A Taste of Ireland

24 May 2006

I’m the same convivium leader who described the journey made by thirteen Slow Food members to Crete in May 2005. I was a volunteer at Terra Madre 2004 accompanying the Greek and Irish delegations and, in Crete, I had found an old friend, the agronomist Kostas Bouyouris, who had introduced us to many of the island’s specialities, gastronomic and other.

Incited by many and not fatigued by the Greek adventure, I threw myself into organising a trip to Ireland last December. Since then, there have been months of Internet surfing, emailing and telephone conversations with Terra Madre friends, convivium leaders, restaurants, hotels, airlines and coach firms. Thanks must also go to Ronan O’Dowd, a tutor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, who helped to construct a ‘Slow’ trip that has paid due homage to cultural aspects as well as the landscape.

At last, on April 25 we find ourselves at Nice airport in France. We are thirty-two participants from Genoa, Savona, Imperia, La Spezia, Turin and Siracusa (Sicily) accompanied by our mascot, Giovanni Talete, just eighteen months old, son of convivium leader Attilio Venerucci and a Slow Food member from birth!

Just over two hours after landing in Dublin, we were already tasting its beers. Faced with the ubiquitous, tentacular presence of Guinness, we chose instead a small, award-winning brewery, the Carlow Brewing Company. Its three beers are very good and, in particular, O’Hara’s Stout was judged as being the best ‘dark’ beer in the world at the Millennium Brewing Industry International Awards.

The Rock of Cashel dominated the scene of our first evening meal. In Cashel they make a good blue cheese and I can still taste the flavour of the fillet steak served at Legends Restaurant. Peter Ward, the friendly convivium leader of Tipperary, came along for the evening.

The following day our Terra Madre friend, Frank Krawczyc, joined us for two days in Cork. The second largest city in Ireland, Cork is the Irish food capital and, with the assistance of wonderful weather, revealed itself to be lively and youthful. Don’t miss the English Market, which is the heart and the stomach of the city – you can find everything imaginable food-wise, both local and imported.

The fish stalls are truly noteworthy: for 70 cents each they will open up giant oysters that they serve regally on a tray of ice, lying abreast cod and monkfish.

If you pop up to the gallery above you’ll find the Farmgate Cafè & Restaurant. Order a plate of tripe and drisheen (a type of sheep’s black sausage) which, together with a good glass of beer and the friendliness of the proprietor, will set you in good stead for the afternoon.

In Marlborough Street, just a block away from the English Market, you’ll find O’Flynn’s Butchers, with the butcher himself sporting a tie and a smiling face and who, without a doubt, knows his trade inside out, proved by the chopping tables in full view. Their speciality is ‘spicy meat’ – topside marinated for four weeks – which should be slow cooked for an hour and then sliced.

A few miles away in Midleton stands the historic Jameson distillery, which has been unused since 1975 but is perfectly preserved and extremely interesting. It is a slightly ‘mass tourist’ experience however.

One step further along, we arrive at the Ballymaloe Cookery School run by Darina Allen, number one in Slow Food Ireland. Students from all over the world come to this school and the most important course lasts for three months.

During the ‘fast’ tour, Darina showed us the lecture halls, kitchens and the incredible kitchen gardens that couldn’t be more ‘Slow’ if they tried, with every imaginable vegetable, herb and fruit tree – was this what Eden was like?

Within the same complex is Ballymaloe House, a fourteenth-century building immersed in greenery and a truly wonderful place! Myrtle Allen, Darina’s mother-in-law, runs this aspect of the complex.

If you wanted to find a metaphor for the word ‘authentic’, the county of West Cork would spring to mind. Possibly influenced by very ‘un-Irish’ weather (there wasn’t a cloud in the sky), we were struck to the core. Its nature, products and people, all ooze authenticity. Its bays and promontories are heartbreakingly beautiful. Its cheeses, sausages, wild smoked salmon, etc. … are the expression of all that is tradition. And you almost expect John Wayne in ‘The Quiet Man’ to emerge from one of the houses! Only in a few the Mediterranean countries can this kind of atmosphere still be found.

In Lisdoonvarna in the Burrens, we met up with other Terra Madre friends. Birgitta, aided by Martina, runs an efficient smokehouse and provided us with more information about salmon – cold and hot smoked, wild and organic. We also tasted delicious smoked mackerel, trout, eels and local cheese. In the evening, Birgitta and her husband keep themselves busy running a pub where fabulous Irish music is played.

The Burrens are of Karstic origin and, at sea level, alpine and subtropical flowers can be found. Here, the livestock grazes free range and a peculiarity of the area is that transhumance takes place the other way round – in the winter in the mountains and in the summer by the sea. This depends on both humidity and grass although the distance between the sea and the mountains is only a few kilometres.

