All this said, it’s ‘the other Wexford’ that claims my affection, to the extent where friends have taken to calling me ‘The Ambassador’. It begins with a left turn on the N11 at Ferns towards the picturesque town of Enniscorthy. One the way you pass Salville House, a weekend retreat that enables you to do an extensive sampling of your own fine wines while someone else (in this case the talented proprietor Gordon Parker) worries about the food. I have never stopped to eat in Enniscorthy but have plundered the local butchers, Staffords, for their excellent beef, lamb, chicken and ducks. Just out of the town you pass a sign for Monart, currently the spa both the beautiful people and the 51-week-a-year couch potatoes want to get to.
At the inner end of Wexford Harbour stands the Ferrycarrig Hotel, owned by local hero Liam Griffin who master-managed the Wexford hurling team to a glorious against-the-odds All-Ireland victory in 1996. A follow-up, alas, is not yet in sight. The Ferrycarrig makes a great base from which to discover the charm of both town and county and has a very decent restaurant, Reeds.
Third exit at the Duncannon Road roundabout and I’m in ‘home’ territory. Tantalizingly, in the distance, you glimpse the sea and it’s to the sea we’re headed. Not to Kilmore Quay, though the town has its charms, particularly access to the mysterious Saltee Islands where a man in the last century proclaimed himself a king and set up a parliament of fishermen. Instead we carry on down the military road, essaying a right and left through Wellington Bridge, a village named for the famous ‘Iron Duke’, conqueror of Napoleon, the Irish-born English hero proclaimed that if you are born in a stable it doesn’t make you a horse. Beyond the village, we pause to buy glistening fish from Susie and Patrick, a brace of beautiful black sole and queen scallops for garnish and some breakfast kippers. I could be persuaded to reveal the exact location – just send the Latour ’82 to…
The countryside here is not noted for rugged grandeur. Instead it beguiles, drawing you in through its subtle, understated charm. Even the cliffs lack drama, compared to, say, West Clare or Donegal; although there is much drama to be found in a walk around Hook Head in inclement weather, when the path is strewn with clouds of candyfloss sea foam, like Christmas-come-early; the waves hit the rocks, rise and knock your hat off. The Hook lighthouse is not the usual seaside trinket. It is squat and purposeful, as befits its title as the oldest in Europe.
The beaches are only amazing. From Duncannon’s long strand, largely ignored as an amenity except during mega-heat waves and bank holidays to Grange, the fisherman’s beach, there’s one for every reason and every time of day. Baginbun gets the morning sun. At Dollar Bay, which faces almost due West, bright Phoebus donates light and warmth until well into a summer’s evening.
In Duncannon village you’ll find two pubs, Roche’s and The Strand Tavern, with the locals divided in their loyalties. Roche’s is definitely ‘all pub to all people’; sports maven telly-gogglers, traditional musicians, pool players, smokers and those who are simply there ‘for the craic’ all seem to have their own defined space. Me, I’m there to drink Guinness by the pint bottle ‘off the shelf’, that is ‘unchilled’. I’d counsel you to try it; traditional, unique and subtle in flavour, once you get used to it, the frozen pint from the pump will seem lacklustre by comparison.
Like its counterpart across the road, Roche’s is family owned and at various times Bob, Eileen, James, David and assorted other members of the family are to be found serving there. An exception is Cindy, who will be running her stylish restaurant, Sqigl (pronounce it ‘squiggle’) in the adjacent barn. Eat in any Wexford restaurant and you could be forgiven for thinking that the county was the prototype for Gulliver’s Brobdignag. Sqigl is no exception – though the food is modern and cultured and the presentation pristine there are sufficient accompaniments to ensure you won’t go away hungry.
Oh, we are so lucky. Three top class restaurants almost in walking distance and another a mere five miles away. Billy Whitty is the chef and co-proprietor (with his partner Joanne) of Aldridge Lodge and his history is a heart-warming tale. Son of a local prawn and lobster fisherman, Billy, as a boy, always had a yearning to become a chef. Alas, the pen-pushers responsible for running catering course didn’t think he had what it takes and turned him down. Subsequent events proved that these guys are food’s equivalent of Decca’s Dick Rowe, the A&R man who famously scribbled ‘groups with guitars are passé’ and, thereby, donated The Beatles to rivals Parlophone. At this point enter Kevin Dundon who’s been in these pages previously. “If you want to become a chef” he said, “You’d better come and work for me”. Billy did and rose from being plongeur’s assistant to sous chef in less time than it takes to say ‘foie gras’. Billy’s own restaurant on the outskirts of the village is now a consistent award winner. Sample any course on the menu – particularly the lobster, supplied by ‘guess who’, and you’ll see why.
Meanwhile, at next door Arthurstown, Kevin and Catherine Dundon have opened a champagne bar in Dunbrody House. As well as a decent selection of bubbly and a range of smart cocktails the bar also serves great food, in the shape of starter-sized portions, three or four of which shared between two would make an informal meal. This will suit guests of the hotel as well as casual customers. Not everyone wants to eat a full dinner every night even when the uber-talented Kevin is at ‘the piano’.
Chefs and public alike keep an eye on the heights above the village where Richard Corrigan is knocking down one house and building another. “Will The Big Man open a restaurant?”, everyone wonders. Richard laughs off these suggestions, protesting he’s only here for the beer and the boating. It may be true.
Over at nearby Campile, Denise Bradley, formerly of Sqigl, Roly’s in Dublin and Colin O’Daly’s much-missed Park in Blackrock has taken over the Shelburne where the challenge has always been to make something of the mundane room. Denise has achieved this, cosying the place up with dividers, decent curtains and enough candles to light Notre Dame cathedral. The food is mainstream-modern and, like other restaurants in the area, majors on local ingredients and decent portions. The desserts (Denise is a trained, highly-skilled pastry chef) are mouthwatering as well as being total eye candy.
There’s no shortage of things to do. The gardens at Kilmokea House are wondrous, especially when the rhododendrons are out. The tea and scones are excellent at any time of year. From Rosslare to New Ross there are any amount of golf courses and par threes. There’s great sea fishing to be had. The JFK Memorial Park is well worth an hour or two’s stop. New Ross, a town in the process of transformation, now has a Thai, a Chinese and an Indian restaurant as well as the Dunbrody famine ship replica, a salutary warning against excessive hedonism. Locals, among whom I count myself, are justifiably addicted to Patsy and Phillip’s Nutshell Cafe, decent coffee and fine home cooking with a health food shop out front lest ye overindulge.
The ferry at Ballyhack puts the adjacent county, Waterford, within five minutes’ reach, alerting the visitor to the charms of The Strand, The Tannery, Faithlegg, Coast and La Boheme as well as Rockett’s the pub where they still serve crubeen. But, as Moustache, bistro keeper in Billy Wilder’s ‘Irma La Douce’ said, “That’s another story.”
Originally published in Issue 3 of ‘Intermezzo’, Ireland’s premier food, wine and travel magazine