Ireland, Part II

Posted on December 28, 2007 in Travels

Ireland, Part II:

Again in August I went to the Bonny Emerald Isle with Mikel and our friends Ted and Clay, South Carolinians all. This time we rented a farmhouse in the center of County Tipperary, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, but actually not far from anywhere. Ireland is, after all, hardly bigger than South Carolina, barely 200 miles across at its widest point.

We took turns planning day trips out from the house, with a cooler on wheels to store the fish, meats, and produce I’d buy during the day and that I would come home and cook that night. Many of the roads are treacherously narrow, with the hedgerows of August growing well into the country lanes, sometimes scratching both sides of the small car we rented. Well known for their drinking, the Irish have nonetheless now adopted strict EU rules about drunk driving. Not that Clay or I, who had agreed to do all the left-hand driving, are drunks, but we do enjoy a cocktail and wine with dinner. We decided that we’d sightsee by day and come home at night for our evening meals. August days are incredibly long in Ireland, so we wouldn’t be missing much if we were home by dark.

We flew into Shannon on a gloriously sunny day – 65º — and took the back roads to the Rock of Cashel, a stunning medieval stronghold that rises dramatically over the Tipperary plain. We toured the grounds then had a late lunch of fried plaice served with mashed turnips and carrots in a local pub. Then on to Ross Cottage, our base for the week. The farmhouse was a hoot, situated in the middle of a cow pasture, down a long dirt driveway and several miles from the nearest village, Bansha, on the edge of the lush Glen of Aherlow.

As Clay and Mikel napped, Ted and I ventured into Tipperary for provisions. Our first evening’s meal was very simple: local malted baguettes, pasta with tomato sauce, and a salad of butternut lettuce and pears with mustard vinaigrette. Other than the mustard and olive oil in the salad dressing, everything we ate was fresh and local.

The next morning, my journal notes, was “drop-dead gorgeous.” In Cahir, we went to the County Market that I had just missed six years before. It was an amusing scene at the market’s opening, everyone standing in queue until exactly 10:30 am, then rushing through the old community hall to favored farmers’ and homemakers’ tables.

We bought greyhound cabbage, with its dramatically pointed head; British Queen potatoes (recommended by the farmer because they were older than the just dug Red Roosters: “I’m not a nationalist,” he said); blackberry jam; just-picked tomatoes and parsley; duck eggs; and several sweets: one, called a Chester or Gore Cake, is traditional, filled with ground, dried fruits. I asked if it were mince meat and the lady who had made it said, “Oh, no, this is sweet!” When I asked the name of another “pudding,” as they call many of their desserts, she said, simply, “It’s gorgeous. A pear and almond bun.” Bun, too, I would find, is used as a very general term regarding sweets.

We spent the afternoon in Clonmel and Kilkenny, as delightful as any towns I’ve ever visited. In a conversation with a baker, I was advised to rush to the local butcher for his exceptional sausage, which I managed to buy just before he closed. On the way home, we spent an hour at sunset at Athassel Priory, a ruined Augustinian priory on the west bank of the Suir. Established in 1192, it was the largest medieval abbey in Ireland, but burned down in either the 14th or 15th century. For some reason, its history is muddled. At home we had cocktails and a hearty Irish meal of local sausage and cabbage with parsleyed potatoes.

We decide to head west the next day.

I have millionaire friends who own vintage roadsters that they ship around the world, where they attend hunting parties and croquet matches in their Aston Martins from the twenties. They have been everywhere and swear that the Dingle Peninsula is their favorite place in the world. If you like dramatic scenery, sweeping seascapes, and a variety of historical antiquities from the Iron Age forward, I cannot recommend a place more gloriously beautiful. Give yourself a day to tour the peninsula in a car, and pack a picnic. There are plenty of villages where you can have a pub lunch, but, if you have weather like we did, you’ll want to stay outside. Here are some notes from my journal:

“Ross Cottage. It’s 9:30 pm and still no supper, but our salmon is in the oven. We bought it from a young man in Brandon Bay. It’s 12 hours later and it has no smell of fish. We ate the roe (dusted with a few bread crumbs and fried in butter and olive oil), spread on bruschetta, the pan drippings sprinkled over. I splashed the salmon with Irish whiskey and olive oil, a little salt but no pepper. I’m cooking pole beans and potatoes [see recipe] from the farmers market in Cahir and we’re having a simple salad of tomatoes and cukes, also from Cahir. To drink, a white Rhône Valley wine.”

