Food Tales

Heading to Ireland? They'll Guide You Beyond Guinness and Potatoes

by Erik Trinidad
Aren't you a little piggy? Photo courtesy of The Old Spot.

IRELAND – It was a drizzly day in County Meath, Ireland, which is not unheard of on the Emerald Isle. Tiny raindrops fell from the sky, trajectories at the whim of a chilling breeze, not only down to the rolling hills and grassy meadows of the countryside, but into the River Blackwater, which flowed faster than usual. As the river ran through the village of Kells, the force of its current came in contact with a paddle and pushed a water wheel — just as it did some 700 years ago — with the purpose of grinding grains into flour.

Martry Mill, which has endured for seven centuries, might have fallen into complete disrepair if not for the Tallon family keeping the water wheels turning. At the helm of the country's oldest working water wheel is fifth-generation miller James Tallon, who not only processes wheat the old-fashioned way, but offers unique baking experiences for visitors. I tried it out myself as part of a food-focused tour of Ireland with Bog & Thunder, a specialty tour company that understands slow travel and embraces food, craft, and sustainability and showcases it through “artisanal adventures” of Ireland.

For me, baking bread from scratch was the perfect activity for a cold, rainy day. The process ended with a piping hot loaf straight from the oven, so steamy that it fogged up my glasses as I took a rewarding bite. I sliced up the rest and enjoyed it with Irish cheeses, butter, jams, and cured meats.

Ireland's oldest working water wheel. Photo courtesy of Martry Mill.

The Lens of Food and History

If there’s one thing that we’ve learned from the late Anthony Bourdain, it’s that you can truly be immersed in a country’s culture when you experience it from the perspective of food. Food is not just nourishment to sustain us every day, it’s an integral component of every celebration, and sometimes the focus of a celebration itself. Traveling through the lens of food, we gain a deeper understanding of the locals, their traditions, and their history.

Bog & Thunder brings their guests to meet goat cheese producers in Galway, fishermen in Cork, and honey producers in Ballymaloe, and, in addition to visiting some usual tourist sites, organizes meals at local restaurants. They led my group to a number of great farm-to-table spots during a five-day tour of Dublin and its surrounding countryside, but their focus is much more than mere dining. Traveling through a nation with so much history, we heard stories dating back a millennium and met some incredible characters.

Full plates. Photo courtesy of The Old Spot.

Dublin Diversity

Our jaunt around Dublin was guided by Dr. Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire, who’s not just Ireland’s first PhD in food history, but a chef, professor, and author who made the sites and people of Ireland’s capital city come alive through stories of food. He was steadfast in explaining that as a transient island nation, Ireland has a culinary history that is much deeper than the Guinness and potatoes of Irish Food 101. Ireland’s geographic position made it a hub of many international trading ports, which naturally made it a center of multiculturalism — from the Vikings to the Normans to the Tudors, Elizabethans, and Georgians to the Huguenots and to the Turkish, Jewish, and Asian immigrants of today — all of which has influenced its deeper, modern culinary scene.

“We’re all mongrels,” he explained. “To say that we’re only from here is shite.”

In Dublin, you can find Chinese, Brazilian, Moroccan, Pakistani, and Ethiopian cuisines, to name a few. That said, you can still go out for the traditional meal served weekly across the British Isles: the Sunday roast. Elevating our Sunday meal to be more than tradition, Bog & Thunder invited a local dinner guest: Irish writer, post, and playwright Laurence McKeown was once active in the IRA and even participated in the Hunger Strikes of the early 1980s. Needless to say, dinner conversation went beyond discussing Ireland’s typical gray weather, with McKeown drawing parallels between hunger strikes of then and social justice plights of now — over a meal of oysters, Guinness brown bread, foie gras mousse, and roasted sirloin with potatoes and vegetables at Dublin’s The Old Spot.

Seafood in Sight

While a Sunday roast is the classic, traditional meal of meat and potatoes, what hasn’t been tradition in Ireland is the consumption of seafood. Ireland may be an island nation with a long maritime history, but, ironically, many locals aren’t keen on fish. In fact, as big as their billion-euro fishing industry is, about 90 percent of their catch is exported to other countries.

