Sheena Dignam of Galway Food Tours on her life in food
Having spent 15 years working in the food industry before launching Galway Food Tours, it’s safe to say that food has played a huge role in the life of Sheena Dignam.
Sheena Dignam is a Franco-Irish food and wine lover who is originally from Wicklow, but grew up in the Loire valley, where she studied Culinary Arts & Wine. Having spent over 15 years in the food industry, her passion led her to launch Galway Food Tours, an award-winning culinary experience dedicated to showing their guests what good food is all about.
With tours ranging from craft beer to sweet tooth tailored experiences of what Galway’s got to offer by ways of food, drink and hospitality, these tours are top notch craic and leave you with a good taste in your mouth — literally and figuratively.
“For me, what makes Galway so special is the local producers, and the best thing about the market is the diversity from cheese to sushi, oysters to curry stews, doughnuts to falafels. But it’s especially such a great atmosphere! The traders are such great craic and are hugely talented.”
On her tours, Sheena shares her love for good food as well as insider tips, but here, she’s sharing everything from her earliest memories to her go-to spots for the best food in town…
What are your earliest memories of food?
Heading to my grandmother’s farm in Co Laois was always a treat. She would always have the dinner on when we arrived. She grew the best potatoes, I would crush them with butter and she also made a mean apple or rhubarb pie, depending on the season.
How would you describe your relationship with food?
I would say that food and I have a relationship that is intense, maybe slightly unhealthy, but full of passion. Food is at the heart of everything I do. From my studies in culinary arts in France, my parents’ family business, and the launch of my own food tour company in Galway. Sometimes I drive friends and family nuts as I would drag them for miles to find the best pastry shop, wine bar, cheese producer etc…
What was the first meal you learned to cook?
My first memory of preparing something from scratch was with my dad when I was six, we went gathering nettles in the Wicklow mountains and came home to make nettle soup; I just remember being fascinated that a plant (that I despised because playing outside you would always be covered in nettle stings) could be transformed into something that tasted so delicious!
How did food become a part of your career/business/personal brand?
Growing up I don’t think I saw in my future the role of a tour guide. However, what I did know was that I was going to run my own business and that it was going to heavily involve food, drink and dealing with the public. There was many late nights awake in my bed or drinking wine into the early hours with friends and family thinking of what I was going to open; some of these ideas were bakeries, coffee shops, wine and vintage clothing stores and even a themed western restaurant — which was when I was 10 years old in my defence!
I grew up in France and studied culinary arts. There was some slagging from my classmates and teachers about Irish food and I really wanted to show them how wonderful and rich our terroir is; our dairy, meat, fish, shellfish, etc… So that was always at the back of my head.
Anyway I continued my career in restaurants and various food startups travelling, tasting, learning, etc. One day while I was running a new and exciting chocolate venture in Dublin city (Cocoa Atelier); Eveelyn from Fab Food Trails came into the store with a group to taste our chocolates; I just thought this was a really cool way for people to see a city through food and as a business I got to showcase what we offer and also gain potential new customers.
So 9 years ago I moved to Galway, I wanted a change and started working with Jess and Dave in Kai. I was blown away by Galway’s food scene and the relationship between small suppliers and restaurants.
I really thought how cool it would be to bring visitors and locals to meet these passionate people, eating, drinking and exploring the atmosphere we have in Galway city and its surroundings.
What’s your go-to breakfast?
An unbelievable amount of coffee (shout out to Calendar Coffee and their ever changing roasts).
If you’re impressing friends and family at a dinner party, what are you serving up?
A few toasties and some cans… Just kidding!
I have a thing for setting tables with napkin arrangement and nice glassware, so some canapés and Vouvray wine is always the way to start off! Poke or Ceviche as a starter, Cote de beouf with Chimichuri and all the trimmings, a nice cheese board and a chocolate mousse to round the night off.
Who is your culinary inspiration?
In Ireland Myrtil Allen who understood the beauty of our Irish Terroir and flying the flag for Irish producers in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Being trained in France I do love a lot of the more classical chefs like Bocuse, Loiseau, but Michel Bras, a chef ahead of his time, was a major influence on vegetable cuisine. Regis et Jacque Marcon father and son who create the most elegant of dishes with the simplest of ingredients. Another amazing chef is Helene Darroze. And my dad, who always managed to take everything from the presses and gone out of date ingredients in the fridge and create a delicious meal.
What would your last meal on earth be?
Probably a wagyu steak tartare a side of the creamiest and buttery mashed potatoes ever made to man and any dessert the Phillipe Conticini would like to make me.
What’s your go-to comfort food?
A whole Lint chocolate bar in a baguette, or garlic cheese and bacon fries.
What’s the go-to quick meal you cook when you’re tired and hungry?
Eggs mixed with some tomatoes, spinach and a bit of hummus.
What is one food or flavour you cannot stand?
I HATE ratatouille!
This is going to sound strange but a “diabolo menthe” as they say in France… lemonade with mint syrup and oysters (not both together fyi).
Sweet or savoury?
Sweet all the way.
Fine dining or pub grub?
There is a time and place for both.
Favourite restaurant in Ireland?
Ah here… Éan, Ainiar, Kai, Rúibín, Etto, Verity Jones, Piglettes, Library Street, Ard Bia.
Best coffee in Ireland?
Calendar Coffee or Cloud Picker.
Go-to beverage accompaniment?
Wine… Though I have been living in Florence for the last few months and am loving the Negroni life.
What’s your favourite thing about cooking?
What does food — sitting down to a meal with friends, mindfully preparing a meal, nourishment, etc — mean to you?
To sit down at a table with friends and family — there is truly no better feeling. A moment of sharing, laughing, eating, drinking. It’s a beautiful exchange, all your senses are wide awake.
One of the best things I love doing is going to my adoptive French grandparents for lunch at 12pm sharp and you leave around 4pm, or a bit later if we start playing Pétanque. They are hunter gatherers using only what is in their back garden. We have endless courses, wines and home made digestifs and I love every minute of it!
Food for thought — Is there room for improvement within the Irish food/restaurant/hospitality scene?
Ireland has such a beautiful terroir, it’s vibrant, exciting, full of passion and we are not afraid to push boundaries. However, I do know that the leasing of properties is extremely expensive, making it very difficult for new startups to get off the ground and pop ups impossible. Reduce the rents, reduce the VAT!
Chef’s kiss — Tell us about one standout foodie experience you’ve had recently.
Exploring the world of Balsamic vinegars. There is so much to it that I had never realised, with a minimum of 12 years ageing it makes for a fascinating tasting.
Compliments to the chef — Now’s your chance to sing the praises of a talented chef, beloved restaurant or particularly talented foodie family member.
That is such a hard question. There is so much talent on this Island I find it difficult to choose and I am aware that so many places have opened that I have not had the time to discover yet.
I have a huge grá for Alice in Rúibín, she runs one of the best kitchens in Galway and Richie and the front of house team just nail it with their hospitality, knowledge and professionalism.
Teresa Roche from Kylemore Farmhouse Cheese set up a few years ago on her parents farm; making a beautiful creamy, nutty cheese similar to an Applzeller! It’s class!
Tara Gartlan ex pastry chef of Chapter One has gone out on her own and has the most decadent chocolates.
I have always loved Christine Walsh’s food and style; Small plates full of imagination and flavour.
I have a list as long as my arm… but know that I need to keep it short.
Secret ingredient — What, in your estimation, makes the perfect dining experience.
An informal but professional service, a great wine list and a seasonal and local ingredient led menu.