In Brandon, when I asked if the traps were for lobster or crab, a local man from the pub said, “And/or.” I love their way with words! Brandon is a beautiful, horseshoe-shaped bay over which hovers Brandon Mountain to the west. East of the Bay, Stradbally Strand is the longest sandy beach in Ireland, where we ran into young British surfers, the only other people we saw on the 12-mile-long stretch of waterfront. The tradtional long rowing boat, the currach, is made from canvas coated in tar. The sign is above the pub; the boat was outside along the quay, where traps dried in the noonday sun.

Clay had planned our trip that day, including a drive over Connor Pass, the highest road in Ireland, which crosses the Dingle Peninsula in hairpin turns that hug rocky cliffs and provide some of the most gorgeous views you will see anywhere on earth. Most folks think of Ireland as green, but what I recall most are its rock formations, the vast sea, the prehistorical sites, the delightful people, and, of course, the delicious food.

The little port of Dingle is touristy, but there are some wonderful shops where you can buy all manner of local goods. I found a lamb made from local wool for my soon-to-turn-one-year-old grandnephew.

After a long night’s sleep, I got up and picked the leftover salmon to use in breakfast croquettes, just as I had done 6 years prior [see recipe]. We had a long day ahead, planned by Mikel. We would be visiting two of the most amazing gardens in Ireland, Emo Court in County Laois and Powerscourt, near Dublin. Driving through Laois, we came upon the strange village of Abbeyleix (pronounced Abby leeks). My journal reads: “Abbeyleix is an unusual town that was relocated by some rich fool who was well thought of, sort of like Madonna, who, in The Independent newspaper today, was called a ‘gap-toothed, career-on-the-slide, aging pop legend.” Michelin’s Green Guide is a bit more precise:

At the height of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy in the mid-18C, Viscount de Vesci followed the fashion of the times, demolishing the cottages of his tenants and re-housing the people in a carefully planned new settlement at the gates of his great mansion. Scarcely changed since those days, Abbeyleix is one of the best examples of this type of aristocratic estate development, and is now a designated Heritage Town, but its origins lie much further back in time than the 18C, since it occupies the site of a late-12C Cistercian abbey, itself a successor to an evn older monastery.

My journal often reflects the mood of the day, and I had driven for hours on poorly marked roads. The radio and newspapers often kept us entertained when hedgerows blocked our views and scared us out of our wits when we would meet oncoming cars. More often than not, though, my notes are just that, signposts to jar my memory, like photos:

“Emo Court had amazing gardens, with a long drive of Sequoia giganteum and a vast array of conifers, beeches, rowan oaks, and a disputed Capability Brown garden. I was taken by the Georgian house itself, with its chartreuse shutters. Though the property of the state, it is occupied by the former resident, who restored it, and who now is an employee. ‘Nothing is changed,’ he tells me. By one of the ponds, I am charmed by a precious hooded princess child, with tiara.

“Then on to Kildare, where we had ‘Sunday lunch’ at Silken Thomas, near an impressive Norman castle. Mikey and I couldn’t resist the fried chicken breast with white sauce; Clay and Ted chose the roast stuffed pork with gravy and mashed potatoes. The waitress served the ubiquitous carrot and turnip puree from large bowls, and passed fresh green peas (in August!), and roast and mashed potatoes as well. It was all delicious and reminded us of Sunday dinner back home in South Carolina.

“Then on to Powerscourt. Plenty to read about it elsewhere, but I will note that it is still owned by the Wingfields, who have made it into a sort of Magnolia Plantation-like gardening and design shop/furniture store. The building was gutted by fired in 1974 and now it’s basically a mall. Never mind, though, because the gardens are the best in Ireland, roses and dahlias to die for, a walled garden with thoughtful pairings, an interesting pet cemetery, great urns and statuary, and a theatrical setting, with Great Sugar Loaf Mountain in the background.

“In County Meath we bought strip steaks for dinner, which I broiled and served with a salad.”

