Showing posts with label Donegal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Donegal. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Downings. A Great Base for Donegal Visit

Downings. Delightful Base for Donegal Visit
Sunset on Sheephaven Bay

From previous experience, we knew that the beachside village of Downings is a terrific base for visiting much of Donegal. It is on the lovely compact Rosguill peninsula and the spectacular Fanad Lighthouse is less than 30 minutes away. 
Glenveagh National Park

Glenveagh National Park is also about half an hour's drive  while Bunbeg and Burtonport, with ferry connections to the islands, are an hour's trip or so. Letterkenny, the largest and most populous town, is also within easy reach. And there's a

Monday, August 19, 2019

Jutting into the Wild Atlantic. Delightful Pieces of Donegal

Jutting into the Wild Atlantic. Delightful Pieces of Donegal

Jutting into the Wild Atlantic are three of the most beautiful pieces of Donegal: Inishowen, Fanad (and it’s spectacular lighthouse) and the petite and pretty Rosguill. Inishowen, with Ireland’s most north-westerly point Malin Head, is the biggest, Fanad (and it’s spectacular lighthouse) is next to the west and then comes tiny Rosguill (a micro-version of the others).

Malin, aside from the remains of an old signal tower and some more modern and equally wrecked Irish army lookout sheds, has no buildings on the head. But it does have Ireland’s most north-westerly bakery and coffee shop parked right up there. Also a curious sign saying Eire 80, a wartime note to German pilots saying that this is Ireland and keep your bombs at bay. These white-painted signs, designed to be read from the sky, were all around the country. Malin though has plenty of walks around the head, all nicely laid-out and signposted. The views are spectacular.

One of the Malin walks
And, in the nearby village, it has one of the most innovative cafés in the country in Wild Strand where seaweed is the essential ingredient.

Having reached Malin, you need to drive all the way back down towards Letterkenny to get to Fanad. You can also shorten the trip a bit by taking the ferry from Buncrana across Lough Swilly to Rathmullan. In any event, the ferry times didn’t suit us on the day so we drove the long way and then all the way up to Fanad.

Sat-Nav wasn’t cooperating that much and we had to rely on the road signs and eventually we were on the long road in. Thought we might be late for the last tour but there were a few more scheduled. Bought our tickets and walked up to the lighthouse. Like quite a few other lighthouses, Fanad now has apartments to rent.

We didn’t disturb those residents though as we took the tour. Our guide gave us the history telling us that, after a two-year build period, it got its first light in 1817 but had no electricity until, believe it or not, 1975. In between, the biggest storm that struck was Debbie in 1961. By 1978 only a Principal Keeper was retained in Fanad, and when he retired in 1983 the lighthouse was reclassified as an Attendant station and the retired Principal Keeper remained on as part time Attendant. Now there is just a caretaker.

We climbed the 79 cantilevered steps to the top and, from behind a glass enclosure, took in the views all around, especially Malin Head to the east and Tory Island to the west. We were shown four tiny bulbs, hardly as big as my little finger, in the lamp. But these are powerful little fellows and their light shines over 18 nautical miles, just over 33 kilometres.

The two wrecks whose memory is enshrined in local folklore are those of the Saldanha in 1811 and the Laurentic in 1917. The Saldanha, a Royal Navy Frigate of 38 guns and a crew of about 300 men, was driven by a north-west gale on to rocks off Ballymastocker Bay on the night of 4 December 1811 and that led to the erection of the lighthouse.
Powerful little bulbs at Fanad

But the lighthouse was powerless to prevent the sinking of the armed merchant cruiser, the Laurentic, on on 25th January 1917, when it hit two German mines at the mouth of the lough and sank with the loss of 354 crew. A 6-inch gun from this ship was recovered a few years back and is now on display on the pier in Downings.
The gun from the Laurentic on the pier at Downings

Soon we were on the way to Rosguill, the journey cut short thanks to the Harry Blaney Bridge.  This spans Mulroy Bay (there is water everywhere here!) and connects the Fanad peninsula to Carrigart Village and Carrigart is just a few minutes from Downings at the neck of the Rosguill peninsula. 

