Until the other weekend I hadn’t been in Dungarvan for twenty years and only then for a lunch stop at a pub I somehow remembered was called Merry’s. Today the town hosts the West Waterford Food Festival, as I was soon to find out, a 72-hour bacchanal revered by food fanatics, especially those possessing a cast iron constitution.
I had spent the previous evening assembling a portfolio of local knowledge. Dungarvan’s most famous citizen is the late Ernest Walton, the physicist who worked successfully with John Cockcroft on a project called (erroneously) ‘splitting the atom’. Oddly enough, Cockroft was born and educated in Todmorden, the West Yorkshire hill town where my elder daughter resides. Poet laureate Sir John Betjeman wrote a poem,‘The Irish Unionists’s Farewell to Greta Hellstrom’ in which every other stanza concludes with the phrase ‘Dungarvan in the rain’. It’s a very bad poem. Seemingly inaccurate, too, for when I arrived in late afternoon the sun was splitting the stones.
Dungarvan is a pleasant place. Spruce and chirpy, with a palpable civic pride. It passed all my tests for provincial towns, chief of which are “Does the optician’s window exhibit a pair of glasses I’d actually wear?” and “Are there at least two pubs where the staff don’t do Trappist monk impressions and where physical assault by some nutjob is not a given?” The barman at The Moorings patiently outlined the full range of Dungarvan Brewing Co’s beers then gave me a heads-up on the one they’d got ‘on special’ for the weekend, Helvick Gold. My friend and dining companion Blanche Fleur duly arrived, whereupon the talk immediately turned to food, or to be more precise, chefs. Blanche Fleur, who has eaten the food of some of of the world’s most revered, began by eulogising Paul Flynn, at whose restaurant, The Tannery, we were to dine that night. This would be my first visit though I’d enjoyed Paul’s cooking during his brief stint at La Stampa in Dublin and at a couple of Cookbook Club events. I’ve also cooked recipes from his enjoyable cookbook/autobiography ‘An Irish Adventure with Food’ which we made ‘Cookbook of the Year’ when I was editing Food & Wine.
At the restaurant, we were welcomed by Maíre, Paul’s wife, who is to aspects of décor and organisation what Paul is to the food. I was unprepared for the clean-limbed minimalistic elegance of the Tannery’s dining space, with its high vaulted ceiling. Pale colours, pristine white table linen and subtle lighting which charmed while putting no distractions between diner and food, very heaven for a plate-focussed person like me.
Blanche Fleur commandeered the squid and mussel soup almost before I’d read the opening line of the menu. I riposted with the raviolo of osso bucco which came with bacon, Little Gem lettuce and what used to be called ‘garden’ peas – maybe they were because The Tannery has a large vegetable garden off an adjacent street complete with a polytunnel capacious enough to hold a small festival. The raviolo was a thing of wonder, the veal moist and succulent, the pasta surrounding it, ethereal. As I knew would be the case it didn’t really matter who’d chosen what as forks and spoons clashing would be the music of the meal as we robbed each other’s plates and bowls. In my picaresque around Ireland’s restaurants I frequently encounter a dish superficially akin to the squid and mussel soup in which the broths fall into three categories : (1) some kind of quasi-Thai treatment (2) curry soup – generally the least successful, with throat-clutching raw spices (3) a liberal quantity of cheap wine, sometimes laced with an oil-slick of cream. Paul Flynn’s version was simple and honest, just a well-fettled broth, enhanced with spring vegetables and the head-spinning kiss of wild garlic. “For the table” – Blanche’s phrase – we took the Helvic crab crème brûlée, pickled cucumber and melba toast, Paul’s ‘signature dish’, though from the many occasions I’ve seen it (unacknowledged) on restaurant menus, you’d imagine it a celtic classic since Brian Boru was a lad. The ‘trick’ is to use only the best crab meat and get the proportion of crab-to-crème correct, others please copy – and credit.
In training for the anticipated meat orgy of the following night (we had booked again to eat Paul’s interpretation of ‘nose to tail’ chef Fergus Henderson’s repertoire) I ordered the beef short ribs. These redefined ‘melt in the mouth’, melting somewhere between lips and palate but I’m still not quite sure where. I also relished the salsify chips, the wild sorrel and the delicate lobster cream that further heightened the overall succulence. Blanche had the quail and foie gras pie, another clever Flynn original, very much in the French mode but given an Irish country twist by the inclusion of a sharply piquant apple jelly. Paul has spoken recently about simplifying his cooking; maybe a red herring because the craft skills and inspiration are still there in bucket loads.
My passion fruit soufflé and sorbet with ginger custard was subject to a compulsory fifteen minute delay but was well worth the wait. The more so because it gave me time to dig into Blanche’s artisan cheese plate, one of the best around. My companion declined coffee. I took two espressos to ensure I kept awake for the subsequent late night postmortem in Downey’s pub.
We initially partnered dinner with a Givry which, though good wine, wilted in facing the onslaught of rich flavours. A switch to a lovely Morellino di Scansano Poggio Argentiera Gianpaolo 2011, brought more pleasure. Omitting the false start on the wine, all we’d had worked out at a touch under €150. Amid this excess of gourmet piggery I should state that there are cheaper options, starting with a 3-course €30 dinner with some inviting items on the carte.
The Tannery is a superb restaurant, operating on the night with Swiss watch precision for a full house. Plaudits to the young, mainly local, waiting staff. Paul Flynn is, in my opinion, one of the handful of Irish chefs who would be celebrated were he working in any city in the world. He proved his worth in London at a young age and we are indeed fortunate that he chose to leave Nico Ladenis’ empire and return to Ireland. Dungarvan got lucky too, with Paul and Maíre establishing an outstanding destination restaurant in his home town. I’m sure the existence of the Tannery is a major factor in the civic pride I spoke of in an earlier paragraph. Move over Ernie Walton.
The Tannery Restaurant, Town House and Cookery School, 10 Quay Street, Dungarvan, Co Waterford Tel: 058 45420