A week in Marrakech, Morocco

You can now fly direct to Marrakech from Dublin with Ryanair.  This has made Morocco a very affordable holiday destination for Irish people.  Earlier this year, a friend and I booked flights with Ryanair and set about organising ourselves for a week in Marrakech.

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It quickly became apparent that in deciding where to stay, you have to make a choice between the old and the new Marrakech.  The old is the Medina, the area that includes the Square (Jamaa El Fna) and the Souks.  The most popular “new” destination is Gueliz.  I had some idea of what the Medina would be like from watching various travel programmes on TV and did some further research.  Although it would be clearly be a more authentic experience to stay in a traditional Riad within the Medina, we decided to stay in a modern hotel in the new town of Gueliz.  This choice may not be for everyone.  There are many very lovely Riads in Marrakech offering superb accommodation, food and facilities but there were a number of reasons we chose to skip the more traditional side of Marrakech.

-  We knew it was going to be very hot and whilst Riad’s are generally built behind large thick walls to keep them cool, there is unlikely to be either air conditioning or space for any meaningful size swimming pool.

-  Although your Riad will be an oasis of calm, life immediately outside the front door is likely to be chaotic (lots of traffic – people, motorbikes and animals, and also locals looking to find a way to “help” you (usually for money, and not always fairly).

If you are not prepared to deal with this every time you put your foot out the door, then perhaps a stay in the Medina is not for you.  If you do want to experience the traditional, then maybe consider breaking up your trip and combining a Medina stay with a few days in the new town.

We booked into the Hotel Almas in Gueliz as we were on a budget and it was very reasonable for a 7-night stay.  We booked an airport transfer with www.ziptransfers.com for the airport trips to and from Gueliz and this worked out very well, was very reasonable and we had no transport worries on landing.

The Moroccan Dirham is a closed currency meaning you can’t source it before you arrive, so use the ATM in the airport before you leave it.  Make sure you inform your bank that you will be in Morocco as more often for security reasons you may find your card suspended after one use if you haven’t informed them of your trip in advance.

Overall, we were satisfied with our choice of Hotel Almas.  It has a rooftop pool of a decent size which was really necessary given the temperatures.  Breakfast was included each morning.  It was a humble affair; generally bread rolls, small pastries and orange juice is what we had.  If you got up early, you got the coffee, it was as simple as that.  The only real gripe we had was how hard the pillows were.  Seems minor, but it couldn’t be fixed and they really affected the quality of our sleep.

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Hotel Almas is located very centrally in Gueliz within an easy walk of many nice restaurants. We also were able to walk to the Square and Medina from there.  However, don’t under estimate the effect of the heat.  It is a fair walk to the Medina so consider getting a taxi back if you walk in.  Make sure you agree the price in advance with the driver as we didn’t succeed all week long in getting them to put the trip on the meter!

I would say that over the course of the 7 days we spent about 6 hours around the Medina area.  It was plenty for me. That included visiting the palaces of La Bahia and El Badi, numerous drink/refreshment stops and visiting the Souks.  We visited the Square both by day and evening/night.  It is quiet enough during the day but there are still many snake charmers and other entertainers there and plenty of “stalls”.  At nighttime, the food vendors set up and the place comes alive.  Many tourists eat at these food stalls but we didn’t try them.  What I noticed was the carts of pastries being wheeled around completely covered in flies – this certainly put me off eating in the Square.

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There is a distinct price difference when eating/drinking in the Medina and in the Gueliz area.  The prices in the Medina are very much inflated and you would be wise to check the price of everything before ordering – particularly soft drinks.  More often than not, it will cost c. €5 for a glass of Coke in the Medina area in the same bar as you can get two cocktails for the price of one!

