I've been banging the drum for regionalism for some years now. It's a concept that's been well understood all over the Continent.
What it means in practice is that every region, and often even small towns,
has their own speciality, based on the local produce of that region or town.
It's a kind of gastronomic specialisation.
If you drive through France, the roadside signs will tell you what the local
speciality is. Drive through Bresse and you'll see huge signs telling you
that it is the heartland of poultry production. Go to Périgord and the signs
tell you about their truffles; in Burgundy it's their sausage, the
andouillette; in Gascony it's their snails.
The same is true in Italy; every region has its specialities. Parma has its
cheese and hams; Naples its pizzas; Aversa has its buffalo mozzarella; Atina
its chickpeas; and Castello de Sangro its wild boar. It gives every place
the possibility of saying loudly, 'We're the best at something'.
What follows from regional specialities is regional cooking. Over the years,
cooks have used their local produce to create dishes specific to their
region. As yet, this is not something that has happened generally here in
Ireland. There are exceptions, of course: we think of Galway when we think
of oysters; Wicklow for lamb and Clonakilty when we think of black pudding,
but that's about it. It seems to me that in Ireland we already have regional
specialities, but they haven't been marketed. Most of our poultry comes from
Monaghan, so why don't we associate that county with chicken dishes? And
when it comes to Donegal, the case is clear. This is where much of our
seafood is landed, so it ought to be associated in our minds with the best
and freshest fish and shellfish.
Recently, I judged a seafood competition in Donegal Town, and if local
restaurants start to become competitive to see who can produce the best fish
dishes, then we're on the way to making Donegal the destination for people
who want to eat the best and freshest that the Atlantic can offer.
These thoughts were uppermost in my mind as we drove to Dunkineely. There were
four of us: friends Sinead and Tommy from Donegal, Marian and I. The day had
been one of occasional showers and low cloud, but as we approached
Dunkineely the cloud cover lifted and the sky lit up brightly with the
evening sun. As we took the narrow boreen that led to St John's Point, the
ruins of Mc Swynes Castle came into view on the shoreline. Then, on our left
on a bluff overlooking the bay, we saw Castle Murray House. It looked large
and modern against the sky as we drove up its driveway.
The first thing that greets you as you enter is a sea water tank filled with
lobsters, so you're clearly in a place where seafood is taken seriously. The
dining room is large and one side of it is glassed, giving an astounding
view across Mc Swynes Bay to the Slieve League Mountains. These are the
highest sea cliffs in Europe, higher than the Cliffs of Moher, and it was
against this backdrop that we watched the sun set while we ate. The
glass-still waters in the bay, the backlit mountains beyond and the golden
russet of the setting sun made a remarkable picture.
There is something comfortingly retro about the room and the menu here. It's
like stepping into a restaurant 20 years ago. If anything had been flambéed
at the table, the illusion would have been complete. Not in looks, but in
feel, it reminded me of Dublin restaurants such as The Lord Edward or The
Lobster Pot -- places that serve food the way they always have, without any
nods to new-fangled ideas of presentation or preparation. If, like me,
you've been dining out for years, you'll get a sensation that's a mix of
déjà vu and nostalgia all rolled up into one.
There's a set menu priced at €51 per person and it includes three courses plus
tea or coffee. There are eight starters and 12 main courses to pick from and
our choices were these: two house specials of monkfish and prawns in garlic
butter, one fried squid and one chicken risotto as our starters, then lamb,
scallops, steak and sea bass for our main courses.
There's a good wine list with a very fair mark-up that lists house wines at
€21 and glasses of these at €4.50. The rest of the list carries a varied
selection of wines ranging in price from the low 20s to around €50, with the
majority priced between €25 and €35. I chose an Australian Verdelho, a crisp
white priced at €24.
The starters arrived and the risotto looked well, served as a tian with slices
of black truffle around the edge. The squid was presented as deep-fried
calamari rings and the house specials came on a dimpled dish, each dimple
holding either a prawn or a cube of monkfish in garlic butter with the
topping crisped up under a grill. Like all things in garlic butter it tasted
good, but for my taste the fish and prawns were overcooked. I swapped my
dish with Tommy and ate his calamari instead.
The Donegal fashion is for very well-cooked meat and fish. Each to their own,
but I do prefer my fish very lightly cooked. It's habitual in restaurants to
ask how a customer likes a steak cooked, so there's a case to be made that
the same should happen with fish too. If this had happened, I would have had
my main course scallops cooked a lot less than they were.
None of us had much appetite for dessert, but we did have the chef's selection
-- a small samples of four desserts -- a crème brulée and the warm Belgian
chocolate cake, all very good.
At €51 a head this isn't great value by Dublin standards, but you'll have to
travel a long way to get a better view.
And if you like nostalgia, you'll like Castle Murray House Hotel.