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Eating locally on the Emerald Isle 

It's true, you know. Guinness does taste better in Ireland.

This is not due to the inherent charm of the bartenders, although most can talk you into almost anything. Guinness tastes better fresh. On a recent trip to Ireland, most of my Dublin cab drivers discussed the nuances of brews in their favorite neighborhood pub. The more Guinness sold, the fresher the taste. But even without this advice from cabbies, the evidence is stacked up on the sidewalk each morning: dozens of 88-pint kegs in front of the more popular pubs.

Pubs are where the Irish population gravitates after 5 p.m., since shops, tourist attractions and businesses all close about that time. A few bartenders told me about the frequency of line cleaning as the reason for the taste difference. Some lines are cleaned daily, others weekly, but the volume of Guinness consumed is remarkable. Guinness has been brewed in Dublin since 1759, and with their 9,000-year ground lease (for four of its 64 acres), the company's not going anywhere.

Pubs offer more than Guinness, Harp and Smithwick (the red ale of Kilkenny celebrating its tercentennial); there's also the summer favorite Bulmers cider (Magners in the U.S.), which has a current advertising campaign promoting a berry cider made with apples, currants, raspberries and strawberries. Mead, a honey wine, is made on the western side of Ireland and seems to be favored more by tourists.

Wines, on the other hand, do not have a history in Ireland. I walked one of the solitary vineyards at Longueville House in Mallow overlooking the Blackwater Valley. During good years, wines are made. Chef and owner William O'Callaghan also makes apple brandy from their apple orchards. Longueville House is an early 1700s country manor house where farm to fork is literally a matter of meters since the restaurant's garden is a short walk from the kitchen; salmon and brown trout are caught in a stream on the property; and sheep graze on the lands surrounding the house. While dinner of lamb chops, local farmhouse cheeses, and a duck and woodcock confit in their Presidents' Restaurant was a singular experience, breakfast surpassed it.

Breakfast in Ireland is the meal. A "full" Irish breakfast includes eggs, thick bacon, farm fresh sausages -- somewhat rustic and coarsely ground, including white and black pudding (oatmeal and blood, respectively) -- local cheeses, and sensational butter (which makes even the brown bread taste amazing).

Kinsale is a coastal village with a reputation for having the best foods Ireland has to offer. However, the regional oysters here pale in caparison to the robust oysters from western Galway Bay. In fact, the better seafood -- except wild blue shelled mussels -- came from the Atlantic side of the island. At the small and casual Out of the Blue restaurant in Dingle, County Kerry (a place where the locals have painted over the English directional signs so that only Gaelic/Irish remains), for example, the blackboard menu changes daily. If there's no fish, the restaurant doesn't open.

Scones -- the Irish lovechild of an American muffin and a British pound cake -- are served daily throughout Ireland. The fruit scones at Bewley's in Dublin, a place for chatter and not gastronomic epiphanies, are brilliant. From a perch on Bewley's second floor on Grafton Street, people sip lattes while devouring these delicate treats slathered with locally made jam, and inhale the creative pulse below through the large open windows.

Irish food has not always been associated with leisure. The heartbreak of the Irish potato famine of almost 200 years ago is still felt. Pub musicians sing about the people who left the island; statues commemorate these ex-pats. When their descendents return to Ireland, they are made to feel at home. Recently, the fear of food supply contamination by meats and produce from other countries has prompted menu descriptors and grocery store signage about country of origin.

Perhaps the famine along with the intellectual and music connection pushed food aside in Ireland. Dublin is, after all, the city where a bewildering number of writers have lived and worked -- Yeats, Shaw, Joyce, Swift, Beckett, Wilde and Heaney. Bono owns one of the larger hotels, and every Dublin cab driver I encountered had flown to the U.S. to take in a U2 concert. With this attention to literature and music, culinary contributions have been pushed to the edge of the plate -- and that plate does not contain corned beef and cabbage.

Most Americans who visit Ireland do so for familial -- not culinary -- reasons. But eating locally has never gone out of style in Ireland. Here, fresh berries are drizzled with crème fraiche, beautifully textured lamb with the complex mineral taste of a top-notch steakhouse is on most menus, and house-smoked local salmon on brown bread is the perfect match for a pint of Guinness.

Know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? To be included in our online blog, Eat My Charlotte, send information to Tricia via e-mail (no attachments, please): tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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