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We generally ate at night in the Gueliz area which was definitely cheaper.  We really enjoyed the italian restaurant Mamma Mia and ate there more than once www.mammamia-marrakech.com.  We also loved our Lebanese Mezze meal at Azar where you are also entertained by local belly dancers www.azarmarrakech.co.uk.  We found that imported wines are very expensive so we stuck to the local wines.  After some trial and error (and generally being white or rose wine drinkers) we realised we liked their Gris wines and generally stuck to those (Domaine de Sahari Gris is an example of one we enjoyed).

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A must visit for seafood is Al Bahriya which is located next door to the Hotel Almas in Gueliz.  This place is always full and generally with locals.  The fish is super fresh.  You go to the counter, pick out the raw fish you would like to eat, they weigh it and cook it for you.  They give you bread, rice and sauces and you find a table and wait for the fish to be ready.  No alcohol is served in this restaurant and you eat with your fingers!

For pre-dinner drinks, we absolutely loved the top room at Grand Cafe de la Poste.  It is a gorgeous room with a lovely ambience and the drinks are reasonably priced.

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There is also a sky bar at La Renaissance Hotel in Gueliz with views over the city.  There are many bars in the Medina area also with views over the Square and souks.  You can get some value in these during happy hour promotions but always check the cost of drinks when ordering.

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If you are staying in Marrakech for a full week, you will need to plan some daytime activities.  We booked a trip to the Ourika Valley to see the waterfall there (the trek – or climb- to the waterfall was not for the faint hearted though!  Make sure you wear footwear with a grip!).  The trip also included a visit to a traditional Moroccan Berber family home.  Whilst there, we were served some Moroccan Mint Tea which is absolutely gorgeous.  I am not normally a fan of  herbal teas, but was so pleasantly surprised with this tea.  It is so sweet, yet there is nothing added to it to sweeten it.  It is so refreshing even on the hottest of days.  A must try!

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We also visited the Jardin Majorelle which is a small but very beautiful garden and there is a lovely cafe there for lunch. This garden was bought by Yves St Laurent in 1980 and there are many tributes to him contained with the gardens www.jardinmajorelle.com/ang.

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There are many gardens and parks dotted around Marrakech and we tended to pop into one of these seeking shade fairly often.

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We also went on a Quad Biking trip which was great fun.  This was just a short drive from the city and they collected us from our Hotel.  This was well worth doing – wear your oldest/dirtiest clothes and enjoy it.  You will end up filthy but exhilarated.

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My main tips for spending a week in Marrakech are:

-  A trip to Marrakech is a good one for those on a budget. To keep your costs down, travel with Ryanair and make do with cabin luggage only – it’s easier than you think.

-  If you are not sure about spending a week staying in the Medina, then consider either splitting your time between the Medina and the new town or staying in the new town altogether.  Prices in Gueliz are considerably cheaper.

-  Inform your Bank before you leave that you will be withdrawing cash in Morocco.

-  Don’t underestimate how hot it may get. Drink plenty of water, use plenty of suncream and get a taxi if you are tired.

-  Agree taxi fares in advance, don’t be afraid to say no – they will generally agree to a fair price when pushed – but are unlikely to agree to put the meter on.

-  Try and get a hotel with an outdoor pool, you’ll need this.

-  Book a few trips to fill up your days and see the countryside (and get out of the stiffling city heat).

-  Don’t ignore the Medina/Square/Souks area altogether.  Browse the stalls, barter with the owners, buy your souvenirs and spices.

-  Be careful taking photographs in the Square, it is not appreciated by locals and many of the traders will try and charge you for the privilege.

-  Try the local wines, they are much cheaper than those imported and many are good.

-  If you are female, don’t walk around with skimpy clothes on, no matter how hot.  You will realise fairly quickly that you are one of the few dressed like this, and you will attract unwanted attention.

-  Don’t forget to try a Tagine – not that you will miss them, they’re everywhere and mostly delicious.

-  Enjoy yourselves, it is a very friendly city and great fun!

