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A Donegal Son Returns

When Virginia chef Cathal Armstrong goes home to his native Ireland, friends regale him with pints and fiddles—and the area’s best purveyors bring out delicious local ingredients for him to prepare a homecoming feast.

“This is where we used to sleep,” Cathal Armstrong calls down as he climbs the ladder into the attic of his Aunt Marie’s tiny Irish cottage, which is no bigger than a suburban shed. All 14 members of the Armstrong family would spend long summers there in County Donegal, up in the wild northwestern corner of Ireland. “It was crazy,” he continues. “Seems like a million years ago.” In fact, the Armstrongs have been making the trip here from Dublin for 35 years, and Cathal’s parents, Gerry and Angela Armstrong, now have a house in Donegal, too. “Ah, yes, they were good times,” Gerry joins in. “Let’s go for a pint.”

After a short drive across the peat bogs and around the small lakes that dot this treeless landscape, we pull up to Iggy’s Bar in Kincasslagh. Iggy beckons us in with a smile and a wave, as if we were entering the front room of his house. While Irish folk music twangs in the background, Iggy sets about pouring us long, slow pints of cream-topped Guinness. There is no menu in sight, but after a few minutes—or possibly longer, as there have been some more pints involved—food arrives out of nowhere: bowls of clear vegetable broth with soda bread, followed by plates of fresh seafood. Everything is homemade, and all the ingredients are local: oysters, mussels, Irish prawns. The lobster and crab were landed this morning. “It’s your original gastropub!” Cathal says approvingly. The meal fulfills his own passion for local, fresh, seasonal and high-quality ingredients—values that have won him acclaim as chef-owner of Restaurant Eve, Eamonn’s A Dublin Chipper and the Majestic in Alexandria, Virginia. I ask Iggy for the soup recipe. “Ah, it’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that...” He is not letting on.

Cathal, an F&W Best New Chef 2006, is home in his native Ireland for a few days to visit with family and get a dose of Irish geniality and spirit. I have joined him in Donegal to learn more about this extraordinary young chef as we visit the local landmarks, pubs, restaurants and fresh-food markets before preparing a big dinner at his parents’ house.

While the pints of Guinness slip down, I learn of Cathal’s unusual Dublin childhood: how his travel-agent father would take the family to exotic European destinations, exposing Cathal to unfamiliar and adventurous dishes, like rabbit paella, at an early age. How young Cathal carted horse manure around the Armstrongs’ home garden to help his father with the 60 types of fruit and vegetables he grew for their table. And how Gerry ran the kitchen at home (apart from making pastry, which was Angela’s domain). At the age of 19, with a limited background in restaurants and the financial support of his father and uncle, Cathal took charge of a Dublin restaurant. This first venture didn’t work out, however. “What do you expect with a 19-year-old in charge?” Cathal says now with a smile. “The night the food critic came, I went to a pub.” Cathal was then sent to the United States to earn some money working in a bar before returning to Ireland to study information technology. He never did go back to take that computer course.

In the morning, Cathal, Gerry and I drive through narrow lanes alongside trout and salmon streams down to the village of Dungloe. Here we meet jolly butcher Pat Boyle to pick up the first of the ingredients for Cathal’s dinner: locally raised saddle of lamb. In his restaurants, Cathal won’t serve meat that’s not freshly butchered or up to the standard set by “Paddy,” who has always put aside the best meat for Gerry. Like practically every Irishman we meet, Pat has spent some time in the U.S. (As a maker of traditional sausages, he returned with strong—and regrettably unprintable—views on the processed hot dog.)

American connections are nowhere more prominent than at the remote Glenveagh Estate, where we call in for a tour of the 19th-century castle and gardens on our way to collect more ingredients. The castle, built in the style of Queen Victoria’s Scottish retreat, Balmoral, and now public property, has a history of wealthy American owners who partied here with guests like Greta Garbo, Yehudi Menuhin and Grace Kelly.

From the “pleasure grounds” of Glenveagh, it’s only a few more miles, through a gap in the bleak Derryveagh mountains, to the village of Dunfanaghy. Gerry stocks up at Ramsay’s Stores, where you can purchase a bricklaying trowel or altar candles while picking up something from the deli counter. Dunfanaghy is also home to the Green Man, a delightful organic food shop and purveyor of nearly 20 kinds of Irish cheese. Cathal grew up smelling, touching and tasting every piece before buying it—good training for assembling a restaurant cheese list. Today, he selects cheeses to serve after our dinner, including a Cashel Blue from Tipperary, a creamy Gubbeen, a ripe Durrus, a St. Gall from Cork and a cheddar-style Mount Callan from County Clare.

