I have just returned from the Ballymaloe Kerrygold Litfest 2015. As usual I have this lovely warm feeling of goodwill to mankind in general, engendered by the wonderful events and interesting people I came across over the weekend. I know some people view this as an elitist navel-gazing event; all I can say is they have obviously never been there. The Litfest has a laid-back welcoming atmosphere, with no burly security guards, no VIP areas, and no helicopters flying in; just a great range of speakers and if you can’t afford that, an amazing array of free or cheap fringe events (once you pay your €5 entrance fee) in the Big Shed and the surrounding gardens.
I started on the early morning shift at 9.30 on Saturday morning, with a group of colleagues from the Irish press, each of us presenting a wine we thought offered value, and discussing what value actually meant when buying wine. I get very frustrated with wine drinkers who think that a wine must cost less than €10 to be considered great value. In fact, as most of this goes straight to the government in taxes, frequently it means the worst possible value. A wine at €25 can be great value if it tastes as good as a €50 bottle. As it happened three out of four panelists chose wines at €14-15 (mine was the brilliant El Castro de Valtuille Joven, search the irishtimes.com for details) and one opted for a €24 bottle.
I took part in five tasting/discussions in total, and therefore never made it down to the cookery school to watch any demonstrations. I did get to a great whiskey tasting by whisky author Dave Broom, Tomás Clancy of the Sunday Business Post and Brian Nation, master distiller for Irish distillers in Midleton, and a wonderful presentation of beers from the Brooklyn Brewery by brewmaster, writer and raconteur Garret Oliver. If you haven’t tasted the Brooklyn brewery beers, I strongly suggest that you do so. Tomás and I saved our best wines to last – on Sunday we presented The Beauty of Blending, and a nice line up of wines; Tio Pepe En Rama (Thanks Gonzalez Byass), Bollinger Special Cuvée (Findlaters), Taylors 20 year old (thanks to Chris Forbes of Taylors) and Coyam (O’Briens). We raided the Ballymaloe cellar for some Ch. Léoville-Barton 2004 and Vieux Telegraphe 2007. Proof if needed that the ancient art of blending is all about improving quality.In fact you could argue that just about every wine produced is a blend of some sort.
I went to a presentation of natural wines by American author Alice Feiring, who champions this very controversial style of winemaking – organic or biodynamic winemaking, low or no sulphur, no cultured yeasts, and very little else added. She pointed out there are 72 permitted additives in winemaking many of which can drastically change the taste of a wine. I enjoyed two of the four wines, and disliked the others – a draw? I also took part in a tasting with Alice and others on terroir in wine, and another early morning session with some very bleary-eyed panelists (and audience) on whether wine is going out of fashion. There was a representative from each form of alcohol production, and it could have ended in fisticuffs. Maybe we were all too tired for fighting as it passed off peacefully.
On Saturday night I attended an amazing dinner prepared by the team at OX restaurant in Belfast. If you haven’t been there yet, make it a priority. The food is inventive, complex and gorgeous. See the menu below. The halibut, lamb, cheese and artichoke ice cream will stay in my memory for a long time, as will the Cypres de Climens. I had John Bowman sitting on one side and Rory Gallagher’s brother (and former manager) on the other, so the conversation swung from history to politics, to music and my attendance (as a schoolboy) at Gallagher’s gig in the Carlton Cinema on O’Connell Street in the mid-seventies.
All of the above were great fun, but I was probably happiest wandering around the Big Shed and other fringe areas, meeting friends and talking to stallholders. I bought some weird and wonderful seeds from Brown Envelope Seeds, some organic lettuce seedlings, a few bottles of amazing flavoured waters from Rebel Foods, oolong tea from Niks, coffee from Badger & Dodo, chocolate from Wilkie’s, lunch from Iyers Café (great dhosas) and a magical mystery lunch from Slow Food Northern Ireland. I tried Mr. Jeffares delicious flavoured blackcurrant juices, Craigies cider, smoked water (?) at Ummera Smokehouse, and much, much more. Several member of the drinks press tasted and danced long into the night – all in a day’s work. Bring on Litfest 2016. Next up Sheridan’s Food Festival next weekend!