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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Ireland: Travel treat! (part 3: Back in Dublin)

Continued from previous post: "If Cork is a crock of preserved traditions with a layer of butter on top, Dublin’s dish seems to be the proverbial melting pot.

Take for instance the iconic cabbie’s late-night pub dinner — the Dublin coddle, a stew of sausages, bacon, potatoes (but of course!), perhaps cabbage in hearty broth. It’s legendary, it’s everywhere, but everywhere it’s different and at the small local pubs, it’s hardly found!

What you can find in this early-to-rise city is breakfast.

Peak hour of traffic in this city scarier than Delhi for pedestrians blithe disregard of the lights is around 8am — around then, give or take an hour, that office-goers roll in or stroll along pulling their wheelies behind (no, not ultra-preppie tourists, as I first thought; just the white-collar workforce). And while the early houses are pouring for the night shift (they will soon be homeward bound after the mandatory post-work pint), thebreakfast joints are sweeping their doormats in welcome.

My early-morning stroll catches a royal start — at the diminutive Queen of Tarts opposite Dublin Castle. As I sit down to a pot of tea and a slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie at 7.30, the staff bustle in the kitchen. Soon, the counters are groaning (top picture) with steaming raspberry and blueberry and apple-cinnamon scones, meringue-topped lemon tarts big enough to fall face-down in, gingerbread ladies and babies — and I groan my remorse: why didn’t I wait to choose?

But I’ll be back for evening tea, and breakfast again…

Next day’s find prevents me from straying too far from 'home' (the O’Callaghan’s Alexander), though — across from the imposing gates of the Government Buildings, past Oscar Wilde’s House and his perch in the Merrion Square park, Itsabagel hides down the lane. The bagel houses of Dublin, I’m told, opened up for the building crews (our chauffeur and self-appointed Dublin guide Jimmy jokes that the crane is Ireland’s new national bird — seeing it arcing above the horizon tells him that the Celtic Tiger’s prowling jauntily below). This, however, is the grand-daddy of them all — coming over from across the Atlantic in pumpernickel, plain, sesame, poppy, onion, cinnamon, herb and mixed varieties, as well as an ‘everything’ avatar for the terminally undecided. My picks of the pack: Itsareuben, oozing sweet onion sauce over pastrami and the lovely oak-smoky Knockanore cheese from Sheridan’s.

Sheridan who? The cheesemonger brothers Seamus and Kevin from Galway, that’s who.

Joined by Fiona Corbett, they opened up shop a decade ago in Dublin — first a stall at the Temple Bar Market on Saturdays; then, with the gourmands and gourmets hooked, a piquant-perfumed little store in the heart of the city, sandwiched between the administrative and shopping districts. So people now roll in for a sandwich lunch, with a slice of pickle, a pot of olives or some Spanish membrillo to go with the Manchego at dinner. Plus, now they showcase not only the best farmhouse cheeses of Ireland but also the smoked and cured meats or fish that individual farmers and small holdings have diversified or shifted into.

This isn’t where you go for the porter-veined Porterhouse or the cranberry-embedded Wensleydale ‘novelties’; this is the seat of some of the most prized unpasteurised cows’ milk, ewes’ milk and goat’s cheeses in the country. On tiers of straw mats repose wheels and hemispheres of pungent Ardrahan, the addictive Cashel blue, the ticklish Clonmore, the Sbrinz-y Gabriel, the startlingly mellow Wicklow Blue Brie, the earthy washed-rind Durrus, smoky-sweet Gubbeen. And raw-milk Cooleeney, specially matured for Sheridan’s by cheesemaker Brenda Maher, as well as the extra-mature 10kg wheel of Coolea retailing at over Euro 200. Oh, and they have English, French, Dutch, Greek, Spanish, Swiss and Italian wheels and wedges and logs too. Ditto charcuterie and condiments.

This is not just a speciality shop for the rich and self-indulgent foodie, however. They are the last word in quality casein. The wholesale list has 25 pages, printed in 8-point Times Roman.

You’ll find slices of the stuff turning up at the best food halls. For instance, at Avoca, where I stop for lunch on my very first day in Dublin. But the day’s dessert special chases all thought of a humble sandwich or ploughman’s from my mind — blueberry crème brulée.

I’m not very hungry (jetlag has confused the tummy clock), so I figure a small peck of either sweet or savoury will fill me up enough. Especially as I’ve promised me tarts for tea (from the aforementioned Queen herself). The brulée is face-sized, though, and no genteel ramekin. It’s also enhanced with a scoop of mixed berries on top, and a B-I-G blob of cream on the side, with a giant and gorgeously ripe strawberry. It would be impolite not to do justice to this perfect confection — golden crust sharply cracking under the tap of the spoon, oozing caramel-scented berry-enrobing custard. So no, the soup I had contemplated post-shop is out; but I fill my basket with their award-winning champagne-strawberry jelly — they’re out of the coveted blackberry-Guinness, though.