The Glen of Aherlow is a verdant valley that lies between Tipperary and Limerick. After viewing it from above Newtown, we went on the Mitchelstown Cave, where a lovely young tour guide sang Irish ballads for us in the perfect acoustics of the caverns filled with stalactites and stalagmites. We had the cave all to ourselves. Outside Clonmel, we were hoping to hear live music at Kitty’s, but it was an off night. We loved Kitty’s daughter, who ran the pub, the Railway Bar, behind the railroad station. A local lad who was having an affair with a tart behind his wife’s back sent us to an Indian restaurant in a suburban strip mall, and it was very good. Under Kitty’s portrait on the wall of the pub is written, “Now, look here.” Her daughter added that what it means is, “I’ll do the talkin’; you listen.” One last stop on the way home for a drink at Nellie’s in Bansha, not far from our house, where drinks were on the funeral party that spilled out onto the sidewalk.

At the famous English Market in Cork, I bought lamb, anchovies, and chocolate. At Paul’s, the fishmonger’s, we ate plump and salty (the way I like them!) Galway Bay oysters, then on to Rossini’s for grilled swordfish, because the fishmonger showed us the head of the just-caught giant, its eyes glistening, clear and bloodless. “You won’t get fresher. I just sent the steaks over to him. Go, now, eat.” I also bought salmon, wild and smoked by Paul himself.

Here are my notes: “At lunch, while talking about the market and the bourgeoisie, Mikel called the current administration in America ‘the Bushwazee’ because they bought the presidency. I had said that people think that because they have buying power they have power and therefore class and are therefore above others.”

After lunch we went to the impressive Drombeg Circle, a Stonehenge-like prehistoric site where we were all mesmerized to the point of silence, long after we had driven away. The place had a haunting spiritual presence, but I was also fascinated by the nearby cooking pit, where archaeologists have shown that the pit was spring-fed, then filled with hot stones; a deer would then be placed in the vat of hot water and cooked, feeding the entire village. They have successfully recreated the dinner to prove their theories!

Here’s my last entry in my journal from the trip. Nothing much more to be said about the Cliffs of Moher. Like Powerscourt and Drombeg Circle, they have been written about by far better writers. They are truly spectacular:

“Our last day, Ted insisted we go to the spectacular Cliffs of Moher. At Doolin we had a picnic of cheese (Clonmore – goat, Blarney Stone Chedddar, and Mine-Gabber, goat from Wexford) and wine on a burren-like beach. Covering much of County Clare, the Burren is a limestone plateau that appears to have been poured over the landscape.
 In Ballyvaughn we got stuck in the funeral of “a very young man” for over an hour. Then on to Galway, which seemed like a very sophisticated metrosexual community of shops and pubs and restaurants, but which, in fact, only has 57,000 residents. We sampled wine outdoors at a wine bar and I bought a set of old hotel fish knives and forks for 5EU at an antique store. Then on to a dramatic last supper at the 200-year-old, thatched-roof Moran’s Oyster Cottage, where I ate mussels, oysters, and crab as the sun set and swans swam by.”

Pole Beans with New Potatoes
This simple recipe produces delicious results; it always surprises the first-time cook. Note the small amount of water; the beans sit in the water, but the potatoes steam. Pole beans can refer to any of a number of varieties of snap beans which are larger than everyday green beans. Try to find tender beans that do not have a heavy “string”: they will cook in the same amount of time as the potatoes. There was a time when pole beans were boiled all day; it is not necessary with the delectable modern hybrids such as Kentucky Wonders.
2 pounds pole beans
2 pounds of very small new potatoes
1 smoked ham hock weighing about 1/2 pound
1/3 cup water
String the beans and snap them. Peel the potatoes or cut them in half. Put the beans in the bottom of a heavy saucepan. Add the potatoes, the hock, and the water. Simmer covered until the potatoes are done, about 45 minutes.
Yields 4-6 servings.
Salmon Croquettes
You can make these fish cakes out of any cooked fish. I spent a lot of my youth on my parents’ sailboat. When the weather was bad, Mother would make these out of canned salmon from the ship’s store.
2 cups (1/2 pound) of flaked, cooked fish
1 small onion, chopped fine (about 1/4 cup)
1/2 pound mashed, cooked potato (1 average Idaho)
2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
1 egg, beaten
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons clarified butter
Combine the fish, the onion, the potato, and the parsley. Mix in just enough of the egg to hold the mixture together, then divide the mixture into about eight patties. Dust the patties in the flour seasoned to taste with the salt and pepper and sauté in butter on each side until golden brown. Serve with lemon wedges.
4 servings.