Lying between the Fanad to the east and Horn Head to the west, Rosguill is surrounded by the Atlantic. Beautiful ocean panoramas, white beaches and even that distant Harry Blaney Bridge are among the sights you’ll see as you do the short circuit (12 km). Might walk that the next time! Small and pretty.
Harry Blaney Bridge

After a long day at the wheel, we were glad to check in at the Rosapenna and take it easy for a while before heading out for food (and a couple of glasses of Kinnegar beer) at the excellent Grape and Grain, reviewing the amazing sights we had seen and enjoyed that day in north Donegal.
The Rosguill drive
Also on this trip: Kinnegar Brewery
 Mary T. From Mallow to Donegal's Castle Grove
Something fishy going on in Donegal
Superb Day Out at Oakfield Park & Buffers Bistro
Downings. A Great Base for Donegal Visit

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Oakfield Park and Buffers Bistro. Superb Day Out for Adults and Kids Alike

Oakfield Park
 and Buffers Bistro.

Superb Day Out for Adults and Kids Alike

“There are one hundred acres here. The train will take you through the lower fifty and you can walk the upper fifty.” 

So we were told as entered the fabulous Oakfield Park in Raphoe, County Donegal. The train will cost you an extra five euro so we added that on. Probably just as well as the 100 acres is packed with various attractions, parklands, woodlands, sculptures (of all shapes and sizes), a traditional walled garden, a kitchen garden and more, including a lovely bistro. The only part not open to the public is the 18th century Georgian house originally built for the Dean of Raphoe.

We pick up the mini-train at the station (where else?). And the station buildings look like the real thing, red brick dominant, even used in the front of the restaurant which is, appropriately, named Buffers. 

The train winds its way through the woods and the open spaces, getting close to most of the features in the lower fifty. The biggest one, the most eye-catching, is the Longsleeper, a sculpture by local artist Locky Morris and unveiled for the Spring 2015 re-opening of Oakfield Park, commissioned by park owners Sir Gerry and Lady Heather Robinson. The same artist created the imposing Polestar sculpture which you may see on one of roundabouts in Letterkenny 

Longsleeper is made from 17 tons of oak and appears to perform visual and structural acrobatics!  And that impression is certainly and dramatically enhanced as the little train winds its way around it. Oakfield Park is renowned for its narrow gauge train and some of the inspiration for the massive piece comes from the railway. Longsleeper may also be viewed from various distances between two rows of trees with Croaghan Hill, an ancient burial mound in the background.

Flower meadows, lakes and streams, as well as wild and wetland areas are entwined with over 4km of narrow gauge railway to give hours of pleasure.
Deer by Rupert Till

We treated ourselves to lunch in Buffers when we arrived back at the station. They support local here of course, Ballyholey Farm Shop, Donegal Rapeseed Oil, Kinnegar Brewery and McCarron’s Butchers among the suppliers. And much of the fruit and vegetables comes from the kitchen garden up by the big house.

I enjoyed my Toasted Sourdough Sandwich, Baked Ham, Cheddar, Caramelised Onions with Soup of the Day (8.50). The sourdough is nicely cut, not those big thick slabs you get in some places, and the soup is a full bowl by the way. Well pleased with that. The Goats Cheese Salad, flavoured with their own honey, Candied Hazelnuts and Pickled Slaw Salad (9.95) was another fine dish, full of flavour and both were well-priced. This is quite a large space and there is room to eat outside as well.

Next we crossed the road and entered the upper grounds with the big house on the hill dominating the view unless you go into the woods of course. More thoughtfully placed pieces of sculptures around here. The first big feature is the lake, planted with reeds and wild flowers. A gurgling fountain powerfully pushes white water a few feet above the surface and a Castle Folly provides stunning views towards the house above and also the lower grounds. There is also a boardwalk that takes you on a loop through the reeds and back to terra firma.

