Donegal County. Ireland’s Highlands. 120,000 inhabitants. Daniel O’Donnell and Rory Gallagher. Saint Columba and Packie Bonner. Famine workhouses and surf beaches. Donegal Catch and Donegal Tweed. The Four Masters and the Flight of the Earls. By the blazing rolling sea, the heron running free, the boys of Killybegs …
Aye, there’s something massively unique about Ireland’s most north-westerly county. I’ve been trundling up there since I was a tot, a tribal instinct perhaps as this is where my forbears were from … errrr, except they were actually Swedish Vikings who fetched up on the Donegal coast in 1597 speaking with a Scottish accent and swigging bottles of Captain Haddock’s finest Lock Lomond whisky.
Nonetheless. 1597. Donegal must have been quite a place back in those days. Fiery young Red Hugh O’Donnell, ancestral chieftain of all the lands twixt Lough Swilly and the Atlantic Ocean, at war with Queen Elizabeth’s plume-hatted English soldiers. The two armies chasing each other round and round Ireland, plundering and destroying everything in their path, until one grim day at Kinsale, County Cork, when the tribes of Ireland, uniting against the tyrannical foe, were severely defeated, their chieftains – Red Hugh included - fleeing from to the safety of Catholic courts on the continent.
In the ensuing 400 years since Red Hugh upped and split, the landscape of County Donegal hasn’t changed a whole lot. It’s essentially a county of beautiful barren highlands and lush green river valleys, treacherous cliffs and craggy islands, long beaches of shingle and sand, villages and towns time-warped by their remoteness from the rest of the country.
But of course that’s the reason why the county has so suddenly become top of everyone’s agenda. This is an age when people often feel at ease when they’re a zillion miles away from the realities of their day-to-day lives. Hence, Donegal is made to measure. The other curious thing about Donegal is that, despite the fact its miles away from anywhere, it doesn’t actually take all that long to get there. In fact, you could feasibly get most of the way there in the same length of time as it takes to watch “Pearl Harbour”.
Like the other 31 counties of Ireland, Donegal 2001 is a rapidly changing society. The tiger’s clutching paws have been hard at work even in these parts. Letterkenny is now a big town with traffic lights. The heather-coated coasts, north and west, are slowly but surely being repaved with the bricks and mortar of holiday homes. The roads are being rebuilt and expanded into mini-autobahns. Equestrian centres, heritage trails, craft shops and golf courses are springing up across the county. Whether or not this is a reflection on Donegal’s own Dr. Jim McDaid being Minister for Tourism who can say? The point is, for better or worse, Donegal has become a very in place to go.
I went to Donegal primarily to eat seafood. This is because Donegal, with over 200 miles of coastline, is full of impossibly succulent sea-tucker, served up in an ever-increasing wealth of top quality restaurants. By the end of my stay, I was puzzling heavily as to why Irish people do not eat more seafood? I still don’t get it. We live on an island and a very big one it is too. We have more sea acreage than anybody else in Europe. There are thousands of fishermen along our coast, hauling in massive catches 24 hours a day. We grew up eating fish-fingers. We’ve all been to the seaside heaps of times. Most of us have even had a shot at fishing and we’ve all learnt the basics of doggy-paddle. When it lashes with rain, we daydream ceaselessly about escaping to other islands where the sun will shine all day long and, twixt crimson sunsets and rainbow-coloured cocktails, we will gorge ourselves demented on seafood. And when we eventually go on our holidays, that’s precisely what we do.
So why don’t we do all this here. Is it just a weather thing? “Nah, it’s raining out, so no fish for me today?” That can’t be it. Maybe we feel sorry for the poor wee fishy-wishy? Nope, a nation that enjoys watching fluffy white baby sheep bounding around a meadow nearly as much as it likes the sight of lamb on a rack cannot possibly feel sentimental in the company of a smoked haddock.
These were the thoughts swirling around my head when I was despatched north by SQ Magazine to sample some of Donegal’s sea tucker venues. Now I could launch into a lengthy ramble about what to see and do while you’re in Donegal but this is a food magazine and so I’ll leave that to yourself to work out. In the meantime, a few words on what I at..
The prototype for many an alien movie, shellfish are bouncing back onto coastal cookers with a vengeance, following an era of increasingly strict and highly necessary controls on pollution and farming practices.
