Your mission, should you choose to accept it.....
Way back in March this year we had an email from two American Slow Foodies who were planning a trip to Ireland. They were quite excited about it and, keen to ensure that they made the most of their visit, wanted some information about where they should stay and go to ensure thay got the best food Ireland had to offer.
Now shortly before this, Colman Andrews, speaking during the launch of his book The Country Cooking of Ireland, said that while there was much to celebrated in Irish cooking today, for the visitor it was not always easy to find the best food on offer. So we decided to test the hypothesis, and with this in mind suggested to Sarah and Nicole, our two intrepid explorers, that they go and find the good food for themselves, and tell us how they got on. They agreed. This is their story.
September 10, 2010
We planned our trip to Ireland with a mission to discover the hidden wonders of Irish food. Before leaving, we contacted Slow Food Ireland and were immediately connected to Paul Deegan. He asked us if we would be interested in discovering Ireland ourselves and writing about it for Ireland's Slow Food website...ummm, YES PLEASE!
So with this quest in hand, we set off to see what we could find. Needless to say, it took no time at all to find local, family-made yogurts and cheeses, cured meats, and fresh farm eggs in the local Dublin Markets.
However, our real food discoveries began in the wee town of Ballybay in County Monaghan. While visiting family in Ballybay, we traveled around to the small villages in the area, headed up to the Antrim coast and spent much of our time learning about traditional Irish food with the people who have spent generations in the area. What we've discovered, thus far, is that no matter where we are, we'll be surrounded by local foods made with longstanding traditions, pride and love.
After spending a day traveling along the breathtaking Antrim coastline, we ended up in the small town of Ballycastle for dinner where we dined on fresh crab claws, pasture-raised lamb shank and fresh, local goat cheese at The Cellar Restaurant. Sarah had never tasted crab so sweet and Nicole's lamb shank was so tender it fell off the bone with a mere glance in its direction.
The following day, we were intent on seeing what we could find in County Monaghan. Sarah set off in the morning for the Irish Farmers Association office to see if anyone could shed some light on any local farms or “must visit” locales. Eleanor Wilson was a wealth of information and pointed us to a Camphill Community, Silver Hill Duck Farm, the farmers markets in Ballybay and Monaghan, and Monaghan mushrooms.
We began our outing with a stop by Sloans Farm where they have ingeniously installed a self-service, free range egg dispenser. Put in your couple of Euro and out come a dozen gorgeous eggs!
Next, we stopped over at the Camphill Community. These self-sustaining centers boast biodynamic gardens, resident housing and a life-sharing community for adults with special needs. The community in Ballybay welcomed us warmly with a tour of their beautiful grounds, weavery and candle-making shop while residents and volunteers worked side-by-side in the gardens.
After dropping Nic off in town, Sarah and her Cousin Sally set off for Monaghan to visit the Silverhill Duckfarm.
Laden with homemade beet relish, parsnips the size of grapefruit and some fresh duck breasts, we headed back to town for dinner at LaSalle's.
Locally-raised beef sirloin, piled high with sauteed Monaghan mushrooms arrived at the table with crisp onion rings, bowls of broccoli and cauliflower and a gravy boat full of peppercorn sauce. YUM!
The next morning, as we walked around the local lake, we picked wild blackberries to complement the beautiful apples that were delivered to Sally's doorstep by a friend. Sarah and Sally quickly whipped up a beautiful apple blackberry crisp as a perfect end to that evening's dinner.
On our final morning, we sadly packed our bags and headed outside to discover a charming farmer's market on our doorstep. The market is held each Friday in the Ballybay town square. Local farmers, including those from Camphill, brought their fresh produce to town. Sarah's cousins Peter and Martin joined us for tea and Martin introduced Sarah to Rose, a local Slow Food member, gardener and chef. While talking about the beautiful pork she picked up from one neighbor and the fresh butter she collected from another neighbor, she generously supplied all who were near with samples of her beautiful pies, tarts and sausage rolls.
After saying goodbye to Sarah's fabulous family with promises of a return, we hit the road to Waterford and the Waterford Harvest Festival.
The Delights of Dungarvan
September 11, 2010
We arrived in Waterford just in time for dinner…and rain. After quickly checking in to our, how shall we say... quirky hotel, The Portree Guesthouse, we set out on foot for something to eat, rain be damned (our Oregon pedigrees saw to that.) We wandered about the square, and Nic noticed a sign for The Gingerman Pub, beaming with delight as her favorite watering hole in Chicago has the exact same name. We found a cozy spot near the window and, totally famished, we placed our orders. Fish and chips for Sarah, seafood chowder for Nic, and of course…a pint of Guinness. Both meals were perfectly executed and thus, hit the proverbial spot. Nice touch on the Guinness head as well.
