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Dining in Donegal 2018

Donegal is magical, majestic and full of mischief. My home county is the most beautiful in the country.

Of course I’m going to say that, but it’s true. You’ll find warm people, freezing North Atlantic waters crashing onto dreamy beaches, good food, cosy pubs, rich Gaeilge and the song and story that comes from it, and us. Then there are sights like Mount Errigal, Malin Head, Sliabh League and the magnificent Glenveagh National Park. Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve been warmed by a Donegal turf fire, its fizzing and crackly breath embracing you into the very heart of its mountains, its sea, its people and its soul. Grá mo chroí.


Here are some of my favourite restaurants:

Harry's Bar & Restaurant

Harry’s Bar and Restaurant

What can I say about Harry’s? I’ve written a longer piece here about this fine restaurant, but what makes it so special is how much they care. The owner Donal Doherty and head chef Derek Creagh are passionate about using local produce that comes from the surrounding area of Inishowen and across Donegal. In fact, you can buy certain local treats and products like the fine Kinnegar beers to go. Their food is creative, delicious, consistent and extremely reasonable. It breaks my heart that Donegal, with such a long and glorious coastline doesn’t capitalise on its abundance of fresh fish on every restaurant menu. Harry’s does. My favourite things include the duck liver parfait starter which is the type of dish you could marry, and their always brilliant fish and chips. I urge you to try anything that features citrus or chocolate if it’s on the dessert menu. Harry’s, I do adore you.

Harry’s Bar and Restaurant, Bridgend, Inishowen, Co. Donegal. T: 00353 (0)749368544

Glenveagh Castle

Glenveagh Tea Rooms

I grew up visiting Glenveagh National Park a few times every year when we had visitors, yet I never tired of its dramatic beauty and the sight of its proud and imposing castle overlooking Lough Veagh in the Derryveagh mountains. Every guided tour would offer a new nugget about the castle’s rich, sometimes painful and glamourous past. Greta Garbo stayed there once. I remember hearing that when I was seven years old and I’m probably still not over it. After taking advantage of the long walks through its pretty gardens and surroundings we’d have earned our tea and cake. The Tea Rooms have delicious hot food and home baking and are a shining example of how to treat tourists, with respect. Offer them good food that’s reasonably priced and you will have long queues and repeat custom for years to come. The scones alone are worth a visit.

Glenveagh National Park, Churchill, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal.

T: 00353 (0) 761002537


Nancy's Ardara

Nancy’s of Ardara

The tapestry of Ardara is much like its world renowned weaving industry, rich and colourful with something you can’t quite put your finger on that makes it very special. Nancy’s is a fantastic pub in the heart of it that serves tasty and reasonable pub grub with lots of fresh seafood. It’s a gorgeous labyrinth of traditional snugs and nooks to nurse your Guinness and the front bar often has a trad session or someone might just give you a song. Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick are frequent visitors during their holidays there.

Nancy’s, Front Street, Ardara, Co. Donegal.

T: 00353 (0) 749541187



Lough Eske Castle

Lough Eske Castle Hotel

The only five star hotel in Donegal, Lough Eske Castle sits in 43 acres of forest and woodland by the banks of Lough Eske on the outskirts of Donegal Town. It’s been lovingly restored with many tasteful nods to its history and the location has spectacular views. Their menu is exquisite, taking proper heed of the season’s ingredients and presenting them in a creative and respectful way. A great way to try their menu is a weekend lunch, or their four course Table D’hôte is €55 per person and includes Donegal Bay oysters, Hereford beef and local fish dishes. Sumptuous surroundings and superb food? In a castle? I can’t think of anything a girl could love more.

Lough Eske Castle, a Solís Hotel and Spa, Lough Eske, Donegal Town, Co. Donegal.