Make your way then up the hill and soon you’ll find the perfect parterre and next to it the beautiful walled garden with its ponds (colourful carp circling) and pillars. Last month, the gardens were at their summer best, full of colour. Took our time around here before making our way to the kitchen garden. This is a working garden, lots of fruit and vegetables here for the house itself of course and also for the restaurant below.

A leisurely walk, with detours here and there, took us back down to the car park and, with a final look along the avenue of trees to the Longsleeper we said goodbye to Oakfield and headed back towards Letterkenny. 

All in all, a superb visit to a very well equipped place. Lots to see and do for adults and kids, the train, the bistro and picnic tables, WCs of course, and no shortage of parking. Very Highly Recommended.

Oakfield Park, Raphoe, Co. Donegal

Also on this trip: Kinnegar Brewery
 Mary T. From Mallow to Donegal's Castle Grove
Something fishy going on in Donegal
Malin Head, Fanad and Rosguill Peninsulas
Downings. A Great Base for Donegal Visit

Something Fishy on Donegal's Food Coast. Learning to Love the ‘Weed in Malin Caifé

Something Fishy on Donegal's Food Coast
Learning to Love the ‘Weed in Malin Caifé

At long last, Ireland seems to have realised the good things in our seas (and coasts) and chefs up and down the country are leading the way. Take these three very different places that I came across in a short visit to Donegal last month: Wild Strands Caifé in Malin, Fisk in Downings, and Johnny’s Ranch Truck in Ramelton. The first two may be described loosely as cutting edge while Johnny, committed to serving fresh, tasty local food, is no doubt more traditional.

Wild Strands Caifé
You’ll find the Wild Strands Caifé in the Community Centre at Malin. The distinguishing factor here is seaweed. I didn't see it when my dish arrived and asked the server. She explained they use it in the cooking, in the sauces and in the dressings. It was an element in my Fish (haddock on the day) with Abernethy Black Garlic Butter on a flatbread with a small side salad. 

Fish (haddock on the day) with Abernethy Black Garlic Butter on a flatbread with a small side salad

William McElhinney is the man leading the quiet revolution here and not just with the seaweed. Convinced that our ancestors used some kind of hot stone to make their bread, he is trying to replicate the method with a special oven. 

His Ineuran wood-fired oven is used to make beautiful and versatile flatbreads that are the base on which many of the dishes are served. Their Vegan Ineuran Flatbread are all cooked in the wood fired oven using local, seasonal or organic produce with the wonders of seaweed. Here, on the stone, he also cooks his local meats (from Boggs Butchers) “with our own seaweed spice mix along with Carraigín moss”.

We had a lovely chat with his enthusiastic daughter, Réaltín, and she  filled us in. Not alone that, we finished up with two of the loveliest cakes that we’ve ever tasted. Couldn't get over the amazing Coffee Cake and Carrot Cake as we devoured the slices before taking on the steps at Fanad Lighthouse a couple of hours later. 

Mackerel Fillet with spicy tomato sauce

In Downings, you’ll see a blue sign with the word Fisk on it, but your eyes may well be drawn to the splendid view of Sheephaven Bay in the opposite direction. Take that in and then look towards Fisk and more than likely you’ll see lots of people around. “Will we ever get in here?” you ask. It takes a bit of persistence, we had to come back the following night.

Fisk is all about fish, is tiny and is hugely popular because of the innovative way in which the fish is cooked and presented. Cutting edge in a hole in the wall. Fisk (guessing it may be Swedish for fish) has room for about 15 people and takes no bookings. But they do start a waiting list each evening and you can pass the time in the adjoining Harbour Bar, another popular spot here.
Sardines with pickled veg

Fisk specials
The menu keeps changing and there’s always a specials board on the white wall. Also inside it is a bit higgledy piggledy with a few tables of various sizes, even a shelf on the wall where four guests on high stools may be accommodated. 

