Cong has long had a history of being synonymous with food and celebration. Ashford Castle, the venue of many a feast and party, stands proud in its manicured gardens surveying the town and it’s neighbouring Lodge. Now, along with the Lodge at Ashford, part of the luxury hotel group Red Carnation Hotels, it has in recent times been brought back to former glory with the lick of refinement and detail that had somewhat dissipated by the unforgiving deterioration of time’s hands. Stunning as it is, one can easily be fooled into thinking that Ashford is Cong and Cong Ashford. The castle certainly draws people in but there is more to Cong and it’s people than the castle.
This was no more evident than over the recent June Bank holiday weekend when the Cong Food Village Festival took place for the 2nd of what is now hopefully an annual event. This a committee that comprises Chairperson Jonathan Keane, Head Chef from the Lodge at Ashford, Mairead Geehan Senior Account Manager of Galway Now Magazine and formerly of the Lodge at Ashford, Mike Crowe owner and chef at Ryan’s Hotel in Cong, Yvonne Murphy chef and owner of Devour Bakery and Café in Ballinrobe, Eanna Hassett, formerly the Food and Beverage director of Ashford Castle and now at Carton House in Maynooth, and Fiona McMahon owner of Puddle Ducks Cafe in Cong. This passionate and committed group has come together to generate a community event that showcases the best of local produce and the people behind it. Community can be defined as a group of people who share something in common and this is truly a community project in every sense of the word, organised, run, promoted and lived through the shared commonality of a passion for food; growing it, making it, cooking it, sharing it and eating it!
The festival was run over four days from Friday to the Bank Holiday Monday with a schedule that included everything from food demos to guided forages to competitions for children, with volunteering from Foroige Youth Club over the weekend too. Jonathan Keane highlights this and the community centred focus in the opening address of the brochure, “Regular workshops are held in schools and venues around the community with forages, dinners and events also included in the programme to promote awareness on how good food can be used as a focal point for bringing people together.” Kicking off with a BBQ on Friday night the festival really came into its own on Saturday with the festival marquee set up behind Ryan’s hotel, housing a farmer’s market with a range of producers ranging from Micil Poitín, the Sauce Guy, the Connemara Seaweed Company, Sliabh Aughty Honey and many more.
Yours truly had the pleasure of being master of ceremonies hosting the food demonstrations for the afternoon which was kick started by Silvia Fernandes of Lydon’s Lodge in Cong who took inspiration from her Portuguese background to present a twist on a surf and turf dish using beef and clams. Committee member Yvonne Murphy followed by showing the art of bread making through a spelt seeded loaf and an Irish Soda Bread. Also included on the day was a chocolate demo from Paula Stakelum, Executive Head Pastry Chef of Ashford Castle, and recent winner of the Valrhona Patisserie Championship 2017, who demonstrated making chocolate shards. Pádraic Ó’Griallais owner of Micil Poitín was up next to talk about the historical and modern process of poitín making, and indeed Micil’s own story and his foray into the world of distilling. Pádraic was accompanied by Justin Browne and James O’Driscoll of Yes Beverages to showcase how use poitín in cocktails by making a twist on an old fashioned using lavender syrup, plum bitters, with a wild rosemary garnish, along with the poitín of course.
Finishing the demos for Saturday was Mike Crowe of Ryan’s Hotel, owner of Connacht Pale Ale, and also a committee member of the festival. Mike cooked up a storm with a slow braised chicken casserole, a Thai prawn curry, and a super salad to end the demos for the day with aplomb. Highlights from Sunday included a demo from Tom Coleman and Jeeny Maltese from My Nutrition Ireland, another by the wonderful Aisling Butler from Cong’s excellent Hungry Monk Café, and a Ready Steady Cook off between the two Ashford chefs, Phillipe Farineau from the Castle and Jonathan Keane from the Lodge. In the evening the area transformed into a street feast with a carnival mood as visitors soaked up atmosphere as vendors showcased their wares and produce.
Ending the festival in style on Monday, Wade Murphy chef proprietor of 1826 Adare and former chef in the Lodge at Ashford, returned to join current head chef and chairperson Jonathan Keane for a pop-up of 1826 in the Lodge. A feast ensued with Wade showcasing some of his signature dishes during a five course meal. Wade seems to enjoy creating dishes that pack bagsful of flavour beginning with snacks of beetroot, goat curd, hazelnut, a pig’s head croquette served with a gooseberry compote, and monkfish scampi with a tarragon mayo. I could have eaten a bucket of the pig’s head croquettes and in actuality I probably did as buttons had to be loosened to manage the behemoth task of the next four courses.
Cured and marinated organic salmon with cucumber, avocado, wasabi, and sesame followed offering a welcome light freshness to continue with the proceeding rich albeit most delicious menu. The next dish was a soup of watercress, leek & potato soup with garnishes of smoked bacon, fried bread, sheep cheese, and rapeseed oil followed by a treacle braised, fall apart, beef short-rib, that was served with asparagus and spinach. “Lemon meringue pie” consisting of lemon curd, coconut, and Italian meringue finished the meal and me off with flair. Each course was classic cuisine with combinations that work and for me it demonstrates the confidence of the chef when there is nowhere to hide behind unusual ingredients or unfamiliar culinary methods. This was assured cooking, relying on the natural beauty of the ingredients to sing, backed up by a chorus of technique and classic flavours. In an event that was attended by many of those who volunteered or were in someway involved, such as Paddy Rock who provided sound and Ray McHugh who was MC on Sunday, it was a fitting end and the culmination of communal effort to a community project.
66 people live in the village of Cong. Over 5000 people graced the food festival over the June Bank Holiday weekend. Cong Food Village has been named runner-up in the European Destination of Excellence (EDEN), and been named as fourth Best Foodie Destination in Ireland. Attending the festival in Cong it’s easy to see why.