I’ve been to Ireland twice in the past ten years, and I would go again in a minute. The people are among the nicest I’ve ever met in my life, and they have an amazing command of the English language. An Irishman will pull your leg, but buy you a beer while doing so. I once asked directions to a bakery from a man on the street in a small village south of Dublin, in County Tipperary. He said he wasn’t sure of the place I was seeking, but the barkeep in the nearby pub surely would, so in we went, where I had a pint with them (their treat), only to be told the proverbial you-can’t-get-there-from-here. I was about to go my way, when the man who had taken me into the pub walked outside with me and said, perhaps you could ask across the street, pointing to the very shop I had been seeking!
Both Irish sojourns were with friends, with the understanding that I would cook a lot of the time. The following is gleaned from memory and from the notes I scribble here and there when I travel, relying mostly on photographs and flavors to jar my memory.
The first time, we rented a large Regency home in Dun Laoghaire (pronounced, and sometimes spelled, Dun Leary) from folks we had met earlier in the year in Charleston. Never before had I traveled to a country so ignorant of the weather, the lifestyles, customs, or people, though I was told beforehand that I would see myself on every street corner. Normally I research my trips obsessively so, planning every minute of every day before I depart, but this trip fell into my lap suddenly at the last minute because of another of the traveler’s cancellation.
I flew into Ireland several days after my friends, to Shannon, where I rented a car and drove cross country to meet them. My journals reads: “From Shannon through Limerick. Spotlessly clean Irish cities and countryside. A chestnut tree, very green, early morning sun peeking through its bower. I make a pit stop on the side of the road to Tipperary, not having seen any sign of human beings for miles. A farmer drives up to check his fence and I apologize, saying that I hope I’m not bothering or offending him. ‘On such a lovely day as this, of course, no,’ he replies. The sun has fully emerged as I enter County Tipperary where a sign welcomes me ‘to the Sunny South East.’” It remained mostly sunny the rest of my stay.
As I drive I note crocosmia everywhere, and yarrow, cosmos, dahlias, and fennel. Rhubarb and greens are growing in fields surrounded by impatiens and hydrangeas. Fuschias abound as fully grown shrubs, and dooryards boast geraniums, butterfly bushes, and potato vines.
The village of Clonmel was special, so much so that I vow to return the next time I’m in Ireland, and I do. Clonmel is one of the principal towns of County Tiperrary, hugging the River Suir in a lovely valley known as the “meadow of honey.” The town has retained its 18th and 19th century charm, with traditional shops along its main street with their gold-leafed signs. I notice an international symbol for a parking garage pointing down a side street, and, curious, follow it to an underground car park and modern shopping center that you would never know was there. Curious, I go into what for me at the time (1997) was the best supermarket I had ever been in, with huge selections of cheeses (many Irish and English), breads, seafood, meats, and vegetables. If the vegetables weren’t fresh and local, they were labeled with the county (or country) of origin and the day they were harvested. Today, ten years later, we are just beginning to see such care in the United States. The Irish, after hundreds of years of oppression, are riding the “green tiger” that is their booming economy, and have learned to milk the EU for the roads and historical restorations that engender a healthy tourist business.
In Cahir, I came up the County Market on the River Suir, but it was closing for the day. I vowed that I would someday return, and I did, 6 years later. A few miles down the road, the village of Clonmel could not be more charming, nestled as it is along the Suir and framed by the Comeragh Mountains. All of the breads that I tasted in Ireland were delicious.
At the ruins of Kilcash Castle and Church, I picked wild blackberries. Elderberry bushes were there as well. Larger estates and manor houses started appearing in the landscape when I crossed the River Barrow, entering County Wicklow. I met my friends Bessie Hanahan and Harriet Daughtridge at Hunter’s Hotel in Rathnew, which is run by the fifth generation of the Hunter family. Mrs. Hunter (“Call me ‘Gelletlie’”) greeted me upon my arrival, and, hearing that I am a food writer, sent me out to the remarkable gardens to meet her son, who was picking mint for the evening meal.
It was at Hunter’s that I first realized just how lovely Irish food can be. The Irish, it seems, wouldn’t dream of serving you carrots that hadn’t been dug that day. As I would find out time after time, the people, their culture, and their cooking all burst with pride and blush with modesty. They sell you heirloom potatoes with the black, damp soil still clinging to them, but to show them off best, they might prepare them simply – say, simmered in their pristine water and dressed with the best butter you’ve ever eaten and garnished with Celtic sea salt and freshly picked parsley.
The Irish are so friendly and warm and witty. Harriet thinks that they’re so joyous because they had nothing for centuries. They certainly have it now. All across the country you see signs of their booming economy. In 1997 there were new gas stations, shops galore, and trendy young people in the freshly painted buildings throughout the south, east, and west. 6 years later, it was even more prosperous, but many people I talked to feared that wealthy Englishmen and Europeans would buy up too much of the real estate, and push plain folks out. It’s happening everywhere.
