Galway, long known for a thriving arts community, has turned its creative energies to food. Today, this small Irish city on Europe’s western edges is emerging as a hot spot of gastronomy.
Ernie Deacy has seen a lot since opening his market on Sea Road more than four decades ago.
“When I started, I sold just the basics–veggies, fruit, the daily catch,” Deacy tells me. “That’s all changed now.”
Standing behind his register in a white grocer’s coat, reading glasses low on his nose, Deacy says most of the chefs here in Galway’s West End depend on him not only for produce but specialty foods as well.
“I’ve got 135 spices and herbs here now, if you can believe that. These days everything’s made from scratch–the soups, sauces, everything. I open at seven in the morning and they’re prepping in the restaurants even earlier. That would be unheard of 10 or 20 years ago.”
I met Deacy while in Galway attending Food on the Edge, a gathering of 400 chefs, restaurateurs, and other food industry professionals from across the globe. Since 2015, the symposium has brought many of the industry’s forward thinkers to Galway. This year, more than 60 speakers covered topics like preventing food waste, increasing urban agriculture, and the benefits of goat farming.
During the two-day event, local vendors handed out samples of additive-free sourdough bread, oysters smoked over foraged pine branches, and dressings made with seaweed plucked from the Connemara coast. Lunches were served on compostable plates made from palm leaves while attendees chatted about new restaurant ventures, rising produce costs, and, this being Ireland, the weather.
This international group hadn’t converged here by happenstance. Galway, nicknamed the “City of Tribes” in reference to the merchant families that ruled the city for centuries, has been steadily gaining notoriety as a hub of innovative yet locally sourced cuisine. Its newest tribe is a group of chefs setting high standards for the city’s food culture.
A culinary reputation growing beyond Galway
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JP McMahon, co-owner of Michelin-starred Aniar, launched Food on the Edge as a way to build camaraderie and generate a “cross-fertilization” of ideas among both local and international like-minded chefs determined to improve food quality, production, and accessibility.
Sheena Dignam, who started Galway Food Tours in 2015, thinks the city has become an ideal place to find culinary inspiration. She told me the mentality around food has changed dramatically since she was young, when most Irish people assumed good food had to be imported.
“When I was in culinary school in France, I was teased about the food back home in Ireland, but now in Galway there’s such a sense of pride in what we’re doing.”
This year, Galway was designated a European Region of Gastronomy, a recognition that it has moved well beyond the days of bland pub fare. Today, nearly every cobbled street and narrow alleyway has its share of cafés, bistros, and award-winning restaurants.
Local ingredients (even at the local pub)
The Universal is known for imaginative cocktails and Asian-inspired dishes like monkfish yakisoba, while across town Caribou serves up finger foods such as crab toast and cauliflower wings. The Dough Bros specializes in wood-fired artisanal pizzas, and Hooked on Henry Street is known for reasonably priced seafood, much of which comes from Galway Bay.
Galway’s contemporary chefs have made the utilization of regional resources a high priority, even as global influences help shape the city’s gastronomic landscape.
Ard Bia, a mainstay for nearly two decades, was one of the first restaurants to emphasize seasonality with its dishes. Chef Aoibheann McNamara continues to choose ingredients for her internationally-inspired menu based on what’s regionally in season, keeping close to the restaurant’s farm-to-fork roots. Loam has maintained a Michelin star rating since 2015, in part due to chef Enda McEvoy’s commitment to only using ingredients found in western Ireland. Inside the restaurant, herbs sprout from grow boxes, while pickling and fermentation are used to enable the availability of out-of-season foods. The hardiness of sea vegetables like dillisk and sweet kelp make them common menu items.
Even many traditional pubs—places like The Kings Head, John Keogh’s, and The Front Door—rely on the coastal and countryside villages near the city, whether serving lamb from Athenry, goat cheese from Dunmore, or mussels harvested in Leenane.
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Jess Murphy is co-owner of Kai Café + Restaurant and the 2018 All-Ireland Chef of the Year. She told me that restaurants’ emphasis on localization goes beyond just ingredients.
“We get our teapots from the consignment shop down the road, our papers from Mike across the street, and if guests are waiting for a table, we send them next door to The Crane Bar for a pint. There’s a real focus on supporting the community here.”
After 43 years in business, shopkeeper Deacy seems as pleased as anyone about Galway’s increasing culinary heft.
“These chefs are young and so passionate. It’s brought a real sense of excitement here.”
On my way out of his market, Deacy reached into the window display and handed me a piece of fruit I couldn’t identify.
“I’ve just started carrying these plums. Greengages they’re called.”
I bit into the sweet, juicy plum as Deacy smiled.
“Greengages here in my shop–can you believe that?”