by Max Brantley
I wish I'd had Belly Boy along as photographer on my recent trip to Ireland. His photo work is so much better than mine. But I'm still going to indulge myself and share some of the snaps. Food is a great deal improved across-the-board in Ireland since my first visit 20 years ago. Gastropubs abound. Butcher shops advertise the individual farmer who supplied that day's lamb, beef and pork. Irish cheeses are artisanal quality. The brown bread is universally excellent. At top are steamed mussels reaped in the flats off Ballyvaughan along with a basket of bread and the favorite local beverage. (Though I also tried Murphy's and Beamish stouts on other stops.)
We had some traditional fare, too, such as (below) cabbage and bacon:
And shepherd's pie ....
And boy did we like open-faced sandwiches, a staple in pubs, such as this crabmeat and smoked salmon combo in Cliffden:
We also saw quite a few servings of psychedelically green mushy peas, particuarly as a side dish to fish and chips. But we only saw them. We just can't abide eating this staple of the British isles. The fried fish -- giant slabs encased in crunchy batter -- was another, pleasing matter altogether.
Unfortunately, as you can probably tell, overcooking of other vegetables was typical in the "traditional" restaurants. But at fancier dining rooms, where a plate of steamed vegetables always accompanied the main courses, the snap peas, carrots and broccoli frequently had a little crunch. And the potatoes were always good. Sometimes, you'd get potatoes prepared two or three ways as a side -- scalloped, roasted, mashed and boiled.
Also always good were the pubs. Pricing was pretty uniform. A pint of creamy Guinness -- drawn in a two- or three-step process so the foam settled into a thick, creamy head -- cost about $3.50 in Euros, or about $5. A tot of Irish whiskey was perhaps 2.50 Euro, unless it was one of the rising number of single-malts. Midleton's, which costs more than 100 Euros a bottle, seems to be the acknowledged high-end leader. I bought one shot of it -- for 16 Euros -- to accompany our final big meal, a lobster and salmon feast in Gaby's in Killarney.
Our best drive was around the Dingle peninsula, where we stumbled on a seafood shack, Out of the Blue, that proudly advertised that it sold no fried fish or chips and only sold seafood fresh from the dock that day. No seafood, no menu. The day's menu we encountered is shown here. I had a plate of oysters and some fine grilled fish. Below are the sweet and moist giant prawns Ellen ordered. It was one place in Ireland that did NOT sell Guinness. We had to make do with wine, muscadet, I think.
Finally, I wanted to mention the ubiquitous Irish breakfast. Eggs, bacon (more like slices of ham), sausage, a grilled tomato, sauteed mushrooms, white pudding, black pudding and toast. About the puddings, which are sliced from cylinders like sausage and the discs pan-fried: I really liked it. It's akin to Irish boudin. The grain filler seems to be oats, rather than rice. There's a strong jolt of sage and white pepper in the seasoning (plus blood in the black pudding), but whatever pork parts are used in the making of it aren't particularly gamey. I grew quite attached to the stuff before my trip was over. They sell it in airport shops, but a big sign said its import into the U.S. was prohibited. A pity.