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McCambridges, Shop Street, Galway

McCambridges is a food shopping mecca located at 38/39 Shop Street in the heart of Galway City.  In 2012, McCambridges added a restaurant to the fold opening Upstairs at McCambridges so it is now an all round foodie destination.  And what a destination it is!

The shop is great for deli items, sauces, jams, chocolate, fresh breads, vegetables, cheeses, interesting wines and craft beers.  You can also get takeaway lunches (soup, sandwiches, salads, hot items (pies, quiches etc) and coffees.

The restaurant upstairs is a beautiful space.  It is open for breakfast Mon – Sat from 9am to 11.30am.  It serves an All Day menu from Mon – Wed from 12pm to 5.30pm (last orders 5pm) and from Thurs – Sat from 12pm to 8pm.  It serves brunch on Sunday from 10.30am to 6pm (last orders 5.30pm).  Tables can be reserved from 5pm onwards.

All of Chef Heather Flaherty’s menus – Breakfast, All Day and Brunch are wonderful.  They only use the best of locally sourced ingredients and there are plenty of gluten free and vegetarian options available.  The wine list is also excellent and reasonably priced with ongoing boarded special wines at very keen prices.

I love going to McCambridges for breakfast.  There are so many options to choose from including a Continental Breakfast, various scones, bagels and croissants, porridge and a large variety of hot breakfasts. My favourite is the Sweet & Spicy Pancetta and Eggs (€6.50) which is served with toast.  The Pancetta is worth a long detour for, probably the best breakfast in town.  Other options include; Pigs on the Green Black Pudding Sausages & Eggs (€6.95), Sauteed Wild Mushrooms & Eggs (€6.95) and Brioche French Toast with Smoked Bacon & Maple Syrup (€6.95).  There is also the fry-up – the Irish Artisanal Breakfast which includes Smoked Rasher, Black Pudding Sausage, Black & White Pudding, Homemade Baked Beans, Eggs & Potato Farl (€9.95).  A vegetarian version (Sauteed Wild Mushrooms, Roasted Plum Tomato, Potato Farl, Hummus, Dukkah & Eggs) is also available for €8.95).  The coffees are all really good and you can get your McCambridges Loyalty Card stamped in the restaurant also.

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The All Day menu features soup, nibbles, Cold Platters (Vegetarian Mezze, Charcuterie, Seafood, Cheese), Salads, Sandwiches, Hot Dishes and Desserts.  I particularly love the Crispy Duck Confit with Braised Puy Lentils, Pomegranate Molasses & Salad (€13.95).  The Lebanese Spiced Potatoes are a lovely side order (€3.95).

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The Sunday Brunch Menu contains elements of both the Breakfast and All Day menus.

All in all, McCambridges is the go to place for good food in Galway.  Always a treat. www.mccambridges.com

 

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Cashel and the Rock of Cashel, Co Tipperary.

Many of us make a real effort to travel far and wide to see well known tourist attractions, historical buildings and great views. Yet many of us have places close to home that would fall into these categories that we may not have visited at all.  Sometimes it’s good to be a tourist in your own county.  I became that tourist recently when I visited Cashel in my home county of Tipperary.

We booked in to the Cashel Palace Hotel for a night.  The Cashel Palace is a beautifully old atmospheric hotel whose main building dates back to the early eighteenth century.  As well as the main house, they have also refurbished some Courtyard houses into additional bedrooms.  We really enjoyed our stay in a Courtyard room, which was very spacious, modern and clean.  We had a drink in the bar and breakfast in the restaurant and both spaces are full of character and the breakfast was very good.  There are lovely grounds to walk in and the Rock of Cashel can be reached from the hotel garden.  www.cashel-palace.ie

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In the evening, we went for dinner to Chez Hans restaurant.  Chez Hans has been open in Cashel for over 40 years with the running of the restaurant remaining in the same family for all of this time.  The restaurant is housed in a beautiful building which had been in use as a Public Lecture Hall and a Synod Hall in its pre-restaurant history.  The restaurant had been recommended to me by friends and I was really looking forward to eating there.  It did not disappoint.  The setting, service, food and drink was all fantastic.  It is a real treat. www.chezhans.net  They also have, close by, a more casual cafe open in daytime hours serving light meals and coffees called Cafe Hans which is also very good.

