The Dingle Food Festival is one of the country’s best kept secrets, although in the three years since I was last there, it seems they have rather let the cat out of the bag. With bigger crowds than ever before, one organiser estimated that it brought 20,000 visitors to the town this year.
The festival is built around the Blas na hEireann Food Awards, celebrating the best of Irish food, which is blind-tested by judges who come from all kinds of backgrounds, and includes a hugely popular taste trail around the town as well as a massive market for food producers from all over the island.
It’s a joyful celebration of what Ireland has to offer both the gourmet and the glutton, with a fair amount thrown in for the drinker of distinction.
What Dingle offers has expanded hugely over the years and nowhere is more evidence of this than the Dingle Distillery, owned by the Porterhouse pub chain, which is currently producing small batches of vodka and gin, with plants to bottle its whiskey as early as December. Dingle Gin is a favourite among connoisseurs for its smooth, rounded flavour and complex botanical notes, and although I’m not an expert, walking around slugging an excellent gin and tonic while being handed a succession of other spirits is always going to a be winning start to a weekend of gluttony. Not only that, but the support of local pubs for their local brand is noteworthy, so you can continue the weekend as you start, no matter which local hostelry takes your fancy.
Of course, you must take the old with the new, and nothing could be more ‘Dingle’ than Fungie the dolphin. I’ve always suspected that Fungie was merely a lesser Healy Rae cousin in a dolphin outfit, but a tour with the Dingle Bay Charter company proved otherwise. Embarking from the marina, the company’s tours take about an hour and it’s a wonderful way to see Dingle’s breathtaking coastal scenery. What I wasn’t expecting (apart from a real dolphin, who came very close to our boat) was the fascinating talk by guide Mike Dooley, who is a real expert in the area’s history, imparting such gems as the fact that under the Treaty of Dingle 1529, Irish emigrants to the Hapsburg Empire could gain citizenship. Not only that, but due to Kerry’s strong relations with the Hapsburgs, a Kerryman was sent to rescue Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution. But we all know how that turned out. Cruises depart regularly from the marina and it’s well worth checking out.
The main event of the weekend, of course, is the food. It would be virtually impossible to get to everything on the taste trail, but we did our best. We started at Danno’s Bar on the seafront, where the McCarthy’s of Kanturk spiced beef on potato farl was a real winner; tried a succulent fish pie at Sheehy’s Anchor Down restaurant; sampled a delicious seaweed and beetroot relish at TP’s at Paddy Bawn Brosnan’s and knocked back a tasty strawberry cider from Tempted at the Uisce Saddlery and a chocolate vodka martini at the Sleeping Giant Gallery.
That’s not an exhaustive list, and it’s only looking back at the full list that I realise the delights I missed out on. But the highlights were, in no particular order; the aero-press martini at Bean in Dingle made with Badger and Dodo coffee, coupled with what has to be the world’s best cinnamon roll from Bácús bakery in Tralee; a succulently simple barbecued tuna with rocket salad and a lemon lime mayo, bought from a fundraising stand operated by Dingle GAA, and perfectly formed arancini from the Milesian Restaurant at Global Village.
Dinner might seem extraneous after a day of noshing, but there are plenty of restaurants in the town. We were sorry not to have booked Friday night, as the hot spots (Global Village and the Chart House in particular) were full. We had perfectly adequate steaks at the Old Smokehouse. On Saturday night we checked out Ashe’s, where my special of freshly caught black sole was perfectly cooked, and his lamb shank in broth was hearty but not exceptional. Ashe’s wine list is decent and the Martín Codax Albariño was a perfect accompaniment to the fish.
Getting a booking for the busiest weekend on Dingle’s calendar is challenging and there were plenty of day trippers who hadn’t booked early enough to get in on time. We were lucky to stay in Benner’s, a cosy, old-fashioned hotel in the best sense of those words. Benner’s is a gem with wonderfully friendly customer service and one of the best hotel breakfasts around. They have a great full Irish with all local produce, but for less ardent meat lovers, there is a great range of options; something many hotels could learn from.
Since my last visit the festival has grown immensely, and, this time, visitors had money to spend. Producers I spoke to told how this year people were buying rather than just samping. It’s an epic weekend and one that’s now a firm fixture on my calendar.
See www.dinglefood.com for full details.