Breaks: Best of rest and relaxation at The Foyle Hotel by Chef Brian McDermott
Chef Brian McDermott has moved his cookery school to his own hotel in Moville, on the shores of Lough Foyle where, as Jane Hardy found out, the emphasis is very much on local, seasonal and Donegal-style relaxation
IN THE taxi from Derry to Moville, the driver revealed he'd spent his wedding night 40 years ago in The Foyle Hotel where we were staying. He described his room as boasting a "granny bed" and patterned wallpaper. Those have long gone, but the welcome remains.
Donegal means different things to different people – landscape, the smell of turf, escaping the Twelfth – but what the county does best is relaxation. Few places achieve r'n'r better than the newly reopened Foyle Hotel in Moville which would be the ideal place to spend a chilled New Year.
Its proper name is The Foyle Hotel by Chef Brian McDermott, which is important as the whole 16-bedroom place bears his stamp. Discussing cocktails once my husband Michael and I had settled in, Brian said he'd like to see mindfulness extended to drinking.
"Not in reducing how much you drink, but in terms of the approach. The lights are turned down, it should be a relaxed thing. You want to hug a good cocktail, then see how far the relationship goes."
The tips I gained on making an Old Fashioned with Silkie (recently voted second best whisky in the world and zhuzhed up with a touch of rhubarb) proved the point.
Talking in a small sitting room, with fire, Brian revealed his recipe for a good hotel has quite a lot to do with the food. It’s significant that you walk in off the small town’s broad Main Street straight into the modern restaurant and bar. The reception and bedrooms – and you should ask for one overlooking majestic Lough Foyle – are upstairs.
“One journalist said he’d worked out that I followed the French method, putting the food first,” Brian told me.
The guy was right. We arrived on Friday and after a short constitutional, had dinner. Seafood is naturally the speciality here. We had some of the best mussels I’ve tasted, small and locally caught, as our starter on the first night. What Mr McDermott has done is cleverly substitute cider for the usual white wine liquor and that makes all the difference, underlining the bivalves’ sweetness.
The Guinness-flavoured wheaten bread and butter also went down well. My fish and chips were ace, Michael's burger satisfyingly gourmet. Before dinner, I wanted to practise one of my two sports. That is, pool. We found a table at a traditional pub across the square, Maguires. What improved the hour was the fact I won, something the Donegal lads who followed us found surprising.
When staying in a small place – and Moville contains around 1,300 souls – it can be a challenge occupying yourself between the gorgeous meals. Not here. In summer, you could try a game of tennis on the hard court near Lough Foyle or the crazy golf or the pitch and putt course inland.
Other golf courses can be provided and Ballyliffin up the road hosted the Irish Open under Rory McIlroy's patronage. Or you might go kayaking at the town's outdoor pursuits centre. In winter, you go for a walk. The shoreside walk for preference, a kind of promenade that winds its way pleasantly under rocky outcrops and past some handsome seaside villas.
Mid-walk we spotted a woman filling a plastic bottle from St Columba's holy well. She had a story to tell. Her grown daughter, who'd died a few years earlier, had taken a photograph the week before her accident of an unusual shape of light on the water nearby. She showed it to us. It had a kind of halo above what could be seen as a figure. "I think that was her angel message," the woman said, gaining comfort from her visit.
If you're interested in learning to feed the body as well as the spirit, you can even take a cookery lesson at the hotel. Brian has moved his cookery school here and runs excellent courses on seafood, cocktails and how to cook steak in a package that involves sampling craft beer.
As he says, he wants to produce courses “of interest to local people”. I was fortunate enough to get a personal lesson in producing the three-egg omelette that graces the breakfast menu. I learnt how to angle the bowl while beating the eggs with a proper whisk to inject some air. The chopped tomatoes and home-cooked Donegal ham were warmed in the pan, then came the moment of truth. The egg mixture went neatly on top. Cooked with the assistance of my tutor, the end result, folded in three, was pretty edible.
On Saturday night, there was a pool rematch in the sports pub. We evened things up. Michael and I then enjoyed a sharing turbot. A king among fish, it was served on the bone with its meaty white flesh cooked so it was buttery and delicious. The addition of dots of fennel puree was inspired. The champ was fine dining, with cream and nice seasoning.
The other half said that among our starters, he'd found the scallops with apple accompaniment the business. I also liked the witty black pudding lollipops on sticks. This isn’t tricksy food, even though one of Brian’s team used to work in Heston Blumenthal’s kitchen, but there is a commitment to putting the great ingredients centre stage.
“Keep it local and seasonal,” is Brian’s motto. It is nice to know that when fishermen are in for a meal, they are greeted as partners. Like the hotel’s other food providers, they’re acknowledged on the menu too.
Brian was brought up in the area. “I’ve been a chef 26 years and grew up one of 12 children in a three-bed house on a council estate here. I remember my mother’s food, the care she took in putting food on the table, roasts with potatoes, good wholesome food.”
It's his town and if you stay here or even better, take a cookery lesson, you’ll get what he is doing: this is the flavour of Donegal.
:: For information and booking see foylehotel.ie