For years the perception of Irish food around the globe was, 'over cooked stodge with little variety' no one it seemed had a good word for our gastronomes. We have always been the proud possessors of some of the highest quality raw materials from the surf and turf, our problem was cooking the stuff. Not so today, for the past number of years the Celtic Tiger has roared and its ferocious appetite has been sated by some of the finest cuisine on the planet, and nowhere does it better than Kin sale Co Cork.
For the third winter in a row, the sister towns of Kinsale, Ireland and Newport, Rhode Island will present their Festival of Fine Food in a unique "chef exchange" between the two. In this vein, several Kinsale restaurant chefs will come to Newport in 2002 and gather at the festival headquarters, Newport's Hyatt Regency Hotel. There they will prepare and present to the public a sampling of their traditional dishes indigenous to Ireland.
From the American side, several Newport chefs will journey to Kinsale in April to prepare not only their own special recipes, but also demonstrate the preparation of a traditional New England Clambake featuring an assortment of seafood baked with hot stones, a method taught to early Rhode Island settlers by the New England Native Americans.
The two oceanside towns are a good match. Both are situated on the Atlantic Ocean and known as safe harbor towns. Tourists come not only to enjoy the ambiance of the ocean itself, but to partake of the pleasures and traditions of sailing and yacht racing, along with many other shoreside attractions in the two communities.
Notable among these are the creation, preparation and serving of gourmet meals in both towns' first class restaurants and hostelries. Newport has been a playground for the well-heeled since the early 1900s and the serving of top-drawer cuisine has been a mainstay of the town. Today Kinsale, often called Ireland's "Gourmet Centre of the South," is a mecca for the Irish on holiday and for tourists from America and Europe.
But forty years ago Kinsale was almost a ghost town.
Known locally as "Mr. Kinsale" for his enthusiasm and promotion of the town, is quick to tell visitors how Kinsale has made a complete economic turnaround in the four decades since. "In the early '60s when I came to Kinsale the town was a virtual dump with refuse piled high everywhere and housefonts and roofs caved in many town houses," Barry says.
But, charmed by the natural setting of the safe harbor and surrounding hills, he saw the town's potential. Armed with his background in hospitality and culinary arts, he opened a steakhouse directly across the street from a restaurant owned by the wife of a struggling Irish poet. Barry pledged he would serve only three fish entrees and not offer her competition.
"We went for the nearby Cork City trade at first," Barry says. "Often we would refer customers to each others' establishments. Following our lead, a French and then an Italian restaurant soon joined us. The idea caught hold and by 1975 there were 12 first-class restaurants in Kinsale. So we formed the Good Food Circle."
Good Food Circle
Barry explains: "The Good Food Circle ensures that its members meet certain criteria so as to maintain a high standard of food quality, preparation and presentation. As the reputation of the Circle restaurants grew, several hotels were opened to accommodate the new tourist trade and Kinsale became a destination for vacationers." (The town since has been awarded the European prize for Tourism and the Environment).
The visiting Kinsale chefs will represent several of the present-day "Good Food Circle" restaurants when they arrive in Newport. Among those participating will be Gerry O'Connor, head chef at The Savannah Waterfront Restaurant in Kinsale's Trident Hotel. He'll demonstrate and serve one of his two seafood specialties: Pan-fried sea flesh Monkfish and scallops in garlic butter and fresh garden herbs (garnished with tiger prawns) or poached paupiettes of lemon sole and fresh trout. Or he may serve another special dish that should be of interest to New England culinary devotees: Chargrilled loin of venison garnished with poached Burgundy pears and a rich Madeira sauce.
Head Chef Paul McBride, a representative of a Circle restaurant- The Captain's Table in Kinsale's Acton's Hotel- also will prepare two of his best dishes: Saddle of spring lamb with Irish black and white pudding and his version of the venison entree, fillet of venison wrapped with smoked pork.
