I was in Donegal for a few days a fortnight ago with Ryan’s family. As well as the beauty of the scenery, and the difference in the light, I kept noticing how great the fish and seafood were everywhere we went. Beautiful, flaky wild salmon and brilliant chowder in Narin golf club and the most gorgeous prawn cocktail I’ve ever had in a great gastro pub called Kennedy’s in Glenties, which for the record is not like any other town I’ve been to in Ireland. It’s like a hybrid of the Scottish highlands, Northern Ireland and Dingle and it’s every bit as wild, wonderful and striking as that sounds. But I digress. The prawn cocktail came wrapped in a piece of excellent smoked salmon with just dark soda bread, butter and a lemon wedge on the side; an utterly gourmet delight with a half pint of Smithwick’s ale.
On the subject of food in Donegal, I feel I should give a shout out to Morgan’s shop in Portnoo, more commonly known as ‘Inan’s’ (and now, latterly, as ‘Brian’s’, apparently) which was included in the Irish Times best shops list at one point. I have never seen a better selection of ambient items for sale – they have herbs and spices that I haven’t even seen in specialist food shops here in London, like dried fenugreek leaves, for example, and the majority of the most obscure stuff is packed locally. They also have a lovely range of local jams and marmalades from Donegal producer Filligans – we had their exquisite coriander seed marmalade on brown bread for breakfast both days. The brown bread is also exceptionally good in Donegal, falling somewhere between the heavier, buttermilk rich Northern Irish styles and the lighter, more soda oriented loaves from the south. Judging by the exacting specifications given in the Ardara Agricultural Show display booklet for the various contests, brown bread making is taken very seriously in this part of the world.
But, pantry staples aside, seafood is very much the focus of attention here. A sign in Inan’s shop window advertises boat-fresh lobster on certain days, and everyone knows to order the wild salmon when it’s on the menu, children included. It won’t be cheap but it’ll be worth it.
Back in London with friends coming for dinner, I decided I wanted to recreate the feel of the starter I had in Glenties. It wouldn’t be a prawn cocktail, but it would have the same DIY feel, with little pots of this and slices of that and a big pat of butter in the middle of it all, allowing everyone to get their own morsels just how they like them.
To make it, I used a recipe that I’ve made dozens of times before with smoked salmon – the recipe usually appears on my Instagram at some point over the festive period as I’ve made it as a starter every Christmas for the past few years, so this is now a more permanent home for it. It works equally well with smoked salmon or trout; feel free to adjust the quantities of lemon juice and zest till you reach your perfect ratio – it’s a very personal thing. Hope you enjoy it; if you do, I predict you’ll be rustling it up for happy family occasions and gatherings of friends forever more.
SMOKED TROUT DIP
Makes enough for 6 served with accompaniments; double or triple the quantities as required
150g smoked trout slices (or smoked salmon)
5 chives, chopped
Small handful of dill, chopped
1 small gherkin, or a section of the inner paler part of a dill pickle slice
The juice and zest of half a small lemon (more if you like it more citrusy – adjust to taste)
Lots of black pepper
A dash of Tabasco
1 heaped tablespoon of cream cheese
1 heaped tablespoon of crème fraîche
Brown soda or rye bread
1 packet of hot smoked salmon or trout flakes
Blend two-thirds of the smoked trout with the gherkin, Tabasco, crème fraîche, cream cheese and the lemon juice. Cut the rest of the smoked trout into small pieces and stir into the dip with the chopped herbs and the black pepper. Adjust the seasoning and consistency as required by adding more lemon juice. If it’s a little too thin stir in some more cream cheese. Cover and refrigerate for a little while before serving. Serve with fresh bread, lemon wedges, butter and a dish of the hot smoked salmon or trout flakes on the side.
The elegant houses steadfastly watching out over Iniskeel Bay from the wind-beaten clifftop vantage point of Portnoo reminded me somewhat of Ardmore in Co. Waterford – in fact this property near Narin Beach was actually called Ardmore, so maybe I’m not the only one to have thought this.
The connection was strongly on my mind during the trip, as I was reading Sally Phipps’ exquisitely beautiful biography of her mother Molly Keane, who lived in Ardmore, Co. Waterford for the last years of her life – I came across her grave at St Paul’s Church in the town on a quiet, sea-misted Sunday morning earlier this year and very strongly the presence of her, and the constituents of her world, all around me. If you can get your hands on a copy of this book do so. It’s the most remarkable biography I’ve ever read; I am dreading finishing it.