By evening, I’m glad I skipped soup and tea both (the tiny Queen was overpowered by the Trinity and touristy crowds on this Sunday afternoon, especially with a game of hurling underway in the big stadium). Because of the seafood at Johnnie Fox’s pub — the highest in Ireland, overlooking the sea in the distance as it sits amidst pasturelands. A hoary 210 years old, is Johnnie. It shows — in the initially scary array of sharp farm implements pinned to the roof (we’re reassured that not one has fallen on a diner yet), the collection of bicycles and bikes (including one lovely rattan specimen) hanging off the ceiling of one room, and the old fireplace beside which we dine. Portraits of litterateurs, political icons, war heroes and citations, newspaper clippings all line the walls higgledy-piggledy. And a line of washing, from a man’s fleecy drawers to a baby’s bonnet, bib and booties, sidles homily along under the mantle.

The seafood — especially the mussels — exceeds high expectations as well as the capacity of eight hungry stomachs. The fried whitebait is crunchy fresh, tasting of the sea under its crisp skin. Even the Wicklow lamb (Ireland’s best) is superb, although not of the sea. But it was possibly the lovely cider (Bulmer’s) to blame for the overindulgence. Then again, the spongy whiskey gateau with its cream-filled layers was worth it. And our kind and helpful host from Bord Bia, David Eiffe, wouldn’t hear of us ending our first real meal in Ireland without Irish coffee! I am asleep before Jimmy drops us at the hotel.

Over the next few days, there queued up yet more surprises in this country known to most as a potato-dependant (hence famine-ravaged, to America’s advantage) nation. At Bord Bia’s own kitchens — used for demonstrations to school children, encouraging them to cook and eat healthy — the peas prepared for our dinner are nectar-sweet! And we’re delighted to be served a Bailey’s cheesecake alongside a foot-long pavlova with berries off the farm's own hedges after our barbecue dinner at The Orchard Centre, one of the extremely quality-conscious farms that Bailey’s sources its cream from. There we find Snow White’s temptations bending down a little apple tree as high as me, while the varieties you hardly see at markets any more (pippins, little crab apples, russets) march round the yard. The hard little fruit from the largest tree keeps bouncing down to the ground — they’ll keep all winter, and be sweet and sound for next summer, says Farmer Joe.

Joe Hayden is one of the brothers who runs this farm, and he knows all 140 of his cows by name. And he asks us to pull on plastic sheaths over our feet so we won’t track unwanted germs all over his clean sheds and pastures, and infect the precious cattle with horrid diseases.

At the more citified end of the spectrum, there is our last Irish dinner — at Oliver St John Gogarty’s (in the touristy Temple Bar district), where the musical pub crawl begins for enthusiasts of live music with their pints. There are dishes from the 1700s and 1800s copied out of old recipe books, which is fantastic for ambience — though the multicultural service (in keeping with the guest profile) can be a little trying, but you probably won’t mind too much after a few pints of stout.

Speaking of stouts, one of the best foodie buys has to be Guinness bread from the souvenir shop at the Guinness Storehouse — the same moist, dark bread, nutty and delicious, that every Irish eatery worth its salt serves up gratis with pats of beautiful butter, but laced with the ‘Black stuff’ to keep it good for a week without refrigeration. And after a tour of the Guinness-glass shaped tower ending with a pint at the 360° bar on top where the ‘head’ would be, you really appreciate the restorative power of the minerals in the Black! (In Ireland, they give new mothers a drink of it to top up their blood after childbirth.)

And then there’s the excellent whiskey-laced tea brack at Locke’s Distillery Museum, the world’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery, down in Kilbeggan. When the first new spirit from its pot stills was decanted this year, it was on their 250th anniversary — the distillery closed only in 1958,waiting till 1982 for renovation and restoration, for 1987 for a revival under the Cooley brand, till 1992 to go full steam ahead again with the launch of Locke’s pot still single malt. Now when one of these ex-2007 bottles of spirit — ready to be dubbed whiskey only after 3 years’ maturation, by Irish law — arrives on the market, it will be my souvenir of choice. Only trouble is the recipients of such gifts back home may be rendered unable to endure ever again the harshness of a Scotch, let alone a Bourbon or the ghastly grain spirit that passes for whiskey in the world’s largest consuming nation, India. Or like me, be unable to bear the pale sight or blandness (and indeed, aroma-lessness) of the assembly-line white sponge that we believe is ‘bread’.

I was confirmed in this theory after a quick peek into the Superquinn supermarkets — the bakery section is the length of one of our local market mandis, and the piles of different loaves are baked thrice a day and they still run out by six-ish! I went in for batteries, and came back with a bag of parsnips and a cinnamon-covered, raisin-studded Bowman cheese to nurse carefully in a Thermos bag (kindly supplied by the resourceful Maeve) through the flight back home.

Still untried, and on the wishlist for next time: some of the city’s micro breweries, stalwarts such as Gruel and chic tables such as Jacob’s Ladder. The search for the iconic Dublin coddle, for the once-staple champ, and for the legendary boxty cakes continues past Gallagher’s and Gogarty’s.”

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