We awoke the next morning happy to see the sun shining, and set out for our first Slow Food-sponsored event for the Waterford Harvest Festival; a food tour of Dungarvan. Our smiling driver, Paul Dunne, drove our group of 15 to this quaint little town situated along Dungarvan Bay, about 30 minutes from Waterford.
Our first stop was at Paul Flynn’s Glanbia Garden. Flynn is an esteemed chef known the world over for his dedication to the local, seasonal bounty. Glanbia translates to “clean food”, and his famed restaurant The Tannery sources ingredients directly from his beautiful gardens, located adjacent to The Tannery Cookery School. We toured the garden, chicken coop and greenhouse, and spied the man himself as he prepped ingredients for a cooking class in session.
Sunshine still smiling upon us, we headed off to our next stop: Dungarvan Brewing Company. Open only 4 months, their sign had yet to be hung, but Paul deftly navigated us to the unmarked location & Jen was out front waving hello. We were ready to taste some beer! Apparently, the craft beers we take for granted in the states are a relatively new venture in Ireland. Historically, the Irish people are more connected to name brands (Murphy’s, Beamish, Guinness, et al). The Irish Craft Brewer’s Association currently has 14 licensed craft brewers in the country, and is growing at a rate of one new license per month. The local foods movement is just now extending further out to locally-brewed craft beers, and Cormac and Jen are at the forefront. Our group was their very first tour and tasting. We tasted four, including the award-winning Helvick Gold Blonde Ale. Our personal favorite was the Copper Coast Red Ale. The couple’s enthusiasm for craft beer was infectious, and we are so thrilled to follow their progress. Feel free to contact them for more details, become a Facebook fan, request a tour. You won’t be disappointed.
Next and final stop was Dungarvan Shellfish, a family-owned oyster farm along Dungarvan Bay, and a 15 minute drive from the brewery. Jim Harty met us and eloquently spoke about his family's foray into oyster farming, while popping fresh oysters open with the quick flick of a wrist. Sarah grew a bit squeamish while Nic was salivating at the thought of a sample. The company is situated in the Gaeltacht area of Ring, and, with 25 full-time employees and 10 seasonal hires, is the largest employer in the vicinity. Gives you an idea of how small this community is. They’ve produced Gigas Oysters since 1985 with a little help from the French seed (Gigas is not native to Irish seas, but indeed is flourishing). Unfortunately, they currently only produce for the French market because a purification processing facility is not yet in place. Our group was very lucky to sample the goods. Nic gladly took one (actually, two!) for the team. How much closer to the source can you get when the farmer cracks it open and hands it right over to you! The oyster was absolutely delicious, and the natural brine of the bay gave it a perfect, salty goodness. Mmmm!! If you are interested in sampling your own Dungarven Oysters, give them a call to see if you can head over for your own tour.
We piled into the van, and headed back to Waterford. A quick walk through the House of Waterford Crystal, and we scurried back to the hotel for a quick change. Buzzing from the tour of Dungarvan, we were now off to a special dinner for convivium members of Slow Food Ireland. Twas a perfect day, and we were twitching at the thought of what was still to come…
Later That Same Day
Dinner at the Undercroft
Saturday evening, we were fortunate to get seats for a very special event hosted by local producers for Ireland’s Slow Food Convivium members; a Slow Food dinner, set in a 13th century under-croft. We are pretty sure that under-croft is a fancy word for cellar or basement but this under-croft is the only remaining portion of the original building constructed by Stephen de Fulbourne, Bishop of Waterford and Governor of Ireland in 1281. It also held Waterford’s first mint as well as an extensive wine cellar 200 years later.
We felt truly blessed to be there. The guests, the menu and the location made for a uniquely special evening. Guest speakers included Bruce McDonald, an Aussie transplant, who harvests a variety of seaweeds, Rory Harrington who, with his wife, raise venison in Dunhill Co. Waterford and a fine local cheese maker named Eamon Lonergan, We looked at each other at one point during the meal, and thought, how on earth could we truly convey this experience properly? A picture is worth a thousand words, so the old saying goes. And here we go…
Fortunately, a bagpiper greeted us at the non-descript entrance
Dinner began with an Aperitif of Sparkling Spirit made from Apples.
This product is relatively new to the market and Irish Artisan Beverages joined in the festivities.
…and Mussel Canapes and Chicken Liver Pate, all locally sourced
The seven course menu for the evening included local producers speaking about their foods and why they got started.
Everything was perfect
Miso and Seaweed Soup with Seaweed Flecked Brown Bread
Succulently Spiced Beef with Chutney
Venison Terrine Stuffed with Leeks
Variety of Local Cheeses
The evening was such a success. If you are interested in any of the producers,
i have no doubt you could give them a call or email for a tour or visit to their property.
And we made friends from all around the world, who have the common thread of good clean food.
