Imagine biting into a fresh lobster roll on the Wild Atlantic Way. The flesh is pillowy; the sauce clicks with a citrusy zing. Or cycling along the Old Rail Trail between Athlone and Mullingar, breaking for picnic at a magical heritage park with resident fairies and a giant sculpture that seems to rise from the ground as you eat. Or refuelling after a calf-stretching hike up Moylussa, Clare’s highest point, with some speciality coffee roasted in the Burren.
It’s the taste of freedom. We're off exploring once again, traipsing around trails, bouncing on beaches, taking picnic blankets to parks and gardens – simple pleasures we’ve missed for months. The outdoors is everything this summer, and a new generation of Irish food is there to greet us – a mouth watering menu of food trucks, takeaways, delis, hatches, terraces and local produce that has gone up a serious gear while we were away.
Forget soggy sambos, sandy barbecues, and mayo spoiling in the sun. All over the world, people are emerging from lockdown to explore again, reconnect over great food and support local producers and businesses – from the ‘Empty Esky’ trend in Australia that has travellers stocking up on regional goodies, to street seats in Brooklyn or cyclists discovering foodie philosophies like Norway’s kortreist (literally, ‘short-travelled’ or low food miles) along the EuroVelo1.
This truly is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get out, have fun, reconnect with loved ones and raise your picnic game.
After months of lockdown, we’re free to take to the roads again. Why not plan a few trips based around foodie pit stops? From strawberries in Wexford to fish shacks on the west coast, think of the road as an open-air aisle.
At Kylemore Lough, you’ll find Dooncastle Oysters’ new seafood trailer, a bright red shuck truck doing fresh razor clams and mussels as well as its signature shellfish. If you’d prefer to put together your own picnic, start your shopping at Clifden’s Connemara Hamper.
Another foodie truck fast becoming a destination in itself is Chad Byrne’s Hungry Donkey in Killarney. He’s doing magical things with lamb (ask about “the umami bomb”).
In Emyvale, Monaghan, steer towards the Duck Truck, where Silver Hill Duck are doing delectable duck burgers and ‘quackos’ by their farm shop, or break up a tour of Lough Ree and Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands with a breather at JBG’s Coffee Garden, a new all-day outdoors area at the Villager Pub in Glasson. From Glenown Farm ice cream to croissants crammed with crab mayo and pickled cucumber, it’s bringing a whole new wow-factor to Westmeath.
Top tip: Popular beauty spots are likely to be crowded this summer. Plan ahead, go off-peak or off-radar where possible, and call ahead to make sure your planned stop is open (or better still, taking orders in advance).
Picnics are like painting – deceptively simple, but hard to do well (unless you’re plugging for a classic crisp sandwich, of course). With great Irish parks and gardens open again for your blankets and baskets, not to mention spots like Wexford’s Hook Head Lighthouse, this is the year to take it up a notch and have fun, exploring cracking Irish ingredients along the way.
First, some basics. Have you far to walk? If so, swap the fancy basket for a backpack. Load up on resealable containers to keep food fresh, and pack ingredients separately where you can – assembling on site is better than biting into soggy sambos where banana or tomato have turned the bread to tissue paper.
Invest in a decent flask for soup or coffee, bring a few small jars with a little honey or jam mixed with water to distract wasps, and keep things simple. There’s nothing like a sliver of McGeough’s air-dried lamb or Gubbeen salami between the fingers, or a slice of a sweet, semi-firm, kid-friendly cheese like Offaly’s Mossfield with a simple pinch of relish on a cracker. Yum.
Finally, resist the temptation to pull ingredients from generic supermarket shelves. All over the country, there are fantastic deli shops serving as larders full of local produce.
Try the Pudding Row Grocer in Easkey, Sligo or a foodie crossroads like the Milk Market in Limerick or Cork’s English Market. Stocking up at these national treasures will not only pimp your picnic with the best local produce, but let you tap into great local tips from the people who run them.
Is there anything like gliding along a greenway, not having to worry about traffic, peddling up an appetite for your next pit-stop? Forget crummy energy bars. Think hot chocolate served in edible cups (yes, edible cups) at Signal Box Coffee on the Waterford Greenway. That’ll get you through the next couple of kilometres.
Or what about winding up a spin on Mayo’s Great Western Greenway with a feast at Blásta at Ted’s on Achill Island? From spiced fish tacos with a dollop of house slaw to their signature Blásta burger (there’s a miniature ‘little blásta’ available for junior cyclists too), this’ll slake an appetite the size of the Atlantic.
