Feast Raising for Kilkenny Town of Food

Oct 28, 2014 by


Feast raising – the art of feasting for a good cause. I’m not sure who’s genius idea this was, but it is genius.

I got a surprise invite to Kilkenny on the Sunday of the October Bank Holiday weekend for the night. Now, I don’t need very much encouragement to come to Kilkenny. My family can trace it’s roots before 1774, when my great (I’ve lost count of how many) grandfather was born here on the 1st of January.

The Night of a Thousand Feasts was an initiative to fund raise for Thomastown, a small town south of Kilkenny City to become the Town of Food. They have started to build an artisan food school and garden here with funding from the Leader Programme as well as from local business, but they need to raise the rest themselves. The idea was that ordinary people as well as businesses (restaurants, cafes and hotels) would throw open their door to feed friends and strangers with the hope that those feasting would contribute a discretionary amount to the fund. Over 2000 thousands feasts were registered from breakfasts to lunches to dinners. For social media purposes the hagtag #1000feasts was used.

It all coincided with the Saveur Kilkenny food festival which takes place on the same weekend so there were lots of food events, food stalls, food talks and banter organised. We met outside the magnificent Kilkenny Castle at noon on the Sunday, where the parade was packed with food stalls and vendors and the smell of barbequed meats wafted with glorious strong coffee from Badger and Dodo and crepes with chocolate sauce. 

We attended one of the banter sessions. A good way to draw breath before a wander around the food stalls and lunch. Lunch was organised in a converted Manchester City bus, The Bula Bus at the back of Billy Byrne’s pub. For some reason Kavanagh’s poem came into my mind as we walked here, “the bicycles go by in twos and threes – there’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight,” –

Photo courtesy of Dee Sewell

A lot of the menu is wild and foraged, cleverly itemised on the menu in red. I really enjoyed my choice of wild mushroom gnocchi. The side of spicy sweet potato fries with a dip were dive-into-delicious. I tasted the venison and damson stir fry noodles as well. This is great food for street food and they do sell at markets as well. 

Wild mushroom gnocchi

Venison and damson noodles

Another wander around the food stalls and a welcome dip into the beer tent for a glass of Metalman Smokescreen with beech smoked malt from Germany. Really liked it. I could quite happily have sat on a bar stool here and people watched but it was onto the Leader tent to talk to some recent start ups.

The start up I was most impressed with was The Inistioge Food Company with their range of beer marinates and spice rubs. I had to be dragged away. Fascinating story and really interesting man. I think he’s onto something here. He is not interested in supplying supermarkets as every craft butcher he visits won’t touch his product if he does.

We were supposed to stay in Abbey House guesthouse in Jerpoint but there was a problem so we ended up staying in Burley House in Thomastown. It worked out very well because we enjoyed a fabulous breakfast next day.

But the reason for the weekend was the feast. We had no idea until that afternoon where we were all to go. There were fourteen of us in total and we were all assigned different feasts. I’m probably biased but I reckon we pulled the winner. We were to feast in Helen Finnegan’s house, owner of Knockdrinna Farmhouse Cheese.


Fifteen people sat around a long table in Helen’s new visitor room. We started off with some of her cheese and a pâté Helen had made from smoked trout from Goatsbridge and a new product she has developed recently from cream cheese topped with pesto or a pepper relish. I could quite happily have ensconced myself in the corner and polished off the lot. 

She followed this with a dish made from her own whey-fed, free range pork that I can still taste, it was so delicious. This was served with basmati rice and roasted pumpkin. For dessert what was produced could only be described as breath taking. A tower of profiteroles made by one of her assistants (a qualified pastry chef) filled with coffee and Bailey’s and a raspberry meringue roulade. 

The wine and the conversation flowed. A fantastic evening. 

A good night’s sleep, a big Irish breakfast and we were off to Goatsbridge Trout Farm for a tour from the indefatigable force that is Mags Kirwan and her husband Ger. We sat and drank coffee waiting until we all arrived to get started. Ger then told us the history of the business and gave us a brief tour. 