To Market To Market
After our meal in the Croft, we weren’t sure how it could get much better. The next morning, still smiling dreamily about the delicious meal, we packed up the room, bid farewell to our charming innkeepers and meandered down to the Quay where an enormous Slow Food market was waking up.
Lucky for us, we arrived early, before the massive crowds and rain appeared. For breakfast we enjoyed piping hot crepes. Filled with local goat cheese, roasted tomatoes, arugula and Sarah opted for the addition of bacon…surprise!
While sitting in the morning sunshine, it was fun to watch the different farmers and crafters set up their booths. We noticed we were right next to the elusive Sheridan’s Cheesemongers tent and had to pay a visit. Sarah was introduced to her new favorite beverage (next to Guinness, of course), a Luscombe Elderflower Soda. Nic spotted, or more accurately, smelled her way over to a fantastic Indian spice booth called Green Saffron. We both loaded up on fat packets of spices, including attached recipes and complimentary reusable bags.
As things picked up, we meandered around tasting beautiful cheeses, and pates, testing local soaps and lotions and snapping photos of everything.
After a delicious lunch of Lebanese food, we headed down to the end of the quay for our Dublin Ale and Cheese tasting session.
But more on this later :)
Later That Day
Cheese and Ale Tasting Anyone?
The cheese and ale tasting capped off our Slow Food activities in Waterford. Heading over to the Tower Hotel 45 minutes early, we took a seat in the front row, and fought every instinct not to preemptively devour the goodness placed in front of us – five seductive hunks of Irish cheeses, artfully displayed with a come hither leer. We agreed to be strong, under the watchful eye of the producers.
Both of us have an intrinsic draw to cheese: Nic as a cheesemonger, and Sarah, the cheesemaker. Our discussions about a new cheese make us as starry-eyed as if we were discussing a new love interest. This day we were not only graced with great cheeses and beers but also with an esteemed panel leading the event: Owen Bailey of Neal’s Yard Dairy, Oliver Hughes of The Porterhouse, Kevin Sheridan from Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, as well as Cormac from Dungarvan Brewery and Anna Lévêque, an up-and-coming cheese maker who creates an ash-covered, fresh-ladled Triskel pyramid raw goat cheese, straight from heaven.
Neither of us are huge beer drinkers, but after enjoying our introduction to Dungarvan beers a few days prior, we were intrigued by another round of Irish beers. Coming from the Northwest, where microbrews are a dime a dozen, we were struck by the limited number of microbreweries in Ireland. One of the selections, an Oyster Stout, adds fresh oysters in the initial phase of brewing. Bizarre to wrap your head around, we agree, but the flavor imparted was so slight – a wee note of saltiness. This brew ended up being one of our favorites and beautifully paired with the Triskel goat cheese.
The other cheeses we sampled were a Knockanore smoked, raw cow’s milk naturally smoked in county Waterford, Knockdrinna Meadow, a sheep’s milk semi-hard from county Kilkenny, a Crozier, sheep’s milk blue from county Tipperary, and a beautiful Hegarty aged, cloth-bound cheddar from county Cork. Yes indeed, the Irish don’t mess around with their mastery of cheese.
With the panel discussing the quality of each pairing, and those of us in the peanut gallery loaded with questions, the hour flew by. There was much interest in the importance of restaurants paying as much care to their beer lists as they do their wine lists. We knew that if more people were given such a substantial opportunity to taste the unique flavors imparted with the pairings of foods, such as cheeses, and good beers, there would be no question of its place at the table.
Living the Life at Ballymaloe
One of the things we wanted to check out in Cork was a Ballymaloe Cookery School, run by Darina Allen. Darina is to Slow Food in Ireland what Alice Waters is to Slow Food in the states. After taking a job at the Ballymaloe House restaurant, she fell in love with the proprietor’s son and they created the cookery school on the Ballymaloe Farm. Magically, her own son had the same luck with the beautiful Rachel, who is also a magnificent chef in her own right. And so the legacy continues. We hope for generations!
We headed off with Maurice to explore the area and sample the goods. First off, we visited the beautiful yet understated estate Ballymaloe House, about 2 miles away from the cookery school. With down-filled sofas and lovely wing-back chairs tucked into sunny reading corners, there was space for everyone. The property included a very tempting swimming pool, putting greens, a tennis court and miles of walking trails.
While tromping around in the woods behind the estate we discovered fields of identical looking free range chickens that purred in unison while snapping up bugs and other goodies. On the other side of the road stood the pig sty, with three 6 month old piglets and a wary mama. All Sarah could do was give silent thanks for the delicious bacon and sausages she had been eating daily. These were the sacred pigs of goodness. After wandering back toward the beautiful old building we discovered another wooded area filled with yet more chickens, a large pond filled with ducks, and a very tame peacock.
Sarah ran into the cafe and grabbed a couple of pastries for the road, and we headed off to the Cookery School. The pastries were decadent, tasting of butter and almonds, reminding us that we were HUNGRY!
