Irish food has stepped onto the world stage in recent years and now international visitors pack their bags to visit Galway, Cork, Waterford, Belfast and Dublin to sample its culinary delights. During that time, we’ve seen a coming together, a celebration of what is local and unique, whether that’s been A Taste of West Cork, the Galway Food Festival, Boyne Valley Flavours or the West Waterford Food Festival.
Now the midlands is stepping up to the mark with the Athlone Food Circle. It’s an idea that there’s been talk of for years but it was during lockdown, when restaurateurs and chefs had the space to breathe, reflect and plan, that the talk became action.
Deirdre Adamson, executive head chef at Glasson Lakehouse, says: “A group of us sat down and discussed what we really wanted the Athlone Food Circle to be. What were our ambitions, but equally what could we also achieve with our busy jobs? It was decided that we wanted our network to be a guide to highlight the excellent food and drinks offering in the wider Athlone region. So if someone was in the town, or indeed planning their trip, they could consult the guide to put them in the right direction. It also gives us the opportunity to tell the food journey of our area.”
That journey starts with the producer. John Coffey, who runs Thyme Restaurant in Athlone town, says: “We were really inspired by the Boyne Valley group and the work they are doing. We didn’t want a copy and paste. Our network and what we wanted to do had to be unique to us but we certainly looked to them for inspiration. What really struck us was the producer focus, which we also wanted to celebrate in our local area. Because if you have good-quality produce, that is the key.”
In fact, the producer link is what ties the network together. Deirdre continues: “There were a few stipulations in order for businesses to be involved in the Food Circle. The first was a geographical radius within 30km of Athlone.
“The other is that restaurants or hotels had to be using at least three producers who were part of the Food Circle. This was a good indicator that the business really celebrated local producers.
“Quality was also key. We wanted to ensure that the list really guided visitors to the best of the best, ensuring the guide really is a valuable resource for them.”
Local producers include Glasson Farm, Booley Foods, Oliver Carty and Family as well as Black Donkey Brewing, Dead Centre Brewing and Kilbeggan Distillery.
Irish chefs Georgia and Daniel who run Praline Chocolates say being included in the Food Circle has opened doors for them.
“We’re only in business two years so being part of the Athlone Food Circle has allowed us to make good contacts in the industry and has also focused our efforts on sourcing local.”
John Coffey, who runs Thyme Restaurant with his wife Tara, has been celebrating Irish producers from the day he opened his doors in 2007.
“I’m not from Athlone,” John admits. “I’m actually from Kinnegad and I started my training in Harry’s of Kinnegad which back at the time was one of the busiest restaurants in the country. And it was the kind of place that all the locality benefited from. The local farmers and butchers were supplying the meat and vegetables, all the locals were kept in jobs. It is an ethos I have carried through the years.”
And it’s an ethos that you will see every night in the restaurant. John is all about taking a local ingredient and celebrating it on the plate. In fact, the ham hock is such a staple on his menu, it has helped build the name of the restaurant and secure a Michelin Bib Gourmand in 2019.
“The idea isn’t far from the celebration of the Christmas ham. We cook down local ham hock from Horan’s pork shop, we glaze with local honey and mustard, concoct a celeriac velouté with stock from the ham, using free-range local eggs from outside Moate and we also serve it with some pancetta from Fergus [and Sandra Dunne’s farm] Pigs on the Green in Tullamore.”
Local goat is sourced from Penny Greene.
“This dish is about celebrating every part of the animal so we get in the whole goat and butcher it down. We slow braise the shoulder which is served with wild garlic picked locally by my mother-in-law and asparagus from Lough Boura. We also make a confit belly wrapped in potato as well as serving the loin.
“The midlands is all about the land. Some of the best beef and lamb in the country is reared locally. We have been showcasing this on our menus for years and joining the Athlone Food Circle was a natural progression for us.”
