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."
Mom got waylaid by the seafood, so I headed for the desserts and all those chocolate truffles and juicy sweet Wexford strawberries and rhubarb pie, but along the way I was abducted by the cheeses. Irish Farmstead Cheeses ("available in America!" one little sign said) with names like Cooleeney and Carrigaline and Cashel Blue. Hard and soft, sweet and pungent, cheeses made from cows and sheep and goats that, judging by the taste, must be coddled and adored, virtually made members of the family. I would learn that The Adrahan Farmhouse Cheese Company produces its Lullaby Milk by milking its cows in the dark of the very early morning, when their owners contend the product has higher levels of melatonin, and retains "all its natural goodness and creaminess." The Ardshallagh Goat Farm produces soft, fresh goat cheeses that you can eat soon after it is produced, and a hard version that ages for four months.
Maria and I didn't spend all of our time in Ireland eating; we took the Black Taxi "Troubles" tour of Belfast, covering the places that figured largely in the conflict that scarred Northern Ireland for most of the last half of the 20th century. We drove through lovely rolling green farmlands, climbed stairs to view the Cliffs of Moher and look down on the crashing seas below. We walked among graves high on the hill at the 6th century Monastery at Clonmacnois, by the river Shannon. We stayed the night in a fine castle, drank our share of Guinness, had an elegant barbecue at the edge of a lake, at a place called the Wineport Lodge in County Westmeath, where the night was so soft and the moon so full that a dozen of us, Irish and not, sat around picnic tables and sang songs until two in the morning. "Disappointed?" my daughter asked rhetorically. I could only smile, such was my pleasure.
At Ashford Castle, in County Mayo, I left Mom to explore the grounds and the building, which dates to 1228, and scurried off to try my hand at falconry. Carrying a Harris hawk high on my gloved arm, I released it at the falconer's command. The bird soared above the trees, but each time it flew back to light on my arm, and I rewarded it with a morsel of meat.
The falconer had warned me, "They never come back because they are attached to you. They come back for the food." He was clear about it: forget the sentiment, it's all about the food.
I get that.