If a town is peopled with the wealthy, it is bound to establish good restaurants in order to cater to a crowd that favors gourmet fare. Over the last century Newport has met this demand for excellence from a largely upscale populace. The Newport chefs will represent the best restaurants from the town's wide selection of fine dining establishments when they visit Kinsale in early April.
Spearheading the Newport contingent will be Robert Daugherty, executive chef of The Windward Grill located in the Hyatt Regency Hotel. In January 2001 he was the first recipient of the "Chef of the Year" by the American Culinary Foundation.
Upholding Newport's fine cuisine reputation will be head chef Ted Gidley from The Clarke Cookhouse from Newport's Blue Haven Hotel. He will offer his two favorites: Braised lamb shank with trumpet mushrooms and butternut squash risotto and an appetizer of ravioli of lobster and wild mushrooms with leeks 8( morels and beurre de champignon.
Kinsale and Newport, who were twinned as sister towns in, the spring of 1999, can point to similar histories. Two centuries earlier during America's Revolutionary War, the British occupied Newport for three years. In 1778, two Revolutionary War generals, John Sullivan and the Marquis de Lafayette, tried but were not able to flush the British out of the town.
Although chartered back in 1334, as recently as the 1920s Kinsale was occupied by British military training units. Even among the Irish, the town was considered an English stronghold and somewhat cut off culturally from the rest of Ireland until late 1921 when the British government treatied with the Irish and Ireland was declared a free state.
But that very freedom spelled economic disaster for Kinsale when the British troop encampment, up until then the mainstay of the town's economy, left town. The economic loss was partially the reason the town was in such a sorry state in the mid '50s and '60s when Peter Barry arrived.
But that's all behind now and Kinsale's present position as a natural tourist attraction is well-established, Its brightly painted hillside homes and businesses replete with window flower boxes are a welcome sight to visitors. Silver, pottery and candle shops encircle the harbor on three sides where both private yachts and cargo ships tie up to the docks. The active restaurant scene is enhanced by a variety of pubs that feature music; modern and traditional during the later evening hours. Occasional outdoor folk concerts quickly gather a crowd on the cobbled streets when the weather is warm as well.
It's a short walk up past attractive and refurbished houses to the 1st century Desmond Castle, which houses the International Museum of Wine. Also, the 19th. century Norman built Church of St. Multose is a must for sightseers as is a trip to nearby Charles Fort, built in 1670 by the British. In the town's Old Courthouse Regional Museum, visitors will find artifacts from the ship Lusitania, sunk during World War I in Atlantic waters not far from Kinsale's harbor.
Newport also offers a variety of shoreside attractions to the visitor. Like Kinsale, there is the never ending lore of the sea itself. Founded in 1639 when the Newport Compact was signed by the town fathers, the town has always been known for its deep and near-perfect harbor, one of the reasons that commercial shipping and shipbuilding were early industries in the town and which did much to establish its strong position in the world trade market in the 19th century.
But in the early 20th century the town slowly became a playground for the American wealthy and commercial shipping ventures gave way to the sport of sailing and racing yachts and their design. For over 100 years Newport was the original home of the America's Cup races. The wealthy built their palatial "cottages" along Newport's oceanfront, known now as the famous Cliff Walk. Such notable families as the Vanderbilt's, Astors and the Belmonts spent their summers in Newport. Many of their large homes are now open to the public.
There is a museum of the Artillery Company of Newport which is a memorial to the Rhode Island Militia, and in a small triangular park known as Washington Mall, stands a statue of Newport native Commodore Oliver Hazard Ferry, the naval hero of the Battle of Lake Erie.
More recently Newport was the setting for the filming of Steven Spielberg's movie, "Amistad" and Ireland's favorite U.S. Presidential couple, John and Jackie Kennedy, were wed in St. Mary's Church in the town.
Additional information, a schedule of events for the two exchanges and inquiries can be made to www.kinsale.ie or telephone (021) 4774026 (international prefix is 011 353 21) or to the Newport Visitors' Bureau at 23 America's Cup Ave., Newport, RI 02840 or E-mail at ChrisR@GoNewport.com.