Well, today this blog hits the big 40 (40 entries). I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to all those who’ve encouraged, promoted, heckled, badgered, battered, belittled, and bemoaned this blog. But most of all, I’d like to thank those who’ve cared enough about this topic to comment on and often correct what’s written here.
Now, on to the “meat and taters” –
Dining in Ireland has been simultaneously fantastic, disastrous, and downright baffling. Not that we’ve been here that long, but in the last half a dozen years the landscape of Irish dining has changed drastically. The Celtic Tiger brought with it an influx of high-end bistros and artisanal purveyors. Irish palates dutifully followed along. Then came the crash and many of those businesses folded. Not so the palates. About this same time, as fortunes waned, many people began to drink at home. Pubs felt the crunch and responded with up-market changes that have included better wine cellars and dedicated dining rooms. This upped the ante for restaurants and markets, who’ve fought gamely to remain competitive. The result is that, on balance, Irish dining (in 2012) is quite good. That said, as with all things in life, there have been some good and some not so good surprises on our table over the past year.
Pub Grub Redux
Having tucked into plates of fish and chips and bowls of coddle at Irish pubs back in the U.S., I was pleasantly surprised by the state of pub grub across Ireland. While many pubs still only offer liquid sustenance, quite a few (and at least one in every town) will offer some kind of food. Today, it’s not uncommon to find pubs offering a huge variety of dishes, early bird bargains, tasting courses, vegetarian options, and decent wine selections. The result is that a night at the pub need not be relegated to an experience just for the lads. Women and families are made to feel welcome these days. This was not the case in the not-so-distant past. And, I believe, this is one of Ireland’s biggest concessions to the downturn economy. It’ll be interesting to see if this persists in better times, or if the pubs go back to being mostly for men.
For Meat Eaters
As I never really gave it much thought beforehand, it’s hard to say that the state of Irish meat was a “surprise”. But suffice it to say that I’ve been duly impressed with most things carnivore on the Emerald Isle.
On the whole, Ireland’s best and most consistent meat seems to be the lamb. I’ve found it to be flavorful, tender, juicy, and, well, the little buggers are everywhere, so it’s been reasonably priced.
The beef has, likewise, been much more lean and flavorful than I’d have expected. As an American, I harbor a certain excess of pride in Midwestern cattle that I now know is unwarranted. Irish beef has been flavorful, and, as a disabled (one-handed) steak cutter, mercifully tender.
Overall, the chops, loins, and other non-sausage pork products have been tender, easy to work with, and flavorful. But, when it comes to Irish sausage, I have to say again (even knowing that I run the risk of an Irish fatwa for saying it), Irish sausage is pretty bland and taste-free stuff. I know this was one of the original Five Things I Hate About Dublin. And, yes, I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that: I’m wrong, I’ll get used to it, and I just don’t “understand” Irish sausage. And, while I’ve grown to like Irish “bacon” (rashers), and do now get the appeal of that pork product, please bear with me as I reopen my can of whoop ass on Irish sausage.
To the apologists who’ve tried to tell me that Irish sausage is actually better than the American style sausage because it preferences actual meat over spices, I say, bushwah. A conversation with your butcher, or even a casual glance at store packages, reveals that Irish sausages are jammed full of oats and other non-meat fillers. It’s the taste they’ve grown accustomed to, and was more than likely a practical way to fill the casings when times (as they so often have been in Ireland) were tough. There’s no harm in that. I get it. But don’t try to tell me Irish sausage (and I’ve tried plenty at this point) is better because it’s full of meaty goodness.
Okay, now we can invite the vegetarians back into the room.
Of Things Green & Over Packaged
One of the biggest surprises in Irish food culture has been the consistently high quality of the fruit and veg. Granted we’ve had to get used to the fact that many of the tropical products come from North Africa, Spain, and the Mediterranean (and not Florida, California, and Central/South America), but beyond that, the variety and quality have been quite good.
Particular standouts have been Irish strawberries (mostly from Wexford), and Irish carrots (from God knows where). As your faithful reporter, I’ve tried to pin down the source of these tasty morsels, but have failed. If anyone out there knows whence cometh the Irish carrot (the source of the divine Irish carrot coriander soup), I’d appreciate your sharing it in the comments section.
And, while I generally don’t buy into the “organic is better” myth anymore (because companies like Wal-Mart are hard at work cornering the organic market these days), I have been surprised at the lack of organic choices in most grocery stores.
Perhaps it’s a certification issue, and most purveyors are in fact organic, but not certified. But I find it odd that in a country so concerned about food safety that many products are double and triple packaged for our protection, and then proudly labeled as locally grown in Ireland, when scant effort is made to qualify the state of the growers or processing facilities.
And, finally, we come to the Irish potato myth. Friends, I’m here to tell you that it’s no myth. If you spend enough time in Ireland, you’ll be offered potatoes with your Thai food (or Chinese, or Indian, or Italian). You’ll be offered potatoes as a side. And when your plate is delivered, your main dish and side of potatoes will come with a whipped potato garnish, or one of the veggies in your “mixed vegetables” will be roasted potatoes. It’s just the way of the world here.
Fortunately, these folks know how to work a spud. The variety of Irish potatoes and the many ways they can be prepared is truly impressive.
Shortly after we arrived last summer, I overheard a flock of older women shoppers at my local supermarket. They were raving about the arrival of “the queens”, and all the things they could/would do with them, and “Oh, my David just loves his queens”, etc.
‘This must be Gay Pride weekend’, thought I.
Pathetic? Yes. I was. For that was before I discovered the wonder that is the British Queen Potato (and Irish Roosters, etc.). And, as a parting thought, if you are ever offered potatoes roasted in duck fat: Run, don’t walk, to the table.
So, if you are thinking of visiting Ireland, but fear the food, I’m here to tell you the food alone is worth the trip. And for anyone considering moving to another country, but afraid of what the change will do to your diet, I say that if you are bold enough to confront the other challenges of emigration, a year from now you will most likely view figuring out the food supply as one of your many unexpected rewards for taking the risk.
Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
Comforts From Home
Looking Back On the First Year