English foodservice chefs were bowled over by the stunning simplicity and quality of products at the Dingle Food Festival on Ireland's south-west coast. Richard McComb reports
This is what the group of battle-hardened foodservice chefs tells itself as it prepares for the launch of "Operation Eat Dingle" on Ireland's beautiful south-west coast. Clearly, eating and drinking at all the 70-plus stops along the town's snaking taste trail is an impossible task. It is important to cherry-pick the best of the dishes, the savoury snacks, the seafood, the sweet treats and the intoxicating tipples.
It's only a couple of hours since a full Irish breakfast, but the chefs are champing at the bit. A morning boat ride around the bay has cleared everyone's head after the previous night's tour of Dingle Distillery.
The chefs have been invited to sample the delights of the Dingle Food Festival by Kerrymaid and The Caterer. Richard Troman, development chef for foodservice brands at Kerry Foods, is accompanied by a strong team: Michelle Daly, chef-manager at Sodexo, working at Bord Bia in Dublin; Rob Kennedy, executive chef at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst; Ben Woodhouse, food development controller at Bidvest Foodservice; Lloyd Mann, foodservice director at ISS Food and Hospitality; Sean McNulty, chef-lecturer at the National Hotel School, Telford; and James Howard, key account manager at Kerry Foods.
Now in its ninth year, the festival, a gloriously informal affair managed on a not-for-profit basis, is a showcase for the finest locally produced food. There is no overt corporate sponsorship, no VIP enclosures - Dingle is all about the produce.
The tiny town, which has a handful of streets, enjoys a spectacular natural larder thanks to its mild microclimate, fertile landscape, the husbandry of livestock, diverse fish stocks and the unerring commitment of producers who champion flavour, not faff.
With its great restaurants, farmers markets and gourmet trails, it is no coincidence that Dingle has been named the Foodie Town of Ireland. During the festival, its population of 1,800 swells to more than 10,000, thanks to the influx of visitors.
As the clock ticks down to the midday start of the two-day festival, the chefs make a tactical decision, quitting the pier and the promise of tandoori Dingle Bay prawn skewers, and heading to the Boatyard restaurant, back on terra firma on the Strand. There is concern the prawns might not be ready on the dot of 12 noon and there is not a second to lose.
On schedule, the first dish of the day is produced at the Boatyard - a delicious, fragrant bowl of monkfish curry. The dishes are bought with tickets (a book of 10 is â¬22, or about £15.50). The curry costs one ticket, and represents a generous starter portion.
Next up is Out of the Blue - a seafood specialist - for steamed smoked cod, celeriac mash and a duo of pesto. There is also roasted monkfish. And a wine tasting.
A short stroll away, the Marina Inn is doing a roaring trade in king scallop and 'Queen' Kanturk black pudding, served on honeyed parsnip purée. It would be rude not to join in, and the same is true at Murphy's ice-cream shop. Here, the brown bread ice-cream with sticky toffee pudding, butterscotch sauce and caramel cream is nothing short of sensational. Murphy's Dingle sea salt ice-cream is inspired, so simple but brilliantly made.
At Harrington's fish and chip restaurant, Troman boldly volunteers to try the deep-fried Cadbury Creme Egg. A product of thermo-nuclear fusion, a kind of "surf 'n' oeuf", Troman declares the novelty egg treat to be "surprisingly good".
It is at Murphy's pub, just 50 yards away, that the team takes its first casualty. To cries of "chef down!" one of the party declines the offer of Irish stew and a serving of sticky toffee pudding for the price of just one ticket. Not surprisingly, it is chocolate egg fan Troman - and worryingly, this is only stop 12 out of a possible 76 tastings.
Over the next five hours, the chefs manage to cover most of the outlets, sampling bratwurst made from Ballyhar organic rose veal; burgers comprising Paddy Fenton's organic Dingle Dexter beef; seaweed chutney and seaweed soda bread; fish pie; oysters; chocolate vodka; wheat beer; gluten-free beer; Italian/Irish lemoncelloâ¦ and kangaroo skewers.
The marsupial meat appears to be the only product that is not locally sourced (it is imported from Queensland, Australia), but the simplicity of the cooking, over a barbecue in the street, is in keeping with the relaxed ethos of the event. (Incidentally, Troman makes a remarkable recovery and is soon devouring barbecued rabbit.)