First stop in the cookery school was the shop full of local treats. We each grabbed a jar of fresh yogurt and headed out to the gardens, with a map. A MAP?! This place was huge (a 100 acre organic farm, to be exact). For 6 euros, we were handed a map and set loose. To our left was a well cared for old building lined with 10 foot windows and filled with kitchen staff bustling around for the lucky students taking classes. We hoped we would look pathetic enough to be fed, but no such luck.
The sun was shining while we wandered through the vegetable gardens, herb gardens, said hi to the cows and a very large pig. We gathered some dill for Cormac’s hake and admired some gorgeous Scarlett Runner Beans. We climbed a tree house overlooking the formal English Gardens and ran around the maze like children, breaking free though a hedge when we spotted the field of raspberry bushes.
Near the back of the property was a fantastic series of old buildings set up for students who opted to stay while in class. Maurice laid claim to the lovely pink cottage near the edge. We couldn’t blame him.
Sadly, it was time to head back to town, but we looked forward to Cormac’s mastery of the hake with a pinch of Ballymaloe dill.
Cork, Glorious Cork
We’ve heard so many outstanding things about the food in Cork that we eagerly entered the city, anticipating greatness. We knew that if the proud people we had met in other parts of Ireland spoke so highly of this area, we were in for a treat. Thus far, we had not been even remotely disappointed.
Lucky for us, we had the pleasure of staying with our friend Cormac and his family in Cork City. We were greeted with wine, a beautiful meal, great conversation, and soft warm beds tucked within the rooms of their beautiful old estate. Oh, and we were also greeted by the Bonars’ dog, Twiggy. Sarah immediately embraced the little Bichon Frise while Nic realized she was falling in love with her first “little dog”. We agreed Twiggy deserves a mini gallery, so please indulge.
Thank you. Now back to Cork…
The next day, we set off for the famed Cork English Market. Upon arrival, it lit us up from inside. What a feast for the eyes! Upon further research, we learned it’s one of the oldest of its kind, trading as a market since 1788.This pre-dates it from most other markets of its kind (including Barcelona’s famed Boqueria Market).
Cormac, and his brother Maurice, took us immediately to O’Flynn’s Gourmet Sausage Company where we fell upon fresh pork sausages wrapped in chewy baguettes with caramelized onions, which we promptly inhaled. With bellies full, we were ready to explore. After getting the lay of the land, we headed off in opposite directions to collect supplies for our visit to Sheep’s Head. Sarah covered On the Pig’s Back and delighted herself with tastes of several Gubbeen sausages. Nic made a beeline for the wine shop, and then hit the cheese counter to sample some beautiful local cheeses from the beautiful French cheese-monger.
The English Market is located in the heart of Cork City, as it has been for hundreds of years and is open 6 days a week. It was easy to load up on provisions for our stay in Sheep’s Head Peninsula. We knew we would eat well.
Before we headed off, we spent one more night in Cork with a visit to the Hi-B (Hibernian), one of Sarah’s cousin’s favorite pubs & a hidden gem known only to locals. Cormac and Maurice knew exactly where this Cork institution was located, so, with mobiles safely tucked out of site (grounds for dismissal!), we entered the tiny pub at the top of the stairs. A few Guinness’ in, we were knee deep in good political conversation into the wee hours.
The following morning, we loaded up the car with Cormac in tow, and headed out to Sheep’s Head. This is the smallest and least visited finger off West Cork’s shores. Just from hearing about it from the Bonar family, we couldn’t wait! We were not disappointed.
September 15, 2010
Off the Grid to Sheep’s Head
We headed out of town with Cormac to spend a few days at his family’s property in Sheep’s Head, the smallest and least known of the West Cork peninsulas. Simply put, this means less traffic, tinier roads, a smattering of people, and more unbelievably wild and breathtaking views. Sitting in the family room with a roaring fire, while watching the sea and rocky hills beyond is more of a spiritual experience than one could imagine.
After arriving, we walked to the town of Kilcrohane, a half block comprised of 2 pubs, a gas station and a market. Only the pubs were open. We continued down to the beach, and passed numerous hand-painted signs for hiking trails along the way, criss-crossing creeks with stone bridges. We ended at a stone pier jutting out into the crystal clear Atlantic Ocean, and surrounded by rocky crags.
We took the beach trail back to the house, and passed a picturesque old farmhouse complete with apple-laden orchards, fresh duck eggs for sale, and several signs pointing hikers off to various trails.
We headed home, looking forward to all the goodies we had picked up earlier. Sarah made a piccata with the pork chops she picked up, while Cormac mastered the fire. Nic opened a bottle of Verdejo, and nibbled on the plate of goodness piled with cheeses, meats, duck pate and olives. Every delicious component from Cork’s English Market. We enjoyed a lovely dinner, swapped some music, and curled up by the fire for a movie.
