Over 20 years ago, John and Sally McKenna bought a car for £100 and took to Ireland’s roads in search of good food. That old car gave up long ago, but the road trip never ended and the McKennas and their Bridgestone Guides to Irish Food are now bywords for gastronomic quality in Ireland.
As John tells it, sourcing Ireland’s foodie gems wasn’t as straightforward as he imagined. “There was no food community to speak of,” John says, “or at least they didn’t see themselves as one.” Bit by bit the couple gradually uncovered a network of food pioneers, all quietly working under the radar. “You’d talk to one and they’d say ‘do you know so and so’. One by one we followed this daisy chain…as it turns out, they all knew each other.”
These days, the food community in Ireland is thriving, but if you really want to delve into the Irish food scene and meet the people behind the produce just like John did all those years ago, try a food trail.
“A stunning introduction not only to Irish cuisine but to the city itself”: that’s how Pauline Frommer’s Ireland described the Dublin Tasting Trail from Fabulous Food Trails, just one of a number of companies forging ahead with a creative approach to the island's culinary scene.
“Again and again we find that our overseas visitors are astonished at the quality and availability of good Irish food,” says Eveleen Coyle who runs the Fabulous Food Trails in both Dublin and "culinary capital", Cork. “Many of them come with low or no expectations. On our walks, though, they are introduced to the people involved and the level of commitment and passion of those people blow them away. It’s always great to see the reaction and to see them change their opinion in the space of two and a half hours.”
In Belfast, you can join in the Belfast Bred Walking Tour, which was described by Sheila Dillon of BBC Radio 4 as “a revelation – a wonderful tour that will transform your perception of Belfast.” Not surprising, really, as the tour includes a trip around some of the city’s more high-profile establishments, including a lipsmacking shuck of the oyster in the Mourne Seafood Bar on Bank Street.
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What can you experience on a food trail?
Most trails are on foot, but if you want to do your own, then there are plenty of options that allow you to explore the city at your own pace, such as the Blasta Food Trail in Kilkenny, which offers a unique Irish angle on the tapas experience using local and regional foods.
Of course, if you want to hop in the car, then the possibilities are equally endless: County Cork, County Kilkenny, the Shannon Region, and the “Orchard County” of Armagh offer a great variety of self-guided trails.
There's even an award-winning Irish Whiskey Trail to take you around the island’s distilleries, whiskey pubs, hotel and golf club bars and specialised whiskey shops (you can download a free map in English, French and German to get you on your way, but don’t forget to park up for the day if you’re sampling the wares as you go!).