“Lads, would ye look at this?”
Jerry came from behind the counter waving a white paper and beaming like he had just won the table quiz at McCarthy’s pub.
“A Silver from Blas na hÉirann for my beef! Would ye believe it?”
Blas na hÉirann medals are the premier prizes in the Irish food and drink industry, awarded each year at the Dingle Food Festival. Producers from all over Ireland compete for the honor.
“It’s for my ‘Dry Aged Dingle Distillery Mash Fed Sirloin’ that I seasoned with Trevis’ seasoning blend.” Trevis, a chef friend of ours, makes this seasoning with the aromatics that go into Dingle Gin: juniper and coriander, rosemary and hibiscus, wild fuchsia and bog myrtle.
“Uh, what’s all that mean, Jerry?” I ask.
“I finish the cattle off the last four weeks on the mash from the distillery below. When it’s their time to go, they’re fairly mellow. No stress, like. Sure, it makes for tender beef.”
The Dingle Food Festival is the largest food festival in all of Ireland and the largest event in Dingle by far. It reminds me of the Clancy Brothers song:
“There were half a million people there, of all denominations,
Catholics and Protestants and Jews and Presbyterians.
Yet there was no animosity, no matter the persuasion,
Just craic and hospitality to mark the grand occasion.”
There weren’t really a half a million people in Dingle but there were twenty thousand, and in a town of 2,000 souls, that can feel like half a million. The madness started right outside of Jerry’s butcher shop on Orchard Lane, which is reserved for Irish artisanal food purveyors. There are cheese makers and sausage makers. Craft beer and cider. Mince pies. Pickles. And Trevis selling his spice mixes. I stop to have a black pudding roll to fortify me for the day ahead and we set out.
Stalls line the streets and every restaurant and shop has a table in front offering up their specialties. We march up Main Street, turn left on Green Street and are greeted by a mass of people.
There are people from every part of Ireland and beyond. We hear strange and exotic languages like French and Californian. The sheep farmers from out beyond Baile na nGall are wearing heavy boots and three-piece suits with a flat cap. To be fair, this is what they wear every day while tending their sheep but they’ve slapped the straw from the cap for the occasion. Town folk are wearing their usual jeans and sweaters. And then we are stopped cold: a couple appears in front of us. She is in leather jeggings and a leopard like top, tottering on four-inch-high stiletto boots. Her platinum blonde hair is teased a foot above her head and her false eyelashes are large enough to sail a small dingy across Dingle Bay. He is in skinny-legged moleskin trousers with a tweed tight cut jacket and a pink – pink! – shirt. A long scarf completes the ensemble.
“They’re not from here,” Sara ventures.
“Dublin, I reckon.”
We move on, still staring over our shoulders.
“We need a strategy,” Sara says.
“My strategy is to try it all,” I reply.
The Fish Box, the new chipper in town, offers up a prawn cocktail with spring onion, lettuce and marie rose sauce. Dingle Crystal has a blackberry and apple infused Dingle Gin shot, but I prudently pass, thinking it’s a bit early for the hard stuff.
“Let’s see what Mark has on,” I say.
Mark is the entrepreneurial owner of the Dingle Cookery School and The Little Cheese Shop. We have braised beef with pickled onions on pita bread from the cookery school and raclette on fresh bread from the cheese shop.
We make a right on Strand Street. Solás, the new tapas bar, has two miniature chorizo sausages on a stick. Sara tries one and I try the other.
“Jaysus, Sara,” I gasp, “would you take my arm, my knees have gone weak.”
Chorizo juice is dribbling down my chin. The sausages are glorious.
We get back in line for another stick.
When we return to our senses, I say “Let’s go to Liam’s studio. Some Michelin starred chef from Dublin is making mutton pies.”
“Okay,” she says, “but two things. I do not like mutton and we are definitely not buying another painting.”
We walk around the corner to The Colony, the little cul-de-sac where Liam has his studio.
A new batch of pies, still steaming, comes out of the oven just as we walk up.
“Just one, please,” I say. “Here, Sara, just try one taste,” gallantly offering her a fork. She reluctantly takes it from my hand and takes a bite.
“My god, that is the best thing I have ever eaten,” she says as her eyes glass over.
I look around to find her a chair.
She snatches the pie from my hand and I get back in line.
We pop into the studio to say hello to Liam and there, on the wall to the right, is a large painting of a farmer leading his flock of sheep down the side of Mt. Brandon.
“I want that.”
“But you said…”
“I’m asking Liam how much it is.”
We finally find Liam in the melee.
“It’s sold,” he tells us, sadly. “I wish I had painted ten of them. I could have sold them all.”
“Whew!” I think.
Back up Strand Street we go to the Holy Ground, stopping at My Boy Blue for a fish taco. We squeeze through the crowd around the farmers market when Sara spots a young fella walking by with a fine-looking sausage roll.
“Where did you get that?” she asks him.
“Just there. At that stand. It’s vegan.”
Sara turns on her heel and walks in the other direction.
The crowds are shoulder to shoulder.
“Why don’t we sneak up Dykegate Lane,” I suggest. “There’s no stalls there. It will take just five minutes to get back to Main Street.”
Forty-five minutes later, we are only halfway up Dykegate. We meet friends and neighbors and a classmate of mine from college, all with the same idea. We stop to chat and exchange notes with each of them.
“Did you try the Cubano at Uisce Saddlery?”
“The sticky toffee pudding at Random is brilliant.”
“Don’t miss the pizza at The Beast.”
“Be sure to get the Thai fishcakes at Adams Bar.”
Once more around the town – Main Street, Green Street, Strand Street and the Holy Ground – and at last we are sated.
“Shall we head home, my dear?” Sara asks.
“Sure, but could we stop at Jerry’s to pick up a couple of those steaks and some of Trevis’ seasoning. I’m worried I might feel peckish later.”