T: 00353 (0) 749725100



Harvey’s Point

This is the ultimate mecca for carvery lovers. Every Sunday Harvey’s Point does the best one day carvery in the country in their hotel. This four course extravagant lunch begins with a seat at a table (if you’re lucky to get one) overlooking Lough Eske. You will have your soup served to the table by the cheery staff, and then it’s on your marks to the buffet. Oh my, what a buffet. The starter table has every type of salad, pâté and seafood you can dream of. Then it’s on to the roast of traditional meats, spuds, vegetables and gravy. Even though you think there’s no room, there is room for their dessert table. Chefs make crepes to order with your choice of filling and there’s cakes, trifle and chocolate delights to pile your plate with. Oh and cheese, of course. All this for 29 euro for adults and 14.50 for kids. Just don’t eat before you go.

Harvey’s Point, Lough Eske, Donegal Town, Co. Donegal.

T: 00353 (0) 749722208


 The Blueberry Tea Room

The Blueberry Tea Room

This buzzing little spot just off the Diamond in Donegal Town by Donegal Castle is perfect for cosy and wholesome daytime dining. You’ll receive a warm welcome from owners Brian and Ruperta Gallagher and the menu includes great quiches, soups and salads and a daily blackboard menu of specials. Their eye-catching traybakes, desserts and biscuits are all yummy and cleverly available for sit in or take-away. They know we can’t resist them.

The Blueberry Tea Room, Castle Street, The Diamond, Donegal Town, Co. Donegal.

T: 00353 (0) 749722933


The Lemon Tree The Lemon Tree

The Lemon Tree restaurant is Letterkenny’s finest. Their early bird still astonishes me for its quality and value. Fresh fishcake starter with sautéed leeks and house tartar sauce followed by Slow cooked pork belly, pea purée and colcannon potatoes all for 16.50? Can it be? You can see the bustling open style kitchen come to life as the night progresses into their evening menu. It’s an absolute must if you are visiting Letterkenny.

The Lemon Tree restaurant, 39 Lower Main Street, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal.

T: 00353 (0) 74 912 5788


Rathmullan House

Rathmullan House

A sparkling gem in the Donegal food landscape, the Rathmullan House experience is sheer class from when you hear the crunch of the driveway underneath on your eager approach, to leaving with a very happy belly after their incredible breakfast. It’s kind of place you could happily stay for a week without never leaving the grounds, but do explore the locality where a few Earls once decide to flee from in 1607. The restaurant and their wine cellar both have superb menus. Their beef dishes are some of the best in the country, and the buttery potato mash will have you writing love letters. The only problem about going here is you might just want to stay forever.

Rathmullan House, Rathmullan, Co. Donegal.

T: 00353 (0) 7491 58188



The Mill Restaurant

Dunfanaghy is one of the finest seaside spots in Donegal and has an exceptional cluster of great restaurants and cafés, The Mill being an extra special experience. I first went for my 19th birthday and I can still remember the taste of every dish. They use the produce from their own garden, truly local beef and seafood and organic vegetables. Run by Susan and Derek Alcorn, the original Mill building was bought by Susan’s grandfather, the renowned artist, Frank Eggington in 1949. In 1999, almost 10 years after his death the couple started work on making it into the restaurant, six guest bedrooms as well as their own home. It has views of the new lake and local landscapes which inspired Eggington’s delicate and beautiful paintings. Derek chooses ingredients with extreme care for his classic and seasonal menus. Oh, and the Guinness bread here is on my death row menu.

The Mill Restaurant, Dunfanaghy, Co. Donegal

T: 00353 (0) 749136985


Café Arnou

A lovely offshoot of the Dunfanaghy’s grande dame Arnold’s hotel, Café Arnou overlooks Sheephaven Bay and is a stone’s throw from the unforgettable Killahoey beach. Highlights here are their great brunch menu with melt in the mouth hand-carved ham with their Eggs Benedict. They offer a good selection of wines and when they try to twist your arm into ordering their Wild Atlantic Way cocktail don’t be foolish enough to argue with them.

Café Arnou, cocktail and wine bar, Arnold’s hotel, Main Street Dunfanaghy, Co. Donegal.