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A few drinks were had afterwards in Pat Fox’s Bar – Pat Fox is well known in Tipperary and Hurling circles – and this is a very welcoming spot.

The next morning we headed off to visit the Rock of Cashel.  The “Rock” really is one of the most spectacular and iconic tourist attractions in Ireland.  It is worth its modest entrance fee (c. €6 per Adult) which includes access to a guided tour.  The site is a collection of buildings including a Round Tower, a Romanesque Chapel, a Cathedral and a Castle.  The guided walk around the site is very interesting and the views over the Golden Vale are beautiful.

We really enjoyed our short holiday in Cashel and it is worth building in a stop here in your itinerary if touring around Ireland.

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The Great Western Greenway – Achill to Westport, Co. Mayo

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I am not a cyclist.  I do not own a bicycle.  In fact, I cannot remember the last time I was on a bicycle.  However, I really wanted to cycle the Great Western Greenway from Achill to Westport.  All 42km of it.  In one go…  Many of my friends (particularly those well aware of my level of fitness) were kind when they told me I was being a little ambitious.  Of course, that made me determined to do it.

The 42km long Greenway is the longest off-road cycling (or walking) trail in Ireland.  It follows the old Westport to Achill railway line.  It passes through Mulranny and Newport and some of the most beautiful views in Ireland can be seen along the way.

We booked a weekend in Westport and decided to cycle the route Achill to Westport. We hired bikes from Clew Bay Bike Hire and they transported us to Achill with the bikes in the morning.  It was a glorious day for late September, one of the most beautiful days of the year – we were so lucky.  The first section of our cycle was from Achill to Mulranny. This section is 13km in length and we were happy to be able to fuel up with coffees and ice-creams when we got to Mulranny.  The next section is from Mulranny to Newport and is 18km in length.  Newport is an ideal spot to get lunch and rest up for the final 11km cycle back to Westport.

There are a small number of places to stop outside of the main towns.  Remember though, that these places are in the middle of some hilly ground and may have a large incline to negotiate to either get in or get out of!

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Even occasional cyclists will be well able to complete this cycle.  Being a complete novice, I was very tired at the end and found some sections tough going.  But these are few and far between and you quickly forget about the tough bits once you come to a lovely downhill section with stunning views!  However, the last few kms coming into Westport seem to be tough for everyone.  There is a hill to negotiate and we were not the only ones pushing the bikes up it!  The experience was well worth it though and I would do it again no problem.

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I would highly recommend Clew Bay Bike Hire.  www.clewbaybikehire.ie It cost €22.50 to hire a bike and that included a shuttle to Achill from Westport.  You can also hire “Toddler Trailers” for small children.  There are no baskets or any other way of securing your belongings to the bike.  My advice is to limit what you bring (you will need water, suncream, phone & camera – and possibly change of clothes in winter time!) and hire a pannier bag from the bike shop.  Clew Bay Bike Hire have a presence in Achill, Mulranny & Newport also, so if anything goes wrong you can stop and have it fixed at any of their shops.  We even left our bikes with their Newport shop whilst we went for lunch. Of course, you don’t need to cycle the full distance and can opt to cycle only one of the sections if you wish.  Funnily enough, we found the middle section – which was the longest section – from Mulranny to Newport to be the easiest cycle.

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Westport is a beautiful town to visit and as well as the Greenway, you can have a go a climbing Croagh Patrick.  That one is, I think, beyond my current level of fitness!  We stayed in Hotel Westport and were very happy with our choice.  www.hotelwestport.ie It is within easy walking distance of town but yet in a lovely quiet area.  The room was spacious, very clean and had everything we needed. The food was very good and the hotel does some very reasonable packages.  Westport itself is full of very nice restaurants (try An Port Mor (book well in advance) or Mangos), has some lovely shops to browse in and some great pubs (Matt Molloys is a must!).