The place may not be the most comfortable but the fish is different class. Different fish too - you don’t often see sardines and mackerel offered in Irish restaurants. Certainly not sardines with pickled veg. Virtually all small plates here and some delicious wines to pair with them. No point in giving you their phone number so get in early and be prepared to wait a pleasant hour or so in the bar.

Johnny’s Ranch Truck
Johnny's Fish 'n Chips

You’ll have to wait a wee while too at Johnny’s Ranch Food Truck by the quayside in Ramelton. Johnny Patterson apologises for our very short delay: “Your order is cooked from scratch, no precook here.” He opens most evenings here and you could check his Facebook page to make sure or maybe ring in your order to 083 8399305.

What surprises first timers to this food truck is the long menu, not just fish but meat too from the butcher about fifty yards down the street. That butcher provides the meat for “Ulster’s Best Burger 2019”. There’s even a Lennonside Beef Stroganoff with rice or chips. The local meat finds it way into tasty baguettes and tacos and more.

And the Fish ’n Chips from Ulster’s Best Takeaway 2019 is the stuff of legends. For just €8.50, I got three large pieces of battered haddock and a big box of chips. Took the package over to a rickety quay-side seat and took my delicious time with that fresh fish and superb chips. Well worth seeking out of an evening, early or late!

Also on this trip: Kinnegar Brewery
 Mary T. From Mallow to Donegal's Castle Grove
Superb Day Out at Oakfield Park & Buffers Bistro
Malin Head, Fanad and Rosguill Peninsulas
Downings. A Great Base for Donegal Visit

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Mary T: from Mallow to Donegal's Castle Grove

Mary T: from Mallow
 to Donegal's Castle Grove

Back, in the middle of the previous century, a young farmer’s daughter from Mallow came to Cork’s Metropole Hotel to begin training in hospitality. Mary T., now long married to Raymond Sweeney, is still in the hotel business but now she heads up one of her own, the beautiful Castle Grove on the shores of Lough Swilly, where she gave us a superb welcome last month.
Down by the Swilly shore

Breakfast pancakes
Back to those early days in the Met where she was one of a group of about two dozen, including three boys. “We were paid half-a-crown a week,” she recalled when we spoke in Donegal. “But we were fed and had our accommodation.” That accommodation had its own covered aerial walkway across Harleys Street, the narrow one on the eastern side of the hotel. By coincidence, as we arrived in Castle Grove so too did an email from the Met telling me about next month's Oyster Fest.

After the Metropole, Mary moved to Dublin where she worked in the old Jury’s. She was back in Cork again in the early 60s, helping get the brand new Silversprings Hotel find its feet. I missed her there by about a year as I, then a 15 year student, had a summer job in 1963 helping the steel fixing gang that were working on the foundations of the hotel (my pat was four shillings and ten pence an hour).

Later, Mary moved to Donegal and became manager of the Rosapenna Hotel (where we also stayed on this trip), that hotel then much smaller than it is nowadays. After marrying Raymond in 1970, Mary worked on the their 100-acre farm, back to her roots, and “loved it”.

But hospitality remained a strong love too and when Castle Grove came on the market they moved to buy it and were successful in 1989. “You could say the cows paid for it,” she said. They started from scratch, just a small scale B&B but, little by little, the Sweeneys built it up into the thriving enterprise that it is today. 

The house has 15 en suite guest bedrooms, all of which are carefully furnished with rare antiques, luxury fabrics, televisions, Egyptian cotton sheets, soft towels and indulgent toiletries. All bedrooms are also fitted with televisions as standard (even though many of  the guests welcome the opportunity to take a break from technology!).