T: 00353 (0) 749136208


The Rusty Oven

The Rusty Oven

This rustic pizzeria serves supreme pizza in a magical secret garden at the back of Patsy Dan Devine’s bar on the Main Street. They’ve also just opened an enclosed wine cave this summer if you’d prefer something a little more intimate than the outdoors. They serve up delicious wood fired homemade pizzas with well sourced ingredients for a reasonable price and you can eat it in the bar. Perfect when there’s a music session on.

The Rusty Oven, Main Street, Dunfanaghy, Co. Donegal.


Danny Minnie'sDanny Minnie’s

The first time I’d ever seen a poppy seed never mind taste one was at my Aunt Caitlín’s wedding which was the first wedding held in Danny Minnie’s in the early 1990s. I still remember the sight of the poppy seed ice cream encased in a cage en caramel and the rush of cracking through it, I’d never experienced anything quite like it in my nine years on the earth. This restaurant has been in the O’Donnell family for generations building up a loyal clientele who come from the Rosses and beyond for their food.

Danny Minnie’s, Annagry, Co. Donegal

T: 00353 (0) 74 9548201


Fish tasting starter

The Village Tavern

Tucked into the back of an unassuming pub in the main village of Mountcharles, lies a roaring fire and delicious food that far surpasses any pre-conceptions of rural pub grub. The menu is a triumph. Try the excellent Signature Seafood Tasting Board starter (you can also have it as a main course) that has the best fish finger I have ever had. The owner, Enda O’Rourke, has created a restaurant that is championing local, seasonal, fresh ingredients, including our island’s jewel of seafood, without a sniff of white vans or sausage and chips. O’Rourke does not compromise on food or quality despite the time of year, which can devastate a lot of restaurants. He is sticking to the principle of consistency all year round which will always draw a diner back, and that must be applauded. And, on top of that, it is all for exceptional value. For full review click here.

The Village Tavern, Mountcharles, Co. Donegal
T: +353(0)74 973 5622

The Counter Deli

The Counter Deli

Oh how my heart skipped a beat when I first walked into ‘The Counter’ in Letterkenny. The first proper cheese counter I had ever seen in the county. The Counter opened last year and has been going from strength to strength ever since. They have a fine wine shop and deli with an excellent selection of Irish gourmet products with local gems like Kinnegar beers and Scarpello bread and some fantastic international goodies. Their coffee shop is the closest to feeling like you could be in Manhattan in Letterkenny and their menu is small but perfectly formed with delicious and wholesome sandwiches, soups and glorious cakes. What is clear here is that the owners are passionate about food and have put a lot of care into sourcing and consistency. There is no pretension here, everything speaks for itself. I just pray for the day it might turn into a late night eatery.

The Counter Deli, Canal Road, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal

T: (074) 912 0075




Dressing up for ‘The Restaurant’

Dining room The Restaurant

Going back to the Restaurant was a little bit like bumping into an old boyfriend, except I was given a little more warning so wanted to make sure it wasn’t dressed with a hoodie and last night’s mascara on my face. As a former producer and director, I had once enviously watched the diners from the kitchen while they sipped wine and commented on how rubbish or wonderful that night’s chef’s offering was for four years. Everyone who works on The Restaurant crew works very, very hard and the actual shoot day runs as a real restaurant with prep from early morning until the afternoon’s tastings and then diners arrive in the early evening and the kitchen kicks into service. I started as a runner on the series in 2008 and loved every step of the journey to becoming Series Producer in 2011 when I last worked on it. Seeing everyone again was a gorgeous reunion.

CMB and PCON Restaurant outside 2015

Myself and Peter Conway O’Neill

Going on as a diner was as much exciting as it was nerve-wrecking. I was often asked ‘Where on earth do you get those diners? ‘ when I worked on it. Now it was my turn.

