Ireland is hardly a secret travel destination: The Wild Atlantic Way and Design Ireland 2015 initiatives brought the world’s gaze back to Ireland’s shores for adventure travel and craft respectively. But mention Irish food and the inevitable stews and potato-based stereotypes all too easily roll off the tongue. Traditional flavours are still abundant but in many pockets of the country, the food has certainly moved on.
Walk Galway's cobbled streets and you experience a city that’s woken up to the magic of its local produce. Two Michelin starred restaurants and a Bib Gourmand later and Galway’s credibility is sealed with the West of Ireland named a European Region of Gastronomy 2018. Sheena Dignam caught the wave of this great food revolution when she launched her business, Galway Food Tours. Sheena’s intricate knowledge of the people and stories behind the food brings the spirit of Ireland to life, one delicious mouthful at a time.
Wilma: It seems you tapped into an exciting time for food culture in Galway. How did you begin?
Sheena: I grew up in France and had considered moving back, but while we were living in Dublin my other half fell in love with Ireland. So, we compromised and moved to Galway. I was instantly struck by the city’s connection to food: there’s such a closeness between producer and restaurant or shop. Farm to fork living has always been important here. I noticed there were no food tours in Galway, so four years ago I decided to give it a go.
How did you get Galway Food Tours off the ground?
By constantly pestering people! It’s been a slow burner but this year all that hard work has paid off. I was reviewed in Lonely Planet and National Geographic and all of a sudden, I’m listed as a ‘thing’ to do in Galway.
What makes Galway’s food and culture so special?
We have two Michelin starred restaurants in the city [Loam and Anair] and one with a Bib Gourmand [Kai]. Everyone is feeding off that energy, you could almost touch it. Going back 15-20 years that culture wasn’t here but we had everything at our fingertips.
Our stories and the people behind them are what brings the food to life. You go to Loam which blows your head with such intricate cooking. Enda [head chef] is very private so I talk visitors through the experience. He doesn’t use anything that isn’t grown in Ireland – so, no pepper, olive oil and lemons – staple ingredients we take for granted in everyday cooking. Enda finds alternatives that are produced locally and it’s those details that blow people away.
Then we go round the corner to O’Connell’s pub and the manager, who’s been there for 25 years, talks about its history. People love and remember the locals and their stories more than the place itself and of course, the food and drink tie it together. I always ensure local people are involved to try to move away from the stereotypes associated with Ireland and Irish food.
How do you offer visitors a taste of Galway?
I love to introduce people to diverse foods, from old institutions that have been around for six generations like Griffin’s Bakery, McCambridge’s and Neachtain’s and then on to new Galway to try things like Irish sushi. Yoshimi started selling sushi at the market 15-20 years ago and initially couldn’t connect with locals. So, she started incorporating turnip into the sushi to get people used to the flavours. Today of course, we don’t have hang ups about new cuisines and her turnip and carrot sushi is hugely popular. Then we head to the new art house cinema – the only one we have in the West of Ireland – the food there is amazing. There’s so much more to Irish cooking than stews and brown bread.
Lovely that you blend a sense of an old and new world in one small city.
We’re very proud of our institutions. For example, McCambridge’s is the oldest store in Galway – it’s a family business that’s been around for 125 years. It was set up by two brothers who ran away from the Black and Tans in Belfast. One opened McCambridge’s bakery in Dublin which makes the famous bread, and the other settled here in Galway. Natalie – who owns and runs it today – is just brilliant. She supports so many people in the area and has 300 local producers on her shelves. She’s like the mayor – everyone knows her.
We're trying to move away from the stereotypes associated with Ireland and Irish food
If you condensed the best of Galway into one foodie day, what would you do?
I’d start the day with a coffee at CoffeeWerk and look out onto the crowds below on Quay Street. They roast locally with Calendar Coffee and the space is so atmospheric. Then it would have to be Ard Bia for lunch. Their menu changes regularly and the old stonehouse venue overlooking the river is very special. I’d head to Kai for dinner and have the steak, which is the best one in town, but not before stopping at The Tasting Rooms for an aperitif. Clare’s drinks are so intricate and the ingredients are grown locally. The most aromatic scents hit you as soon as you walk in. I’d be very tempted to have a little starter of oysters across the road at Tartare too. There are so many memorable places, it’s hard to distil into just a few!
What do you think helped open Irish eyes to the richness of its local produce?
I know people think it’s just a can in the sky, but Ryanair really created the opportunity for more Irish people to access and learn from other cultures. I think it opened peoples’ eyes to being more confident about our own natural resources at home. Why weren’t we utilising our seafood in Ireland beyond oysters? Why not use our beef in different contexts? Use our seaweed in more innovative ways. Travel expands our sense of what’s possible and you can see this reflected in our cooking today.
What underrated ingredients do you feel are celebrated in the West of Ireland?
Seaweed. Jimmy Griffin from Griffin’s Bakery uses dillisk [wild Irish seaweed] instead of salt in his bread. There are more than 350 varieties of seaweed in Connemara alone, so if you go to the family-run abalone farm the daughter uses it for skincare products and seaweed soups, while the mother exports the shell. We’re only recently realising the benefits of seaweed and so it’s exciting seeing people taking it to a whole new level.
Book a spot on Sheena’s Galway Food Tours