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Taste of Travel: Ireland

Gaelic Gourmet

Foodies in the know flock to Kinsale, where chefs really cook up a festival

September 07, 1997|PAT HANNA KUEHL | Kuehl is a Denver freelance writer

KINSALE, Ireland — My foodie friends smirked when I told them I was going to Ireland for a gourmet festival. "Corned beef and boiled cabbage and weak coffee served on a lace tablecloth?" they teased.

Obviously they'd never been to southern Ireland in general, County Cork in particular and Kinsale in specific. The tiny fishing town and yachting center with twisted cobblestone streets lined with top-notch restaurants draws pampered palates from all over Europe.

Connoisseurs come for superb seafood; for venison, pheasant, guinea and duckling from County Cork; for grainy brown bread and sweet scones warm from the oven; for pungent fresh cheeses from nearby farms and for conversation with ebullient owners of establishments that bulge at the seams if 40 customers are seated.

And they come for the Kinsale Gourmet Festival each October, this year Oct. 9 to 12. Memories of the Thursday night to Sunday morning all-out, town-wide, Irish house party still make my mouth water.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 21, 1997 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Ireland--Due to an editing error, the credit on some photographs accompanying "Gaelic Gourmet" (Sept. 7) was incorrectly spelled as Neilus Buckley. The photographer is Nelius Buckley.

It began with a welcoming reception where the Mumm Champagne flowed like the Gaelic gift of gab. Then everybody dashed off to the restaurants of their choice for dinner--many to 11 excellent establishments that make up an organization called the Good Food Circle, which sponsors the event. Then it was back again to the Acton Hotel for partying into the wee hours.

Next morning began with a Champagne brunch at 11 a.m. (nothing starts early in relaxed Kinsale), then a pause to explore the town before the start of cooking demonstrations by local chefs. There was another evening sampling another excellent restaurant and yet another late night in a pub for libation and conversation. In those sessions over a pint of Guinness I heard local Irish history as though it had happened yesterday.

Kinsale was occupied by the British until Ireland became a free state in 1921, and the relationship was not always calm. Ruins of two star-shaped 17th century fortresses still stand at the entrance of Kinsale Harbour as reminders of one of the most dramatic battles in Irish history. Irish insurrectionaries Hugh O'Neill and Red Hugh O'Donnell joined forces with the Catholic Spanish fleet to fight the British in 1601, losing the Battle of Kinsale to British Lord Mountjoy. Following that, no Catholic was allowed to conduct business inside the garrison walls until 1850. So they built their own towns of Scilly and Summer Cove on the steep hillsides overlooking the town. Scilly is now prime condominium territory with views of the harbor full of sailboats, fishing vessels and swans.

In contrast, Kinsale's narrow streets are lined with skinny 18th century buildings frosted with paints of many colors.

Saturday is always the biggest day of the Festival celebration; the day when local chefs pull out all the stops for the noon Taste of Kinsale buffet display and competition at the Acton Hotel.

There I watched two young chefs in white jackets and toques cautiously negotiate the bumpy road from restaurant to hotel while balancing a bountifully garnished roast suckling pig on an enormous silver platter. Inside the exhibition hall, I was impressed to find members of competing restaurants helping a third exhibitor who was late because he'd been up with a sick child most of the night. The buffet displays, arranged around tall ice sculptures, were works of art. The pa^tes were as light as a sea breeze; the baby oysters ambrosia on the half shell. But the best things I tasted were pungent fresh local cheeses and rich, golden Irish butter lathered on whatever.

At the Saturday afternoon wine seminar tracing the triumphs of the Winegeese (Irish vintners who emigrated to other shores), I learned that California vintner Francis Mahoney of Carneros Creek winery in the Napa Valley has founded 30 U.S. vineyards with Irish connections and is looking for more to participate in the American exhibit at Kinsale's International Wine Museum in nearby Desmond Castle.

The grand finale Saturday night was a black tie ball at Acton Hotel, complete with one ballroom for the waltz crowd, one for rockers and dance cards for all. The dancing went on until 4 a.m. so it was a bleary-eyed but jovial crowd that gathered on Sunday for farewell drinks and finger food at a noon buffet in the Trident Hotel.

Even a cosmopolitan couple from Cambridge came away impressed. "The bands played polkas, Strauss waltzes and pop tunes and the Irish were all beautiful dancers," the woman told me over breakfast at the Blue Haven Hotel.

Brian and Anne Cronin's small, homey Blue Haven Hotel boasts a superb restaurant and a buzzing pub that have been popular with locals since opening 20 years ago. Over time they've added a couple of guest rooms, tucked a bathroom into an alcove and gussied up the restaurant patio with a man-made waterfall.

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