CMB and PCON full exterior 2015 The dressing up bit is an important part of the show, and was one of my favourite parts of the whole experience. My first stop was Covet, a gorgeous ‘borrower’s boudoir’ at the top of Powerscourt Town Centre in Dublin. This shop has been my saviour for many weddings and occasions over the years as they allow you to rent beautiful gowns and designer dresses for a few days and then return them. All the glamour, without the massive price tag or commitment. I fell so madly in love with one particular dress I got it for keeps for my 30th birthday. The whole experience of renting a dress in Covet is a joy. Their customer service is exceptional, from the initial visit you feel like you are at your friend’s extremely glamourous changing room, to the complimentary adjustments they make to fit your shape and height. Suzanne, Aleana and all their staff exude warmth and get as excited about the dresses as you do. And my God, are those dresses pretty. I borrowed a navy blue dress with sparkling shoulders for my turn on ‘The Restaurant’ and was very sad to return it the next day.



The wonderful team at Sugar Cubed took me in with a hug and wave of their magic wand for my hair and my make-up. Sugar Cubed is sister to Brown Sugar, and my favourite salon in Dublin. For an event like this they are they are a perfect one-stop shop because they do hair and make-up. You walk in a goblin and walk out feeling like you can go to the Oscars, such is their enthusiasm. They listen, they care, they don’t push products unless you ask and they are genuinely wonderful fun and friendly. I do love them, and they really do listen.

Sugar Cubed

Sugar Cubed

Aimee and Kim worked their wonders with my colour and style for the night and Cara managed to get my request for make-up that would last all night ‘I don’t care if I look like Aunt Sally’ and something that would not scare children spot on. I am so very thankful to Covet and the Brown Sugar family for everything, I can’t wait visit again.

The Restaurant Kevin Kilbane

Head Chef for our evening at the Restaurant, Kevin Kilbane

My ‘date’ for the evening was my friend Peter Conway O’Neill, one of the most passionate people on food and wine that I’ve ever met with an enormous and warm heart, and a deliciously dirty laugh. The whole experience was a lot of fun. Trying not to sound like the type of person I’d hate to be stuck with in a lift and being constructive or celebratory about the food, and guess who might have cooked it was as uncomfortable as it sounds, and it was a very unnatural feeling to be on the diner’s side of the kitchen door. Being aware that every sentence, every snort or lick of lips might be used for the show’s edit gives you a hyper-awareness of exactly how annoying you might be. Sorry Kevin Kilbane. The new venue at Marco Pierre White’s is a fine location for the series in Donnybrook and the man himself lived up to his presence in culinary history.

I did miss my dearly departed friend Paolo Tullio’s presence, it still hurts in the pang of mourning when I hear Roy Orbison or someone talks about how great Italian ingredients are. We will not see his like again.

Thank you to the very hard-working Restaurant team for having me on as a diner, tá sibh iontach! x

Recipe – Coffee cake

Coffee cake
One of my favourite things is a cup of scalding hot, delicious coffee, the type you could inhale all day, and a slice of buttery, indulgent coffee cake. This recipe is one I make based on two of my favourites from the queens of baking, Darina Allen in Ballymaloe and Mary Berry. I leave out walnuts because I can’t bear them, but like to decorate with pecans.
Coffee cake with mascarpone icing
250g real butter, softened
300g self-raising flour
4 eggs, beaten
250g light soft brown sugar (Or I like to use 100g dark muscovado sugar and 150g caster sugar)
1 tsp real vanilla extract
200ml of very strong coffee, (real or instant) cooled
For the mascarpone icing
 250g mascarpone
500g icing sugar
Cooled, sweetened coffee to taste
Cocoa powder to decorate
Pecan nuts to decorate (optional)
Preheat oven to 180C or Gas mark 4.
Butter 2 x 20cm sandwich tins and line the bottoms with greaseproof paper.
Beat the butter and sugar together until light, pale and creamy. Add the vanilla extract. Add in the sieved flour and the beaten eggs and continue beating until throughly mixed. Fold in half of the cold coffee.Divide the mix evenly between the two tins and bake for 25-30 minutes until golden and well risen.
After removing from the oven, leave the cakes to stand in their tins for about five minutes before turning them out on a wire rack. Mix a little icing sugar with the cold coffee and sprinkle over 3-4 tablespoons on the sponges. Leave to cool.
For the icing, beat together the icing sugar, the mascarpone and some of the sweetened cold coffee (to your own preference).
Spread a layer of the icing to sandwich the sponges together and spread the rest on top. It will be quite runny and naturally fall over the sides. Decorate with pecans, if using, and with a dusting of cocoa powder.
It will happily keep for 2-3 days.
Now put the kettle on and enjoy!

