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Marilyn Bright talks to Marguerite Howley of Castle Murray House Hotel, St John's Point, Dunkineely, Co Donegal.
From a cliff-top above the long toe of St John's Point, diners in Castle Murray House Hotel have a perfect view of Donegal Bay and the Atlantic coast where some of the world's best seafood is landed. Air miles simply don’t figure here as lobsters for the restaurant may be lifted from pots just 100 metres away while langoustines come from day boats seen bobbling about off St John's Point.
Proprietor Marguerite Howley celebrated 10 years at Castle Murray this spring and has grown up in the fishing industry. With both a father and a brother involved in the Donegal fleet, she is committed to supporting local fishermen, "We're lucky to be able to get supplies daily in summer - we'd have lobsters every day and keep them alive in a tank, crabs are local too, or from Burtonport just up the coast. Prawns have been more scarce because of the red tide in Rossnowlagh this summer. We didn't get it around the corner in our bay but it has affected stocks,” Marguerite says.
Trained as a chef in the famed Killybegs Catering College, Marguerite ran a bar and restaurant with accommodation in the town for five years before taking over Castle Murray with her father Martin in 2002. Inheriting French head chef Remy Dupuy from the previous owners has meant that she now spends time front of house and developing areas like the herb garden, so they are now self-sufficient in fresh herbs as well as edible flowers for decoration.
Head chef Remy has been in situ for 17 years, but the house signature dish of monkfish and langoustines in garlic butter goes back 20 years. "They’re served escargot style in the dimpled French dishes and gratinated over the sizzling garlic butter. It’s the one dish we could never take off the menu, Marguerite observes," and it's very popular on the children menu as well.
Dungloe oysters are served au naturel or flashed under a grill with chive buerre blanc as a warm starter that is well suited to the gigas oysters that are available year round. Crab is always popular and features in a specialty of McSwynes Bay blue lobster and St John's crab salad which comes with lobster oil mayonnaise and lemon grass dressing. “Irish people prefer white crabmeat, " Marguerite comments, but the French love the brown. Recently we've discovered that our suppliers in Burtonport have a surplus of brown crabmeat, so we're experimenting with new dishes to use that - perhaps in a velouté or bisque”
Although Castle Murray diners enjoy a range of choices from Angus or Hereford steaks to Silver Hill duck and interesting vegetarian dishes like sesame seed millefeuille of asparagus and wild mushrooms, seafood remains the greatest draw, "With boats arriving back most days, we have to use whatever comes in and keep the menu flexible,” Marguerite explains, Supplies vary from season to season as well. This year we've had good sea bass, hake and the farmed turbot, but we only got Dover sole once this summer and John Dory is very scarce. I can't figure out if stocks are down, or is the price putting off buyers and they're going directly for export,"
In addition to sourcing, Marguerite finds that paperwork takes up an increasing amount of time. “Especially dealing with seafood, you'll have inspectors looking for documentation on individual fishermen — are they registered and has shellfish been tested? It's not enough to know that correct procedures have been implemented, they want to see everything written down. And I've even had inspectors arriving in the middle of a wedding. "You get the impression that they only care about paperwork, not how the kitchen looks."
With her father Involved in the fishing industry, Marguerite is also aware that the fishermen she deals -with are being killed with red tape. They’re expected to keep records of things like the rations carried on each boat and the number of hours of actual work for each man as opposed to time spent waiting between hauling catches. There doesn't seem to be an understanding that fishing isn't a nine-to-five job and dealing with all the documentation is tough when we're all struggling to survive.”
In an area that has been traditionally seasonal. Castle Murray stayed open all winter last year for the first time. “It worked out well," Marguerite confirms. "We started just opening at weekends during January and February, then went to five-day opening, Wednesday to Sunday. In the past we would have closed completely for eight weeks, but we found a market there and we already have bookings for early 2013."
Developments continue apace at Castle Murray, with negotiations underway for grown-to-order organic vegetables from a local allotment. Marguerite has plans for at least seven different varieties of potatoes next season — “we do love our potatoes in Donegal!” And the wine list has been ramped up to include a good selection of half-bottles. " It's a definite trend now, with concerns about driving and it gives people more choice to try different wines with different courses. Predictably, Cbablis, Sancerre and Muscadet are top sellers, but red wine comes on when game dishes appear on the autumn and winter menus.
As the high season winds down, this outpost of good food on the edge of the Atlantic can claim another successful year, weathering the storm of tough times, " It’s all about community Marguerite says, " Local people and suppliers support each other and that's what will get us through."