Even the Irish will tell you the food in Ireland used to be awful. They’ll often even be the first to do so, beating everyone else to the pip just in case. There’s no shame in it though; eight hundred years of colonial rule tends to have a starving effect on a nation’s culinary ventures. And when you’re rebuilding a country post-independence, developing the perfect sauce for your ham hocks is probably quite low on your list of priorities. But then things changed, radically, and nowhere is that clearer than in Ireland’s increasingly cosmopolitan capital city, Dublin.
There have long been plenty of good reasons for visiting Dublin. A real pint of Guinness from the source, the Guinness Storehouse, for starters. It was selected as the top tourist attraction in Europe in 2015, beating the Eiffel Tower, Barcelona’s La Sagrada Familia, Athens’ Acropolis and the Roman Colosseum. If that sounds strange to you, it’s possibly because you’ve never had a pint of Guinness in Ireland before.
But Dublin has more than pints of the black stuff to show for itself. It is a decidedly handsome town, built out of a long history of conflict and collaboration, but also of commerce, literature, music, art, food and drink. The city centre has a solid, patrician feel to it thanks to the wealth of Georgian buildings peering down on the streets below. It is too sturdy and grey to be considered elegant or refined, like Paris or Florence, but for many that is part of its charm. Dublin feels more accessible and grounded, less remotely fantastical, than other cities, and that is an infinitely attractive thing in itself.
And it is literally more accessible too. There is little within the city centre that isn’t within walking distance, provided you have a good pair of shoes. From the Grand Canal to the south to the River Liffey further north, you’ll find everything from the National Museum (one of the largest gold collections in the world), Trinity College with its staggering Old Library and Book of Kells, the beautifully tranquil Iveagh Gardens, the lively shopping district around Grafton Street (the street buskers are amazing as befits a city and a nation with such a lively music scene), and then there are all the pubs.
Dublin’s pubs are legendary, not least among them being the scattering of Victorian-era pubs that are still trading some 150 years or more after they served their first pint. Loved for their homely feel, friendly service and distinctly timeless character, the city’s favourites include Kehoe’s just off Grafton Street, a perfect spot for cooling your heels after shopping, Doheny & Nesbitt’s with its location in the centre of Dublin’s old political, economic and social heartland giving rise to its other name, The Doheny & Nesbitt School of Economics. Nearby, Toners is another institution in dark wood and brass fittings with a reputation for serving the best pint of Guinness in town.
In fact, it’s not fair to say that the food in Ireland has always been awful. At least not in Dublin anyway. The city was once home to one of the best restaurants in Europe, Jammet’s, which attracted a huge and global selection of “gourmets and wits” during its 66 year lifespan, before closing in 1967. Not long before Jammet’s opened, Dublin’s markets were stuffed with spices, cheeses and fruits from all over the world. Here, figs from Marseille, hams from Bayonne, Parmesan cheese, West Indian sweetmeats, ginger, truffles and olives could be found alongside domestic produce such as oysters (long considered only fit for the poor, now considered among the best in the world), fish, fresh herbs and creamy butter.
In today’s Ireland, all these things are taken for granted, but the nation’s chefs have evolved in an interesting way. In a country with a difficult culinary history, and a long history of economic emigration, they have come up with something that is the best of all worlds by blending knowledge and experience many of them have built up while working abroad and mixing that with Ireland’s richly abundant agricultural output — all that rain has to be good for something — from an ever-growing range of artisan producers.
The result has been an explosion of joyful and delicious creativity across the city (and country) as chefs turn out dishes that might be inspired by Brazil and Biarritz, Korea and Cairo, as well as ideas from Ireland’s own admittedly relatively thin but not non-existent culinary repertoire and graced with what many are argue are some of the finest ingredients that can be found anywhere. They have become passionate advocates not just for their own food, but for the producers who supply them, and the environment that sustains them. It’s surely time for a trip… (once we’re allowed to travel).