Recipe – The ultimate pancakes by Gary O’Hanlon

Gary O'Hanlon pancakes recipeHappy Pancake Tuesday! Chef Gary O’Hanlon shares his recipe for the ‘Pancakes to end all pancakes.’

Don’t be shy with the maple syrup. Gary says these pancakes are ‘next level amazing.’

Pancakes with Berries, Vanilla Cream, Nutella and Maple Syrup
What you’ll need
1 10 or 12 inch non-stick pan (the heavier the better)
1 bowl
1 whisk
1 ladle
10g of butter per pancake
A sieve
A bottle of Maple syrup
A jar of Nutella
Large serving plate
Berry Compote
10 raspberries
10 blueberries
10 blackberries
5 strawberries diced up.
2 tsp caster sugar.

Mix everything together very slowly until the sugar dissolves and there’s a lovely sheen to your berries and set aside.
Pancake Batter
3 eggs
100g caster sugar (you can add a little more if you prefer them sweeter but bear in mind we’ll also be using sweetened cream & maple syrup)
400 ml full fat milk
100-200g of flour.
2 tsp icing sugar
For the cream

Add all the ingredients to a bowl and blend with an electric blender or by hand. It will take a while if you don’t have a blender but it will eventually thicken so don’t let it stop you if you don’t have one. Whisk until stiff.
For the Pancake Batter
Whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Add the sugar and whisk again until the sugar dissolves.
Now add the milk and whisk to blend. Add the flour bit by bit.

The flour quantity will differ from person to person. If, like me, you prefer them more crepe like then use around 100g or if you prefer them slightly thicker add more. The key is to add the flour in bit by bit. Now to cook. Heat the pan with approx 10g of butter. Do not let the butter brown.
Once melted swirl the butter around the base of the pan, this will help prevent sticking.
Ladle one big scoop of pancake mix into the middle of the pan then swirl it to evenly distribute until the entire base of the pan is covered.
Cook on a medium heat until little bubbles appear and when you push the pan back and forth and it slides easily you know it is ready for flipping.

This is the fun part if there are children around, but if you are not comfortable simply put a flat spatula underneath and turn it.
Cook for a further 1-2 mins then slide off onto a plate or chopping board.
Roll the pancake up, place onto your plate, dust all over with icing sugar, spoon on the berries, drizzle with maple syrup and top with whipped cream and Nutella.


Forgiving and forgiveness

MBG Forgiveness imageWe are in the twilight of the season of goodwill, the season where we reconnect. We are to be good and generous, we embrace family and friends, old and new, and spread good tidings and kindness. Everything is amplified in two weeks of love and understanding and supposed to be a peppermint flavour of perfect.

But, thankfully, life is not perfect and with reconnection comes memories, good and bad. We realise that some wounds have healed, some are nicked open, and forgiving, and forgiveness, can be a huge challenge during this period. A mince pie and gulp of mulled wine do not always help the spiky swallow of anger or pain in the name of Christmas.

What is forgiveness?

You wrong me, I wrong you. Whatever the response to either of these is where forgiveness lies.

Forgiveness is hope. And about how much you care about the person, and they for you. The absolute key is the acknowledgment of the hurt. Then to apologise and to try to learn from it, and behave better. The simple act of looking one in the eye, saying ‘I am so sorry’ and meaning it, can be all it takes. If there is an admission of responsibility, an asking for forgiveness, repentance, gestures to show atonement and a promise to do better – these can all be gateways to healing and forgiveness.

But this is really the best case scenario. For most, it can be a path of ignoring it, pretending it hasn’t happened until you or they have forgotten, or ultimately do not care anymore. Because who the hell wants to think about what a vile human they have been? Often the victim is left with only an ocean of pain and unanswered questions. If the person who hurt you took steps to acknowledge the hurt and rectify the pain, then reassurance and respect is likely to be restored. And healing can begin. Therein lies the hope.

