This is an island nation: as the song says, 'We're surrounded by water.' Of all the nations of Europe, we have an extraordinary resource, the Atlantic Ocean, just on our doorstep -- which means we're not only surrounded by water, but we're also surrounded by fish. Forgive me if I rant on about this, but isn't it just a little bit crazy that when you go to most restaurants and see what they have under the 'fish' section, you find farmed salmon from Scotland, farmed sea bass from Greece and farmed prawns from Indonesia?
On the face of it, that's so insane you have a hard time trying to work out why it happens. Why would you send coal to Newcastle, snow to Eskimos or fish to Ireland? Yet we import farmed fish and export fresh fish from the Atlantic. Something is wrong with this picture.
If you go to Italy or Spain and eat in a restaurant, you'll pay less than here. But in both of those countries, should you choose to eat fish from the menu, you'll pay a great deal more. For the Spanish and the Italians fish is a luxury, and you pay for it. This also explains why so much of Irish-caught fish ends up in the port of Vigo in northern Spain -- they pay top money for it. We still expect fish to be cheap, so we get the fish that no one else wants.
It's also worth considering what is meant by 'fresh fish'. The definition seems to be fish that isn't frozen, but kept fresh on ice. A large commercial fishing boat can be at sea for weeks, keeping its catch on ice. When it eventually docks, all its fish -- even the fish it caught on day one -- is 'fresh fish'. To eat fish that is really fresh, you have two choices: catch it yourself on a rod, or buy it from a port where the boats are at sea for only a day or two.
This week, I went to Drogheda with Gerard Carthy to eat in a restaurant that makes a feature of using fish straight from Drogheda's port. Buying fish directly from the port has two major advantages: firstly, you get really fresh fish, and secondly, you pay considerably less than you would buying it from a fishmonger. In these recessionary days that means you can sell it in a restaurant at very reasonable prices. We'd gone to visit a restaurant called Romanza, which is run by two brothers; one runs the front of house, the other is in the kitchen cooking. They make a great team; they're enthusiastic, passionate and good at their jobs. They've also made a point of sourcing much of their menu directly -- not just the fish, but the vegetables and all of the artisan food produce they use. Sourcing directly from the producers means that you have constant control over quality and there's the saving of cutting out the middle men. It wouldn't surprise me if more and more restaurants start going down this route.
Romanza describes itself as an 'Italian, Mediterranean restaurant and piano bar'. A look down the menu will confirm that Mediterranean dishes are listed. On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, there's live music, and during the summer there are plans to have music every night. So while we made our selections, we got to listen to the piano playing a range of musical styles and singing too.
Some of the Italian dishes looked interesting, but I'll be honest here, when I see the names of the dishes horribly misspelled I tend to suspect that the dishes won't be right either. Anyway, when I'm this close to the sea, fish is what I want. Gerard also opted for fish, starting with pan-seared scallops and then the monkfish for his main course. I couldn't resist something Italian, so I picked the minestrone to start and then one of the day's fish, the gurnard, for my main course.
Minestra is the Italian for soup, so 'minestrone' means big soup -- soup with eating and drinking. And that's what I got, a bowl of well-flavoured vegetable soup, full of a variety of vegetables, almost as good as granny used to give me. Gerard had a fine plate of scallops, perfectly cooked and like my soup, very finely flavoured, served with a squash and fava bean purée and crispy Parma ham.
The wine list is quite short, but they've gone to bit a trouble sourcing interesting wines, rather than the usual restaurant line-up. The mark-up is reasonable and you can find some good wines in the €25 to €30 bracket. We chose a Vouvray at €25, a new arrival and not yet on the printed list. Crisp and clean tasting, it went perfectly with our main-course fish choices.
One of the great secrets of cooking fish is keeping it simple, and that's especially true when you have fish straight out of the sea. All around the Mediterranean coast, you can find small restaurants that cook fish as it's landed and normally that means it's simply put on a grill and served with a slice of lemon. You can't get much more simple than that.
That's how I had my gurnard, cooked whole and simply grilled. That sounds easy, but it's not. Cooking a fish fillet needs careful timing, but cooking a whole fish needs an expert hand to ensure that it's cooked through but not overcooked. What I had was perfect -- simple, expertly cooked and as fresh as can be.
Meanwhile, Gerard loved his monkfish, and with good reason. It was sensational, flavoured with smoked paprika, good olive oil and lemon. A real star dish.
We had sides of vegetables and a small dish of paella to share. I've eaten paella up and down the Mediterranean coast of Spain and normally it's a case of 'hunt the prawn', loads of rice and not much seafood. Here it was the reverse -- it was hard to find the rice amongst the plethora of seafood.
We finished with an Americano for Gerard and an espresso for me. If you're an espresso lover, you'll have to check out their espresso machine -- it's a real classic chrome job with manual pull-down levers. That and Illy's best coffee grounds made me an espresso that took me back to the café bars of my youth. This excellent meal cost €70.62, excluding service.
Read Paolo at www.tasteofireland.ie