Posted on December 27, 2007 in Travels

Ireland, Part I:

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.

I bought bairin breac (barmbrack) a yeasty, raisin-filled bread from Hickey’s Bakery in Irishtown and a sausage roll from The Griddle, longstanding, traditional purveyors. Both were excellent. I love breads filled with dried fruit (and, while sweet, barmbrack is more bread than cake), but the real reason I bought it was that I remembered it from Van Morrison’s “A Sense of Wonder.” I’m told that James Joyce mentions them as well, but I’ve never been able to get through much Joyce.

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.
The gardens are remarkable, not only for the food that they provide for the dining room, but also for the exotica that has been planted throughout the inn’s nearly 300 years.
On the old Dublin coaching road, Hunter’s dates from 1720 and serves delicious food in their dining room. There are only 16 rooms, so book well in advance, especially if you’re traveling in August, as we were. Both mountains and shore are nearby, with many historic houses, castles, and gardens you can visit. I immediately noticed palm trees in the gardens and a half dozen birds I had never seen before. Gelletlie pointed me to a field guide, with notes of the birds that had been spotted on their grounds.

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.

For dinner, we had goujons of lamb’s liver in garlic butter to begin, followed by the roast Wicklow lamb with an herb stuffing, served with delicious roast vegetables and potatoes from the garden. We let the Hunters choose from the cheese board for us — the creamy local Dunbarra, Dublin’s only cheese; St.Killian’s, soft and Camembert-like; Cooleeney, another soft, raw milk cheese whose delicious, moldy rind is distinctive; and a Wexford cream cheese and Stilton.

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.

The next morning I mashed the leftover salmon, leeks, and potatoes together and made salmon croquettes, dusted with fresh bread crumbs and topped with poached eggs and more of the same sauce. I served them with broiled tomatoes.

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.

We ate fried fish and rock crab claws at Adrian’s, a brightly muralled restaurant on the south side of the northeast peninsula that describes the dual-sided port. When Bessie said that it was the best tartar sauce she had ever eaten, the waitress emitted a sigh, a sort of mock moan, saying, “Ah, yes, we eat it alone with bread. All day!” When I asked for the recipe, she got the chef, who said, “It’s just homemade mayonnaise made with olive oil, then I add some gherkins, capers, and onion.” He didn’t mention the herb I could plainly see, but couldn’t quite put my finger on. Probably just the way it’s grown: everything tasted better in Ireland. With lunch we had a bottle of Chateau la Noe Comte de Malestroit Muscadet de Sevre et Maine (sur lie). The chef complimented us on our choices and recommended Nicky’s, on the north side of Howth, for the best smoked and cured salmon, cod, and haddock.
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.
Later that night, we dined at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, the very Franco-Irish restaurant that is generally considered Ireland’s finest, with its two Michelin stars. The restaurant’s philosophy is to offer “modern cuisine using Irish produce in season, with simple preparations and classic presentations.” Chef Guillaume Lebrun came to Guilbaud from LeNotre in Paris. We tried his signature dishes of poached Connemara lobster in green apple juice and roast Challans duck and spent way too much money on wine. The restaurant was getting ready to close after 15 years in the same location that very night, so the kitchen sent us a dizzying array of culinary delights – Bantry Bay sea scallops, lobster ravioli, duck legs, sweetbreads – to accompany the incredible wines we were ordering with wild abandon (Guilbaud has one of the finest wine lists I’ve seen anywhere, with a dozen or more Millesime (Vintage) Champagnes and a half dozen Rose Champagnes.) For the past ten years, Guilbaud has been located in an 18th century Georgian townhouse adjoining the Merrion Hotel, just off St Stephen’s Green.

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.
Serves 10-12.
Debbie’s Recommends: This really is the time to pull out the great red Burgundy you’ve been cellaring. Go for the Volnay!

Plum Tart

Make this dish early in the day and allow it to sit at room temperature. You should well chill the dough, so begin several hours in advance of serving.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
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)
Place 1 1/4 cups of the flour, 1/4 cup of the sugar, the butter, the egg yolk, and the milk in the work bowl of a food processor and process until the dough forms a ball. If the dough is too wet and sticks to the bowl, add more flour.
Wrap the ball of dough well in plastic wrap and refrigeratre for 2 hours. Unwrap the dough, roll it out on a lightly floured surface to a circle about 12 inches in diameter, then gently place the dough into a 10-inch tart pan with a low edge, gently pushing the dough up and slightly over the edges of the pan. Use a rolling pin or the heel of your hand to push the dough out and down onto the edge of the pan to trim any excess dough, then gently squeeze the dough into the edges again between fingertips and thumbs to raise it slightly over the rim. Refrigerate again while you prepare the plums.
Preheat the oven to 350o. Pit the plums and cut them into quarters. Place the plum quarters on the tart shell, beginning on the outer rim and placing them skin side out around the outer edge. Continue filling the shell, working in concentric circles. When the tart is filled, sprinkle it with 2 tablespoons of sugar and bake until golden brown, about 50 or 60 minutes.
Melt the preserves with the brandy or the liquor of your choice, then brush the baked tart with the mixture. Allow to cool to room temperature before serving.
Serves 8.
(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.)