Okay, let’s face it: Scotland, England, Ireland? Not the best reputation for tasty foodstuff. Sure, who doesn’t love a piping hot order of fish and chips served in yesterday’s newspaper, but black pudding? Spotted dick? Haggis? God, it all sounds so weird. Still, when I recently went to Ireland with my sister, I was eager to dive into the local cuisine. While some travelers long to see Dublin Castle or St. Patrick’s Cathedral, nothing made me happier than the prospect of eating new food. Here’s a (hopefully not long-winded) look at the week my stomach spent on the Emerald Isle…
First, a brief stop in Atlanta. Once I landed at Hartfield-Jackson, I was starving and really wanted some junky fast food. I eventually found a Burger King and heartily enjoyed a Whopper combo meal. Man, that stuff may be bad for you, but it is damn tasty. I eat fast food about four times a year, so those four times are sacred events to me. I also came up with a new word: tomayo® — that’s when the mayo and tomato juice/seeds comingle into a gooey, oozy mess that inevitably runs down your fingers into your shirt sleeves.
When I hand my boarding pass to the steward, she tells me my seat’s been changed. Somehow I end up in first class! What a delightful surprise. They are serving real dinner here. I’m stuffed full of low-grade beef and tomayo, but make a go of it nonetheless. A trio of appetizers: curried crab salad (meh), Greek salad (fresh, with a nice hunk of feta) and cream of asparagus soup (unpalatable and, unfortunately, served during turbulence). Entrée of cold salmon, roast beef and grilled veg. The salmon was good, although oddly reminiscent of bologna. Roast beef was forgettable. For dessert, a delicious little ice cream sundae. I had to skip the breakfast of French toast and eggs as I was too full.
Once I landed and met my sister at baggage claim, we settled ourselves at The Westin and began our education on Dublin life. We walked around Grafton Street and bought some “Irish” snacks at a convenience store: Walker’s Prawn Cocktail chips, Sweet and Spicy Thai Doritos, and a Bounty coconut candy bar. We ate lunch at a little café called Carluccio’s. That’s right, our first meal in Ireland is … Italian? An excellent, strong latte was much appreciated as I was starting to feel the drag. We split an appetizer of prosciutto (parma), breadsticks, parmesan and balsamic. It was very tasty. Our mozzarella, tomato and basil Panini was okay. The bread was lovely crunchy, but the pesto was overdone and the inside of the bread was just a bit mealy.
After lunch we went to the Guinness Factory. Beer-making is quite an interesting process and, even though I don’t drink it, I can appreciate the care they put into making it. They gave out free tastings at the end. It was very cold, smooth, creamy and bitter. I tried to like it, but after about five sips (you’re supposed to be able to gulp a pint in seven), I gave up.
We ate dinner in Ballsbridge at Roly’s Bistro. It was more expensive than I would have liked, but quite good. I had a pot of chamomile tea and J had mint. For dinner she had mushroom soup and fish & chips. I had an artichoke and parma tart that was very tasty. I also had the special spicy Thai fishcakes, which were quite spicy. Our waiter came to take away the food and commented that J hadn’t eaten her mushy peas. I said, “They don’t translate well.” The best part of the meal was dessert: strawberry pavlova. I’d never had pavlova before and don’t often see it on American menus. This was a mound of baked meringue, a dollop of clotted cream, and a ring of fresh berries in a thin pool of white chocolate sauce. The meringue was fantastic! Crispy turned chewy (if taste accounts for 45% of food-enjoyment, 25% is texture (20% is visual, 10% ineffable)). Amazingly delicious.
The next day, we ate breakfast at a place called Lemon, which served crepes. J had banana and Nutella, and I had egg and bacon with relish (similar to Branston Pickle as opposed to hot dog relish). The crepe was good with a nicely chewy-not-rubbery texture (that word again!). I also had a cup of coffee, which they sweetly served with a piece of chocolate.
For dinner we went to Bobo’s Burgers. The street signage in Dublin leaves something to be desired, but we eventually found the restaurant. Our waiter was from Buenos Aires. He was very friendly and cute — nearly everyone we’ve met has been extremely friendly. J had a Conn burger with bacon and I had a Dublin burger with cheese and more brown relish. We split rosemary fries. It was a very tasty burger. J fell in love with hers.
