Armchair Travel: Chef JP McMahon On The Culinary Scene In Galway, Ireland
Since arriving in Galway in 1999, I have always been struck by its bohemian character. It is a city in thrall to the arts. One of my most abiding memories is of the Macnas Parade, a street performance that winds its way down through the medieval city, with larger-than-life puppets controlled by performers. It elicits a magical sense of wonder from onlookers, whether they are children or adults. Music and fire are common features—they light up the city and crystallise the way in which the west of Ireland is a place apart from the rest of the country. People come to Galway to encounter its magic, which can be found in the many theatres, bars, restaurants, cafés, and music venues that give the city its international reputation for great hospitality. It is a place where the old meets the new—where the ancient walls encircle a vibrant, modern energy.
And yet there is more: another side of Galway has emerged in the past 10 years that has given it a renewed vigour in terms of its own identity. Food has been the principal mode of expression of that identity. As a chef, I have witnessed a fresh confidence in the manner in which we think and talk about food. From the farmers to the fishermen, from the chefs to the restaurateurs, we now embrace our local landscape as a bastion of culture. What makes Galway unique is its location. Positioned between the land and sea, it is a fertile terrain that lends itself to exceptional food production, especially farming and fishing. From Connemara mountain lamb to the cheeses of north and east Galway, and from the heritage vegetables of Claregalway to the amazing shellfish of Galway Bay, it is a place to indulge in your love for food.
This brings me to Galway’s most famous food asset: the oyster. Oysters have been a part of the food culture of the west of Ireland for thousands of years. They are sown into the blood of its citizens. Large midden beds (ancient dumps) demonstrate our love of the oyster.
Every September they are celebrated in the Galway Oyster Festival, which is the oldest continuing oyster festival in the world. The festival marks the new season of the native oyster: a briney, succulent beauty that embodies our rugged terrain. Kelly’s Oysters are world famous and they are not to be missed when visiting Galway; they are best enjoyed with a pint of stout. However, one should not forget the other amazing oyster companies, namely Dooncastle and Flaggy Shore, both of which produce fantastic Pacific oysters. This breed of oyster arrived in the 1960s and has taken well to the waters of Galway Bay. You can find it all year round—as opposed to the native oyster, which is only available from September to April— as Pacific oysters breed during the summer months.
My day in Galway revolves around our three restaurants—Aniar, Cava Bodega and Tartare Café and Wine Bar. All have different food styles but the approach and philosophy are singular: to showcase the best that the west of Ireland has to offer in terms of its ingredients.
Aniar is our restaurant that solely uses Irish ingredients to produce its cuisine. That means commonplace ingredients such as chocolate and lemons are off the menu. Anything that doesn’t grow in Ireland is excluded in order to bring a reinvigorated sense of creativity to our cuisine. It’s a restaurant that puts the west of Ireland on a plate and invites diners to experience the land and seascape through a tasting menu of carefully crafted dishes. Wild food and seaweed are at the core of our Irish cuisine at the restaurant.
Cava Bodega is our tapas bar that transforms the pro-duce of the west through an Iberian lens: Connemara clams with chorizo, Killary Harbour mussels with almonds and spices, confit Irish pork belly, and organic spinach with pine nuts and raisins are just some of the tapas that we offer alongside an all-Spanish wine list featuring more than 150, bottles as well as Irish beers, ciders and ales.
See also: Brasserie Fritz Is Back! Famed For Fresh Seafood Platters And Frothy Hot Chocolate
Lastly, Tartare is our cafe and wine bar (with a Michelin Bib) that dedicates itself to oysters, tartare, and natural and organic wine. By day, it’s a casual cafe serving soups, salads, and sandwiches; by night, it transforms into a stylish wine bar with many small plates, including three different types of dressed oysters.
In opening Tartare, I wanted to make oysters more accessible. So no matter when you come, oysters are always on.
The various types of Irish oysters are served in Tartare in different ways. Firstly, we dress the Dooncastle oyster with trout roe, sea lettuce and extra virgin rapeseed oil. The native oyster, on the other hand, receives the royal treatment as it is paired with pickled wild rose and dillisk seaweed. Lastly, the little Flaggy Shore oyster is enhanced by buttermilk and chive oil. For many people, eating oysters means having them with lemon or Tabasco, but for me these delicate treasures need a touch of terroir to bring them to life.
Related: To Malaysia With Love: 3 Women Working In F&B Overseas Write Home
Many chef friends of mine who come for the Food on The Edge conference have become obsessed with Irish oysters. Massimo Bottura gave Kelly’s Oysters his blessing one year as he ate more than a dozen. Outside of our own restaurants, there are many other places to sample Galway’s oysters, including Moran’s On The Weir and Kirwan’s Seafood Bar. Here, they are served with shallots in sweet red wine vinegar reduction. For me, however, I find that the best way to have them is simply with seaweed. It is these two ancient ingredients that symbolise the culinary aesthetic of the west. With the best waters and the most sustainable shellfish practices, oyster and seaweed farming offer us renewed ecological hope in Ireland.
This year, Galway is the European Capital of Culture. Apart from Food on The Edge, there were myriad culinary events that took place including Project Baa Baa, which highlighted the cultural, economic and environmental contribution of sheep farming and its associated traditions to Galway. At our own symposium in October, we brought 14 international food practitioners to talk, interact with and influence the delegates attending from around the world. This project aims to transform Irish food by allowing outside voices to contribute to the debate regarding the role of food in contemporary society.
JP McMahon is a chef, restaurateur, author and food educator based in Galway. He is the culinary director of the award-winning EatGalway Restaurant Group, which comprises Aniar Restaurant, Cava Bodega and Tartare Café and Wine Bar. As one of Ireland’s foremost thought leaders on food, McMahon is a prominent advocate for local food and sustainability both in Ireland and internationally. He is also the symposium director of Food On The Edge, a two-day global convention that has taken place annually in Galway since 2015. In February 2020, he released The Irish Cookbook, published by Phaidon.