Fidelma and Hugh, the owners of the house we rented, had given me a list of names and numbers for my food shopping, so one Saturday I took their advice and called Helen down at the Rogerson’s Ice Plant at the Dun Laoghaire harbor, near the Sailing Club. (“It’s terrible looking but it has great fish!”) She had a 7-pound wild salmon for ?21 Irish (she gave it to us for ?20). The Rogersons have been there for 40 years. Helen (the blonde) works with her sisters Mary (the redhead) and Geraldine and their brother Matthew. Harriet and I walked out to the end of the pier before we strolled the few blocks back home with our quarry. I made stock from the carcass and heads (the Rogersons had given me an additional head) with celery, onion, carrots, and herbs from the garden, reducing it with white wine (3:1), then whisking in ? pound of butter and fresh dill. I wrapped the fish filets in foil with a little butter, white wine, and leeks, and baked them to perfection. Plus those incredible potatoes, carrots, and broccoli. I swear I had never tasted better vegetables. And a plum tart made with fruit from the trees espaliered across the garden walls. Twelve foot walls that separated their garden from Bono’s. I glazed the tart with plum jam melted with a little Irish whiskey. The recipe follows at the end of this essay.
One day I spent alone. I went into the city center of Dublin for the antique show, shopping for a set of fish knives. Later, at the Blackrock Market, I bought two sweaters from a woman who had knit them herself with her own sheep’s wool, still thick with lanolin, almost waterproof. 10 years later, they show no sign of wear. South of Dun Laoghaire, the trendy Irish Riviera – Dalkey and Kilkenny – was crawling with young people in sports cars. The weather was amazingly sunny, like a perfect late September day back in South Carolina. I have not seen myself on every corner, but I have done many double-takes, thinking I saw friends from back home – Foys, Padgetts, Fairs, Lathams, Staffords, Wigleys, Floyds, and – several times – Cary Grant look-alikes!
After dinner in town at a posh restaurant, Bessie and I drove the next morning out to Howth, the charming fishing village whose rocky peninsula describes the northernmost point of Dublin Bay.
Nicky McLoughlin captained a trawler for 38 years before he “settled down” to his 14-hour day smoking, curing, and selling the local fish. He told me that when he was aboard, they would eat conger eel soup to prevent seasickness. “We tried everything, if only for the variety.” He recommended that we order local oysters in restaurants, as well as the Giga. En route home that afternoon, we saw a coaching harness in 5 o’clock traffic.
The next evening, I grilled just-caught mackerel and served them with green beans and mashed potatoes and parsnips, all from the garden. I made a simple cobbler for dessert, with apples also from the garden, and served it alongside a store-bought rhubarb bakewell. On a Friday night, we went to a pub for delicious, salty Brandon Bay oysters and wild mussels steamed open in a bath of cream, onions, white wine and garlic. The local Giga oysters that Nicky had also recommended were less memorable. They are a Pacific variety that are easily farmed.
The last meal I prepared was a huge rib roast of Angus beef that we bought at Bloomfield’s. The Scottish beef is bred in Ireland and raised on native grasses. We roasted it per Bessie’s instructions (I published her recipe in The New Southern Cook) and served it with horseradish sauce, watercress, wilted greens, and potatoes. For dessert, I poached pears in Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. I reduced the poaching liquid to an almost caramelized syrup and served the pears with the sauce, garnished with chocolate truffles and mint leaves.
Here’s the recipe for the roast. We took Debbie’s advice and found a big, dramatic, well-cellared Volnay to serve with the meat.
Bessie’s Standing Rib Roast
A standing rib roast can serve a dozen people, but one cold winter night at Bessie’s I carved the meat so that each diner got a bone and an inch-thick slab of meat. We were definitely eating in the kitchen that night! Tell the butcher you want a standing rib of beef, and he should remove the chine bone from the ribs. It will make carving much easier. Bessie removes some of the fat from the roast, but she gets a roast that is “four ribs over to the fifth,” with plenty of fat and bone to protect the meat while it’s roasting.
one 4- or 5-rib roast, weighing about 9 pounds
4 or 5 cloves of garlic, peeled and split lengthwise
freshly ground black pepper
Place the roast in a shallow roasting pan and allow it to come to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 450?. Slip a thin sharp knife into the meat in several places next to the ribs and poke the slivers of garlic into the slits, an inch or so deep. Coat the meat well with black pepper on the fat and bones, but not on the flesh.
Place the roast in the oven and allow to sear well all over, about 30 minutes. Turn the heat down to 400? and place a large piece of aluminum foil loosely over the meat. (Bessie says to use a covered roasting pan with the lid “caterwhomper.”) Roast for a total of 2 hours, or 14 minutes per pound. If you find the oven firing again during the cooking time, turn the heat down a little bit. Remove the roast from the oven, remove the aluminum foil, and allow to rest for at least 15 minutes before you carve it.
Debbie’s Recommends: This really is the time to pull out the great red Burgundy you’ve been cellaring. Go for the Volnay!
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 pound (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 egg yolk
3 tablespoons milk
1 pound fresh plums
1/3 cup plum preserves
2 tablespoons brandy, bourbon, whisky or whiskey (yes, they’re different)
(The photo is of the dining room in Hugh and Fidelma’s lovely Regency home in Dun Laoghaire. The Regency period predates the Gothic Revival style, so I assume that the room was redecorated after 1840 or its architect was ahead of the curve.)