Tag Archives: Wexford

Pure Pud Pleasure

Quite excited about my recent close encounter with O’Neills black and white pudding. I’ve been eating their fabulous dry-cured bacon – low salt/no water – in both joint and rasher form for a good few years. I normally pick it up in the excellent Kate’s Farm Shop off the Duncannon Roundabout outside Wexford town on my way to our personal little patch of country paradise.

But, thanks to Billy Whitty who uses the black in Aldridge Lodge, I recently happened across O’Neill’s black and white pud and very good pud it is too. In fact as good as I’ve tasted and far outshining some of the more popular and foodie-rated offerings. If you like black pudding that stands firm on the plate yet melts in the mouth, with distinct but not overbearing herb’n’spicing, then O’Neills is for you. Likewise, if you appreciate a bit of texture and bite in your white, especially if you abhor the bready pudding they sell in the average butcher shop.

O’Neill’s hail from Enniscorthy, God’s Own County – Wexford, to the uninitiated. I don’t know where else you can buy their products but, if anyone’s interested I’ll try and find out. Or, if you know, then give me a ‘heads-up’.

I’m aware this is beginning to read like an ad. Let me just say I have no connection with these guys whatever. In fact I’ve never met them.

Speaking of puddings, I’ve just (as I type) received a sample of a new dessert from those inventive guys Cully & Sully. Called Sweetie Pies they are packaged in faux ladies’ handbags, the purchase of which might dent my deli cred for all time!  Sibella, who has just returned from collecting it from the Ballsbridge An Post depot has a message for the lads: “Can you ask them to send us something the postman can put through the bloody letter box?”

More anon, no appetite for dessert after my giant fry-up brunch.

The Charms of Wexford, part 2

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

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The Charms of Wexford

The Lighthouse, Hook Head
The Lighthouse, Hook Head

I have just celebrated my 20th anniversary of coming to Dublin to live. When I arrived on 28th August 1987 the place was closed for business. Emigration, albeit not in famine ships, seemed to be the fate of Ireland’s populace once more. The ferries leaving Dun Laoghaire sat several feet lower in the water than the one that brought me to land. Did somebody actually shout “When you get in, turn the lights back on” or was that a trick of my imagination?

Now, or so ‘they’ tell us, it’s boom time and we are accounted one of the richest nations in the world (although I still have this queasy feeling that sometime soon a small year old child will jump up a la Hans Christian Anderson and holler “Daddy, daddy! The economy has no clothes on!”) Undaunted by such pessimism, the ‘wild geese’ are returning by the planeload to find discretionary income abundant and, unlike the old days, plenty to spend it on. These days Dubliners drive non-utilitarian cars, one per adult. Many have second homes or, at least, the wherewithal to spend weekends ‘down the country’.

My wife and I discovered county Wexford about ten years ago, on a sea kayaking weekend, roughing it in a hostel at Ramsgrange. Prior to that we’d always driven westwards in search of relaxation, to the Shannon or to Connemara. Now ‘The Model County’ is our favoured destination and we get there as often as work and other pressures permit.

That county’s inhabitants will always tell you, with an enigmatic smile, that Wexford is located in ‘The Sunny South East’, one of those time-worn clichés you used to find proclaimed on adverts in railway carriages long before we discovered Mallorca and Malaga where they have real sun. Still, there’s something in it. After ten years we are still always surprised how benign the weather can be when we get the far side of Gorey.

There are really two Wexfords, east and west. Gorey at the northernmost tip of the county has been dragged unwittingly into the Dublin commuter belt, a feat accomplished with the aid of greatly improved roads. I wonder how many politicos and planners have weekend places at nearby Courtown?

Gorey itself is somewhat bereft of gastronomic delights, although this is bound to change. There is an honourable exception a few miles away at Marlfield House where the Bowe family have always maintained exemplary standards of hospitality, aided and abetted by an excellent chef. The reputation of Marlfield was built on its food, much of it grown in the hotel’s kitchen garden where fresh herbs, vegetables and fruit are gathered daily. There is an emphasis on local produce. Mention should be made, too of Papa Rhodes at Ballycanew, a village on the Gorey to Wexford road, which has a reputation among locals and holidaymakers for simple, tasty Italian food and a ‘fun’ atmosphere.