While younger members of the family now run the house, you’ll certainly meet Mary around the place and she makes a point of meeting Cork people. She’s very much involved though, meeting and greeting many guests, and before the August weekend, she was helping organise their first Cider Festival (they make their own cider here). 
Heading to the dining room

The welcome from the Sweeney family and their staff is genuinely warm, everyone seems to have taken the cue from Mary. Always time for a wee chat, directions to nearby attractions, some very near, such as the walled garden and the short walk to the shore of the lough. You’ll be at home  in no time at all.

Mary, getting in some practice ahead of the Cider Fest
at Castle Grove last weekend. Pic by Castle Grove.
Castle Grove supports local (Kinnegar beers, for instance) and Mary is also involved in the wider community and just a couple of years back was given the Lifetime Achievement Award (Hall of Fame) by the Letterkenny Chamber of Commerce. You may see a short video of her interesting interview here

On the morning we left, Mary was there to say goodbye. But not before we had another long interesting talk and a tour of their large collection of paintings in the various public rooms around the house. She and Raymond have put together quite a collection and the pride and joy is a fine group of landscape paintings from Connemara.

Their own extensive grounds are also very beautiful, also very well maintained. No wonder the 17th Century Georgian house is a popular spot for weddings. We absolutely enjoyed our stay here (dinner, B&B) and would very highly recommend the house and the family. It is convenient too for quite a few of the Donegal attractions, just a few miles from bustling Letterkenny, and well placed for visiting both Malin Head and the stunning Fanad lighthouse.
Castle Grove
Ramelton Road
Co. Donegal
074 9151118
                                    Also on this trip: Kinnegar Brewery
Something fishy  going on in Donegal
Superb Day Out at Oakfield Park & Buffers Bistro
Malin Head, Fanad and Rosguill Peninsulas
Downings. A Great Base for Donegal Visit

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Kinnegar's Winning Team. A Squad for all Saisons.

Kinnegar's Winning Team. 
A Squad for all Saisons.

Libby and yours truly in K2

Hard work. Attention to detail. That’s what we saw when we took up an invitation from Libby and Rachel to visit the Kinnegar Brewery in Letterkenny. Libby was on hand to show us around and introduced us to Rick and some of the brewers. 

Hard work? You have to be willing to put your shoulder to the wheel here, well not exactly the wheel but those bags of malt come in 25 kgs size and quite a few need to be regularly hefted to where they’re needed!

Attention to detail? Success in many fields is built on this and Kinnegar is no different. Take a look at a notice of work for one area on the day: clean general; arrange utility room; order boiler diaphragms (steam jacket); hops racking. David is a master of detail. He joined the brewery early on as a JobBridge intern. A quick trainer, he is now of four brewers here and was working on K1 as we arrived.

Better explain. K1 is the small brewery from their farmhouse days in nearby Rathmullan and the name Kinnegar comes from the nearby beach of that name. We are in K2, huge by comparison, a magnificent illustration of how far this enterprising brewery has come in a six year span.

K1 (10 hectalitres) has been brought here and given its own space in Letterkenny. Dwarfed by K2 (35hls), it will have a special place and will be used to try out innovative beers for many years to come, thanks in large measure to David who was close to completing the re-assembly here. Indeed K1 looks brand new. They will also bring in and use their first brewery, a 0.5hl unit, now known as K0.

Links with Rathmullan are still strong thanks mainly to Libby’s mother Margaret, 80 years of age and still working on the brewery books, happy to do so in the quiet of the countryside.

With the opening of the new state-of-the-art facility K2, the clinking of bottles coming off the line no longer mingles with the bleating of sheep from the surrounding fields. Yet “the farmhouse ethos at the core of what we do however remains the same”.

While I expected to see a spanking new brewery, my jaw dropped on entering the unit. It is huge, at least to my eyes, and of course, it was a huge investment leap for Libby, Rick and Rachel when they ordered the gear from Slovenia. But so far so good. So very good.
Rachel in the brewhouse

I reckon I was one of the first to sing the praises of Kinnegar beer as I came across them in various places around Downings in June 2013. One of the places was the Cove in Port na Blagh where I worked my way through the ales, the Limeburner Pale Ale, the Scraggy Bay India Pale Ale and the Devil’s Backbone Amber Ale. Thought all three were excellent.  My number one went to the IPA while CL picked the Limeburner, the same two beers that we enjoyed this time around.