Georgia Quealy and Daniel Linehan laugh as they admit that when it comes to Athlone producers, they are the new kids on the block. But considering the impact they have made on the chocolate scene in just two years, this venture, which is both a romantic and business partnership, has a bright future. Georgia says: “Daniel and I met in culinary college. Over the years we worked as chefs in Athlone, Kilkenny and we had plans to move to Dublin but then the pandemic hit.”
When the world shut down, Daniel had just returned home from training with world-famous pastry chef Amaury Guichon in Las Vegas and neither were sure what their next steps were. Daniel says, “When we realised that the hospitality industry was going to look very different for the foreseeable future, we decided to fast-track some plans. We had ideas to build our own business in the future, that seemed years away but then my Dad who owns Beans & Leaves café in Athlone (also a member of the Athlone Food Circle) suggested we try out a few ideas while the premises was closed in lockdown. Building our own chocolate brand was this mad idea of ours but then we moved into the café and started tempering chocolate and by October 2020, we had our own brand that we were selling online.”
The couple started small, concentrating on four chocolates in their signature range-blackberry & vanilla, sea salted caramel, hazelnut & milk chocolate and single origin ganache. Since then, they have expanded into other limited editions. Sourcing local within Westmeath and then within Ireland, where possible has been key throughout. Georgia says: “We forage for blackberries in the local area to make our blackberry liqueur. We’re using Ballymore honey and all-Irish milk. We also use O’Hanlon herbs, Oriel sea salt, Nutshed peanut butter, Five Farms Liqueur and Tipperary cream cheese.”
Having now moved into their own premises in Athlone (formerly Fergal Jameson’s butchers who served the community for 50 years) and with new branding and custom-made packaging, Praline Chocolates continues to grow. “The Athlone Food Circle has been brilliant for us in making connections and our next step on the plan is to create something that will sit proudly on menus in local restaurants.”
With stunning views of Lough Ree and five different food offerings, Glasson Lakehouse is one of the biggest establishments on the Athlone Food Circle. Like John Coffey, executive head chef Deirdre Adamson has been celebrating the food of the midlands for many years. She spent 10 years as head chef of the Fatted Calf both in Glasson and then in Athlone town, showcasing local producers and embarking on her own bit of foraging for the menu.
Stepping into the head chef role in Glasson Lakehouse in 2020 was a new adventure for her, developing menus and food offerings for different restaurants. Glasson Lakehouse is part of the Press Up group, which has over 50 hotels and restaurants in its portfolio. Deirdre explains: “It’s fantastic to have such a diverse food offering in one place. You want each one to be distinctive yet collectively, gel together.”
So let’s bring you on a tour of what’s on offer. Glasson Lakehouse has a cool, relaxed vibe. From reception, you move into Bonnie’s, the restaurant offering which embraces the Press Up groups mantra of Irish ingredients cooked with a little something extra. The grilled fillet of seabass, chorizo, golden raisin and saffron orzo with a roast pepper dressing is one example of how Deirdre elevates the food offering. The menu is carefully thought out to cater for everything from a family celebration to a glam girls’ night out.
Upstairs in the ballroom, 250 people can gather for a wedding menu to impress. Outside in the outdoor terraced area, there is a more relaxed vibe. Recently they introduced an Argentinian wood-fired grill which has all the perks of a barbecue without having to do the work yourself. Think steak, ribs and spatchcock chicken served with salads and sides. In Tom’s bar, you’ll find a more snack-focused offering with charcuterie boards and chicken wings. And then the ultimate treat for kids, a Wow Burger food truck which serves crispy chips and delicious burgers oozing with cheese complete with toppings such as fried onions, pickles and mushrooms.
Deirdre laughs, “It’s a moving feast alright. The Press Up group use a lot of Irish products such as Cais na Tíre and Ballylisk cheese as well as Paddy O’s oats. But I was determined to get some local producers on the menu including Glasson rapeseed oil and Kilbeggan whiskey.
“I think its great to have such a range of offerings in the Athlone Food Circle. From small producers to large hotels, it shows the diversity of the midlands.”
FOR MORE INFO
on the Athlone Food Circle, visit www.athlone.ie/eat-drink/ athlonefoodcircle/