My foodie friends smirked when I told them I was going to Ireland for a gourmet festival. "Corned beef and boiled cabbage and weak coffee served on a lace tablecloth?" they teased.
Obviously they'd never been to southern Ireland in general, County Cork in particular and Kinsale in specific. The tiny fishing town and yachting center with twisted cobblestone streets lined with top-notch restaurants draws pampered palates from all over Europe.
Connoisseurs come for superb seafood; for venison, pheasant, guinea and duckling from County Cork; for grainy brown bread and sweet scones warm from the oven; for pungent fresh cheeses from nearby farms and for conversation with ebullient owners of establishments that bulge at the seams if 40 customers are seated.
And they come for the Kinsale Gourmet Festival each October, this year Oct. 9 to 12. Memories of the Thursday night to Sunday morning all-out, town-wide, Irish house party still make my mouth water.
It began with a welcoming reception where the Mumm Champagne flowed like the Gaelic gift of gab. Then everybody dashed off to the restaurants of their choice for dinner--many to 11 excellent establishments that make up an organization called the Good Food Circle, which sponsors the event. Then it was back again to the Acton Hotel for partying into the wee hours.
Next morning began with a Champagne brunch at 11 a.m. (nothing starts early in relaxed Kinsale), then a pause to explore the town before the start of cooking demonstrations by local chefs. There was another evening sampling another excellent restaurant and yet another late night in a pub for libation and conversation. In those sessions over a pint of Guinness I heard local Irish history as though it had happened yesterday.
Kinsale was occupied by the British until Ireland became a free state in 1921, and the relationship was not always calm. Ruins of two star-shaped 17th century fortresses still stand at the entrance of Kinsale Harbour as reminders of one of the most dramatic battles in Irish history. Irish insurrectionaries Hugh O'Neill and Red Hugh O'Donnell joined forces with the Catholic Spanish fleet to fight the British in 1601, losing the Battle of Kinsale to British Lord Mountjoy. Following that, no Catholic was allowed to conduct business inside the garrison walls until 1850. So they built their own towns of Scilly and Summer Cove on the steep hillsides overlooking the town. Scilly is now prime condominium territory with views of the harbor full of sailboats, fishing vessels and swans.
In contrast, Kinsale's narrow streets are lined with skinny 18th century buildings frosted with paints of many colors.
Saturday is always the biggest day of the Festival celebration; the day when local chefs pull out all the stops for the noon Taste of Kinsale buffet display and competition at the Acton Hotel.
There I watched two young chefs in white jackets and toques cautiously negotiate the bumpy road from restaurant to hotel while balancing a bountifully garnished roast suckling pig on an enormous silver platter. Inside the exhibition hall, I was impressed to find members of competing restaurants helping a third exhibitor who was late because he'd been up with a sick child most of the night. The buffet displays, arranged around tall ice sculptures, were works of art. The pa^tes were as light as a sea breeze; the baby oysters ambrosia on the half shell. But the best things I tasted were pungent fresh local cheeses and rich, golden Irish butter lathered on whatever.
At the Saturday afternoon wine seminar tracing the triumphs of the Winegeese (Irish vintners who emigrated to other shores), I learned that California vintner Francis Mahoney of Carneros Creek winery in the Napa Valley has founded 30 U.S. vineyards with Irish connections and is looking for more to participate in the American exhibit at Kinsale's International Wine Museum in nearby Desmond Castle.
The grand finale Saturday night was a black tie ball at Acton Hotel, complete with one ballroom for the waltz crowd, one for rockers and dance cards for all. The dancing went on until 4 a.m. so it was a bleary-eyed but jovial crowd that gathered on Sunday for farewell drinks and finger food at a noon buffet in the Trident Hotel.
Even a cosmopolitan couple from Cambridge came away impressed. "The bands played polkas, Strauss waltzes and pop tunes and the Irish were all beautiful dancers," the woman told me over breakfast at the Blue Haven Hotel.
Brian and Anne Cronin's small, homey Blue Haven Hotel boasts a superb restaurant and a buzzing pub that have been popular with locals since opening 20 years ago. Over time they've added a couple of guest rooms, tucked a bathroom into an alcove and gussied up the restaurant patio with a man-made waterfall.
Most of all, the Cronins have taught their staff to coddle guests like favorite relatives, catering to whims by providing extra pillows in the bedroom and full Irish breakfasts in bed. It has paid off. "Egon Ronay's Jameson Guide 1996" named the 18-room, moderately priced Blue Haven, Irish Hotel of the Year.
Breakfast was special, indeed, and included Anne Cronin's scrumptious homemade yogurt laced with honey; granola studded with dried fruit and nuts; fragrant brown bread warm from the oven and accompanied by glorious Irish butter and yummy jams; fresh fruit and my own pot of fresh brewed coffee. Or I could have had the traditional Irish breakfast, including bangers (sausage), bacon (like Canadian bacon), grilled tomatoes, fried potatoes, or plain old American bacon, scrambled eggs and orange juice.
The Cronins were among founding members of the Good Food Circle. So was Peter Barry, who, after owning and selling two popular restaurants, now directs the festival. Barry says the Good Food Circle started out as a self-help group for local restaurateurs who had formal training: Barry in Switzerland, Cronin in Germany and Switzerland, and others--now gone--with similar impressive credentials.
