Photo by Maria Streshinsky
My mother has no problem flying off to India or China by herself, but Ireland was a direct connection to her Irish roots, and clearly she wanted to go there with family. I kept promising, but Ireland seemed so, well, tame. Calm. Mellow. All that green and all those cows and of course all those potatoes. Cuisine is an important part of travel, and my potato pangs were never strong enough to make me call Aer Lingus. Then I got invited to fly to Ireland to speak at a conference. Voila! I would finally take Mom to see her father's country.
My daughter--my blue-eyed daughter with her black eyelashes, clearly a genetic gift from her Irish granddad--finally called this summer and said, "Pack light, we're heading for Ireland. Belfast first, but then we'll swing down to Dublin and over to the west coast." I felt a sudden flutter of anxiety, which I credited to preconceived notions from my voluble, charming Irish-American relatives. What if the real thing disappointed me? And, saints forbid, what if all they had to eat was potatoes and soda bread, exactly the kind of carbs my mountain-climbing daughter prefers to avoid?
Forget my naïve notion that this was going to be a totally spud trip: Ireland is officially now my favorite place for food.
Why are Moms always right? After one night of pub crawling in Ireland, forget tame. Calm and mellow applies intermittently, along with intensely green hills decorated with cows and sheep. And forget my naïve notion that this was going to be a totally spud trip: Ireland is officially now my favorite place for food. The cheese, the lamb, the fish, the chocolate. And the bread, oh my god the bread. Every restaurant, pub, hotel, inn, has its own recipe. Oat, curry, loaves of great grainy fresh bread. In Ireland, a day without bread is like a day without air. And potatoes! At every dinner, at least three different kinds. Yes, three. Usually including the celebrated "mash"-- potatoes mashed with parsnips, apples, onions, or garlic, sometimes carrots, and at least once enough parsley to turn it bright green--served beneath a tasty cut of meat. I had to take to the early morning streets of Belfast to run it all off.
Maria and I first heard about Good Food Ireland after we had arrived, when we found ourselves at a food festival, outside of Belfast, sponsored by a non-profit group dedicated to local ingredient, and the freshest of foods. An all-island network brings together farmers, fishermen, and food producers; the Web site Good Food Ireland offers a map of members and places that offer their products. At the event, we saw a semicircle of stalls offering an amazement of foodstuffs. First off: Mussels, prawns, oysters. A smiling Irishman caught my eye, deftly opened an oyster for me, quickly sauted it, and laughed out loud as I melted with pleasure.
I glanced around for Maria, to tell her she had to try these oysters, and glimpsed her drinking something that looked like a tiny glass of Guinness. It turned out to be an astonishing beef stew, served as an appetizer. Its creator, chef Noel McMeel, one of Ireland's rising young stars, would turn up later in our trip at Lough-Erne Golf Resort, at Enniskillen in Fermanagh, where his day job is chef. He knocked our socks off with a dinner that included grass-fed Kettyle Irish beef from a breed of cattle reared on farms throughout the island. Back at the Good Food Ireland event, Pat O'Doherty, a purveyor of specialty fine meats and also from Inniskillen, confronted me with a sample of his Fermanagh Black Bacon. It made me think of a phrase my Greataunt Mag used to describe anything good: "As Irish as Paddy's pig."