Ger explaining the trout life cycle

The trout beds

Trout caviar

I tasted the caviar and was so impressed I bought a jar for Christmas. Go and visit the farm. When people are as enthusiastic and passionate as Mags and Ger are, you know their product is top class and it is. 

We then moved off to visit some craft people. This part of Kilkenny is a hive of activity and the talent is outstanding. We visited Karen Morgan’s procelain first and then on to Jerpoint glass. I have been a fan of Jerpoint for years and have their wine goblets, frosted G&T glasses (well I use them for G&T) and their big glass bowls. But what I coveted most was this fabulous cheese board.

A cheeseboard with attitude

We then went back for a quick tour to Knockdrinna. At this stage we were really behind time, probably due to talking too much, but there you go. 

Helen showed us a quick video and explained how she got into the cheese business. She produces a sheep’s milk cheese, a cow’s milk – Lavistown and a soft goat’s milk style brie. She bought the Lavistown brand and the cows producing the milk for it are organic. I bought some of her cheese in her really well stocked farm shop as well as some Sicilian Coppa and some Lavistown sausages. She gave us a sample of her cream cheese with pesto which is soon to be available in shops. Watch out for it. It’s going to be big. 

We went to Cafe Sol for lunch. I was so impressed with this bistro. I had been in the flag ship restaurant in Kilkenny years ago and loved it. Suffice it to say I would have been happy with every plate of food that was put in front of our considerable party. This is the style of restaurant that is really lacking in north Meath/Cavan. 

Spicy prawn warm potato salad with bok choy, garlic and sweet chilli

I had the above dish. It was sublime. The vegetarian option of warm pecan, vegetable and hazelnut roast was so good we all wished we had ordered it. Not often that is said in too many restaurants I’d hazard a guess. 

Then the purpose of all our feasting was then to go and see the actual site in Thomastown which will be the school of food and community gardens. It was a boys’ national school that had fallen into serious disrepair. Francis Nesbitt the coordinator of The Town of Food gave us a tour. They had already roughly laid out the gardens and the site for the poly tunnel. The school benefits from huge south facing windows so every room was flooded with natural light even on a murky afternoon. There will be a lecture room, a demonstration kitchen  and a teaching kitchen complete with ovens, work stations, fridges, freezers etc. canteen and chef changing areas. Outside the typical old school shelter has been earmarked as a water harvesting area. 

The school envisages being at the forefront of hands on chef training to supply the shortage being experienced currently. It will also be a community learning facility. It is a really, really fantastic idea and one that should be replicated in every county in the country. 

Before the light faded and to round up an absolutely fabulous weekend we called out to Maidenhall in Bennetsbridge to see Suzanna Crampton’s Zwartbles flock and have a cup of tea. I had been here before to do a photography course with Suzanna. She is a brilliant photographer and teacher. We walked around the orchard and she gave us some Catillac pears and Newtown Wonder apples as well as some of her gigot chops and a recipe sheet to try her stew. 

I have her chops defrosting here to cook later and I will take a photo of the finished dish. The lamb is lean and tasty as the flock are raised on lush green Kilkenny grass and finished in her orchards. 

Zwartbles’ lamb stew with gnocchi

Then the long drive home to think over a really lovely weekend. Special thanks to Dee Sewell and Susan Fitzgerald of Green and Vibrant Tours for inviting me and working so hard to make it so good. Also to Mags Kirwan who really is a woman to be reckoned with when she gets an idea into her head and everyone else who made our stay so enjoyable. I have always loved Kilkenny but I love it a little bit more because of the passionate, enthusiastic and friendly people I met.


 

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4 Comments

  1. And you Janine. Looking forward to reading yours and the others. Billy's were great 😉

  2. Awesome post and it was lovely meeting you!

  3. I loved his hat. And hope it is back. It's a brilliant way to fundraise.

  4. Wonder if Ger realised he was going to be a video and blog sensation wearing that hat! So glad you enjoyed it Maggie and the tour was a great reminder for me too of what we have on our doorstep. I'll definitely be heading back to some of those craft shops for some Christmas presents. You are right about Mag Kirwin – the Night of a 1000 Feasts was her idea and I'm sure it will be back next year if the Savour Kilkenny Food Camp is anything to go by.

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