We had no problem finding them this time, in bars, in cafés such as Buffers, in restaurants like Grape and Grain, in the splendid country house Castle Grove and in the Rosapenna Hotel. Enjoyed Scraggy Bay India Pale Ale (me) and Limeburner Pale Ale (CL) in particular. These two, along with Devil’s Backbone (Amber Ale), Rustbucket Rye Ale, Yannaroddy Porter, and Crossroads American Style IPA, form their core range.

And they do specials. Lots of them! Hard to keep up. Just a few to note that I’ve liked: the Merry Tiller Dry-hopped Saison, Bucket & Spade Session Rye IPA and the Black Bucket Black Rye IPA. 
 Black Bucket Black Rye IPA, Gold Medal at 2018 Brussels Beer Challenge

Balance is a feature of Kinnegar beers and that Black Rye IPA is a great illustration, hoppy, citrus flavours, quite intense (it is the big brother of the original Black Bucket!), quite superb.

Hadn’t come across the Kumpelnest Pilsner (5%) until this trip. Wasn’t expecting too much but reckon me and this one could be the best of buddies. Nothing dominant or over the top about it but with its persistent and pleasantly moderate aromas making an excellent first impression, we were on the right hop from the off. And those first fruity flavours are also persistent as my new buddy shows staying power. Good finish too. Buddy sure won’t let you down as you can see from the illustration on the can, he has lots of friends!

And speaking of friends, how did Kinnegar come together? Libby had her own graphic design company (and those skills would come in handy) but it was Rick who had an interest in craft brewing and spotted the new wave coming. Rachel was a pro in the world of horse; there was a bit of a downturn in that line and she was looking for something with a scientific angle as that was her long time interest and, having worked with horses, she had no problems with taking her turn at the physical side either. The timing was so right for them and Kinnegar was the vehicle to take them (and their now ten permanent staff) upwards and onwards.
This canning line will stretch you mentally!

Nowadays, everyone contributes to the ongoing development though Rick is the leader on the beer recipe side. By the way, they don’t filter or pasteurise, and let their industrious little friends, the yeast, carbonate the beer naturally during fermentation.

Libby told us that Kinnegar are that bit different to other breweries in that they built their business on bottles and cans rather than draught (they do draught of course). Their bottling line is a Meheen, “one of the two busiest in Europe” while their own canning line is a Wild Goose. 

Bet you didn’t know this. Working these two lines requires different responses from the operator. Libby explained that the bottling line is more physically demanding while the canning operation taxes the mental side more! Different strokes for different folks or vice versa. Just goes to show the value of teamwork and Kinnegar have quite a squad in place in Letterkenny.

Also on this trip: Mary T. From Mallow to Donegal's Castle Grove
Something fishy going on in Donegal
Superb Day Out at Oakfield Park & Buffers Bistro
Malin Head, Fanad and Rosguill Peninsulas
Downings. A Great Base for Donegal Visit

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Best Steaks & 3 Best non-Cork Restaurants 2016

Best Steaks 2016

Aubrac Steak at The Harbour Donegal Town

Macroom buffalo steaks from Eoin O'Mahony English Market

Irish Piedmontese Beef from their stall at Cork Summer Show

Three Best Restaurants Outside of Cork 2016

I've dined around the country this year, including Donegal, Limerick, Kerry, Meath, Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Louth, Galway, Mayo and so on and these, in no particular order, are the three non Cork restaurants that I enjoyed the most.
I'll be on the road again in 2017. Any tips?

Cistín Eile - Wexford
La Boheme

La Boheme - Waterford
Turbot at The Mews

The Mews - Kenmare