In normal times, Ireland’s spring and summer months are abuzz with activity and excitement, thanks to our many festivals.

Encompassing everything from oyster shucking to Lisdoonvarna’s annual love-up, the Irish Country Living (ICL) team has missed attending and reporting on these celebrations of culture and community; which always add so much great country flavour to our year.

While we can be hopeful that things will be back to normal in 2022, this year some festivals will be cancelled entirely while others will go virtual.

The West Waterford Festival of Food is always a fun experience for food and nature lovers.

Taking place along the picturesque Copper Coast and all the way inland to the Comeragh Mountains, the ingredients, chefs and food producers found within the region are a serious draw – with most events selling out weeks before the festival takes place.

This year, the festival is taking a different approach, while still offering a taste of the region for virtual attendees.

Chef Paul Flynn is a co-host for the virtual festival, alongside GIY's Mick Kelly.

Chef Paul Flynn (The Tannery) and Mick Kelly (GIY Ireland) are co-hosting the online celebration, which will include curated talks, experiences and workshops (both virtual and socially distanced); celebrating west Waterford’s food culture and heritage. In conversation with ICL, Paul says even though things are currently closed down, there are still plenty of reasons to promote the Waterford region.

“This festival has been going on for 13 years, now, and it’s always been about making a lot of noise – that’s certainly been the case with our own restaurant, The Tannery – we had to make a lot of noise or we wouldn’t still be here,” he says. “At first, we were small and underpopulated, and the festival was one way of making that necessary noise.”

A starter for the six-course Taste of the Festival at-home meal experience is The Tannery's famous crab creme brulee.

Featuring local food producers, foragers and chefs, the main festival event will feature land and sea foraging as well as local chefs, restauranteurs and food producers.

Paul has collaborated with the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, as well as other local businesses, to produce a six-course Taste of the Festival at-home meal experience; providing nationwide delivery (now, sadly for us who issed it, completely sold out).

“It went on sale and, on the first day, we only sold 15,” Paul laughs.

“Then the next day they were just gone. The Tannery are doing starters, The Cliff House are doing mains, The Old Bank (in Dungarvan) are on desserts and, in between, there are lots of bits and pieces from local suppliers, including cocktails made with local Blackwater Irish Gin.”

Blackwater Gin is featured in the Taste of the Festival at-home meal experience.

Networking opportunities

Equally important to the amount of people the festival brings to the area each year is the added publicity local food producers receive.

While food festivals are a fun day out for attendees, for small producers participation often leads to valuable networking and business opportunities. Paul says the festival is more than a celebration; it’s about people working together to achieve something special.

“The Copper Coast is my favourite place in the world,” he says.

Waterford is a really strong county in terms of food, and that’s why we wanted to do the festival box

“The Tannery is open 25 years next year. [Back then], Dungarvan – even Waterford – was unheard of in terms of tourism; the festival and, now, The Greenway, have really changed things for us.

“The festival was never just about the weekend; it was, ‘You’ve come down to us now, so be sure to come back again’,” he continues.

“And that’s what’s happening; it’s an incredible thing. Waterford is a really strong county in terms of food, and that’s why we wanted to do the festival box.”

It was the first thing to make me realise: there’s a business in foraging

Marie Power is a Waterford-based forager and the author of The Sea Garden. She will be leading part of the festival’s virtual event along Annestown Beach on the Copper Coast.

“I’ve been part of West Waterford Festival of Food since it’s inception; since the very start,” she reminisces. “It was the first thing to make me realise: there’s a business in foraging. The festival were the first people to say, ‘We’ll pay you for this’.”

Connecting with the landscape

The main event includes a sea and land foraging trip with Marie, who specialises in seaweeds, and foraging expert Andrew Malcolm, who leads the other half of the trip inland; around Curraghmore Estate and Gardens. The day culminates at the ruins of Dunhill Castle, where they have a meal featuring foods they found on their foraging trips. Marie says the castle is a special place for such an event.

Marie Power is the author of The Sea Garden; she will lead a sea foraging excursion for the virtual event.

“[For the event] we do a seaweed forage on the beach in Annestown; showing people the edible seaweeds, how to forage sustainably and how to cook them,” she explains. “Then, we go to Dunhill. The great hall [there] is still intact so we go there, afterwards, and cook a seaweed meal. Theres a lovely walk from the beach to the castle. We’ll make laver bread, seaweed salad, carrageen pudding and a few other dishes with newer twists.”

She believes the virtual celebration might entice people to come to Waterford for a visit when it’s safe to do so.

“The festival itself is deferred,” she says. “The virtual event gives us an alternative opportunity to showcase what we have in our natural landscape and connect the producers with the chefs, retailers and restaurants.

“We have some really strong local products,” she continues.

“My own products are seaweed-based; we have a long tradition of seaweed on the Waterford coast, with our many rocky coves, clean waters, no heavy industry and a great diversity of plants.”

Over the years, the festival has had a positive effect on many small food businesses in Waterford, both in terms of gaining national exposure and for producers to begin working together to build a county-wide profile.

“I’ve been foraging and teaching [about wild food] for a long time,” she says.

“In the time I’ve been doing it, I’ve seen an increase in the number of local businesses who have contacted me, saying, ‘I want to use your seaweed’. Mezze are now making a cracker with it, Seagull bakery make a seaweed sourdough and, for me, this kind of thing is very gratifying.”

The recording will be live on the West Waterford Festival of Food website, with a link on their social media streams throughout the festival weekend (23-25 April).