Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Bridgestone Guide....

The Mighty Quinn

Leslie Williams pays respect to one of Ireland's greatest cooks, Michel Quinn of Waterford Castle.

When you think of foodie counties in Ireland, Waterford does not always spring to mind despite the infamous blaa and the towering presence of Paul Flynn in Dungarvan.

Now many people will tell you that a blaa is just a bap and deserves no further elaboration.  However, if you eat a floury fluffy blaa filled with Dromana peppered sheep's cheese (made by Knockalara in Cappoquin) or with some pulled rare-breed Waterford pork and Comeragh cheese and you are halfway up the Comeragh mountains surrounded by Willie Drohan's black faced lambs on a sunny day, you start to think differently.  Add in a bottle of Dungarvan Red Ale to swig between mouthfuls and very soon you too will be calling for protected geographic status not just for the blaa but for Waterford food in general.

Chef Michael Quinn of Waterford Castle hotel had dragged me and a few others up this mountain to see the natural landscape where his favourite lambs graze and of course he had prepared a picnic.  One of the diligent foragers among us quickly dropped to her knees to see what the lambs were eating and found at least ten aromatic plants including wild sorrel.  Sadly we were a little early in the season to eat the lambs (and nobody had a rock in a sock), but we all made plans to return later in the summer for that treat.

Waterford Castle is on an island (you need to get there via a ferry) in the middle of the River Suir just outside the city.  The hotel has the island to itself and is justifiably determined to position itself as a foodie destination (ok there is a golf course on the island also but who would want to play golf when you could be eating your way around Waterford with the hotel as a base instead?).

The island has been occupied for a couple of millenia but the Castle Hotel mostly dates from Victorian times and has a pleasing gothic feel with large rooms filled with solid old furniture.  The rooms all have names by the way - numbers are rather declassé after all - and the first job any staff member is given is the task of learning where each room is located.

Dinner that night in the Munster Dining Room under the seductive gaze of Emma Hamilton (Nelson's Mistress) was either sourced in the county or in neighbouring ones.

We began with Kilmore Quay scallops – a perfect sautéed one topped with pieces of sacallop ceviche and all nestled in an intense pea and wasabi purée.  This was followed by Sally Barnes smoked haddock risotto and later a thick slice of meaty turbot in sauce américaine that had been landed that morning at Dunmore East.

These completely contrasting seafood standards sound conventional enough but what set them apart was Quinn's sensitivity with dressings, sauces and spikes of flavour.  Here a lemon verbena leaf or some salt cured salsify, there some pea-shoots and intense tarragon from the hotel's herb garden.

Rare-breed pork belly is nothing new but when it is this well cooked, and better still is served with a glass of draught Metalman Pale Ale, it becomes something else altogether.

Skeghanore Duck in Quinn's hands is not just a piece of pink breast but also a rillette from the leg, some foie gras rendered down and mixed with maltodextrine (which sucks up protein like a sponge) to make a lollipop, and served with blobs of smoked pineapple sauce.

An example of Quinn's generosity is that he stayed in the kitchen for the night but sent each member of his team to our table to introduce the course they had been put in charge of and to answer our questions.

This was a sumptuous meal and was made all the better by the knowledge that it will be the first of many I will be eating there.

Breakfast the next morning could have been anything from local sausages to blueberry pancakes to pan fried cod but I stuck to some of Quinn's malty brown bread and fresh fruit from the buffet to give my poor waistline a rest.

Michael Quinn and his team at Waterford Castle are doing something important not just for their county but for food.  I suggest you bookyourself in for a treat before everyone else hears about it.

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