Two months later, and I’m at long last organizing notes from Richard’s and my 18-day journey through Ireland in April and May. When friends ask about the trip, I show pictures of the pastoral landscape.
They smile and nod yes, of course, appreciating the expected beauty. I describe the warmth, hospitality and wit of the citizenry. Yes, certainly, another nod, another smile; they’d heard about that renowned Irish charm. Then I describe the fabulous meals, particularly those based around moments-from-the-sea fish and local vegetables.
Brows rise, a frown. “What?” they inquire. “I thought eating in Ireland was the downside.” So wrong. So very very wrong – at least when traveling in 2012.
Times have changed on the Emerald Isle, and itineraries to Ireland can be built around sampling the food. Using The Lonely Planet guidebook’s restaurant recommendations, we never needed a reservation (it was pre-season) and were astonished by the creative plates, hospitable service and attention to detail. But this wasn’t always so.
According to food writer Gerry Galvin , “The whole idea of eating for pleasure was not acceptable in Ireland until recently. With the ghost of famine always hovering in the background, it seemed almost sinful to approach the table with sensual gratification in mind.
Conspicuous consumption of food for sheer joy, on the French or Italian model, would have been unthinkable in most
Irish households until the latter part of the 20th century.”
The Famine Cottage on Slea Head Drive in Dingle, which was built using mud and stone in the early 19th century, gives testimony to the generations of families who lived in the house enduring extreme hardships, especially during the mid 1880’s: the potato famine years. Dingle lost half its population to immigration, at it was during this period, in fact, my ancestors left Belfast for America.
Ireland, like much of the rest of the world, has been hit, yet again, with hard times. As one guy downing a pint commented, “When America has a sniffle, Ireland gets the flu.” Global ailments aside, we consistently enjoyed delicious meals that used fresh, local ingredients, were imaginatively prepared, and didn’t break the bank; Richard and I savored every morsel.
Ireland is, no doubt, undergoing a culinary renaissance, and the “farm to table” movement is sweeping the bonny, bucolic landscape. “Sea to table” also plays an important role in this rebirth, even captured in a piece of seaweed cheese I purchased in Dingle.
I’ve never eaten such fresh and imaginatively prepared seafood anywhere, ever. The variety of oysters, for example, with their encapsulated nuances of the briny Atlantic sea, blew me away.
Months prior to the trip, I’d decided the areas we’d like to visit and booked (thanks, again, Lonely Planet) the hotels and Bed & Breakfasts well in advance. I also booked a car; automatics are scarce and should be reserved well in advance.
I left the itinerary loose to accommodate impulsive adventures and a variety of day trips: 4 nights in Dublin, 2 Galway, 3 Coonemara, 3 Dingle, 1 Kinsale, 2 Cork, 1 Kenmare, 2 Kilkenney. Two pieces of carry-on luggage later, we hopped the plane to Dublin, then picked up the car to explore the country. We prefer taking our time when traveling, and felt that incorporating Northern Ireland into the agenda would have put a strain on our relaxed pace.
There is so much to write about this marvelous country, aside from the food. The “trad” music played in the neighborhood pubs; the thoroughly entertaining Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, being able to study unscathed preservations from the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, the Bronze and Stone age; and to ponder the profound influences Vikings, Normands and early Christians had on this tiny country, all of which shaped today’s Ireland.
But back to the food. Not meaning to end this essay on a sour note – especially since I’ve gushed about the fabulous cuisine – but in this life I’m happy to report I’ve finally discovered one food that I truly dislike: Black Pudding. This is an expected component in the traditional full Irish, Scottish and English breakfasts, right at home next to the rashers, eggs and fried potatoes.
It includes copious amounts of blood (usually from pigs) mixed with oatmeal, suet and seasonings, and I had an open mind, honestly, I tried appreciating this specialty at three separate venues. I gave up the battle, not wanting the flavor to taint the memory of other delicious foods enjoyed on this fabled journey. I’ve heard the White Pudding, which is similar to the black but minus the hemoglobin, is more palatable to the non-indoctrinated. Next trip.