South and East of Wexford town, where the strands are long and inviting, the Lobster Pot, the Hearn family’s pristine country pub at Carne established long ago the envied reputation of being one of the best places in Ireland at which to eat fish. Rosslare, from whose port the ferry departs for and arrives from France – watch out for wayward drivers on the wrong side of the road – boasts another icon. Kelly’s Resort Hotel and Spa, in the same ownership for three generations, is justly regarded as the best place in Ireland for a family holiday. Nowhere is bringing kids so lacking in stress for the parents. And nowhere is more care taken to ensure that those adults sans brats who just want to chill, eat drink and red the papers, remain undisturbed. Bill Kelly, the caring proprietor walks the dining room on a nightly basis, making himself known to guests. Another fillip is that Bill’s father-in-law is the illustrious Rhone producer Paul Avril and his wines embellish an already spectacular list.

Talk Irish history with anyone who is interested and they’ll probably lament the failure of the (non-sectarian) rebellion of 1798 in which Wexford’s inhabitants played an important part. The event has been immortalised in songs such as ‘the Boys of Wexford’ and ‘Boolavogue’ which most Wexford people learn in primary school and maybe this has fostered the pride and spirit that has seen Wexford town pick itself up after a period in the economic doldrums to emerge as a vibrant capital for the county. I’d counsel anyone who hasn’t been to go to the Opera Festival, even if they are tone deaf, just to soak up the atmosphere. I still covet the ‘Pub Pavarotti’ title, maybe one day I’ll shed my inhibitions and croak my way through an aria! The town has several fine restaurants; among the most notable are Forde’s and the astonishing La Dolce Vita, the embodiment of Italy in Ireland, presided over by genial chef and saucier extraordinaire Roberto Pons

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La Dolce Vita

La Dolce Vita is a cult film, made in 1960 by Italian maestro Federico Fellini. At a superficial level you could call the movie a remake of Roman Holiday but it’s much more than that. Fellini skilfully weaves a commentary on the life and times of a Europe emerging from post-war austerity and plunging headlong into hedonism. The technique employed is episodic.
La Dolce Vita is also the name of a restaurant or, rather, two restaurants in Wexford town, concerning the life and times of which I have written my own script. Here it is.

FLASHBACK. JUMP CUTS OF SCENES, INTERIOR AND EXTERIOR IN A PROVINCIAL IRISH TOWN.
SFX: VERDI OVERTURE, SEGUEING IN SUCCESSION INTO ‘DIAMONDS ARE A GIRL’S BEST FRIEND’/ MADRIGAL/ MAHLER’S FIFTH SYMPHONY/NESSUN DORMA SUNG BY BAD TENOR OVER BACKGROUND OF CLINKING GLASSES/MORE VERDI
“In the Sue Ryder shop a pretty girl twirls around in a knockout black, one previous owner (Audrey Hepburn?) dress. In Greenacres, folk are guzzling Jim Fitpatrick’s wittily styled Marilyn Merlot (picture of la Monroe on the label). In St.Ibericus’s, madrigals ring out, in Rose Street Church, a rousing symphony. Elsewhere, pub Pavarottis compete in karaoke contests. Where else, but Wexford in the opera season?”

INTERIOR, NIGHT. RESTAURANT. PAN TO SMARTLY DRESSED MEN AND WOMEN AT TABLE ENJOYING THEIR FOOD, PROPRIETOR GREETING CUSTOMERS, SERVING STAFF ALERT TO DINERS’ NEEDS
SFX: GOOD CONVERSATION
“Inside La Dolce Vita – festively awash with penguin suits, chiffon and tulle – music, background or foreground, isn’t on the bill of fare. Diners have to make do with the buzz of conversation, the clash of cutlery and the clink of glasses, a policy meeting with my wholehearted approval.
Ruby and Pearl praise the bordello pink walls, a colour they feel, simpatico. The dining chairs are prettily upholstered and the light beech tables bereft of tablecloths, for a quick turnaround I’d say. Hi-lux lighting allows you to see what you were eating and judge the colour of the wine, which again I commend – though R and P who place a premium on ‘atmosphere’ find my take a tad austere. Chef proprietor Roberto Pons is all the atmosphere the place needs – touring the tables bestowing handshakes, bear hugs and kisses as appropriate.
A pleasant local girl presents us with a menu. The whole service operation is efficient, friendly, attentive but not in your face. Everyone is on their toes, with Roberto’s wife Celine directing the troops in between totting up bills.
Bread is wholesome, fresh, white, great for mopping up sauces. Antipasti are all winners; as is our habit we trade morsels so in the end it is hard to remember who’s ordered what. Ruby and Pearl take time out while I climb into a bowl of pasta that would have done duty as a main course. Wearying of my grunts of satisfaction, they eventually join me in spearing morsels of garlicky Italian sausage trapped in pasta ears, rolling them round in sticky, pungent, herb-flecked mushroom sauce before despatching them for the palate’s approval.”

