Ireland's fertile green fields, crystal-clear rivers and filigreed coastline offer a pantry packed with fresh-as-it-gets local produce – from farmhouse cheeses to tender Kerry lamb, delicate brown trout and seafood spanning Atlantic salmon to langoustine-like Dingle Bay prawns and Galway Bay oysters. You can taste Ireland's bounty at exceptional restaurants ranging from Michelin star to gastro pub, laden farmers markets and lively festivals, and wash it all down with whiskey and artisan beers.
Oysters and Guiness at McDonagh's Seafood in Galway. Image by Oliver Strewe / Getty Images
The Irish capital provides a tantalising introduction to the country's gourmet scene. Head to Michelin-starred Chapter One for Ross Lewis' intricate local flavour combinations. Or dine on Tom Doyle's weekly changing creations at the Mulberry Garden (mulberrygarden.ie), a 1911 stone cottage filled with Irish paintings, literary quotes, linens and silver cutlery. Retro-cool Vintage Kitchen spins vinyl and serves dishes like wild Wicklow duck liver crème, pan-roasted Thomastown aged sirloin and a glass of ‘Guinness’ (chocolate and Baileys) for dessert.
County Cork is a foodie haven. The city’s 1788-opened English Market showcases the region's produce beneath its ornate vaulted ceilings and columns. Upstairs, the wonderful Farmgate Cafe sources all its ingredients from the market below. Local produce is also featured in everything from innovative sandwiches to multicourse meals at the city's much-loved Market Lane restaurant.
Cork City's English Market. Image by LWYang / CC BY 2.0
Surrounded by seafood-rich waters, Galway City's gastronomic offerings include the Michelin-starred Aniar, a 'terrior' specialist in food from Ireland's west. And no visit to Galway is complete without squeezing on to a long, sociable wooden table at local institution McDonagh's for perfectly battered cod and thick-cut chips.
Many of Belfast's best restaurants are hidden inside hotels and guesthouses such as the 19th-century Rayanne House (rayannehouse.com), serving a nine-course tasting menu replicating the first-class dinner served aboard the Titanic, near where the liner was built. The seasonal menu at Molly's Yard, a quirky restaurant housed inside restored Victorian stables, features local specialities such as slow-roasted leg of Belfast Hills’ kid (goat). It also has its own craft beers, brewed at Lisburn's Hilden Brewery.
Fine dining in Ireland isn't confined to the main cities – look out for gems hidden all over the Emerald Isle. In Adare, 'Ireland's prettiest village', prodigious chef Wade Murphy is wowing diners in his thatched-cottage Restaurant 1826 (1826adare.ie). On the glorious Ring of Kerry loop drive in Waterville, Henry Hunt makes sublime seafood chowder and lobster from Ballinskelligs Bay at the front of his Smugglers Inn (the-smugglers-inn.com). Stay overnight to savour cooked-to-order breakfasts.
Fruit vendor at Moore Street market. Image by Oliver Strewe / Getty Images
The best way to discover Irish fare is chatting to producers and sampling their wares at farmers markets. Dozens take place Ireland-wide each week. The original and best is Cork's Saturday-morning Midleton Farmers Market. Seek out salmon smoked by Frank Hederman at his nearby Belvelly smokery, Jane and Gerard Murphy's Ardsallagh goats cheese, and wild and locally grown Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms, as well as bushels of seasonal fruit and vegetables, homemade jams, chutneys and pâtés, homebaked breads, handmade chocolates and more.
Food and drink is celebrated with gusto at gourmet festivals galore. An unmissable fixture is mid-April's West Waterford Festival of Food, held in Dungarvan, at venues all over this picturesque seaside town including its restored 12th-century castle.
In mid-June, Dubliners turn out en masse for an al fresco feast during the Taste of Dublin festival (tasteofdublin.ie), while Cork City hosts its Experience Cork Food Fest (corkfoodfest.eu). On the last weekend of September, merriment at the world's oldest oyster festival, the Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival (galwayoysterfestival.com), includes an oyster shucking 'Olympics'.
A man sips his beer in a pub in Galway. Image by Gill C. Kenny / Getty Images
While Ireland is known for Guinness, other craft breweries include Ireland's oldest independent brewery, Hilden Brewing Company (hildenbrewing.com) in Northern Ireland; one of its newest, Bo Bristle (bobristle.com), on the River Shannon in Banagher; Kinnegar Brewing (kinnegarbrewing.ie), in remote County Donegal, which makes a mighty spicy rye ale; and Roscommon's Hooker Brewery (galwayhooker.ie), which brews the ultra-refreshing Galway Hooker pale ale (named for Galway Bay's traditional fishing boats).
Of course, Ireland is also renowned for its whiskey, such as Jameson, Tullamore Dew and Bushmills, whose County Antrim distillery – the oldest licensed distillery in the world – does tastings and tours. Emerging artisan distilleries aiming to give them a run for their money include the Dingle Whiskey Distillery (dingledistillery.ie) on County Kerry's beautiful Dingle Peninsula; and Alltech Craft Distillery in Bagenalstown, County Carlow. Both should have casks ready later this decade. Sláinte (cheers)!