The train was late.
Standing shivering on the platform in Carlow I was reminded that after graveyards, the coldest places in Ireland are train platforms. I was waiting for the Dublin/Waterford train and for the first time in a while I was travelling solo, which is something I've never been very comfortable doing to be honest. Kilkenny is only half an hour from Carlow by rail so it wasn’t as if I'd be in a strange, confusing new country by myself, but I always seem a little self-conscious and awkward when travelling. Travelling in a group, or with at least one other person, seems to dilute that feeling or at least makes me less aware of myself. As I stood there lost in these thoughts the train arrived and soon I was sitting among hen parties, weekend trippers and the odd food-lover on their way to all points south of Carlow. They juggled babies, jostled in and out of seats, shouted as if they were in separate carriages and laughed way, way too loudly for a confined space. I was suddenly aware of the benefits of solo travel and the thought of locking myself in the toilet for the journey did briefly cross my mind.
Kilkenny's Savour Food Festival had captured my attention because it was trying to integrate craft beer – a subject dear to my heart, if shunned by my liver - in to its schedule, stalls and discussions. One thing in particular attracted my attention and that was a beer/cider versus wine food pairing 'Smackdown' that was to take place in one of the marquees.
But there was a problem.
My initial look a week previously at the listing of what was on said that this event was free but the night before I was traveling, while doing a little more research, I discovered that although it was free I should have registered online for it! Checking the booking part of the site showed that it was booked out...
But there was plenty to tempt me to the festival itself anyway and rumour had it there would be a craft beer tent there too, so I decided to head down regardless. And that is how I found myself on a train full of restless noisy people pulling in to MacDonagh Junction in The Marble City.
The Parade in Kilkenny where the main part of the festival is held is just a shortish walk from the station. The walk passes a lot of pubs and the excellent Asian/world deli called Shortis Wong, with The Wine Centre opposite it - which can always be counted upon to have few new or unusual beers to tempt me. I made a mental note to call in to both on the way back to the train.
The festival was just starting to get going when I arrived so I grabbed a bag of delicious homemade crisps from a stall near the entrance and went for a wander. Every type of food imaginable was up for grabs; beorwurst, falafels, crepes and burgers were all available, and coffee, sweets, honey and jams were also on show. The new festival staple - pulled pork - was available on loads of stalls. Even those afflicted with vegetarianism were well catered for including at least one whole stand dedicated to their cause. I spent a while fluttering from stand to stand, looking, listening and taking it all in. Kilkenny is a great city for this type of event, perhaps it's the population size or the attitude to try something different, maybe it's the influx of tourists whose accents I could hear as I walked around but whatever it was the buzz and excitement was palpable as the closed off street started to fill up.
At this stage I decided it was time for a beer or two so I made my way to the craft beer tent that I had already scouted twice. Not wishing to be the first in the door I had hung around for a while before entering. It was still quiet in there as I made my way over to Carlow Brewing - AKA O'Hara's - to tick off a couple of beers I hadn't tried at the beer festival in Dublin earlier in the year. As I sipped my Blackberry Lager (Don't judge me!) I took in the other breweries represented. Trouble, Costello, White Gypsy, Metalman and Dungarvan made up the rest of the occupants of the smallish tent, a tiny but select selection of the incredible number of breweries than are now on this island. Seamus from O’Hara’s – who is responsible for getting this beer festival here and a lot more besides - was rushing around putting the finishing touches to the stand. I chatted to him briefly before he was called away to solve a crisis, or perhaps he just needed to escape from me!
The lager was nice blend of lemon bitterness and mild biscuit with a very delicate - perhaps too delicate - touch of blackberry. I followed that up with an O'Hara's Dunkleweizen, a lovely, mild, almost stout-like version of the style, like a liquid bourbon cream biscuit with a tiny bit of clove added. This would make a great home-drinking winter beer so I hope it will be bottled at some stage...
I finished off this tasting session with a glass of White Gypsy Scarlet, a weird/wonderful sour beer that tastes of sweet soda bread with a dash of vinegar. A great palate cleanser and although very much an acquired taste it would be great with a cheesy food pairing.