Galway should not be missed, with its lively centre and tradition of eating oysters on the last day of months with an ‘r’.

And what can I say about Dublin? A beautiful capital city, clean, wealthy, provocative, pleasure seeking, hard drinking. Possibly the money from the new economy makes it today no longer a true representative of the authentic, green Ireland.

With regard to food and drink, if I had to make a comparison with Italy, I would have to conclude that we Italians are the opposite of the Irish.

The Irish breakfast is a triumph of juices, jams, porridge and, as if this wasn’t enough, you can shovel down two eggs – fried or scrambled – with some sausages, black pudding, bacon, mushrooms, fried tomatoes, etc. The service is always at its best: tablecloths, napkins, teapot, coffeepot and attentive personnel. I can’t even compare this with our own kind of breakfast. I believe statistics show that over 50% of Italians throw back 50 ml of coffee in the early morning and possibly take a break with a croissant at around 10 am.

Lunch and dinner, however, are clearly of lesser importance to the Irish. Everything is eaten ‘faster’ and as for the service – you can find yourself eating on bare wood with a paper napkin for 50 euros (drinks excluded). In this regard, the Italians clearly score considerable points.

When it comes to the evenings, the Irish are simply on another planet to us. They go to the pub, they socialise and down five pints of Guinness, while we Italians stay at home to watch ‘Big Brother’ or the equivalent of ‘Eastenders’! Obviously, I’m talking about the average Italian who makes up for it in the summer with a regular evening stroll and ice cream.

During the trip, almost all our culinary experiences were positive and this was a great organisational success – anything less would have been very disappointing.

A standout was the exceptional Blair’s Cove House in Durrus. The starters, main courses, cheeses and desserts were all impeccable. It was also a great pleasure to be with the members of the local convivium, with an incredible view of the bay before us and not a cloud in the sky.

Rhubarb is everywhere in Irish cuisine. We even found it at Carrigann in Lisdoonvarna, together with many other specialities such as cold and hot smoked salmon, Burren sirloin steak, etc. However, maybe someone should tell the restaurant that the cheese (which was excellent) should be served before and not after the dessert. Everything was of the highest quality and accompanied by two Irish wines – one white made with elderberry flowers and apples and the other, red, made with elderberries and apples. Both were very interesting.

In Elys wine bar in Dublin we learnt that potatoes are always cooked in an Irish Stew (made with lamb) and never boiled and added at the last moment!

Dublin’s Gruel needs a paragraph to itself. From the outside is looks like a kebab house in central Anatolia and the cellar confirms this, with seven tables each differing from the next and an odd assortment of thirty chairs. I tried the warm goat’s cheese on grilled vegetables and fresh salad, vegetable tajine and an ice-cream dessert made with apples, berries and bread. The portions are simply enormous and we all enjoyed the variety of dishes tried. The guide books state that you shouldn’t leave Dublin without first visiting Gruel.

Another peculiarity to many Irish restaurants is that groups of more than six pay between 10 and 12.5% more service charge. In other words, the more you are, the more you pay. Just a thought, if you’re in a group of ten, book two tables for five under different names – you’ll save 12.5%.

To tell the truth, in one of the abovementioned restaurants where the service was truly terrible, I protested and with a face like John Wayne (the one where he beats up his rival in ‘The Quiet Man’), I managed to avoid paying this unjust toll.

Prices in Irish restaurants are, on average, about 50% dearer than those in Italy (excluding drinks). Prices for hotel rooms and Bed & Breakfasts are more or less the same – if you take into consideration the quantity in an Irish breakfast.

On the morning of our departure at around 4.40 am, I walked through the hotel lobby to come across a couple with a table full of beer, whiskey and other drinks. I wished them a very good morning. Good evening! they replied.

Thank you Ireland and the Irish people for a wonderful trip – we are so very different but with many similarities!

Special thanks to:
Peter Ward – Tipperary’s convivium leader

Darina Allen – Slow Food Ireland leader

Giana Ferguson – West Cork c0- convivium leader

Michael Gleeson – Clare County convivium leader

Sally Barnes – Smoke House, Castletownshend

Mark Boyden – Wild Salmon Presidium referent

Fiona Corbett – active member of the Dublin Convivium

Ronan O’Dowd – University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo tutor

Frank and Anne Krawczyk – sausage producers in Schull, participants at Terra Madre 2004

Birgitta Hedin-Curtin – Burren Smokehouse and active member of the County Clare Convivium

Martina Hemmersbach – Burren Smokehouse, participants at Terra Madre 2004

Alessandro Scarpa is the leader of the Slow Food Alassio Convivium in northern Italy

Adapted by Nicola Rudge Iannelli

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