Milestones of the Sligo Food Revolution

by Hans and Gaby Wieland May 2019

On our Sligo Food Tours we often delve into the rich history of the Sligo Food scene. We believe that Sligo was often ahead of its time and provided a blueprint for others to follow. Just look at the programme of “The Northwest Festival of Fine Food” from May 1994:

“Food farming & the Future”, panel discussion with Tom Hobson, Dolores Keegan and Richard Woodmartin, Organic Roadshow and displays, “Organic versus quality wine” by Colm Brangan, “Meet John and Sally McKenna”, “Darina Allen on the significance of local produce”, “Seaweed Walk at Easkey  led by Frank Melvin”, “Visit to Clam farm at Strandhill led by Noel Carter”, “Farm Cheese-Making Demonstration by Hans and Gaby Wieland”, “Open Day at Eden Plants”, “Garden Walk at Templehouse followed by an introduction to Markree Castle”, “McNean Bistro in Blacklion” (now Neven Maguire’s McNean House and Restaurant) was amongst the following restaurants: The Cottage, Eithnas’s Restaurant, Pierrot Gourmand and Truffles Restaurant.

Here is our personal account of the first formative years of the Sligo Food Revolution

The Sligo Food Trail, a network of producers, cafes, restaurants, markets, hotels, pubs and food experiences, is only the latest development of Sligo’s thriving food scene, which is part of a national movement showing the world that Ireland is one of the finest culinary destinations. The last 40 years has seen a revolution in Irish food and cooking.

John McKenna from McKenna’s Food Guides said a few years ago at a conference in GMIT that Irish Cuisine went from initial imitation to improvisation. We think it is fair to say that with so many inspired food producers and chefs we are now at the stage of imagination: “What can we do with all this great produce?”

But where did it all start?

Most likely with the late Myrtle Allen and her husband Ivan at Ballymaloe House and Farm back in the late 50s. Her philosophy of using local artisanal ingredients and changing her menu daily to reflect the best offerings of the season was "revolutionary at the time." She summed up her philosophy of food in the following nine words “local, seasonal, organic, flavoursome, sustainable and superbly cooked food”, which is still the benchmark for any chef or establishment in 2019.

Darina Allen, Rory O’Connell and Rachel Allen are all continuing the work of Myrtle and Ballymaloe Cookery School, established 1983, and their prestigious Ballymaloe 12 Week Certificate Course had a huge influence on establishing Sweet Beat Café and Knox restaurant in Sligo.

 

The Leitrim inspiration – Eden Plants

Less remembered, but not least important, is the arrival of Rod Alston in Co. Leitrim in 1973 and the establishment of Eden Plants at Rossinver with Dolores Keegan. He has described the scenario himself: "In February 1975 I moved into an almost derelict cottage, surrounded by the absurdly optimistic nodding yellowness of daffodils, and a chaos of thorn and bramble. I came with the necessary ignorance and naivety and possessed, I suppose, a sufficiently stubborn twist of mind to remain here…. I have attempted to make a garden that is both productive and beautiful, and a farm that is capable of supporting those living here."

When he started supplying local restaurants in Leitrim and Sligo with organic vegetables and herbs it changed the Irish food scene forever and his involvement in the emerging organic movement lead to the establishment of IOFGA, the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association in 1982.

… and the Sligo Connection

And who remembers Anthony Kilcullen, organic farmer from Enniscrone? Anthony began farming in 1962 and in September 1984 he changed to organic farming. In many ways Anthony and his son Danny, who came on board in 1986, were ahead of their time. They had a farm shop for a while that sold a range of goods including vegetables, potatoes, lamb, milk and butter - all produced on the farm. Gaby and I bought his organic wheat for our sourdough breads in 1985! Anthony is still very much involved in farming. However, these days he is more than happy to hand things over to Danny. (Source: Grace Maher, 10th December 2014, Indo Farming)

Tir na Nog – The Melting Pot

Back in Sligo Town the brother and sister duo of John and Mary O’Donnell started Tir na Nog at Easter 1980, one of the first ever Health Food Stores in Ireland.  In 1985 they still ran a Coffee shop upstairs. They had a cheese counter in earlier times and sold their own bread, baked in the bakery next door. Mary sold our first ever sourdough rye bread in 1987. They even had a grain mill to mill fresh flour for customers, revolutionary at that time. Elizabeth and Dick Woodmartin’s free range eggs were available in the shop.

From the start Tir na Nog had and still has a huge range of locally produced fresh vegetables. They always try to be up to date with the newest trends. From wheatgrass when it was more popular to fermented vegetables and drinks right now. And it was only natural and logical that vegetables and herbs from Eden Plants were sold there. Volkmar and the late Claudia Klohn from Crimlin Farm in Tubbercurry were the other most important vegetable and cheese suppliers from 1986 onwards.