Having filled the car with provisions, we set off for home, stopping at Horn Head on the way. This is the most dramatic Donegal scenery. Gone are the rhododendrons and oaks of Glenveagh—not a tree in sight here, only wild heather clinging to the hillside. The landscape’s raw beauty is untouched by human hands. Well, almost untouched: Someone has written out DAD SMELLS by arranging white stones on the headland opposite us. “It wasn’t me,” Cathal quickly calls out to his father. There is a stunning 360-degree panorama from the top of Horn Head. “Out there is America, and up there is Greenland,” Gerry shouts above the wind, pointing across the Atlantic. Alas, we can’t stay, as Gerry is anxious to get down to the Olde Glen Bar in Glen, Carrigart.

We squeeze into the Olde Glen, where the owners, Thomas and Maretta McLaughlin, are out front with customers, just in time to get a table. Maretta tells me the bar is more than 400 years old. The restaurant and kitchen, thankfully, are more modern, having been added just seven years ago. The menu is simple, with a predominance of local produce, including pan-fried sea bass with crispy prawns, a homemade pâté that has Cathal raving and Tom’s own seafood chowder. Names are written on a blackboard, and as food runs out the board is wiped clean, dish by dish. Although portions are generous, nothing is left on our plates when they go back to the kitchen. As we leave, I ask Tom if the pub has a website where I can find more information. “A website?” he says. “We don’t even have a cell phone.”

The next morning, we finish our search for dinner supplies with a trip to the market at Falcarragh. This is where fishmonger Jack McDevitt comes on Fridays, his van loaded with the day’s catch from Greencastle. We pick up a salmon and Atlantic lobsters so fresh they’re still nipping Cathal’s fingers as he pops them into the back of the car. “When it tastes like the sea,” he says, “there’s no need to hide the flavor in heavy sauces.” Across the road he chooses leeks, asparagus and potatoes from the large selection on display at Joe Walsh’s stall. Joe makes me promise to write that a handsome young fruit-and-veg stall-holder in Falcarragh seeks a wealthy American girl for friendship, and perhaps more…. There is just one more trader to visit before we leave the market—Eamonn Friel, the traveling barber. Eamonn has built up quite a following in the 16 years he’s been taking his barber’s van around the market towns of Donegal, and there’s already a crowd of customers. Cathal decides his hair is short enough, and we return home to prep the dinner.

Back at his parents’ house, Cathal has the salmon filleted and trimmed in seconds. The loins of lamb—rubbed with a paste of fresh rosemary, sage, marjoram, thyme and garlic—are trussed and sizzling on the skillet. Everything looks effortless. “It’s just home cooking,” he says modestly. In his restaurants he is more adventurous with the choice of ingredients, using practically every edible animal part and making more complex Irish classics, like black pudding and home-cured bacon. But he always follows the same guiding principles: “Nature is perfect. Extract the flavor. Enhance it. Don’t smother it or take away from it.”

And what flavors Cathal produces for us, as his family gathers around the dining table: a salad of fennel and sweet Atlantic lobster, served with a creamy tarragon-lemon dressing; pan-fried salmon fillets in a bright citrus sauce; and the delicately flavored skillet-seared lamb, roasted until perfectly succulent. Cathal smiles as he sees the reactions on our faces, and his parents are justifiably proud. “Gorgeous” is the word said most often around the table. The ripe cheeses from the Green Man are served with Cathal’s dense, hearty soda bread, fresh out of the oven. Another family treat is still to come: Angela has baked the famous puff pastry apple pie she learned to make in Sister Felicitas’s cookery classes at convent school. It is served piping hot, straight from the enamel tins onto our plates. Cathal uses the same recipe in his restaurant kitchens, but he admits that the result “isn’t a patch on Mammy’s apple pie.”

As we start on the pie, the doorbell rings. Connie—the Armstrongs’ gardener—has turned up with two friends who have heard Cathal is back. They unpack fiddles and join us in the kitchen. More plates are quickly found, and amid much laughter, drinking and apple pie, fiddles start up and feet start tapping. “We’ve played sessions of 14 hours,” warns fiddler one, Ciaran McPhillimy. “Let’s do some damage,” shouts fiddler two, Stephen Campbell, as they rip into the music in fast and furious unison. But the fiddlers stop as abruptly as they started and Connie, who up until now has been quietly nodding and tapping his feet, leaps into song with the most melodious voice I have ever heard. We all sit enchanted. Even Gerry is speechless. Then the fiddlers take over again, and it looks like we are in for a long night.

Alec Le Sueur is the author of The Hotel on the Roof of the World: From Miss Tibet to Shangri-La. He lives in the Channel Islands.

Published March 2008
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