To my mind the best thing about seafood is the look of it. Nobody, for instance, can deny the divine elegance of a King Prawn. Such a majestic looking creature! A grand pink-knotted shell traversing backwards to reveal fat claws, wispy antennae, bulging black eyes. Like so many creatures of the deep, the King Prawn has wandered straight out of a Hollywood sci-fi plot and onto the dinner plate. The only difference being that where movie aliens invariably explode in a globulous slick of manky goo, King Prawns are utterly delicious to devour. Yes, it might seem a shame to tear the charismatic fellow into shreds but, if you’ve done it once, you’ll happily do it again and again and again.
The same goes for other shellfish. Rummaging around rocks and piers detaching black and blue clumps of mussels is therapeutic fun for all the family. It can be a lengthy process collecting, cleaning, cooking and purging out the baddies, but throw some garlic into the pot and you’ll assuredly taste the pleasures of patience. (Remember, never pick mussels in month with the letter “R” in it). If you’re a-hunting for mussels then chances are you’ll also scoop up a few cockles and periwinkles, as cheap and cheerful as any appetiser you’ll find. You might even come across a few scallops. Scallop shells make for excellent ashtrays, as well as being good conversational pieces. (Impress your fellow diners by remarking on Botticelli’s symbolic use of the scallop as a pilgrim in his voluptuous portrait of “Venus”. Then shut up and change the subject).
Oysters, everyone’s favourite aphrodisiac, are a hit and miss operation. By that I mean, like Marmite, you’ll either love ‘em or hate ‘em. There’s no in between. I’m told the whole sexual connotations are a myth but I’m not convinced. I find the concept of eating flesh raw from the half shell of an Atlantic oyster, washed down with a glass of Chablis, has plenty of scope for eroticism. My only problem is I can never quite knock the oyster back like they do in the Guinness ad. I invariably spill the damned thing on my chest and then have to apologise to my highly uncharged companion. Oysters are best eaten when the sea is cold (October through February) as warmer waters tend to make oysters broody and full of milk.
“There is nothing more delicious in life than the fireside, a lobster salad and good conversation” was Lord Byron’s reckoning of it all. The opium-puffing poet has a point. Lobsters are justifiably hailed as the King of Shellfish. Beneath their deep red and black, barnacle encrusted shells lies the most succulent flesh to be found in all Neptune’s great oceans. And Ireland is reckoned to have the best of ‘em. The coast of our island ripples with well-attended lobster pots all summer long. So why we are all charged the price of a U2 ticket to get a measly lobster salad is quite beyond me. Nonetheless, like the price of a pint, the price of a lobster shouldn’t detract from how good it is to eat.
The best thing about eating fish is that you can guarantee your food is fresh. Well, no doubt there’s a few dodgy chefs about willing to poison their customers, but by and large, sea-fish appear on the plate looking so fresh they could quite easily get up and start doing star jumps. There follows a brief guide to Irish saltwater fish.
Ireland’s chief representatives in the seafish department are the white-fleshed Cod family. Members include Haddock, Whiting, Pollack and Cod itself. In general these characters are best when lightly poached, fried in batter or bathed in a light home-made sauce. There are traditionally stacks of them in Irish waters and have been since the day the Little People kicked the Firbolgs out of Ireland in 3000BC. But, I regret to say, word on the sea is that the Cod family have been taking quite a hammering throughout northern European waters of late. So, Dr. Jim, if you’re reading this Donegal tale, you’d never get on to Michael and put a halt to this over-fishing lark.
A particularly fine cousin of the Cods is John Dory, a chunky chomp full of flavour (and heartily favoured by Saint Peter for all you Pearly Gates hopefuls). Similarly there ain’t nothing quite like the mesmerisingly ugly Monkfish when it comes to high protein nourishment, not least when served as escallops and marinated in lemon and garlic. Bass and Bream are wonderful grilled over charcoal in the open air or oven-baked with olive oil and Mediterranean herbs.
Like the lobster, Turbot is overpriced but still damned good. The last one I had was poached in cider and drew drools from my mouth. Slightly cheaper and not quite as juicy, Halibut is still a winner in the protein department. Lemon sole is a strange and lonely creature because contrary to its nametag, it does not taste of lemon and nor is it a member of the Sole family. That said, the prodigal wanderer is at its mouth-watering best when cooked and served with very few additional ingredients.
On a more oily note, the Mackerel rates highly because it’s such good craic catching them. Mackerel-fishing is nothing like river-angling. All you do is drop a bunch of colourful hooks down into the water and wait until a school of curious Mackers chance upon it. Like greyhounds and electric rabbits, the Mackerel family fall for the colour trick time and time again. The flesh is firm, sumptuous and full of vitamins. Try eating them with a green gooseberry sauce.