From short spins like the new Carlingford Greenway to the freshly launched Royal Canal Greenway stretching from Meath to Longford, there are all sorts of greenway goodies in store. The Old Rail Trail linking Mullingar and Athlone is another, splicing through Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands. Plan a stop at Dún na Sí Heritage Park here – its Bean Box is the perfect excuse to treat yourself to some street food, coffee or treats on the trail.
Picnics? Like our continental cousins cycling canal trails with baguettes and antipasti in their pannier bags, Ireland’s casual food revolution is the perfect excuse to picnic along the route, too. In Mayo, don't miss Kelly's sausages or Carrowholly Cheese; in Waterford, try the creamy Knockanore cheese, and treat yourself to thirst-quenching glass of Crinnaughton apple juice.
Top tip: Remember the Greenway Code – cycle on the left, pass on the right, use your bell and bring your litter home!
Is there anything better than a simple sambo?
No, there is not. “We’re here to celebrate Irish food as authentically as we know how,” says Tír Deli, a new shop on Dublin’s Baggot Street, “through the most noble of all the foods, the sandwich”. Amen to that. It’s a peachy stop-off in which to pick up treats like smoke-roasted Dexter beef on bretzel ciabatta, before lounging in Merrion Square or Herbert Park.
Then there’s Toasties 2.0. At Tall Boy Toasties in Greystones, Wicklow, 6’11” Desmond is the grillmaster serving up the “absolute biz” of Irish ingredients - ranging from yummy shards of Limerick ham to its in-house melted cheese mix. At Toast Cork, you can tuck into savage sourdough creations from a 1960s horsebox trailer in the city.
How to make a great sambo of your own? Start your build with bread from a local bakery like the Firehouse in Delgany, Wicklow or Arbutus in West Cork. Lather on a great Irish butter like Cuinneóg, Glenstal or Glenilen, a layer of fresh leaves, and a simple, local filling from wherever your travels take you. Killeen Goat’s cheese from Galway, or West Cork’s Ummera smoked chicken, for instance. Finish out with a relish, pesto or tapenade to match, a pinch of seasoning, and Bob’s your uncle.
Walking is another sure fire way to work up an appetite. Fresh air, catch-up chats, phones in pockets and a stretch of the calves - hunger truly is the best sauce. Follow a short walk on the 5km Cahore Point Trail in Wexford with a wood-fired pizza topped with fresh herbs and West Cork mozzarella at the Strand Bar.
Or plan some birdwatching at the East Coast Nature Reserve in Wicklow, followed by a bap-tastic pulled pork special at the Bapmobile in Kilcoole, or a craft butcher hot dog or rock n’ sole fries from Murt’s Airstream in Arklow. Delish.
In Waterford, walkers can find one of the best lobster rolls in the land at the Cliff House Hotel’s Pantry – a gleaming Airstream parked along Ardmore’s glorious cliff walk. In Offaly, Lough Boora Discovery Park sees a burst of old bogland brought to new life with bike, walking and sculpture trails, plenty of picnic areas and a café with outdoor seating on its deck.
Walks are perfect for picnics, too. There’s something about tucking into well-earned food in the outdoors that makes everything feel right with the world. Start your day with a shopping trip to a local deli, and go from there. Peter and Mary Ward’s Country Choice in Nenagh is an old favourite, for one, and there’s no end to the great trails in Tipperary.
Top tip: On longer walks, pack light and prepare sturdy grub that can keep for hours and won’t taste awful when squished. A firm cheese like Hegarty’s Cheddar or a slightly fruitier Killorglin is a great base layer. It may hold up better than you do, too.
Missed your city trips? There’s nothing like wandering around a sizzling city with an ice cream in your hand, or biting into a hot toastie on the hoof, with a world of shops, galleries and museums to explore. Popping into Cork, Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Kilkenny or Waterford is the time to plug into some much-missed urban buzz, and eat like kings while you’re at it.
Try a falafel with a difference from The Gourmet Offensive in Galway - its plant-based street food is packed with goodies from Fuinseog Farm. Or pick up a local feast of picnic supplies at McCambridges on Shop Street. In Dublin, nab your sourdough hit from Bread 41, fillings from the Toonsbridge Dairy on South Great Georges’ Street, before taking that blanket to Stephen’s Green or the Iveagh Gardens.
Finally, did you know Dublin has an urban farm? Airfield brings animals, gardens, walks, vintage cars and scrummy grub together on the Overend family’s estate in Dundrum. There’s a farmers’ market on weekends, kids can see cows being milked, eggs being collected and the café pumps out sweet and savoury treats with lots of TLC. Good learnings for your own little pets.
Top tip: You can find a super list (and handy map) of over 100 Irish restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating on Katia Valadeau’s properfood.ie.
