Galway is a lively port city, famous for its summer horse races and autumn oyster festival, its traditional music, its vividly colored shop fronts. It is sometimes said to have a “Mediterranean” feel to it and indeed had a long history of trade with Spain, whose merchants used to congregate by a 16th-century archway now called the Spanish Gate.
The city has some renown in Irish food circles as the home of Sheridans, the country’s premier cheese shop, located on the street that plays host each Saturday to Galway’s ancient open market. And it boasts another culinary resource: “We are very fortunate,” says Cait Curran, editor of the locally published Organic Matters magazine, “to have Gerry Galvin living nearby. He is considered the father of the revival of traditional cooking in Ireland and is highly respected in the Irish culinary world, and he has supported the Galway market for many years.”
Though Galvin closed his acclaimed Drimcong House restaurant, in the County Galway town of Moycullen, in 2001, he has offered to cook us some of his specialties, borrowing the upstairs catering kitchen attached to Sheridans. The market is in full swing when we arrive—round native oysters, smoked eel, and walls of gloriously dirty carrots and parsnips alternating with stands selling incense, rock-and-roll T-shirts, and Simpsons neckties.
As it happens, we have come on a dark day. Two talented young cooks, Dave Gumbleton and Enrico Fantasia, had begun making a name for themselves for the food they prepared out of the Sheridans kitchen for special events. “What they were doing was very unusual,” says Curran, “very creative.” The day before we got to Galway, Gumbleton suddenly collapsed in the kitchen and died—struck down by an aneurysm. Sheridans is closed in his honor for the day when we arrive. We ask Galvin, who was a good friend of Gumbleton’s, if he’d like to postpone his demonstration. He says no, but that he’d like to dedicate to him the meal he is about to prepare; this seems a fitting tribute.
Galvin’s menu starts with a mussel and oyster hot pot, flavored with seaweed—dulse—and based on a stock made from whitefish bones. “Notice that the stock is not fined,” he says. “The emphasis with my cooking is on lack of refinement.” He has already roasted a plump pork belly perfectly, leaving it almost drippingly moist inside its mahogany-shellac exterior. This he will serve with pickled carrots (“Pickling has always been very important in Ireland,” he says) and colcannon. The last course is tipsy pudding, a little molded sponge cake drenched in mulled red wine and topped with whipped cream. As he cooks, Galvin tells us a bit of his story.
He was born in Dromcollogher, in County Limerick, a village, says Galvin, with absolutely no tradition of cooking. “But my father,” he continues, was something of a gourmet. He was a draper and had a country shop that sold everything from suits to hardware to habits for the dead. He traveled a lot on buying trips and would always bring things home with him—sausages from Dublin, tripe and drisheen [blood-serum ‘pudding’] from Cork. Other than that, we had a very basic healthy diet of what was found—fowl, duck, geese, the best beef and lamb. Fish wasn’t highly prized, because it was associated with penitential Fridays, and anyway we were an hour and a half from the sea.”
As a teenager, Galvin decided that the hotel trade sounded interesting and talked himself into a job at the Gresham Hotel in Dublin. “This was a great experience for a kid from the country,” he recalls. “I learned the camaraderie of the kitchen at the Gresham, the cruelty and the badinage; I learned how to swear in Dublinese; and I learned how to make bechamel.”
Galvin went on to hotel school in Shannon and, after he graduated, spent a dozen years working as a manager in hotels in Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Switzerland, and South Africa. “But I found myself constantly attracted to the kitchen,” he says.
In 1974 he and his wife, Marie, whom he’d met and married in Dublin, bought a 50-seat restaurant called The Vintage, in Kinsale, a little jewel of a seaside town in West Cork. “I wrote the menu in French,” says Galvin, “because at first there was no doubt that I wanted to do cuisine a la française. I had a real breakthrough, though, when a Belgian food writer came in one evening, attracted by the French menu, and was really let down by the food. I came to my senses and realized that I was just posing as a French chef. And I think that’s when I really began to learn how to cook.” Instead of French classics, he started offering diners dishes like rabbit sausage steamed over herbs and making old-style Irish breads and preserves from wild berries. The employment of modest ingredients and traditional foodstuffs was unusual for a serious restaurant of the era, and other Irish chefs started to take notice.
At least partly because of Galvin’s efforts, Kinsale became known as Ireland’s first real restaurant town. But it also became more touristy, and in 1984, seeking a quieter life—and a rural environment—the couple bought Drimcong House, in Moycullen, and opened a restaurant there. “We had our own garden, our own lake with pike and eel,” says Galvin. “I was in the kitchen; Marie was the gardener, mother to our three children, and involved in management.” At Drimcong, Galvin cooked such creations as colcannon soup, fried black pudding with oysters and apples, and roast pike with lovage, bacon, and lamb sauce (as well as his hot pot, roast pork, and tipsy pudding). None of the Galvins’ children were interested in the business, however, so they sold the place in 2001. “I’m writing a novel now and writing for magazines on food,” says Galvin. “I have absolutely no regrets. I still revel on a Saturday night when I realize that I don’t have to be hopping around till two a.m.”