atmospheric region, could not hide her enthusiasm for this initiative when I met up with her. 'It has been fantastic for our region with visitors to our smokehouse up by over 20% in the past two years', she enthused. She was in Cork shortly after the wild-salmon season had got under way en route to collect her allocation of four increasingly rare wild salmon that had just been caught by drift-net fishermen in the waters around Cork harbour. One of these was to be smoked and given to HRH Prince Charles on his royal visit shortly afterwards.
Visiting this lush countryside alongside April Bloomfield, the English chef who has now made such a name for herself at the Spotted Pig and the John Dory in New York as well as at Tosca in San Francisco, it was easy to spot what so excited her professionally. The fields are full of rich feed for the cattle, an increasing concern for chefs in drought-plagued California, as well as maize, covered in plastic, so that the fields look more like lakes, as well as barley, that essential ingredient in Irish whiskey. But what really excited Bloomfield had been the taste and richness of Irish butter, the ingredient that took her back to her childhood baking cakes at home in Birmingham.
It therefore seemed only fitting to head back to Midleton, a 40-minute drive, south of Cork, to eat at Sage restaurant. Here Kevin Aherne has decided to impose on his kitchen what may seem to be an arduous restriction in today’s global economy but is one that chefs once had no option but to live with: Aherne tries to source everything on his menu from within a 12-mile radius of his kitchen.
Although there are obvious exceptions such as the wine and the dry goods in particular, by choosing Midleton as his epicentre Aherne has given himself a fighting chance of success. I had been to its widely admired Saturday market once before and been most impressed by all that I had enjoyed there: the bread from Arbutus Bakery with Declan Ryan giving away cups of his 18-year-old sourdough starter on the basis that it is a gift from Nature; the butter and the cheeses; the meat; the fish as well as the banter. And whenever Aherne’s name came up in conversation, it was greeted with obvious pride by those who see him, and his wife Reidin, who when not in the restaurant is a primary school teacher, as ‘local heroes’.
The list of all those his kitchen relies upon is proudly proclaimed on a list on every table inside the light-panelled dining room. There are 14 suppliers in all, ranging from Richard Guerin, their fish supplier at Ballycotton, to the team effort put in by Aherne’s kitchen brigade that is credited with collecting all the foraged food.
This discipline encourages Aherne to write an enticing range of first courses and to deliver the first courses as distinctively. For an extra €5 per person there is the option of a 12 Mile sharing plate on which the six courses come with clearly defined demarcation lines so that each customer can enjoy some moist smoked salmon, from their own smoker located less than 12 metres from the front door; their home-made black pudding with spinach; a salad of apples, beets and charred rhubarb; and thick slices of a chicken and smoked pork rib terrine.
The main courses are less exciting, coming after the novel presentation of the first courses and including, in each instance, one too many ingredients. The fillet of hake was very good but did not need everything that had been put alongside it, the confit potatoes, the onions, the langoustines and the chicken jus. It is a risk, inherent in restaurants in the countryside, of covering the plate that Aherne should resist. But shortly after 9 pm, that other Irish ingredient, craic, has filled the room, with the noise level rising perceptibly, helped by some excellent desserts including one that incorporates Wilkie’s excellent organic chocolate, made by Shana Wilkie, most unexpectedly right in the heart of Midleton.
Sage Restaurant The Courtyard, 8 Main Street, Midleton, Co Cork; tel +353 (0)21 4639682