Despite this statistic, there’s no shortage of great seafood prepared in the country if you know where to go. At The Shelbourne, the historic hotel where Ireland’s first constitution was drafted and US President John F. Kennedy famously once stayed, chef Daniel Taylor embraced seafood with langoustines in a savory "Dublin Lawyer” dish and line-caught halibut with champagne cream and pearl caviar.

Irish eating habits are evolving as seafood goes beyond fish and chips at award-winning restaurants like The Seafood Cafe, under the direction of Niall Sabongi, the talented “fish-to-fork” chef who grew up by the sea, foraging on the beach. While the standard dish of fish and chips is on the menu, I was thrilled with a meal of chowder with smoked haddock and cockles, fresh anchovies with bread and lemon butter, sea bream ceviche with chilies and mango, lobster rolls, crab rolls, and razor clams with ‘nduja — all of it ethically and sustainably sourced.

Meet the guys behind the best farmhouse cheese. Photo courtesy of Boyne Valley Cheese.

Castle and Gardens

We journeyed beyond Ireland’s capital city to the village of Slane in County Meath, near the historic Hill of Slane, where Saint Patrick introduced Christianity to the isle in 433 AD. But the highlight of our time there wasn’t religious: It was experiencing the grounds of the 18th-century Slane Castle, currently the estate of the noble Conyngham family, whose roots can be traced to 12th-century Scotland. The grounds of the castle encompass the River Boyne, site of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690s, and the site of the annual concert series that began in 1981 with Thin Lizzy. Over the decades, Slane Castle has become synonymous with their epic concert performances by Harry Styles, Bruce Springsteen, Queen, David Bowie, and (naturally) Irish rock band U2, who recorded “Pride (In the Name of Love)” within the castle walls.

Beyond its musical history, Slane has agritourism significance as the home of the Slane Whiskey Distillery, which produces fine Irish whiskey, and Rock Farm Slane, a working farm with a home rental and a yurt glamping site for guests looking for rustic, rural accommodations that encourage culinary inspiration. Bog & Thunder had booked Slane for our group of foodies, and it was there that we met not  Conyngham family and Barry Farrell, who runs the distillery's cocktail program. During another rainy day in Ireland, he guided us through an informative session to hone our green thumbs by transplanting herbs into bigger garden containers. The herbs would be used to make infusions and garnishes for their music-inspired cocktail bar.

Perhaps the most immersive experience of a food-focused tour is to make a meal, and we did so in the most DIY way possible: making flatbread pizzas in the farm’s old lime house-turned-guest house. Local cheesemaker Michael Finnegan of Boyne Valley Cheese was provided Irish cheeses and meats, adding to the other toppings of farm-fresh eggs and fresh herbs and vegetables from the farm’s gardens.

“In Italian, I’m the Count of Monte Carlo,” said Alex Conyngham, Earl of Mount Charles and heir to the Slane estate, as he pulled an Italian pizza out of the oven, topped with Irish ingredients.

There was no Guinness at the pizza party. Instead, we enjoyed local beers and Cockagee Irish ciders from The Cider Mill Slane. However, the popular Irish stout came in generous pours one evening during the weekly singalong night at Boyles of Slane, where we joined in on the grandest of Irish traditions: drunkenly belting out tunes. If you’re on a tour of Ireland, whether it's food-focused or not, the Irish experience is not complete without meeting locals in a pub after a great meal.

Booking with Bog & Thunder

Bog & Thunder creates two types of experiences: bespoke private itineraries tailored to travelers’ desires and group-led tours for up to a dozen people, with local guides that are centered around a theme.

In 2024, group trips include a cocktail-focused getaway with New York City’s wildly popular watering hole, The Dead Rabbit, as well as a Dublin town and country trip, similar to the one I took, in conjunction with The Shelbourne hotel’s historic 200th anniversary.

We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.