After a good night’s sleep, we woke up feeling happy and refreshed. Time enough for a quick breakfast (granola, yogurt, blueberries), and we set off for a morning hike. Cormac navigated us to his favorite trail – a slow descent towards the lighthouse on the tip of the peninsula, which then looped back around the other side. Sarah had her camera at the ready commenting several times that she felt like she was in Lord of the Rings, and Nic was stoked as hell – an avid hiker who misses the abundance of mountain trails she left behind for the big city. Our first leg over the ridge was so windy that each photo was a battle to remain upright and not fly off the edge.
Fortunately, as we crested the ridge, the winds died down, the sun broke through the clouds, and we began our descent towards the lighthouse.
The mountain views against the bluest of blue waters were a majestic sight indeed. It felt like we were in uncharted territory. Of course, we weren’t. We spotted a helipad right at the coastline. In any case, this was a pristinely kept piece of nature complete with bogs and old farmhouse ruins.
Nic took the lead on our way back, and Sarah had a wide smile as we spotted 3 sheep moving down a clearing towards us. She greeted them with her usual “Hi, babies.” They sized us up with no fear, and stood quietly as we snapped a few pictures. Together, we climbed the final ridge and then went our separate ways. How fun!
Two hours later, we were back in the car & feeling great from the fabulous hike. We dropped Cormac off in Bantry to catch his bus back to Cork. There was time for a quick drink, and many thank yous for being such a good friend and guide in Dublin and throughout Cork.
After our goodbyes, we opted to explore Bantry for a spell. The town is nestled along the bay and known for its mussels, which Nic intended to eat. We found our way to The Fish Kitchen, up above the local fish market and well-known for its mussels and shellfish. Sarah ordered the sea scallops and Nic promptly ordered mussels, right from Bantry Bay! The mussels were perfect – steamed in a broth of white wine, garlic, butter, shallots, tarragon. Very French, and so delicious in its simplicity. Sarah loved the sweet scallops and tasted her first mussel, which she shockingly loved! Who knew?
On our way back to Sheep’s Head, we took Cormac’s advised, more scenic route. The coastal views alone would have been enough to delight us, but we also encountered a herd of cows in the road…twice. Most people might be annoyed with this, but not us. We weren’t in any hurry. The first encounter was heaven for Sarah, but a bit jarring for Nic. She’d never seen a family of cows before, and the steer looked more than a bit perturbed with us being so close to his family. Nic was sure that this steer, about 3 paces in front of our little Hyundai rental and looking huge, could easily take us down, car and all. Nic took a deep breath, and Sarah’s calm reassurance and quiet instruction not to stare him down got us through. After an ominous drive-by stare down from the steer, he moved his family along, and off we went. Our next encounter consisted of about 20 cows being lead back to pasture by a farmer on his tractor. This was followed by several cars, and, bringing up the rear, a diligent herding dog, making sure everyone stayed in line. We pulled over as far as we could in order to make room for the parade. The cows plodded briskly, looking forward to dinner and their evening milking, and the sweet farmer smiled & tipped his hat to us.
We finally arrived back at the house, and plotted our course for the next day. There was lots of driving to come, but tonight we were still in Sheep’s Head. Sarah lit a fire, Nic brewed some tea, and we enjoyed our last quiet night in this beautiful space.
September 17, 2010
I Found My True Love In Dingle
OK, that is not really the case, but Nic assured Sarah that this would make an excellent song to include on our travel album. And honestly, if you are to find a true love, it might as well be on the most beautiful Dingle Peninsula.
After leaving our sweet cottage in Sheep’s Head, we headed into the most widely touristy-traveled area of our adventures thus far. Using suggestions and advice from trusted locals, i.e. the Bonars, we decided to skip the full Ring of Kerry drive and enjoy only a small portion as we continued north. The eastern portion of the ring includes a stunning drive through the rugged McGillycuddy’s Reeks, the highest mountain range in Ireland rising over 1000 meters and settling among the lakes and streams of Killarney National Park. Nic opted to drive this leg of the journey, and was forced to slow to a snail’s pace after flying past a beautiful old church ruin surrounded by waterfalls and mossy woods never to be seen again. It was one of those drives where each turn introduced another jaw dropping view that really couldn’t be missed.
Sarah perused the maps and books for good stopping points along the drive as Nic stoically navigated the tiny windy roads, happily stopping as Sarah called out a new and not-to-be-missed site. We discovered a beautiful and secluded spot along the road with a mucky path down to Lough Leane, and a short hiking trail that climbed up along the edge of a river to some waterfalls. This part of Ireland was so similar to the Pacific Northwest, Sarah wanted to post side-by-side photos and let you guess what country we were in!
Ireland? Oregon? Crazy huh?!
We’ll never tell!