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Builin Blasta, An Ceardlann, Spiddal, Co. Galway

Builin Blasta (Tasty Loaf) is a gem of a cafe located in the craft center (An Ceardlann) in Spiddal, Co. Galway.  The cafe is owned and run by Chef Jamie (J-Me) Peaker who hails from New Zealand.  J-Me’s cv includes a stint at well known London eatery The Ivy before he opened Builin Blasta in Spiddal.  The cafe is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm and on Sunday from 11am until 5pm. Breads, pastries, tarts, sausage rolls, scones, desserts, dressings and preserves are all made on site.  You can also purchase their dressings and chutneys to takeaway and they will also provide you with the recipe for their scones if you would like to try and make them yourself!

The menu consists of a Seafood Chowder, Sandwiches, Salads, Hot dishes, Pizzas and Homemade Desserts/Pastries.  They also serve a selection of Suki loose leaf teas, a variety of coffees (Americano, Latte, Cappucino, Mocha etc), soft drinks and juices.  There are two white wines and two red wines both served by the glass or bottle.

The menu may read very simply, but the cooking here is really accomplished and well presented. The seafood chowder is made with prawns, smoked haddock and organic salmon stock.  Two sandwich choices are available – Hot bacon, fried onions, tomato and cheddar on Focaccia bread or a Roasted red pepper and almond crush with mixed leaves on red onion bread.  The chowder is priced at €6.50 and the sandwiches at €8-€8.50.  Four “Hot Dishes” choices are also priced at €8-€8.50 and include Fishcakes, Omelette, Goat’s cheese tart and Scrambled Eggs.

The salads are very fresh, full of flavour and beautifully presented.  There are five salads to choose from and these include a smoked salmon based salad, a Beetroot and feta salad, a Blue Cheese, walnut & Pear salad, a Pork & Apple salad and a Green Leaf salad.  The salads are priced at €7.50 with the exception of the Green Leaf salad which is priced at €4.50.  All the salads are served with breads and butter.

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Pictured:  Grilled Pork & Apple salad with crispy sage served with red onion and tomato relish.

The pizzas are served in large triangles, roughly about two large slices of your more traditional pizza and make for very filling lunch for one.  As the little girl at the next table said to her Mommy, “they’re good pizzas Mom, not junk pizzas” and she is not wrong!

There are four pizza choices available; Salami served with cheddar, caramelised onion and tomato, a Smoked chicken pizza with olive, feta and spinach, a Brie and red onion pizza served with sundried tomato and basil and finally a Smoked Salmon pizza with cheddar, cherry tomato and rocket.  All pizzas are priced at €8.50 and are served with dressed greens on the side.

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Pictured: Salami, Cheddar, Caramelised Onion and tomato pizza.

There is always a wonderful selection of sweet treats to choose from to finish a meal including Chocolate & Beetroot Brownies, Carrot Cake, Hazelnut Meringue, Eclairs, Crumbles and more.  Desserts are priced in the €4.50 range with scones at €2.

Builin Blasta is a busy spot and you may have to queue for a table but generally turnover is quick.  The food is super and staff are very friendly.  Pizza and a glass of wine for €13.50 – what’s not to like?

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FoodWineTravelFun’s Ginger & Treacle Bread

Firstly, ginger is my thing.  I love it in all its forms; ginger ale is even my choice of mixer with Vodka!  Ginger and treacle as a combination is another favourite.  After a long search for a recipe for a Ginger & Treacle bread and finding none that perfectly suited what I was trying to create, I came up with this recipe which gives me everything I was looking for in a Ginger & Treacle bread.

