The thought of Irish food brings forth the cliches of potatoes, beef and Guinness pie, potatoes and potatoes. While it's true that we ate a lot of potatoes in Ireland (including being served chips as a side dish to my fish pie topped with a generous serve of mashed potato), we also found a lot of other interesting and flavoursome dishes. A dozen oysters were perfectly offset by a pint of Guinness (much to my surprise). And, although it was June and meant to be summer, the 17 degree days meant thick bean and vegetable soup or seafood chowder always went down well.
County Donegal, in the northwest corner of Ireland, is rugged and barren but breathtakingly beautiful with huge mountains and long green valleys. It feels isolated and I can imagine how bleak it would be in winter, with storms roaring across the seas and through the mountain ranges. We stopped at the town of Rossnowlaugh to have lunch at Smugglers Creek, an award-winning restaurant and pub that is perched high on a cliff overlooking Donegal Bay and the long curl of a white sandy beach. Pinned near the front door was a restaurant review that recommended the "toe-curlingly good" Atlantic seafood chowder. As we settled ourselves into the window table overlooking the sea, there was no question of us ordering anything else, except for one unfortunate travelling companion who was pregnant at the time and had to content herself with the tomato and bacon soup. She said it was delicious but she looked mournfully at our bowls as we raved and raved and raved about the chowder, which was thick and creamy, loaded with plump seafood, and with a lovely lingering aftertaste of dill.
Of course the recipe is a well-guarded secret, so I set about trying to replicate it when we returned home. Although chowder should have a generous helping of mixed seafood - perhaps chunks of white fish or salmon, mussels, prawns and scallops, I cheat and use my favourite marinara mix from the Queen Victoria Market. While this is not strictly authentic, it cuts down considerably on the preparation and cooking time. Sometimes I include dill in the chowder and sometimes, inspired by a recipe in Irish Soups and Breads by Nuala Cullen, I add a pinch of saffron. Either way, this is a hearty soup for a cold winter's night.
500 - 750g marinara mix (or make up your own combination of seafood)
6 rashers bacon, sliced into strips
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 leek, sliced
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 celery stick, diced
2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
900ml water or fish stock
1-2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon chopped dill or 1 pinch of saffron
salt and pepper
a small handful of chopped parsley
Melt the butter in a saucepan and cook the bacon until crisp. Add the vegetables and fry for a minute or two. Stir in the flour, then gradually add the water or stock, stirring until smooth. Cover and cook gently until the vegetables are tender (about 10-15 minutes). Add the cream and the seafood and cook for a few minutes, until the seafood is cooked. Add the dill/saffon and the salt and pepper. Serve in soup bowls and scatter with the bacon and parsley.