We also made a stop to stretch our legs at the Muckross House, built in 19th century and surrounded by acres of beautiful gardens, lakes and Nic’s favorite tree. After a quick bite, we had only a short drive around Dingle Bay and out onto the peninsula.
The town of Dingle is known for its ridiculous number of pubs per capita and crazy roads that wrapped up and around a large hill. We decided to stay out of the madness and opted for a small guesthouse located down on the bay, within walking distance of town.
For dinner that night, we ventured into town to check out the local cuisine. The menu exclusively held such delights, including duck, lamb and rabbit. Sarah opted for the duck and Nic selected the steak. Both were deliciously prepared, of course! The highlight of our meal, however, began when a large group of gentlemen arrived and took a table near the back of the room. About halfway through our meal, the singing began. Although a rather stuffy couple next to us fled in disgust, we pulled out our cameras and enjoyed the entertainment. You can enjoy it too!
The next morning, we loaded up our car and made our way slowly around the Dingle Peninsula. What a treat! What truly amazed us were the differences each of the Cork Peninsulas supplied. Each had the glorious sheep spotted hills with ragged cliffs jutting out of the tropical green sea, but saying they were all the same would be like saying that all cheese tasted the same! To truly appreciate the splendor, all we had to do was take a deep breath and savor it.
Sarah took this chunk of the road, so that Nic could sit back and enjoy the day. The Slea Head drive is a 30-mile drive that wraps around crazy drops and steep farmlands. Along the drive, we visited a wildly remote beach lagoon, paid a woman 1 euro to explore 4000 year old beehive huts on her property, crossed a stream, checked out the Blasket Islands (because apparently Dingle was not remote enough for some), and managed to pass a broken down tour bus with only minimal paint scraping. Again, we were so glad we opted for a small car as larger vehicles had to turn around and abandon the loop!
Once back in Dingle, we made our way out of town and headed ever northward.
but not that way.
September 18, 2010
On the Road
After leaving Dingle with a bit of sadness, we headed North. We had a long day of driving ahead of us and a lot of really beautiful land to cross. To our surprise, we drove through Lisdoonvarna, the infamous town that hosts a Matchmaking Festival every September. We both thought about stopping for a fraction of a second…and then peeled out quickly after noting that the median age was 60 and dental hygiene was seemingly forbidden. If you are interested in making it part of your next holiday, Here you go!
We realized a bit late in the day that we were within minutes of missing the ferry that would take us across the Shannon River (knocking off 2 hours from our drive, and avoiding Limerick as well). As we sat in line for the ferry and watched it fill up, we finally crept into first place…assuming we had missed the boat and would be first up for the next ferry, in 2 hours…sigh. Lucky for us, the Irish rock (of course!) and know how to pack a boat. We not only got on, but the car behind us did too, barely! We were all so excited, we cheered.
Our slightly manic drive up the western coast of Ireland continued towards the Cliffs of Moher. Much to Nic’s delight (the Irish sense of humor is catching), Sarah read every bit of information she could find about the area, the cliffs, and the history of the west coast, so we were prepared for greatness. After our stomachs began to growl louder than Katy Perry could sing on the radio about her skin tight jeans, we realized it was 4:30 and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast! If you’ve been on a road trip and just want to get somewhere, so the thought of stopping for food isn’t a viable option, you know exactly how we felt at that moment…RAVENOUS. Sarah busted out a slightly smushed Luna Bar to sate us on the hike to the top of the cliffs, and we headed out. It may have been sheer exhaustion or our rumbling tummies, but we arrived at the cliffs, paid our fee and ventured up the trail in silence. Don’t get us wrong, the cliffs are glorious in their massive height and power, but we were BEAT! And we still had a couple of hours to go on the road. We made it to the top, took beautiful pictures, looked to the other side, looked at each other and, as our bellies protested in victory, we relented and headed back to the car.
One final note. All over Ireland on the sides of the road are signs that read “Safe Home” or “Slan go Foill”, instead of “Drive Safe”. We thought this message was beautifully eloquent and deserved a photo of its own. This was the sign as we walked away from the Cliffs of Moher. Sarah would like to have this printed in her own home.
Onward! We finally arrived in Galway! Sarah was especially excited to make it this far, having heard so many great stories about the people and music of the area. Galway is also the home to the Claddagh Ring, its roots beginning in 1689 with a kidnapping, pirates, a Moorish goldsmith and a love story that knew no boundaries. Of course! This is Ireland after all.
We located O’Maille, an amazing woolen shop where Nic picked up a beautiful woolen cap for her Pops, and Sarah picked up a hand-woven blanket. We also found a Sheridan’s Cheesemonger! We ventured inside to say we had actually located one, only to hear again how difficult the Dublin shop really is to find, and picked up a couple of carrot orange smoothies to beat down the colds we were catching.