For an island nation, it took us a while to fall in love with seafood. The reasons for that could take up an entire PhD, but the rest of us can enjoy the fruits of the ocean along thousands of kilometres of craggy coast.
Fancy a prawn cocktail croissant? Pick it up at Baily Bites at Kish on Dublin’s Howth Peninsula. What about a ‘spice box’ that flips the Irish chipper classic to include Atlantic red prawns with fresh chilli, onion, rocket, lime and citrus dressing? No problem – order it at Catch, the Armada Hotel’s new food trailer in Spanish Point, Clare.
The chowder at Killybegs Seafood Shack in Donegal has been named best in Ireland, while others would go through another lockdown just for a bite of the barbecued lobster with “sexy sauce” at Julia’s Lobster Truck at Bell Harbour in Clare. Nom.
Of course, you can cook your own, too. “If you can cook a sausage, you can cook a fish,” as Martin Shanahan of Kinsale’s Fishy Fishy says. There’s nothing quite like buying fish fresh off the boats at a harbourside shop like Fishermans Catch at Clogherhead, Louth, or picking up seafood for self-catering along your travels. Think of velvety salmon from the Burren Smokehouse or Frank Hederman’s magical smoked mackerel pâté in Cork. You’ll be a kitchen hero in no time.
Top tip: Don't forget the islands. Inishwallah on Inishbofin is just one offshore daytrip destination to devour – the vintage double-decker bus serves up everything from pork dumplings to panko-breaded pollack tacos. “Crazy beautiful food” as one happy camper put it.
We all know the benefits of being in green spaces. Well, the same could apply to ‘blue’ spaces. The European-wide BlueHealth research project has looked at the links between water-based environments and wellbeing, and found that short but regular time spent in blue spaces – even 20 minute walks - can help our health and wellbeing. But we already knew that, didn’t we?
What you may not know is that Ireland has blueways to match its greenways - a network of stunning trails running on and alongside some of its most idyllic lakes, canals and rivers.
Take the Shannon-Erne Blueway in Leitrim, where you can walk on a floating boardwalk on Acres Lake or bounce around the Blueway Waterpark, before dropping into Drumshanbo’s Shed Distillery – home to the legendary Gunpowder Gin. Its Jackalope Café does a delicious ‘at home’ menu and takeout plates like a buttermilk chicken burger, or beef and Guinness stew.
As anyone who has taken a river cruise or paddle on the Shannon knows, the stops along the way can make the holiday. West Lake Coffee is set on the shores of Lough Derg at Twomilegate, Clare. It serves ice cream and speciality coffee roasted by the Burren’s Anam Coffee - a walk from here can take you up Moylussa to stunning views over the water, and maybe even a white-tailed sea eagle.
Top tip: For more on Ireland’s network of blueways, including maps, itineraries, bike hire and activities, see bluewaysireland.org.
There are going to be amazing smells coming from the gardens of Ireland this summer. As the world looks to reconnect outdoors, to catch-up on missed birthdays and special occasions, the best picnic spot may well be the lawn just outside your door. With self-catering in high demand too, expect to see local goodies whizzing around holiday hotspots all over the island.
Forget frozen pizzas and supermarket sausages. This is the time to get creative, cooking up a storm with local produce, whether you’re barbecuing at home or taking the tongs to campsites and camping parks, chic forest resorts like Cabu by the Lakes or Center Parcs, or a forest park with grills (like Avondale in Co Wicklow, or Curraghchase in Co Limerick - see coillte.ie for a detailed list).
The best BBQs start with your local butcher, who will have tips on the top cuts, burger mixes and marinades for back garden feasts without the burns. A bespoke mix of Irish beef, special recipe sausage or marinated local chicken can give even the best pit boss a pick-up. Cook-ins, barbecues and meal kits are a great way to get the kids involved in food too.
For other tasty, local treats, try the new FHB trailer in Gorey – its ‘Wexican’ burger is a mix of Gubbeen chorizo and brisket from its own farm, topped with pickles, relish and oozing with Wexford cheddar, of course.
In West Cork, you’ll find the mobile Curly Stu pizza trailer (locations on thecurlystu.com), where local hero Stuart Bowes puts Michelin star experience to great use in Neopolitan-style pizzas with Irish ingredients (think Ardsallagh goat’s cheese, or Toons Bridge fior di latte mozzarella), whipping them up in under 90 seconds.
Ireland has some of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe – the perfect backdrop for outdoor reunions. We all need to play our part in protecting that landscape and travelling sustainably.
Remember to plan ahead, bring bags to take your rubbish home, respect wildlife and keep Ireland as green as you found it. Follow the Leave No Trace principles when exploring our incredible country.
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