Stephan picks up a black ball of prickles from the heaps of shellfish on his stall, slices it in half, and reveals the centre to me. I expect to see a gelatinous whelk-like heart but, instead, this dissected sea urchin is full of orange roe. I scoop some out with a spoon; it tastes as fine as foie gras.
Frenchman Stephan sells fish at the Saturday market in Galway City, on the west coast of Ireland. It's the first stop on a new half-day tour that I'm taking with Fabulous Food Trails, run by former book publishers Eveleen Coyle and her niece Pamela. They're keen to replicate the success of a tour they host in Dublin. The idea is to showcase Galway's quality food producers and purveyors, simultaneously proving that this city's foodie scene doesn't revolve around the mass slugging down of oysters that takes place here each year.
I'm the first punter that my guide Roisin Fallon has taken on this tour, which officially launches in May. We meet beneath the Spanish Arch, which was built on the banks of the river Corrib in the 16th century as an extension of the city walls. Across the water lies Claddagh, the fishing village that is home to the famous ring bearing two hands clasping a heart, surmounted by a crown. I know this because Roisin has mugged up on her history to kick off proceedings with a short talk that puts Galway in its cultural and culinary context.
But we've less than three hours at our disposal to taste the best the city has to offer, so we move off sharpish to our first stop, the Saturday market in the heart of the city's ancient lanes. It offers a curious mix of retail opportunities; fine food vendors vie for attention with stalls selling dog-eared bodice-rippers. Still, there are plenty of foodie distractions to waylay us.
Just along from Stephan we meet Robin, another man who appears to have washed up in Ireland and never returned home. He sells jars of honey collected from the hives he keeps in the Burren, across Galway Bay to the south, where his bees feed on the blackthorn, hazel and gorse that grow on the famous limestone karst. Around the corner, Michael Browne sells the salmon he smokes on the Aran Islands, just beyond the bay. He proffers succulent fatty pieces as he tells us about the traditional practice of peat-smoking the fish, though the cuts on sale here were prepared over beech and oak.
Our stops are not random. Eveleen and Pamela have handpicked each business on the itinerary to ensure visitors meet producers who are passionate about the quality of their wares, as well as being available to talk to the groups. And the tour isn't confined to the rustic market. We also call in at the Gourmet Tart, a very smart contemporary shop selling fine patisseries, while in the new-age atmosphere of Ard Bia at Nimmos, I sample an excellent root vegetable dahl beneath a shelf of architectural tomes.
At Sheridans Cheesemongers, the food talk turns serious with Seamus Sheridan, who owns the business with his brother. Sheridans began as a stall on the market but is now growing into a mini-empire that, so far, stretches to Dublin. We stop for a chat in the wine bar above the shop, with a glass of greco di tufo and a few slivers of Irish cheese – Lavistown from Kilkenny, Durrus and gubbeen from West Cork.
I tell Seamus that the Lavistown reminds me of Cheshire cheese. He seems pleased by the comparison. But he's really more interested in higher matters. "Food is not an expression of our culture, it's an expression of our survival," he says gravely. I suggest we're all a bit more interested in food these days. He says it is just the preoccupation of the middle classes.
He knows best, his shop is full of them, as is his new restaurant, Sheridans on the Dock, where I eat that evening. They'll be coming in their droves when this foodie tour starts.
How to get there
Fabulous Food Trails (00 353 1497 1245; fabulousfoodtrails.ie) offers half-day food tours of the city for €45 per person, including tastings. Aer Arran (0870 876 76 76; aerarran.com) flies from Luton to Galway from £103 return.
Hotel Meyrick (00 353 9156 4041; hotelmeyrick.ie) is currently offering a two-night stay for the price of one night at weekends, at €149.50 per person per night, based on two sharing a room. The deal includes breakfast on both days, dinner for two on one evening, and free access to the leisure centre.
Tourism Ireland (0800 039 7000; discoverireland.com).Reuse content