Oliver Peyton on Ireland’s food revival: “A lot of the cool kids are farming now” (Radio Times)

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The Emerald Isle is now a gourmet paradise, says the Great British Menu judge to Victoria Stewart (image from Ireland.com)

Oliver Peyton would be the first to agree that a lot has changed since he was a boy in County Mayo in the west of Ireland. But he’s delighted to report that some things from that time are back in fashion: “a lot of the cool kids are farming in Ireland now”.

The revived interest in growing crops and rearing animals is all a bit hippy, he says, “a bit like northern California. In many cases, people have travelled extensively, been educated abroad and come back and are trying to do interesting things. Good luck to them — it all feels quite cool to me!”

What really impresses the 54-year-old restaurateur and owner of the Peyton and Byrne bakery-cafes about this new scene is that it’s transforming his homeland into a foodie destination. After years of people having “lost interest in the land and seeing no future in it, now some of the great things happening in Ireland are the farmers and the restaurants, who are knocking out some cracking food with great ingredients”.

Even though many of his generation grew up on farms, “killing animals, drinking raw milk, and making our own butter — which we and my grandparents did — it wasn’t a gastronomically pulsating country. But what has happened since is amazing — they have come to understand the value of the terroir [local factors that influence crops] in Ireland.”

He praises the explosion of “world-class chicken, the beef, charcuterie, cheese”, which he attributes to the fact that “there are a lot more smallholdings across Ireland”. The other big change is that more people are now transforming raw ingredients, like milk and beef, into interesting, high-quality produce.

Growing up, bacon and cabbage stew, or the red dulse seaweed that his grandmother made him eat, were “not my favourite”, says Peyton. Black pudding, however, featured prominently: his family would make their own, killing the pigs and letting the blood congeal — “I loved watching that.”

Among Peyton’s current local foodie heroes, he admires the work being done at the Michelin-starred restaurant Aniar in Galway. He also thinks Peter Hannan of Hannan Meats in Moira, County Down, is “a very interesting character — he has really helped a lot of farmers develop”. There are some great cheeses being produced, too, and St Tola goats’ cheese from Ennistymon, County Clare, is a Peyton favourite.

There are many specialities to seek out, but one thing you won’t have to look far for is a cup of tea and something baked. “There’s a revival of baking,” says Peyton. “It’s one of the things Ireland does best — any town will have a great café with cakes. It’s a lifestyle — it just is.”

Irish foodie hotspots…

Coffee shops in Cork

Being surrounded by farmland, this city has a big foodie history. Today visitors can find excellent charcuterie from The English Market, cafés serving blood sausage on toast for brunch and restaurants and coffee shops galore. Cork City is a good point of start a trip around the county to find black pudding, smoked fish and the renowned Ballymaloe cookery school and farm.

Nordic Galway

Galway is home to the Michelin-starred, 25-seater Nordic-inspired restaurant Aniar, run by chef JP McMahon, who’s also behind the March food bonanza, Galway Food Festival. Elsewhere, there is another Michelin-starred dining room, Loam, two more restaurants owned by McMahon, and the fine food shop and deli, McCambridge’s.

A Dublin tot

Ireland’s capital should feature high up on any tasting tip to Ireland. There are smooth malts to try on a tour at the new Teeling family distillery near Grand Canal; floury blaa buns stuffed with smoked meats from Hatch & Sons; flatbread-style pizzas from Skinflint; and Dublin fish and chips to sample at the weekday Irish Village Market.

Food trail in Kilkenny

Such was the quality of food and produce that after Kilkenny was voted Foodie Town of Ireland in 2014; a new Kilkenny Food Trail was set up. There’s a trout farm where you can try Irish caviar; an award-winning cheese farm, Knockdrinna Cheese; and honey cider from Highbank Orchards. Then there are the delis, Lavistown butch and two Michelin-starred restaurants, Campagne and Lady Helen, to keep you occupied.

Article appeared in Radio Times, September 2016