After dinner we went to The Duke for our literary pub crawl. We were there early and chatted with the charming bartender. I’m not sure if it was just this bar or all bars in Dublin, but I got a vodka with pineapple juice. The vodka was measured precisely in a jigger and I got one bottle of p-juice. None of this will-nilly “a little of this, a little of that” crap like in America! After this initial vodka, I stuck to glasses (half-pints) of Bulmer’s cider — much easier to quaff than a Guinness. The pear version is particularly nice.
The next day we took the bus to Russborough House. First we had breakfast at Gruel (known for their lunchtime “roast in a roll,” but we were, alas, too early for that). Very leisurely service, but we had plenty of time to kill before the bus. Nice pot of Irish tea. I wasn’t sure what to get for breakfast so I asked the waiter for his favorite dish. He said he liked the pancakes and the French toast. I was hoping he’d say something more Irish — J chose a good-looking plate of corned beef hash and poached eggs — but I said I’d take his advice so I went with the French toast and bacon. Perhaps a tad custardy in the center, but overall very delicious. The combination of egg, bread, salty bacon and sweet syrup is just about perfect.
As we walked to the bus, we opened another “Irish” snack: a bag of spicy Cheetos. Smelling strongly of cumin, I must say they were quite gross.
We ate dinner in the hotel atrium. We both had Bailey’s hot chocolate (served with lovely gourmet marshmallows). I had beef minestrone — never my first soup choice, but very tasty here with mini meatballs and fresh veg. The piece de resistance was the lovely sticky date pudding.
The next day we left for Galway. Our cabbie jokingly said he’d drive us to Galway for €350, which included a pub lunch and a pint. He dropped us off at the Sandwich Market near Heuston Station so we could have breakfast. There were two ladies running this very tiny deli. I got an egg sandwich. There was a white pudding option and I asked what was in it. It caused quite a conversation as no one really knew. One customer said, “It’s gross. It’s not healthy and has weird bits in it.” One of the counter ladies said — I quote — “It’s yum.” The other lady told me she’d warm up a piece for me to taste. Well, the customer was wrong: no meat in the white pudding; the counter lady was right: yum. It’s basically just stuffing shaped into a sausage shape. It was very good. So J & I sat in the train station and ate our greasy sandwiches.
We stayed at The Ivies in Galway. Perhaps the charm of the B&B has worn off for me. They sound lovely romantic, but the amenities are always better at a hotel. Still, I’m always lured in by the beautiful phrase, “Full breakfast provided,” even though the breakfast here wasn’t great (plain eggs, toast and grisly ham. Excellent tea, although extremely hot. Very forgettable overall). But for all that, it’s about ¼ the price of The Westin where I must pay for breakfast myself.
We spent the afternoon walking around. There are loads of cute shops. We went to a mall with a lovely milkshake shop. I had a chocolate chip cookie shake, which was a delicious indulgence. This shop will blend anything into a shake: Skittles, muffins, popcorn (that last one can’t possibly be good).
We ate dinner at The Dáil Bar (no idea how to pronounce it, but I’m sure “dale” would be too easy — I must say I am truly confounded by Gaelic). Our waiter was friendly and charming, albeit a bit absent. I asked him about the Grilled Clonakility Pudding. He said it’s the traditional Irish black pudding with all the nasty bits and blood. At first he tried to dissuade me from it, saying it was more of an “Irish thing,” but when I dissuaded him from dissuading me, he said The Dáil Bar had the best black pudding. So I started with creamed onion soup and finished with the black pudding. The onion soup was delicious (creamed with potatoes and finished with melted butter — the Irish love their butter (I wonder if Paula Deen is Irish?)). The black pudding? Also delicious! I’m sure, depending upon venue, it can range from magnificent to revolting, but this was expertly done. A pillow of potatoes and pancetta, then the grilled pudding, then apple chutney and shredded carrots and drizzled with balsamic glaze. Spicy, wonderfully chewy (Ireland: Land of Chewy Food) and the chutney and carrots gave a lovely sweet finish. One or two bites did seem a bit heavy in the way that organ meat can be, but overall it was quit enjoyable. Do I want to eat it every night? Probably not. But as an occasional thing? Yes, it went down nicely. My verdict? Better than haggis!