Interestingly enough Mary O’ Donnell and Darina Allen were head hunted by Rod Alston to sit on the first Board of Management of his new brain child, The Organic Centre in Rossinver, Co. Leitrim in 1995. With their educational courses and training programmes a whole new generation of gardeners, growers and food producers emerged on the scene. Without the inspiration and the produce from The Organic Centre the development of the Sligo food scene is unthinkable.

Kate’s Kitchen followed suit in 1982 with the forward thinking Kate Petit and Frank Hopper. And there was always Cosgroves Delicatessen, one of the oldest shops in town, established in 1898, bringing the first ice cream, yoghurt and German salamis to Sligo. Anecdotal evidence has it that the first avocado was sold in Cosgroves in the 80s.

Gaby and I arrived in Sligo in 1985 and our first cheeses, sourdough breads and vegetables produced at Neantog Organic Farm were sold in Tir Na nOg and later in Kates Kitchen and Reveries restaurant in Rosses Point, ran by Paula Gilvary and Damien Brennan from 1985 to 1991.

Further food landmarks in Sligo with ripple effects way beyond the county

Bernadette O’Shea opened Truffles restaurant with their new age pizzas in 1988. “More than perhaps any other cook, Ms O’Shea hit upon the radical, the truly radical, idea of re-inventing an established culinary form – the pizza – and exploring how it could be reinterpreted to reflect not just the skills of a dazzlingly talented cook, but could also be used as a reflection of a local food culture, which produces uniquely fine foods. She brought the international back home to the local, and in this synthesis she created something utterly magical.” (John McKenna in the foreword to Pizza Defined, 1997)

Brid and Mark Torrades opened Glebe Country House in Collooney in 1990, inspired by the late Myrtle Allen from Ballymaloe House. It became famous for wild salmon, Culleenamore mussels and locally grown vegetables. Brid’s seaweed cooking was featured on Nationwide TV in 1998, more than 20 years ago. Her husband Marc and son Tommy have recently founded Seapunk Vegetables, continuing the tradition.

Sligo – The seaweed capital of Ireland

Over 500 varieties of seaweed grow wild in Ireland and seaweed has long been used in coastal areas to provide fertiliser for growing potatoes. Seaweed has many uses.

In 1912 Kilcullen’s bath house opened in Enniscrone offering traditional hot seaweed baths.

Back in the late 1980s, Frank Melvin decided to become a seaweed harvester in rural Cabra, West Sligo. The seaweed trade was miniscule then, but now it's become a global phenomenon. Frank in an interview with the Sligo Champion said that his company, Carraig Fhada, exports a lot of its harvested seaweed out of Ireland. Much of it is used either for the cosmetic or food industries. "When I started off, it was more the traditional seaweed, such as Carrageen moss and Dillisk seaweed that we picked.” (Source: Emma Gallagher, Sligo Champion 5th November 2013)  

Dr.Prannie Rhatigan, from Streedagh, who grew up with seaweed started guided walks and seaweed courses as part of The Organic Centre’s educational programme from 2004 onwards. In 2009 she published “Irish Seaweed Kitchen – The comprehensive guide to healthy everyday cooking with seaweeds” starting the re-emergence of seaweed as a superfood and bringing Sligo’s seaweed to an international audience. Prannie is – in our view - the leading Irish seaweed expert and an ambassador for Irish seaweed all over the world.

Another leader in seaweed is VOYA in Strandhill.  The Walton family has revived the Irish seaweed baths and their reopened baths in Strandhill are now one of only a few in the country. Seaweed baths have been a tradition in Ireland for hundreds of years and are Ireland’s only indigenous spa therapy. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were an estimated 300 seaweed bath houses in Ireland and nine in the small town of Strandhill alone.

Sligo’s Country Houses setting standards in food provenance

What is now trending under “farm to fork” existed in County Sligo in the late 80s and early 90s with Temple House and Coopershill House. There aren’t many places serving up home-produced venison, but the O’Haras' fallow deer farm that visitors pass on the driveway up to Coopershill House provides meat for the kitchen as well as restaurants and some speciality shops. So you may well find venison on the dinner menu along with seasonal home grown fruit and vegetables, all produced in a beautifully maintained kitchen garden behind the house that is a delight to the eye as well as promising to the taste buds. What began in the early 90 with Lindy and Brian is now continued by Simon and Christina.

Sandy and Deb Perceval from Templehouse near Ballymote also belong amongst the pioneers of the Sligo Food scene with their organic lamb, their Kerry cows and organic vegetables from their big walled garden in the early 80s. Now Roderick and Helena continue the work.

As outlined at the start this is our personal recollection and we very much welcome any additions, corrections, updates and recollections to write the modern history of the Sligo Food Scene. Please e-mail your contributions to sligofoodtours@gmail.com or call us for a chat at 087 6122082.