C/U MAN OF AMPLE DIMENSIONS GREEDILY MOPPING UP LAST REMNANTS OF SAUCE WITH A TRANCHE OF OLIVE BREAD
“My wild venison is the tour de force. Roberto serves up thick slices of roasted saddle, tender yet Midas-richly flavoursome, king of a castle whose foundations are a bedrock of crisp Dutch cabbage, whose moat is a wine-dark mysterious juniper berry sauce… ..brilliant stuff, the apotheosis of rustic Italian family style cooking. Wonderful ingredients, faithfully translated by an intuitive cook who comprehends what sympathetic saucing is about. Desserts reinforce the vote of confidence: I’m a panna cotta tifoso and this rum, lemon and vanilla variant will squirt bubbly from the podium. The warm pear and chocolate torte with its crumbly, crunchy, feather light base pleases all. (La Dolce Vita is) an exceptional restaurant, providing authentic, serious, mouth-watering, satisfying comfort eating of the highest order. A total lack of ephemera and gimmickry: no wayward spicing, no towering gothic piles, no pylons of spun sugar, no pointillist painting with jus or coulis…”
I wrote the above back in 2002. Alas, the review never appeared for, the very next week, Roberto concluded the sale of his lease, upped sticks and went to put his feet up. Or so we thought. But…

FAST FORWARD.
INTERIOR, DAY, A DIFFERENT RESTAURANT. THE SAME PROPRIETOR, CLAD IN CHEF’S APRON, IS GREETING CUSTOMERS.
PAN TO DINERS ENJOYING THEIR MEAL
SFX: GOOD COVERSATION
It’s lunchtime on New Year’s Eve, 2004. Pearl and I are sitting in a new Dolce Vita, a stone’s throw away from the previous incarnation. There are differences. For a start, the Mk II version opens early and closes at 5pm – Celine, in particular, appreciates the fact that “We’ve now got a life.” Innovations include a retail counter where you can buy fine hay-flavoured ham and the best mortadella I’ve had this side of Bologna, as well as Italian cheeses in pristine condition. Out have gone the large tables and the linen napkins that denote a ‘serious’ restaurant, in favour of an informal ambience.
Yet the food remains as serious as ever. “Best pasta I’ve had in my life” was a comment from an adjacent table. The bread was as good as we remembered. A shared antipasto misto proved an attractively arranged treasure trove of edible delights. Pearl’s crespelle with ricotta cheese was delicate, ethereal – though she was not a fan of the accompanying salad – “Too much raw pepper and cucumber.”

C/U MAN OF AMPLE DIMENSIONS GREEDILY MOPPING UP LAST REMNANTS OF SAUCE WITH A TRANCHE OF OLIVE BREAD
My cotechino sausage with braised lentils was, in total contrast, appropriately robust and satisfying, so much so I begged the recipe afterwards. Wine on the short list is enthusiastically sourced, chosen to complement the food and much is available by the glass. I happened to know Robert is passionate about his Arneis and when, seeking a glass of red to follow, Celine ventured “I’ve just opened a nice Rosso Conero.” And the panna cotta – ah, the panna cotta!
If you are in the area, La Dolce Vita is a ‘must dine’. Problem is they don’t take bookings and there’s invariably a queue at lunchtime. To paraphrase the old election slogan “Eat early, eat often.” In a country where Italian food is all too often a lowest common denominator phenomenon, unimaginative, unauthentic or just plain crap, Roberto Pons’ cooking at La Dolce Vita is both a monument saying “Behold! This is it” and a signpost pointing the way to go for others. In a culinary genre depending for success on the meticulous execution of simple concepts the difference between the mundane and the sublime is hard to define. Nevertheless, I believe, you’ll know it when you taste it.
For the record, all we ate cost e76, ex-service including 6 glasses of wine.

FADE TO CLOSE. SFX: SIGHS OF SATISFACTION

La Dolce Vita, Trimmer’s Lane, Wexford. Tel: (053) 70806. Mon-Sat 9am – 5pm