I love my job; I know it is cold in this old railway train engine maintenance stone building from the 19th century, pretty much winter for seven months of the year, yes, perishing actually! I have often joked about my age with customers, claiming that I was in fact 78 years old, preserved like a Dorian Gray Popsicle if you wish… Yes, I love my job, being surrounded by great food all day, food and farmhouse cheese, made by people with incredible stories that I like to pass on. But what really gets me going is the people; you never really know who is going to walk through the door, folks with lives and stories, big and small and I love that! I really like listening to them, the quirks and anecdotes, “queer as folk” the expression says, or like the local accent dictates, it is often pronounced “quare” in that unmistakable Irish twang.
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, this guy walks in; smart, well spoken, voluble even in the nicest way of its meaning. He was looking for some cheese, for an important lunch organised by Letterkenny Institute of Technology, LYIT in Donegal. The chap explained to me that the French Ambassador was going to visit them, in Killybegs’ School of Tourism, now part of the College. The French Embassy in Ireland has been working hard for the past two years to stimulate exchanges of students from both countries; Erasmus has been around for a long time now, over a couple of decades, and I actually was an involuntary witness and actor of its launch – or rather its ancestor- in Venlo, Netherland in 1992. The project was then called “Petra”, and I presented – or rather winged- the press conference for the French group; a crazy story that I will tell on another day!
“Forgive me; Ciarán ó hAnnracháin, Head of Department of Hospitality & Tourism in Killybegs” he said while we shook hands over the cheese counter.
It’s funny; I had been invited by the French Embassy over two years ago for breakfast, to discuss French food imports to Ireland; a business breakfast with Ambassador H.E Jean-Pierre Thébault… Nice guy! We were talking about how Ireland was in a way victim of its own success and while the country produces well educated bright young people, the apprenticeship culture is slowly disappearing for more “straight out of school management positions”, leaving the future of certain trades at risk…”
“We have done a lot of work together” said Ciarán, “we are delighted to have him visiting us in Killybegs.”
“Killybegs? I love Donegal, I wrote a story last June, “Killybegs to differ” about our visit to the town and the area, it was by far the most popular, visited 500 times over the weekend and shared 50 times on social media!”
Ciarán paused for a bit while putting his index over his mouth and just said:
“That was you??? I shared that! What a small world, I’ll have to invite you now!”
And the day after, I received an invite from the French Embassy to have lunch in Killybegs, West Donegal. I was reminiscing the anecdote last Thursday, as I was making my way up North, Cavan, Enniskillen, Ballyshannon, by passed Donegal Town, no time to stop this time, maybe on the way down? I had already planned to go back by Sligo and Longford for the sake of doing a loop. “400 km round trip for lunch?”.Even I thought that was a bit mad!
I arrived in the famous fishing town just under 30 minutes before kickoff, presented with a restorative mug of tea in the students’ canteen by a lovely young lady, apologising for this very Irish tradition.
I asked her for the way to the reception and she couldn’t have been more helpful; it reminded me why I love the area so much, the people, and their kindness. I made my way to the Training Restaurant, soon to be greeted by Ciarán who introduced me to a couple of people, another Franck, French Baker in Le Fournil ( Donegal town and Sligo), and a guy called Remy from Kitty Kelly’s restaurant outside the town, on route to Sliabh Liag; I’ll have to visit next time I am around. I know Franck’s bread, as I have, in the past, stopped in Simple Simon’s in Donegal town, and in the wonderful shop in the heart of Sligo Town also called “Le Fournil”, right in the “Italian Quarter”, by the Garavogue River. They do bread, patisserie, chocolates and a lot of French goodies; a lovely town to visit. It wasn’t long before the Ambassador arrived, shaking hands with some of his compatriots first, all had now gathered outside the training restaurant, educators, businessmen and women, chefs, students, journalists… I was looking around me, the sober looking college overlooking the fishing harbour and town below and thought: “there are worse places to be a student”.
We sat at our allocated table, checking the menu out, chatting to a gentleman to my left who knew everything about the history of the French Embassy in Dublin on Ailesbury Road, the street in Donnybrook, favoured by foreign diplomacy and one of the most expensive address on the Irish real estate; the legendary “Number 53” was sold to the French government for £8,000 in the 30’s, and is now worth an insane €60,000,000. Nice gaff though, I was lucky enough to have been invited in it in twice; a garden party in 2002 after a T.V interview about Bastille Day and for a business meeting in 2014.
My neighbour on the right was Dr Stéphane Aymard, Cultural and Scientific Counsellor for the French Embassy. We had met a couple of years ago, and I enjoyed conversing in French again. Stéphane is by the nature of his job quite curious, asking pertinent questions about Ireland, my story and how French produces, especially food, are doing in Ireland. He was very impressed at the level of service and food. Everything was impeccably choreographed; the students and educators must have been working so hard for this day. This wasn’t an operation designed to impress, this was in so many ways a display of pride, and looking at that younger generation, I was thinking that the country has nothing to worry about, or envy. I would have been very happy to pay top buck for what was served to us, from service to food, what a great lunch!
A couple of speeches later and more photo opportunities, and we were on our way. I found out that the future of the school has been in the balance. What a shame it would have been! But due to the release of recent funding, it can now enjoy a new lease of life. When it comes to food, Ireland has really made its mark on the gastronomical map of the world, and thanks to amazing motivated educators, partnerships and sheer pride, talented young people are and will keep making this island a challenging destination when it comes to food and tourism. Something that seems to come naturally to all the good people of Donegal… Like a lot of pro-active towns in Ireland, Killybegs understand how vital and fragile the perennity is, how important it is to nurture “tomorrow”; from where I am standing, and what I was lucky to witness, the future is bright… Very bright indeed!
Keep Well and Eat Happy,