No joke: Ire­land serves culi­nary de­lights

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Travel - Rick Steves Rick Steves (www.rick­steves .com) writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on pub­lic tele­vi­sion and pub­lic ra­dio. Email him at [email protected] steves.com and fol­low his blog on Face­book.

Ir­ish cui­sine has long been the fod­der of jokes — a kind of penance to suf­fer through in or­der to en­joy the peo­ple, mu­sic and lush scenery of the Emer­ald Isle. But that’s an out­dated no­tion: Trav­el­ers to­day find fresh, in­ven­tive, fla­vor­ful meals there — and many Ir­ish towns are work­ing to es­tab­lish them­selves as foodie des­ti­na­tions.

Long con­sid­ered the land of pota­toes, Ire­land’s diet once re­flected the coun­try’s dire eco­nomic cir­cum­stances. Though pota­toes are still im­por­tant here, there’s no longer a re­liance on them, and mod­ern Ir­ish menus of­ten re­place pota­toes with rice or pasta.

And Ire­land has much more to of­fer: Its beef, lamb and dairy prod­ucts are among the EU’s best. Streams full of trout and sal­mon and easy ac­cess to salt­wa­ter fish and shell­fish mean a bounty of seafood. With th­ese fine in­gre­di­ents, Ir­ish chefs work hard to put their cui­sine on the map. Ex­pa­tri­ates have come home with newly re­fined tastes, and im­mi­grants have added a world of in­ter­est­ing fla­vors.

When I’m in Ire­land, I like to start my day with an old-fash­ioned “Ir­ish Fry” (or an “Ul­ster Fry” in the North). It’s a tasty re­minder of Ire­land’s worka­day roots. This big fried break­fast — tra­di­tion­ally what farm work­ers ate to get them through a day in the fields un­til din­ner — is jok­ingly re­ferred to as a “heart at­tack on a plate.” With eggs, ba­con, sausage, a grilled tomato, sauteed mush­rooms and op­tional black pud­ding (sausage made from pig’s blood), it’s no light fare. To top it off, it’s Din­gle, a pop­u­lar foodie des­ti­na­tion in Ire­land, hosts the Din­gle Food Fes­ti­val each year dur­ing the first week­end of Oc­to­ber, fea­tur­ing ev­ery­thing from Rus­sian borscht to kan­ga­roo skew­ers in a huge and im­pres­sive cel­e­bra­tion. Ire­land’s cui­sine is mod­ern and art­ful, and chefs take pride in their cre­ative use of lo­cal in­gre­di­ents.

served with juice, tea or cof­fee, ce­real and toast with but­ter and marmalade.

Th­ese days, few Ir­ish folks start their day with such a feast (and thank­fully it’s easy to find healthy al­ter­na­tives in Ire­land), but in­dulging in the oc­ca­sional

fry-up is one of the joys of my trips here.

Be sure to try each re­gion’s culi­nary spe­cialty. Gal­way is fa­mous for its oys­ters (with an an­nual oys­ter and seafood fes­ti­val), Kerry and Din­gle have ex­cel­lent lamb, and County

Wex­ford claims the best straw­ber­ries (grab some from a road­side stand in spring or sum­mer). And all across Ire­land, you’ll en­counter tra­di­tional del­i­ca­cies like tripe and black pud­ding. Th­ese kinds of quirky foods come from the off-cuts of meat — and the Ir­ish proudly turn the trim­mings into del­i­ca­cies.

A good menu in­cor­po­rates lo­cal and sea­sonal in­gre­di­ents. Th­ese days, you’ll find ev­ery­thing from risotto, to tapas, to Asian­fu­sion dishes on the menu. Restau­rants typ­i­cally pro­vide a three-course menu, a good-value early bird spe­cial and the re­gional spe­cial­ties.

When it comes to pub grub, th­ese days it can be Ire­land’s best eat­ing value. This hearty com­fort food is served in friendly sur­round­ings for about $20 a plate. Pub menus con­sist of tra­di­tional dishes, such as Ir­ish stew (mut­ton with

mashed pota­toes, onions, car­rots and herbs), fis­hand-chips, bangers-and­mash (sausages and mashed pota­toes) and cod­dle (ba­con, pork sausages, pota­toes and onions stewed in lay­ers). In Dublin, you can en­joy your Guin­ness stew along­side tra­di­tional mu­sic, with ex­pe­ri­ences like the Mu­si­cal Pub Crawl Din­ner show. The ven­er­a­ble Brazen Head pub also hosts a “Food, Folk­lore, and Fairies” evening (more cul­tur­ally high­brow than it sounds), where a fill­ing three-course meal is punc­tu­ated by soul­ful Ir­ish his­tory and fas­ci­nat­ing Ir­ish mythol­ogy, with oc­ca­sional live trad tunes in be­tween.

Kin­sale, in the south of Ire­land, is one of the coun­try’s gourmet cap­i­tals, of­fer­ing a sat­is­fy­ing mix of up­scale tra­di­tional fare and cre­ative mod­ern cui­sine. Lo­cal com­pe­ti­tion is fierce, and restau­rants of­fer in­ven­tive, tempt­ing menus. In the ever-chang­ing restau­rant scene, it’s worth a short stroll to as­sess your op­tions, from cheap and cheery to white-table­cloth ele­gant. In this sea­far­ing town, seafood is king.

The most pop­u­lar restau­rant in town is Fishy Fishy Cafe, buzzing with the en­ergy of happy din­ers sa­vor­ing a taste of the sea. You have to love a restau­rant that dis­plays photos of the peo­ple who catch its fish.

In coastal towns like Kin­sale, I look for seafood chow­der, pan-fried hake and banof­fee pie (made with ba­nanas, cream and tof­fee). Ire­land’s fa­mous cake­like, dense soda bread com­ple­ments th­ese meals won­der­fully.

Din­gle is an­other pop­u­lar foodie des­ti­na­tion with eclec­tic eat­ing ex­pe­ri­ences in a charm­ing sea­side set­ting. Dur­ing the first week­end of Oc­to­ber, the Din­gle Food Fes­ti­val fea­tures ev­ery­thing from Rus­sian borscht to kan­ga­roo skew­ers in a huge and im­pres­sive cel­e­bra­tion of food. Pubs and restau­rants serve up sig­na­ture dishes from tents around town, and thou­sands min­gle through Din­gle’s col­or­ful streets en­joy­ing some of Ire­land’s finest and most cre­ative bites.

Long gone are the days when Ir­ish food was some­thing you ate to sur­vive rather than to sa­vor. To­day, eat­ing in Ire­land is a re­ward­ing cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence — and the se­cret is get­ting out, so make reser­va­tions for any restau­rant you want to en­joy. Come hun­gry, and take ad­van­tage of the foodie de­lights Ire­land is serv­ing up.

JES­SICA SHAW PHOTOS

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