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What you need:

180g of Plain Flour

300g of Wholemeal Flour

2 teaspoons of Ground Ginger

1.5 teaspoons of Breadsoda

Pinch of Salt

100g of Butter

1 egg

280ml of Buttermilk

100ml of Treacle

What to do:

Preheat the oven to 195˚C.

Sieve the flour, breadsoda and ground ginger into a mixing bowl.  Add the wholemeal and salt and stir.  Add the butter and rub in until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Make a well in the mixture.  Combine the egg, buttermilk and treacle and then add to the mixing bowl.  Combine well.

Grease a 1lb loaf tin and add the mixture.

Bake for about 40 minutes.  Then take the loaf out of the tin and turn upside down and return it to the oven for about another 5 minutes.

Cover in a clean tea towel and allow to cool.

The cooking time is generally 40-45 minutes in total but you can experiment with when to invert the cake towards the end of the cooking time to ensure the top of the cake does not burn.

The outcome:

This is a very gingery treacle bread but you can reduce the amount of ground ginger if you wish.  I had tried so many different recipes.  Some had no wholemeal so were more like a cake.  Some had honey so were too sweet.  Some claimed to be for 1lb loaf tins but produced way too much mixture.  Some suggested cooking for a longer time at a lower temperature that did not deliver the desired end product.  After much trial and error, I came up with my own recipe and I hope you like it too!

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Lunch at The Fatted Calf, Glasson, Co. Westmeath

After including The Fatted Calf on my list of must visits for 2014, I was glad to get an early opportunity to visit for lunch on a blustery Saturday in early February.  Glasson is easily accessible from Athlone and well worth the trip even from farther afield.  The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday to Sunday.

There are a number of elements to the lunch menu.  Firstly, there is a set lunch menu offering a choice of three starters and three main courses.  You can have two courses with a glass of wine for €22. There are also some Light Bites for those who not want a full meal.  There is an a la carte lunch menu aswell in addition to a daily list of Blackboard Specials – both starters and mains.

The a la carte starters included Soup, Seafood Chowder, Caesar Salad, Potted Mackerel, Cheese and Onion Rarebit and Crispy Prawn Wontons.  The a la carte mains included a Roast of the Day (Chicken), Jane Russell’s homemade Sausage with pan fried potato gnocchi, Beer Battered Fish & Chips of the day (Cod) and an 8oz panfried 30-day aged Sirloin steak.  The special starters included a Warm salad of Pigeon served with pickled rhubarb, garlic sausage & rocket, Deep fried Camembert and a rack of ribs for two to share.  Main course specials included the Fatted Calf burger and a Rib Eye steak.

It doesn’t normally happen but my friend and I were obviously feeling like the exact same food and both chose the Warm Pigeon salad followed by the Sirloin Steak.  Before the starters arrived, we enjoyed some wonderful homemade breads – a treacle bread and a sourdough.  Both of these breads can be purchased aswell to take home (along with some other goodies).  The salad starter was so good, the pigeon perfectly pink and superbly complemented by both the garlic sausage and the pickled beetroot.

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The Sirloin was served with a flat mushroom and some Marrow Butter and was accompanied by a large portion of excellent skinny fries and by some mixed vegetables (green beans, carrotts, peas, roast potatoes).  We thoroughly enjoyed every mouthful.  Both steaks were cooked exactly as ordered and the quality of the produce was in no doubt.

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Even after two large courses, we were determined to have dessert.  I chose the daily special which was a raspberry brioche and butter pudding and my friend chose the Banana & Hazelnut pudding with salted caramel ice cream.  Both desserts were outstanding and the presentation was wonderful.

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The bill came to €88 for 2 starters, 2 main courses, 2 desserts, a diet coke, 2 glasses of Pinot Grigio and a Latte.  This is wonderful value for a fantastic meal made using the best of produce.  We really enjoyed our time at The Fatted Calf.  The restaurant itself is really lovely, the food was outstanding and the staff were super friendly.  We will definitely be back.

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