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February 07, 2005

Eating Our Way Through Ireland

On February 2 I left South Hadley in the ice and snow and arrived in Dublin where the lawn is being mowed and the cherry blossoms have burst open. People say that spring starts in February. I guess so! Days are longer with the sun well up by 9AM. The sun is getting higher in the sky, blinding when you walk into it, warming your back as you walk away. The temperature is in the 40’s, and I gather that March may bring colder weather back again. But, for now, I am further north than you all at home and clearly into spring.

After a wonderful three weeks with Anne and Jesse and the twins, I am back in Ireland. Mark planned a trip for us in order to take the sting out of baby separation, and we headed south to Cork the morning I arrived. Not having had complete nights of sleep in a while, I felt sure I would adjust quickly to the 5 hour time change. The first day was rough, though, and one way to cope was to eat meal after meal after meal. We stopped part way down in Cashel, a town that is built up around the rock so-named. rock of cashel.jpg
Many ruins still stand around Ireland. We often see a remnant of castle wall in the middle of a field, and portions of old church walls are incorporated in newer buildings. But, the Rock of Cashel with its round tower, castle and cathedral is the focal point of this town, and shops, pubs and homes have clustered around its base for hundreds of years. cashel houses.jpgcashel houses 2.jpg

We had loved exploring the castle four years ago, and we decided to have a special lunch nearby. We were not surprised to find that our chosen restaurant was not open. In this case, they are remodeling during the off-season. It is great to travel here quietly in the off-season – except that many things turn out to be closed down. We shrugged, asked a passer-by for a recommendation, and had a lovely, rich Irish stew in a pub nearby - and I had my first fresh Guinness in 8 weeks.

We made good time down to Cork, even as the highway slowed to a crawl through village centers. We aimed to beat the forecasted rain and hustled out to walk the port city. river lee.jpg
City centre is an island in the middle of the River Lee, and the northern part of the city rises steeply away from the river. alley up.jpg Some of the narrow alleys accommodate the little cars, and some are for pedestrians. alley down.jpgThe British used most of Ireland’s wood centuries ago to build their navy so most houses were necessarily made of stone and plaster. Whitewash has given way to cheery colors, which seem especially welcome on grey days. colored houses.jpg Quickly fading, again, it seemed to be time for another feeding, and we were lucky to have an amazing vegetarian dinner at Le Café Paradiso, touted as one of the best veggie restaurants in Europe. We tried to remember the interesting combinations of ingredients with varied textures and flavors. The Portobello mushrooms with crispy, crushed nuts atop were the highlight until dessert arrived – limono paradiso or supremo or ultima (whatever, sensational) – a perfect contrast to the dinner proper – four miniature lemon treats - canoli, tart, cake and sherbet. This restaurant came into being some 20 years ago, quite an adventurous attempt in this carnivorous county. Now Cork is famous for its exceptional and varied dining options. It is also famous for its English Market, a collection of food stalls in a large, U-shaped passageway in city centre. We found (chewy, amazingly) sourdough bread, garlic olives and local cheese, aged some 14 years. Were we ourselves local, we would have bought fresh fish as well. The English Market was originally named such because they supplied meat to the British navy – and offal to the Irish. We could also have taken home a nice hunk of tripe or drisheen.

Friday was conference day, “The World After 9/11,” where Mark spoke at University College Cork UCC.jpgabout the roots of the conservatism we see much of in US government these days. As I was included in the lunch before and the dinner after (Did we do anything other than eat?), I felt a certain obligation to attend the conference as well. It turned out to be quite interesting. I noticed one member of the audience in particular, who was responding in a lively fashion. She would nod her head, make notes, chuckle at asides and even raised questions. How un-Irish! And, of course, she wasn’t Irish. We met her afterwards, and Liz turned out to be an American professor of history at UC Cork who had, along with her husband, moved to Ireland some 30-odd years ago. We quickly realized that, though we did not know each other, we had actually both gone to Vassar at the same time and had even lived in the same dorm. I enjoyed hearing about her life choices and, in particular, how Ireland has changed over the last 30 years. When we bumped into her and her husband the next morning at the bread stall in the English Market, it was like running into an old friend.