While walking around town, we enjoyed the street market full of the typical hippie fare, and plenty of buskers. As a college town, Galway draws in transplants from all over the world and many of them seem to stay. We had originally only planned to stay in Galway for one night but, after seeing the potential, we decided to head out to the Aran Islands for a night and come back for another night in town.
How could we pass this up?
September 20. 2010
Cows Found; Hanging out with the Leprechauns
Onward to the Aran Islands, a legendary place of ambiguity and solitude. The ferry dock was about 45 minutes from Galway and more than once, Sarah thought we had surely missed it. There is nothing on the coastal road but rocks, ridges and more rocks. Luckily, we located the dock for our noon ferry, left our car with the most adorable old Irishman and sat in a grey drizzle playing with our newfound friend.
Sarah’s cold was pretty well at its peak and Nic’s was about 2 days behind. The rain wasn’t helping, but we knew there was no rest for the weary and this would be our only shot at the Islands. We sucked it up and climbed aboard. The ferry looked brand new and shaped like a speedboat, unlike the big square ferries in Washington State. After we found our seats, we were quickly surrounded by a large beer-drinking hen party. The ladies were looking to have a good time and Sarah was quite amused by their bantering while Nic’s dose of Kwells kicked.
Sadly for the hens, and a few others, the sea was really, really rough. As waves broke over the top of the ferry and we bobbed around like a tin can, one of the crew passed out barf bags and told us we had not seen the worst of it yet. Of course, having been in Ireland for a few days now, we were pretty sure (and praying to god) this was typical Irish humor…dark and deadpan. Sarah was envious of Nic’s zen-like drug induced smile and glad she wasn’t typically prone to sea sickness. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for about 1 in 3 people around us, including several of the hen party…we imagined the warm beer didn’t help.
YEA! We had indeed seen the worst of it (deadpan humor be damned!) and arrived on the largest of the Aran Islands, Inis Mor. To make the scenario ideal, a fine mist covered us within minutes and a low fog blanketed the island. Somehow, it all seemed perfectly suited. Inis Mor is about 9 miles long and 2 miles wide and has the largest population, about 800. The landscape is harsh with steep, rugged cliffs and windswept, rocky fields divided by thousands of stone walls.
We opted to hop in a bright turquoise van for a tour of the island before we checked into our B&B. Lucky for us, we were the only 2 on the tour and sat up front with our driver, Jon, an older gentleman, born and raised on the island. Our first stop was Na Seacht Teampall, a monastic settlement, also called the Seven Churches . Most of the buildings remain standing in ruins and the main church, Teampall Bhreacain is surrounded by a mish -mashed array of tombs, graves, alters and awe. We wandered around, inspired by the views to the sea and the fact that the 2000+ year old cemetery is still in use on the island. In August, there is even a mass held in Teampall Bhreacain! Sarah may have to return for that experience alone.
Returning to the van, we caught Jon picking through the wild blackberry bushes along the side of the road and joined in. YUM! We followed the road up to Dún Aengus, passing by 300 year old thatched cottages and the most famous cottages on the island, the “Man of Aran” movie cottages. Apparently, you can rent a room here and sleep under the thatched roof for a small fee.
Jon stopped the van near another small cluster of cottages and pointed up to the top of the ridge where we could see the rim of a beautifully preserved Iron Age fort, telling us the rest of the way was on foot and that he would pick us up in 2 hours. Because of her cold, Sarah was ready for a cup of tea and a nap but Nic, ever the mountain goat, inspired her to keep going. And SO GLAD WE MADE IT! WOW! The cliffs here are lower than the Cliffs of Moher but said to be more beautiful and inspiring. We agreed 100%. As soon as we arrived, the last visitors were heading down. We had the place to ourselves! For 20 centuries (!) this fort, spanning 14 acres, has been battered and bashed by waves and wind. There are no restrictions in the space and we crawled out to the edge for a view 300 feet straight down. It was amazing!
On the impossibly uneven steps down, we had a grand view of the island. The land is so rocky, that the island looks like a drunken puzzle connecting each stone wall with the next, dotted by a smattering of cows.
On our way to the B&B we took the low coastal road, winding around cottages, farms and leprechaun houses. Jon stopped to show us a seal colony and the now defunct seaweed factory. We shared the van ride back with a lovely couple visiting from Italy.
After settling into our fantastic room and having a lengthy discussion with the proprietor about the wonder and awe that is Bruce Springsteen (who was also our wi-fi password), we headed out for dinner.
Inis Mor has 800 people and well overr 1800 meat cattle! Everyone has a couple in their front yard and ship them over to the mainland for processing. With little else to eat but fine Irish grass, we knew we had to taste the beef. We were not disappointed. We entered the pub early and ravenous, looking for something warm and hearty. We both ordered the Beef and Guinness Stew with brown bread and when the steaming bowls of goodness arrived, we sighed contently. Our bowls were full of beautifully tender stewed chunks of beef simmering in a dark broth of goodness.