Back out in the festival I wandered back up and down the stalls, taking in the overlapping flavours of grilled meats, cooking crepes, breads and coffee - and the great atmosphere. I found myself outside the marquee where the beer versus wine talk was going to be held. A talk was just finishing and a lady was telling an anecdote about how someone’s child had broken his foot when tins fell out of a cupboard. She maintains it would not have happened if the lady had always cooked fresh food! An interesting notion and she might have a point about fresh food, but personally I couldn't do without my tinned produce when cooking. Think tinned tomatoes, kidney beans, etc. And how could you not have tinned beans in your house? Beans on toast must be one of the best comfort foods of all time! Maybe I missed the point though...
Anyway. There was produce for sale in the marquee and no real security so I decided that I might get away with standing at the back behind the set out chairs, near the exit. The talk was about five minutes away from starting and no one had come near me to ask for a ticket or question my being there, so I discreetly slid on to the chair in front of me, ever mindful of a tap on the shoulder or glaring look, which never came. (Confession over!)
The 'Smackdown' was brilliant. Sommelier Colm McCan, Author and beer aficionado Caroline Hennessy, and Pascal Rossignol from Le Caveau entertained, fed, 'watered', and cajoled us for an hour with great banter and produce. Goatsbridge trout caviar paired with Longways Cider and Menade Verdejo 2013, Lavistown sausages with Costello's red ale and Chaume-Arnaud Vinsobres 2011 and we finished up with Caroline's own extra special double chocolate stout brownies (those words could be out of order) with 8 Degrees Knockmealdown Stout and Banyuls Rimage ‘Mademoiselle O’ sweet red wine. All the food was local and so was the beer – well localish. The wines were not local of course and supplied by Le Caveau in the city.
It ended as a draw but by my reckoning beer won two, only missing out on the sausage course by a whisker.
Having said that - and me being very much a beer person - one of the discoveries for me was that sweet red dessert wine! I will be definitely getting that for after my Christmas dinner...
After that I grabbed a chorizo-style sausage in a bun with chimichurri sauce from an Argentinian grill in one of the tents and went for a walk around the grounds of the nearby Kilkenny castle before wandering back towards the city soaking in the history that this city seems to seep out of its stones. Back on the High Street the 'Slips' that run down to St Kiernan Street multiply this feeling a hundredfold, as these narrow-stepped alleys give the feeling of stepping back in time, albeit with the need to mentally remove the modern sights and sounds of the city. Kilkenny is a good shopping spot too so I spent a little time wandering in book shops and picking up yet another addition to add to our buckled bookshelves back at home.
Finding myself not far from O’Hara’s Brewery Corner I felt that it would be rude not to call in and see what was on tap there. I was greeted by a super-friendly barman who filled me in on what was new. He mentioned that they had just put on a new cask from White Gypsy and I said, ‘Sold!’ I suspect that their Garden's Wild Ale is the cask version of their Emerald Ale - made from 100% Irish ingredients - and the bar man told me I was the first to have a glass from the cask. It was a delicious smooth and subtle pale ale with a bitter, nettle-like quality with some almost honey sweetness. I followed this up with a gorgeous glass of White Hag Fleadh Red, a favourite of mine from the beer festival in Dublin, before heading back to the Festival.
Back in the beer tent the place was hopping (hah!) with tourists, locals and beer nerds. The latter marked out by
their our obsessive need to take notes and annoy those serving by inquiring about the hops used in a particular beer or what additions the put in their water.
And so I finished the day talking to a few locals and having a glass of Metalman Rubus, a pleasantly refreshing fruity ale with plenty of raspberry flavour and a backwash of grapefruit. Next I had a White Gypsy Dunkel that was all milk chocolate, a bit of smoke and quite nice. I finished with a black IPA - one of my favourite styles - from Trouble called Oh Yeah! I really like that bitter-but-balanced-by-sweetness taste, and hint of acrid burnt toast.
The tent was now closing and my palate was pretty much done, so I bought a bottle of White Gypsy Emerald for my home stash and tottered back to the train station via The Wine Centre to add even more beers to my collection. I hadn’t time to call to the Asian deli too!
Reflecting back on the day the only thing that would have made it better was having some company or me being more sociable - something I should really, really work on! Hats off to the organisers of the festival, it was a grand day out.
Saturday 25th October 2014