But what of forgiveness?

Why do we need it? What is it? And why do some seem better at it than others? Most seem better at it than I am, this much I know. But I also know some who have hung on to old hurts for so long they might have forgotten the very reason they are angry. Yet a lifetime might have been wasted without a sister or friend or parent or potential great love where healing could have occurred.

Forgiveness is complex, awkward, difficult, heart-breaking and cathartic. We are all usually in the process of trying to forgive, or being forgiven. And often, trying to forgive ourselves. Without it, however, there is no hope. Anger strangles hope like a suffocating weed.

You can walk into any book shop and struggle to choose from the hundreds of books about forgiveness. Self-help gurus, priests, philosophers, TV will all profess the answers on what makes a thing forgivable or unforgivable, but it seems the act of forgiveness is ultimately a good, good thing for your body, mind and soul. For you.

‘Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could be any different.’

I heard this during a time when forgiveness was the last thing on my mind. I had been betrayed by someone I loved and who loved me. I was angry and hurt and the whole gamut of things that comes with the devastation of a pain of the heart, inflicted. He had broken my trust and though we stayed together, I realised that while I could forgive with my body, when my trust was broken I could not forget with my heart or my mind. You cannot lie to either. I was more of the mindset that Beckett might be onto something in ‘Malone Dies’:

‘Let us say before I go any further, that I forgive nobody. I wish them all an atrocious life in the fires of icy hell and in the execrable generations to come.’ – Beckett

But I soon realised carrying around a pool of caustic, acrid acid like that wasn’t getting me anywhere and the voodoo dolls and listening to ‘Since U Been Gone’ gets a bit old. The relationship did come to an end eventually and I realised, ultimately, those we can struggle to forgive aren’t usually being hurt by our lack of forgiveness. And, on reflecting on pains or hurts I have experienced, it often, sadly, comes to the point where you do not actually care enough about the person anymore. Friends from primary school, an old boyfriend in secondary school who I was convinced Damien Rice had written ‘O’ just for our break-up, an old boss who took credit for my work, a friend who let me down, an old colleague who I found out had spoken about me behind my back. On and on, but when I reflect on most of them, I do not actually care enough to care much at all anymore. The people you care most about will be the ones you forgive, because you believe in them. And the ones that care about you will do the same. Get on with living. The pain taught you a lesson. About trust, about love, about human nature, about greed or jealousy, about ruthlessness or spite. The lesson is the hard-won silver lining.

Disciple or doormat

Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. But where does the line between forgiveness stop and being a doormat begin? When does turning the other cheek mean you have become a punch bag? It’s all down to your own heart and listening to it. Champion forgivers might be happier, more compassionate, but what about that prick down the road whose bat-crazy dog bit you and he insisted it was your fault? He didn’t say sorry and I don’t think he deserves forgiveness. Am I lacking in compassion? Perhaps rising above it all depends on the depth of the pain and how much you care about the person.

Forgiving yourself

This is usually more difficult and complicated than forgiving someone else. Labouring through the murky Hades of forgiving yourself will often throw up self-loathing, shame and guilt you feel you can never atone for. Shame is one of the most corrosive things for our souls buried beneath layers of other rubbish in the cesspit of memories. Swallowing your own shame can hide in a spot so deep it might only pop out in a nightmare or in the half-light of the sub-conscious when you are reminded of something you wish you had never done. And then we numb it. We all screw up. We are all beautiful and messy and ugly and bitchy and angry and greedy and unloving and loving. We are human. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it, say sorry and mean it, and learn from it. Forgive yourself, forgive yourself, forgive yourself.

Move on up

So, on forgiveness. There are no answers, except your own heart. Time helps, but the biggest antidote is hope. How much the person matters to you will also help in how they fit back into your life, or you into theirs. To your own self be true, and follow the hope. You deserve it.

Bliain úr faoi mhaise, wishing you a very happy new year x