Bellys full, we headed over to The American Bar where the wee Mulkerrin Brothers would be playing that evening. These famous boys won the All Ireland Talent show and played on the island, their home, frequently. After winning the show, and 50,000 euro, they have played with Sinead O’Conner and sold out shows all over the UK. So Impressive. We ordered a few of the best hot toddys ever, and settled in with our new Italian friends Frederico and Alice.
The next morning, after another fantastic Irish breakfast, we packed up and made a stop by the local sweater market before heading back to Galway on the 1:00 ferry with the sun shining and the waves settled down a bit, thank god! We were so glad we stayed here and Sarah is plotting how to move here to make cheese.
We are back in our respective homes; Nic in Chicago Illinois and Sarah in Portland Oregon, and still absorbing our fantastic adventure. We wanted to share some final thoughts.
“Find the good food and let me know how it goes.” These are the words Paul at Slow Food Ireland blessed us with before our trip to Ireland. Ireland, like most of the UK, gets a bad reputation for having bland food; boiled potatoes with a tough piece of meat and some mushy vegetables. I can't tell you how many times I heard that. I knew there had to be more to Irish food. Living in the Pacific Northwest food bubble, I am surrounded by a new generation of people who find it essential to rediscover the spirit of their culinary significance, learning from previous generations while creating something completely new. I knew Ireland was experiencing this same rebirth and I couldn’t wait to see it for myself. I was intrigued by Paul’s request and knew if Slow Food had found a home in Ireland, there would be food worthy of the title.
I spent a good deal of time checking out different areas of Ireland I knew I wanted to visit. Several friends and family had traveled or lived in Ireland and everyone had their opinion about what I could not miss. What was difficult to understand from my computer in Portland Oregon was that each of these areas didn’t contain one farm or shop with one type of preserve or cheese; Ireland is simply inundated with fresh, unique, local products. In the small grocery store near our hotel in Dublin, I found glass jars of fresh Glenilen Farm Irish yogurt from Cork. In the town of Bantry, on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, we ate fresh mussels from the bay outside the door, and over in Dungarven, outside Waterford, we slurped up fresh oysters and microbrews. From Dublin to the Aran Islands we picked wild sweet blackberries alongside the cows or sheep.
While visiting my family in Co. Monaghan, we savored wild mushrooms, fresh vegetables, like cabbage-sized parsnips, from the surrounding farms and superb grass-fed beef. As we wound around the coastline from Antrim to Waterford and up the west coast to Galway, we never ran out of options for fresh sweet seafood and a fantastic variety of seaweeds added to breads, soups, and even a dessert pudding. In Cork, we discovered the English Market and Gubbeen meats. While hiking in Sheep’s Head we passed small farms with signs offering fresh eggs, preserves and whatever else happened to be in season. In Dublin, Waterford and Galway we could always find excellent cheese at Sheridans Cheesemonger.
I am a born planner. I love to have a map and an itinerary. But what I discovered, is that the food found me without any help. We could not drive 10 miles without stopping to discover a new cheese, or beer that was only available locally. All of the copious notes I brought with me became a loosely used guide for setting the GPS in a general direction, like, west. I think my conclusion is that the food is good, no great!, and you can’t miss it because it will just be there. Every pub menu that used local meats, seafood or produce proudly stated it and we happily discovered that when something wasn’t on the menu, the staff were more than happy to tell us exactly where our food had come from; often times coming from a family or friend’s farm just down the road.
Ireland is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited. In the immense world of European cuisine and culture, Ireland quietly surpassed my wildest expectations. The people are genuinely kind, juxtaposing the raw, rugged land. If I have one piece of advice, it would be to take the time to explore the local pubs and food markets. Irish people love to chat so ask questions, you will be happy you did.
How easy is it for travelers to seek out the good, local foods of Ireland? That is the question that lingered in mind for our entire 21 day stint in Ireland. My answer? A simple and resounding “yes”. There were, however, a few basics that made the quest much easier. First and foremost, I think traveling through Ireland via rental car is the only way to go. Buses, trains and tours only get you so far. A car made even the most remote locations easily accessible. Plus, it allowed us to maintain a balance between the planned and the spontaneous stops. This leads into chatting with the locals. Even though we did a fair bit of research prior to arriving, the Irish people we spoke to tipped us off to so many great spots. There were restaurants/markets/farms we never would have known of if it weren’t for these interactions. Finally, travel with a like-minded companion. I was blessed to be with Sarah, a dear friend who shares my passion for good food. This piece is not a necessity, but for me, it was an added bonus. Sharing the intention was a true joy. It not only lead us to many wonderful discoveries, it sparked lively discussions about the journey at hand as well as inspiring our future endeavors.