Embrace Your Inner Celt
I love watching food programmes on the telly. Could be Indian cuisine, which I’ve never cooked and never expect to, could be fifty shades of feta, or how to do Tarte Tatin without turning your kitchen floor into a skating rink. Basically I’ll watch anything, especially if it includes shots of a windswept presenter ambling down the garden with a trug – and, possibly, a dog – and ambling back up again with armfuls of seasonal vegetables. One thing about this rash of seasonal food programmes, though. It may be trending on Twitter, and tv commissioning editors may think it’s the happening way to go, but seasonal food isn’t, and never has been, just about fashion.
Look at the ancient Celts. A couple of thousand years ago they crossed the Irish Sea moving west ahead of the Romans. As a plan it worked. The Roman legionaries never made it to Ireland, so having got here the Celts could stop charging like lemmings into the west. Which was just as well because, if they’d had to keep going, they’d have faced a long swim to America from the end of the Dingle peninsula. Anyway, once they got here they settled down and became our ancestors. And in Ireland we’re still living with that Celtic inheritance – red hair, freckles, endless talk, and a rich legacy of artefacts, stories, myths and poems. As well as a deep urge to throw enormous parties.
Lounging on a sofa in your pjs, it’s easy to see seasonal food in terms of lifestyle. But if you actually depend on the food you grow and rear yourself, bad weather, sick animals or a poor harvest can mean famine - a scary scenario which could easily lead to a tendency to slam the door on the neighbours if they happen to roll up at mealtimes. But the ancient Celts did exactly the opposite. No matter how bad the harvest, each year at the turning point between autumn and winter they flung open their doors, reached for their musical instruments, and ate and drank all round them, in ballsy, communal expressions of confidence in the future.
I love that confidence. I think we should recapture it as a nation. And I love the ancient Celts’ passion for turning points, those dynamic moments of balance between one possibility and another. Life for them was all about celebration, and body and soul were interdependent. Their spiritual awareness and sensual appreciation of food and drink live side-by-side in spare, delicate nature poems and grotesque, mind-blowing stories about forts of butter, rivers of cream, and bridges made of sizzling sides of bacon.
Cut to twenty-first century Dingle on the first weekend of October and you get much the same vibe at the Dingle Food and Wine Festival. A little less human sacrifice perhaps – though that rumour may just be sore-loser Roman propaganda – and a little more chilli in the chocolates. (Ok, not exactly native or seasonal, those, but definitely hand-made in Ireland.) In fact, a blue-faced druid strolling up Main Street wouldn’t bat an eyelid – or, indeed, raise an eyebrow. Ancient Celtic festivals lasted for days. Families met and hung out together, playing music, singing and dancing; marriages were arranged; bargains were made; and everyone indulged in an orgy of seasonal produce. These days there’s all of that. Plus Tasting Tickets.
Like everything Dingle does, there are no half measures. Out in the streets locals and visitors wander happily along the festival’s famous Food Trail, over 60 establishments, ranging from pubs and restaurants to pottery studios and hat shops, showcasing Dingle Bay shellfish, Blasket Island lamb, local beef, and Dingle peninsula cheeses. Halfway up Main Street, St. James’ churchyard is lined with stalls offering artisan food from across Ireland. In the church itself, free cookery demonstrations are packed throughout the weekend. And there’s music everywhere – outside on the streets, in hotels, pubs, restaurants and shops, wherever yet another fiddler, piper or concertina-player could squeeze behind a pint.
This year, the festival has a Heritage Food theme, highlighting foods and cooking methods used on the peninsula in living memory. That probably excludes the ancient Celt’s method of stewing meat by dropping red-hot stones into a deerskin full of water suspended from spears. But you never know. There’s certainly emphasis on the ancient Celtic art of brewing, one of the few things the Romans admitted we were good at. An Canteen, one of the town’s restaurants, is hosting a beer and cider festival, featuring the Dingle Brewing Company and the West Kerry Brewery. The festival also launches the new Dingle Whiskey Distillery and includes the finals of the Blas na hEireann, Irish Food Awards, with over 40 judges blind tasting produce across 40 food categories.
So between the jigs and the reels, the craic and the crab claws, you never quite know what’s round the corner. One thing’s certain, though; whatever it is, it’ll look good, smell great and taste like heaven. I can still remember last year’s fudge flavoured with heather honey, chunks of dillisc-flecked cheese on warm soda bread, wine drunk sitting by the harbour, and my Dingle Dexter burger, made from the meat of hardy little cattle grazed on the high mountains. It’s a brilliant way to spend a long weekend as autumn turns towards winter, a gourmet celebration of life, and a communal demonstration of confidence in Ireland’s quality, seasonal, native food and drink. Why hang round on a sofa watching telly this weekend when you can rock on down to Dingle and express your inner Celt?