Limerick’s year as City of Culture got off to a rocky start, but the organisers have overcome this to achieve universal acclaim with an innovative new show, while the range of good food the city has to offer might just surprise you. Deirdre O’Shaughnessy visited the Treaty City to check out what’s in store for the Culture and Chips carnival, which takes place in June
Limerick’s sweeping streets and majestic quayside tend to be overlooked by tourism marketers, but there’s no denying that the city’s Georgian architects knew what they were up to. To add to the streetscape, a host of hotels, restaurants and cafes opened in the city during the Celtic Tiger years, while a new look Milk Market has helped create an incredibly vibrant artisan food sector that punches way above its weight.
The sumptuous, sensitively restored No 1 Pery Square is a highlight among the range of luxury hotels the city now has to offer. It’s at the top end – although there is serious competition in terms of luxury from the more modern and corporate Savoy and Strand – and its homey, comfortable feel is unique to the market.
Opened by Patricia Roberts just as the recession hit in 2008, the hotel is the jewel in the crown of Georgian Limerick. Situated in Pery Square overlooking Limerick City Art Gallery and the daffodil-carpeted People’s Park and right beside City of Culture HQ at the Georgian House, the hotel is home to a luxury spa and fine dining at Brasserie No 1.
Staff are exceptionally friendly and welcoming and a miserable headcold was well looked after with some excellent hot whiskeys.
Personal touches are everywhere, with carefully chosen framed prints of Limerick scenes, claw-footed baths, organic toiletries and the most comfortable bed I’ve slept in for ages.
Dinner at Brasserie No 1 did not disappoint. My starter of crispy octopus, pan fried prawns, lemon and coriander, chive aioli and sourdough was an interesting combination that didn’t quite work, partly because there was just too much on the plate for a starter. The prawns, however, were particularly succulent and probably would have worked better on their own. The confit of crisp pork belly, granny smith apple, ginger and sake sauce went down a treat, with the sauce pronounced a perfectly sharp counterpoint to a perfectly executed pork belly. As dinner followed the launch of Culture and Chips, a chip craving lead me to the seared O’Loughlin’s ribeye steak, rosemary infused bearnaise, French fries and rocket. It was the perfect steak and chips. The ratatouille thyme jus and celeriac puree served with roast rump of lamb provided a great punchy freshness. Generous portions left us far too full for dessert, but the hotel’s house wines were both excellent.
The one problem with staying there is that it’s quite difficult to force yourself out of the room to go and explore what the city has to offer, although a fault with the hotel’s fire alarm our first night there meant we got an unscheduled 7am start.
The weekend of our visit saw the launch of ‘Culture and Chips’, a carnival of food and cultural events planned for the June Bank Holiday Weekend. The aim is accessibility, so while there will be plenty of foodie goodies and gigs from the likes of Jack L and Jerry Fish, as befits the City of Culture mandate, it’ll be suitable for everybody, high and low brow.
To date, this has been a real achievement of the organisers, with Fuerza Bruta, programmed by Claudia Woolgar, capturing imaginations of people all over Limerick city and county and further afield.
The show, an Argentinian interpretative dance extravaganza that is somewhere between a circus, a carnival, a dance show and a rave, is almost impossible to describe. It was imaginatively hosted in an old factory premises in Limerick’s Plassey Technological Park, ‘the Culture Factory’. Thought-provoking art installations and performance pieces from the city’s prestigious college of Art and Design were scattered ante-area, where food from the artisan outlet Country Choice and drinks were available to an audience that could not have been more varied.
I’d venture to say that, when this was first suggested, nobody would have imagined Limerick had the appetite to sell this show out twice a night for two weeks. Two additional shows had to be added for the weekend we were there, such was the demand, with word of mouth seeing tickets fly out the door and many returning for a second or third visit.
Fuerza Bruta is exhilarating, at times frightening, and intensely participative, with the audience corralled like ravers in a giant black box, dancers suspended above them and running perpendicular to their heads around a huge foil track, a swimming pool suspended overhead with synchronised swimming and plenty of splashing, and a sort of disco Horatio Hornblower setting off a water-spraying foghorn from a DJ box in the corner. Sounds bizarre, and it is, but it is a sensual and emotional assault, and a very brave choice for programmers that really paid off.
The following morning, we were escorted around the city’s food trail by food blogger Val O’Connor, whose book, Bread on the Table, is due out shortly. When I last lived in Limerick in 2006 there were few food destinations, and the market still had no roof. Boy have things changed.
Val’s Food Trails brought us from the healthy-eating hipster haven Canteen on Mallow Street, where we had mini rasher bagels from the Wild Onion Bakery (best bagels in Ireland, bar none) via O’Connell’s Craft Butchers on Little Catherine Street – the only place still making authentic, succulent Limerick ham – down to the epicentre of the city’s food scene, the Milk Market.
The market is modern, clean, covered and atmospheric with a great buzz, and has managed to retain longtime traders like Ryan’s Fruit and Vegetables just inside the gate while combining them with innovative new small food businesses that bring the whole world inside its ancient gates.
A group of us tried quiche and brownies (both light and delicious) at Café Noir; fresh wheatgrass shots (they taste like the pods of just picked peas – summer in a shot glass) from the Wheatgrass Fairy outside the market gate; delicious butter chicken from Tiwana Spice Blend; hot mulled apple juice and blood orange and black rum preserve at the Green Apron; Finnish cured herring with a shot of aquavit from Silver Darlings; delicious flavoured cheddars from Old Irish Creamery Cheese, also known as ‘Effin Cheddar’ due to location, not language; a variety of tasty Turkish baklava from Sefik Dikyar (who doubled up as our waiter at Brasserie No 1 the night before – a hardworking guy if ever there was one); authentic Neapolitan pizza made while we watched from the Pop Up Pizzeria; chilli flavoured handmade chocolate from The Limerick Chocolate Shop; and gorgeous, fresh Asian street food at the recently opened Aroi on O’Connell Street.
The trail is epic, filling and eye-opening. Limerick’s greatest strength is its diversity, and the range of affordable, authentic ethnic food options in the city puts other Irish cities to shame. We also heard good things about recently opened Japanese and Thai restaurants in the city centre, while Mejana, a Lebanese outlet on Thomas Street, has been operating a steady business for a couple of years now.
With Limerick hotels offering better value than any other city in Ireland – low prices and high standards – and the city’s market providing a fantastic day out, there’s been no better time to check out what the Treaty City has to offer. And if you’re there for the Culture and Chips weekend, a visit to Donkey Fords is a must – no self-respecting Limerick person would go anywhere else on the way home from Thomond Park.
Culture and Chips takes place in Limerick over the June Bank Holiday weekend. See limerickcityofculture.ie. For more on Val O’Connor’s food trails, see valskitchen.com. Offers available at No 1 Pery Square from €85pps.