The festival attracts a vibrant cross-section of producers from diverse backgrounds. Italian chef Ruggero Silveri, a heavily tattooed giant of a man, swapped his home in Lake Maggiore for Ventry, near Dingle, nine years ago. He is selling his slow-cooked, wood-fired porchetta, which has been flavoured with dill, rosemary, garlic and pancetta. The meat is served in buns with rich caramelised onions and gravy. The onions, he says, are a local addition: "I do Italian-style cooking - with Irish on the side," says the part-time bouncer.
Sarah Sugrue, a 19-year-old business student, represents the young entrepreneurial face of the festival. She started baking at the age of 14 and is selling her beautifully presented "vintage" cupcakes in Oreo (the most popular), carrot cake and strawberry flavours from a makeshift stand in Green Street.
"I like putting my effort into making things look pretty. You see some crazy novelty cakes and people are afraid to eat them. I like mine to be pink and delicate," says Sugrue, who plans to open her own shop once her studies in Cork are complete.
A barman's children are selling different fruit cordials and lemonade from a table in the street. They make â¬300 in a single day - not bad for pocket money.
Mark Murphy, festival co-chair, is one of the volunteers who have helped to make the event one of the largest celebrations of food in Ireland. He believes the natural beauty of the area is a big draw, but insists the success of the festival is down to the people - the producers, chefs, restaurateurs, farmers, fishermen and local residents, whose enthusiasm is driving Dingle's booming food culture.
Murphy, who opened Dingle Cookery School in 2014, believes community ownership of the festival is vital to its success.
He says: "Each year we always start the first committee meeting by saying our goal is to remain a festival for the people and make food inclusive for everyone. We want everyone to have a real food experience. We want people to taste our food without any fuss.
"We are fortunate to have a group of like-minded people to develop and continue the food traditions that have been here for a long time. We have some great people working with food, from growing and producing it, to cooking it and eating it.
"We now boast a range of food producers and chefs on the peninsula. It is becoming a food tourism destination and we will strive to be one of Europe's leading food destinations.
"Our ingredients are great. Think of Dingle peninsula lamb with a slight taste of salt from the sea, our fish and shellfish, our beef, our carrots from Maherees, north of the peninsula, fuchsia honey, cheeses, dairy, vegetables, seaweed, and beers and whiskey. We feel that with great ingredients you need very little work to show them off - just care and attention to how they are sourced."
What the chefs thought
Lloyd Mann, foodservice director at ISS Food and Hospitality
"I really like the fact that the food was not over-engineered and each dish was seasoned perfectly. I am looking at taking a group of our chefs to Dingle next year, it was that good."
Michelle Daly, chef-manager at Sodexo
"Using local produce is talked about, but not always followed. In Dingle, you could feel the connection, or as the Irish say, the 'gra' for the producer. Using local produce wherever possible shouldn't be a trend but a standard in a chef's kitchen."
Sean McNulty, chef-lecturer at the National Hotel School, Telford
"Murphy's sea salt ice-cream was one of my favourite dishes. It gave a distinct palate-cleansing sensation, which gives great opportunities for recipe development. I love the fact they refine their own salt from the bay, too."
Ben Woodhouse, food development controller at Bidvest Foodservice
"If I was to adapt a philosophy from the festival, it would be to let the ingredients do the talking. So many of the dishes were simply cooked and presented, but they used really good-quality ingredients. Stunning."
Rob Kennedy, executive chef at Royal Military Academy
"Learning so much about whiskey was very interesting - the processes, age and cask storage offers a blend of flavours that could be used in innovative smoking for sweet, sticky sauces used with pig cheeks and ribs."
Richard Troman, development chef for foodservice brands at Kerry Foods
"Good food is just good food. Dingle is sticking to its identity. It doesn't try to pander to everyone's taste. It has been exciting to see meats, such as barbecued rabbit, that you don't see so often in the UK."
James Howard, key account manager at Kerry Foods
"From a supplier perspective, what seemed to resonate strongest with consumers was freshness, authentic flavour and an informal, relaxed eating environment. This is a great insight into how we can add value with our brands by creating concepts that can help
chefs and foodservice outlets replicate this eating experience."
Latest video from The Caterer