Raoul de Gendre and his Japanese wife, Seiko, are owners of the upscale Vintage Restaurant, the most romantic spot in town with two intimate dining rooms and an affluent but rustic charm. De Gendre, a suave Swiss who likes Vintage guests to know he managed the Grand Hotel in Zurich for 15 years, said he and his wife had planned to retire until they found Kinsale and the restaurant challenge while on vacation in Ireland in 1994.
"I wanted to create a little bijou, if you like, something very nice," he explained during an interview in the restaurant's snug, tiny bar.
The Vintage has several different clientele, he said: tourists from all over the world who come to Kinsale for its scenic location on the Atlantic coast; yachtsmen who flood the resort in August; the equestrian set that comes from Mexico, the Mideast and the United States for the annual Millstreet Indoor International Horse Show in October, and the international business crowd drawn to the nearby city of Cork by the computer industry.
The day I dined at Vintage, four young chefs--from America, Switzerland, France and Ireland--were working elbow to elbow in the restaurant's cramped, low-ceilinged kitchen to create elegant entrees almost too beautiful to eat.
I asked which chef had prepared the innovative scallops in vanilla sauce I had savored the night before. "That's my French chef," the owner explained. "He worked two years in a two-star restaurant in Paris." My delectable fresh seafood starter--a pyramid with a base of crab under layers of scallops, mussels and black crab claws--came from another of the chefs, an American who is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Washed down with a glass of dry white French wine, it was a feast in two courses that--although pricey by Kinsale standards--was worth the $80 it cost.
Next day I balanced the budget with a superb lunch of a dozen grilled mussels (about $8, including a glass of house wine) at Max's Wine Bar, another member of the Good Food Circle.
Locals told me the early bird special at Max's, served before 6 p.m., is one of the best bargains in Kinsale. The setting isn't fancy. It's a long room, about the width of a two-car garage, with a bar at the front window. But menu choices range from duck liver pa^te with plum sauce to spinach pasta with poached salmon.
Next door I peeked into the Little Skillet, a family restaurant recommended to me by local people, and eyed the traditional Irish stew: a casserole of fresh vegetables with a touch of rosemary, parsley and thyme and County Cork lamb.
I dined well at many places in Kinsale, from carryout smoked salmon and brown bread at the Kinsale Gourmet Store near the waterfront to the fancy Gourmet Festival buffets set up at participating hotels to wondrous scones from the Baker's Oven on Market Street.
I had planned to eat in the informal bistro but wandered into the more formal White House Restaurant d'Entibes by mistake. Once seated and noting the dressed-up clientele around me (it was Saturday night after the Festival ball, and I was dressed casually) I tried to fade into the woodwork as I waited for my order to be delivered. That's how I ended up eavesdropping on the conversation at the next table where a snooty pair were pontificating while browsing the menu.
The man told the woman he'd never had an exceptional meal in Kinsale. When the lanky teenage waiter arrived at their table, they ordered steaks. Hers should be "very rare but not blue," she stressed. The gentleman specified his salad dressing must have a Coleman mustard base. "And what is this white pudding listed under the starters?' " The waiter replied: "Same as the black pudding, sir, but it's white."
When the order arrived at the table, all dressed up in its crisp phyllo wrapper, the country pudding in city clothing won a haughty nod from the food snobs. They must have liked it. They cleaned their plates.
Later, I asked the restaurant hostess about that white pudding. It was an award-winning recipe the White House chef had included in his buffet display at the previous Gourmet Festival, she said. "It went down so well everybody came back here and said, 'We must try your pudding.' When they asked what was in it, we said we'd tell them after they finished their meal."
No one seemed willing to admit what I had guessed was plain old blood pudding, bleached out a bit. I asked the hostess to define standard black pudding, an item I'd seen listed on almost every Irish breakfast menu. "It's pig blood mixed in oatmeal," she explained. "My dad used to make it years ago. They killed the pig and while the blood was still warm, they'd bring it in and stir it into the oatmeal. It's actually very good for you--low calorie and all that."
Maybe so. But I decided to stay with those Kinsale mussels.
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GUIDEBOOK: Feasting on Kinsale
Getting there: To get to Kinsale, fly nonstop from LAX to London on British Air, United, Northwest or Virgin Atlantic and change planes to Aer Lingus for the flight to Cork International Airport. Advance-purchase, round-trip fares start at $1,006. Kinsale is 18 miles southwest of the city of Cork.
Where to stay: Blue Haven Hotel, Pearse Street, Kinsale; from the United States, telephone 011-353-21-772209, fax 011-353-21-774268. Rooms are $90 to $105 per person, including breakfast.
Where to eat: Max's Wine Bar, Main Street, Kinsale; local telephone 772443; dinner for two, including wine, about $75.
Vintage Restaurant, 50 Main St., Kinsale; tel. 772502. Dinner for two, including wine, about $130.
White House, Pearse Street, Kinsale; tel. 772125. Dinner for two, including wine, about $80 in the Restaurant d'Entibes; $50 in the bistro.
Kinsale Gourmet Festival: Tickets, good for all festival events (but not restaurant meals), about $160 per person. Contact Peter Barry, Scilly, Kinsale; tel. 011-353-21-774026; fax 011-353-21-774438.
For more information: Irish Tourist Board, 345 Park Ave., New York, NY 10154; tel. (800) 223-6470, fax (212) 371-9052.