The next day we rented bikes and rode on a 30-mile trip around Galway. It was insanely windy and hilly and speckled with intermittent rain, which made us cold and tired. About two-thirds done with the ride, I can’t tell you the utter joy with which we pulled into the Builin Blasta coffee shop. The waiter asked how we were and I said, “Cold. Very cold.” He said, “Yeah, bike riding in Ireland — brilliant idea.” I had a curried chicken salad sandwich and a rather unusual dessert: chocolate beetroot brownie. I love beetroot, so I was intrigued. It was basically just a brownie that had little chunks of beetroot the way others might have chunks of extra chocolate or nuts. It had a really nice depth of flavor. Often when chocolate desserts are inexpertly prepared they taste one-note, but this had an earthy sweetness and slight tang. I would have preferred the beets pureed and folded in for textural reasons, but otherwise it was really unusual and delicious.
After we return, rest and shower, we eat dinner and visit a bar called The Quays (we were on Quay Street, which I think means “Street Street”) (also didn’t know how to pronounce it correctly until some time last year: key). Our bartender, Paddy McKenna (could I have made up a more Irish name?) was a jovial fellow. J drank her Guinness and I drank my Bulmer’s pear cider. Paddy tells us the Guinness tastes better in Ireland because it’s free- and fast-flowing. Any self-respecting Irishman would not suffer a pint in a foreign country because it tends to taste stale (here I drew a very wry comparison to movie-theater popcorn).
J was looking to do a shot but was scared by the Jameson. Paddy suggests something called a Baby Guinness — Kahlua with a floater of Bailey’s (or vice versa). It really does look like a little pint. J liked it a lot, but kept saying, “I’ll have to remember this when I go home: Kahlua and Guinness!” I hope she never actually asks for that.
The next day we headed back to Dublin. Nothing remarkable before the train ride. J had coffee while I walked around the shops one last time. I stared longingly, lovingly at the pink and white meringue confections in the sweets shop. They never had any fresh ones to sell me, only stale ones to taunt me.
That night, J and I eat at a place called East Korea (West seems more geographically correct), and have the prix-fixe. It was decent. I had beef chun (pancakes) and bibimbap (rice hot pot). For dessert? Oddly, it was cheesecake.
There was a bit of confusion over the tip. Our bill was €42 and all I had was a five note. J said, “You’re going to leave five? Let me get some change.” Then she puts down a €2 coin. There is some more awkward miscommunication between us and we leave. Turns out I thought she meant, “You’re only leaving €5?” when what she really meant was, “Isn’t €5 too much?” I suppose it is worthwhile to investigate the tipping policies of a foreign country beforehand.
After dinner we went back to The Duke for a last drink. We proudly tell the bartender from Monday night that we won the t-shirt from the pub crawl. J and I are sitting next to two guys who start to chat us up. One guy, B, is a farmer from Mayo and proudly shows us photos from his phone of all his cows. I asked if he’d name his next male cow F____.
“There aren’t any male cows.”
“Right, the cows are female. What about the next bull?”
“We don’t name the bulls.”
“Because we eat them.”
Too quickly the day of departure is here. At the airport, I have about €20 to use up before boarding, but instead of getting food and snacks at one of the dozens of shops above ground, I wait until I pass through customs (generally a one-way street). A sign promises a food stand, but when I get there, it is disappointingly limited. I keep buying this and that until I’ve used nearly €17. I spy a vending machine and drop €3 on some Cadbury’s. I feel fairly satisfied that I won’t have more than €1 in change left over, but after rummaging through my bag I find an errant fiver. I can’t possibly buy anything else at the food counter, so I pocket it.
The plane ride to Atlanta is pleasant enough. The hot meal looks very unappetizing so I eat a few of my candy bars. I make the egregious mistake of asking for a cup of tea. It was the most revolting thing I have ever put to my lips. I can’t be sure how it’s made, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was instant tea that is heated up. Well, that’s life in coach: no tea pot for the untouchables.
A few days into a vacation and it’s hard to remember life outside of it. A few days after a vacation and it’s hard to believe you ever had one. Why is that? Did I do, feel or see anything so unlike my old life? No, but I suppose the very nature of travel is that it throws out your usual routine, which seems just that: routine. Lifeless. Shadow puppets with nothing behind them. Sometimes I wonder what will become of my life without realizing that I’m becoming it.
Here’s to you, Ireland: land of friendly strangers, winding streets and a million and one pubs. Sláinte!