Our good fortune with the weather continued Saturday morning and into the afternoon,canal.jpg and Mark and I strolled over to the art museum at the university to take in the Irish Craft Council's 40 Shades of Green. We drooled over some wooden bowls, dyed and inlaid with dots of silver.cherry blossoms.jpg Shortly we took to the open roads again. We headed for Yeoghal (as in “Y’all come back.”) only to find, no surprise, that the pottery there was not open, despite the open sign and the listing that indicated it would be open. We stopped by Yeoghal's harbor and sucked in the brisk salt air, harbor.jpg and looked across the calm bay to the headland. Yeoghal head.jpgFrom there we decided to head more directly to our destination for the day and night, Ballymaloe House. We traveled along unmarked, narrow roads, fortunately not meeting much traffic coming the other way. Did we see one car? High hedgerows meant we couldn’t see the surrounding area, but we were able to stop at one widened section of road and climb up to see out over the farmlands and to the sea. hedgerow view.jpg
We buzzed by Stephen Pierce’s pottery (actually, more of a factory these days) and stopped abruptly, just one driveway past a sign for Micky Donovan’s pottery. A quick turn-around and we pulled in where Micky was wiring lamps he had built. As we exited his little shop, we started chatting with him – and, seemingly out of the blue, he asked whether we knew of Nantucket. It turns out that he is the ill-fated potter who briefly had a shop down the side street by the Dreamland Theatre on Nantucket. What a small world. At that point, then, we had to make a purchase. We left the large pots with raised sperm whales in his shop and brought home with us two lovely, simple bowls in his trademark matte, sandy glaze.

Once more we were on the road to Ballymaloe, only getting waylaid one more time as we ended up at the cooking school rather than the country house. I was considerably cowed as we pulled up to the former castle now just a manor house. house through trees.jpg
ballymaloe.jpg What were we doing in such fine surroundings?

We were quickly put at our ease by the family staff who make a point of being friendly and welcoming. Amazed that the rain was still holding off, we left our worldly goods in The Blue Room (our bedroom that looked out on to the gardens) and drive.jpgstrolled around the grounds, poultry.jpgwhich include the working farm (and our dinner, still alive), golf course.jpga short golf course, tennis and swimming pool. Snow drops blossomed in clumps. rhododendrun.jpgDaffodils and rhododendron were getting underway. Had the trees begun to leaf, it would have really seemed like spring. sunset.jpg
The colorful sunset gave us hope for the morrow, and that evening we heard a new version of “Red sky at night” where shepherds, not sailors, are looking to good weather in the morning.sunset 2.jpg

The Allen family is famous for its cooking, using fresh local produce, fish and meat, and Mark and I were bowled over by the fabulous 5 course dinner we were treated to. Mark’s favorite moment may have been when the waitress came over and asked him if he would like seconds – or perhaps it was the sampling of unusual, local cheeses before dessert. My favorite moment was the soup, both Mark’s and mine – mine was Jerusalem artichoke and mushroom with hazelnuts sprinkled on top, and Mark’s was a creamy pea with coriander and chili. After dinner we walked out under the stars, returning shortly to the drawing room where we settled down in comfortable stuffed chairs to listen to traditional (well, not really – more folky/pop) musicians and a poet reading her work. We were among about 20 other guests. We were the sole Americans among mostly Irish - a staid, upper crusty couple whose toes tapped lightly to the music, a flamboyant gay couple, youthful yuppies, and two couples from the neighboring county Kerry who were splurging celebrating one of their 58th birthdays. There was also an unusual trio - a hip young Englishman with, perhaps, his mother along with his Jamaican partner. Everyone sipped Guinness, coffee, brandy or port and hung around for quite some tiime. We headed to bed hours later and listened to the confused rooster out back announce the time.

On Sunday morning the fine weather persisted, and, after a tasty breakfast with farm fresh eggs and warm, chewy (Again! Wow!) raisin bread, we left for the beach in Ballynamona. (Bally, by the way, is the English version of the Irish word baille [pronounced, “bah-lyeh”] which means town - hence, many Irish towns start with Bally.) beach.jpgIt was low tide and the cold wind blowing across the flats was the first wintry chill we had had. towards lighthouse.jpg After we drove up the winding, steep, narrow streets to the top of the cliffs in Ballycotton, we decided it was time to head back to Dublin.

We drove the southern coast road east through rolling farmlands and then headed north through Waterford. We made a quick pit stop at Jerpoint Abbey, a lovely Cistercian abbey on the main (but you know what that means now) highway back to Dublin. jerpoint.jpg My favorite carved figures looked none the worse for wear since four years ago. saints.jpgThey just sit there, those saints, quite chipper on the end of the tomb.

Within an hour of Dublin, pouring rain greeted us, and we knew the party was over. We were safely back at Shanagarry before dark, and the time had come to really settle back in to our life in Ireland.

The weather gods have given me a gift since. It has cleared again and, along with it, my spirits. Mark and I are looking forward to the visitors who have planned to come this spring. Ireland is a place to be experienced, not viewed from afar. Prepare yourselves to wander the countryside, meet friendly people and eat good food!

Posted by gretchen at February 7, 2005 07:04 PM


lovely photographs.... and once again, thank you for including me in your travels...

cherry blossoms! truly a gift in february.

Posted by: meripuccio at February 9, 2005 04:59 AM

Damn! You are making me homesick! I'll be over at the end of the month to test your tension levels. Great pictures and narrative. Jack

Posted by: Jack Monaghan at February 9, 2005 06:59 AM