Thursday, May 01, 2014

Defining Tea, Scones, Sticky Toffee, and the Myth of Corned Beef

A co-worker brought in scones from Safeway this morning. Immediately I was reminded that I haven't yet told you about the food in Ireland. Food is always a big part of any vacation for me and, this being my first European trip, I was especially intrigued about the epicurean delights I might encounter.

My only aside is that, because for the majority of the trip I felt like I was forcing down a ball of sandpaper heated to the temperature of molten lava every time I swallowed, I wasn't able to indulge in everything I wanted. In fact, I lost four pounds which is unheard of in vacation history. However, I made the most of what I could and fell in love with a couple of dishes and that's what I will spend the rest of my life obsessing over.

Our first night in Dublin we searched for and found the perfect little eatery. I'm calling it that because there is a distinct difference between pubs and restaurants in Ireland. If you ask for a food recommendation, they will ask if you want a pub or a restaurant. This place leaned more towards the pub side, but they did have more restaurant seating in the back of the building, whereas we sat in front by the bar. Of course.

We ordered a Guinness. Of course. Which isn't food, but it's such a staple of the meals there that it has to be mentioned. There is a specific way that Guinness is to be poured, which I didn't know at the time but one of us did, in fact, notice that night. Supposedly if you just order "a pint" you will be served Guinness but we always asked for it by name. Anyway, that night, we just couldn't get over the fact that we were drinking a fecking Guinness in fecking Ireland. Really, for the first two days I thought I was just on a movie set at Universal Studios because it was just so unbelievable.

The menu that night listed something called a beef casserole. Here, casseroles tend to be a jumble of a bunch of ingredients tossed together and that didn't sound extremely appetizing so I ordered the traditional Irish stew. The "casserole" turned out to be delicious beef covered in a hearty sauce next to creamy mashed potatoes. My stew wasn't bad, but the casserole was better.

Lesson #1: You can't rely on the descriptions/labels given on the menu. We started asking specifically what things were.

The next morning I fell in love. I had my first Irish tea and I will never think of tea the same way. I am as obsessed with Irish tea now as I am with sweet tea in the south. I could happily live off of both with some bread and cheese for the rest of my life. I had heard that Irish and British tea drinkers often pack their own tea when traveling because they can't be sure they will be served the same quality in foreign destinations. This is smart because they won't. American tea is rubbish. Even our tea houses can't compare. I don't know what it is about that simple liquid, but it changed my life.

Tea is something of a production, whether you're ordering in the morning, afternoon, or with dinner. It's always the same. You are brought a cup on a saucer, a small pot of tea, a substantial-sized creamer of milk, and either a jar of sugar or bowl of sugar cubes. These dishes are almost always white, always ceramic. If someone else at the table also orders tea, they get their own setup. You only share the sugar. It feels very special even if it's the standard custom there.

And the tea itself? I can't even describe it. It's soft and creamy and comforting and luxurious all at the same time. When I was sick and couldn't have booze, I had tea and didn't feel like I was missing out on anything. The first things I missed when I got home were Irish tea and Irish accents. Everything at home felt flat and dull without them.

The wife fell equally in love with the scones. Scones at home are often hard and dry. They're really pointless. Irish scones are moist and delicious, sort of a cross between a cake and a biscuit. You can slather them with jam or butter or even eat them plain. I don't think either of us could count how many she had while we were there but her eyes would light up any time they were on the table and she'd pout if they weren't.

There are a few things you'll find everywhere. Irish stew is one of them. It doesn't really differ from ours except they do like to put Guinness in theirs. Why not? Alcohol makes lots of things better. Also, in a country that is so often cold and damp, it's really a nice dish to warm up with.

Nearly every dessert menu had sticky toffee pudding. This isn't really pudding, it's sort of like bread pudding, but more cake-like and covered with gooey toffee yumminess. I only had one of my own the whole trip and it wasn't the best. The best was at Bruno's in Kinsale. It was just decadent and perfect and I didn't get enough because I had to share it.

Bruno's deserves its own special mention because it was the best restaurant on the entire trip. Kinsale is purported to be the foodie capital of Ireland and it definitely is that if Bruno's is any indication. Our B&B hostess recommended it to us and I will forever be grateful. Bruno's is a wonderfully inviting restaurant, part of which is housed in an old lighthouse. There was a fireplace in one corner and brick accents all over. The menu was short but you don't need a long list of choices when what you do is this fantastic. In-N-Out has the same philosophy and I will love them until the day I die. We had pizza, risotto, and ravioli. They recommended the perfect wines and it all combined to create an experience, not just a meal.

There are a few terms the Irish use that are different from those that are American. Beetroot is just a beet. It makes sense since it is technically a root, but they don't say carrotroot or potatoroot. Aubergine is eggplant and they had some fancy term for zucchini that I can't remember. We saw rocket everywhere and finally found out that it is merely arugula. Rocket just sounds more fun. Malt vinegar to us is just vinegar to them. Most of us know that chips are french fries, but these are the wider cut, a lot like what they have at Red Robin. They come with nearly every meal. There is no shortage of carbs on this island.

There are a couple of things you needn't bother ordering. Skip the hamburgers. The Irish are good at many things, but hamburgers aren't one of them. They either top them with really weird things like pickled onions or capers or they come to your plate bone dry. Also pass on the pancakes. The first B&B we stayed in had a limited menu, consisting of porridge (which is also EVERYwhere) and yogurt, which is always plain there and has to be doused in honey. I thought pancakes would be a safe bet but on my plate was a single, round object as dry as an American scone. Accompanied by about a teaspoon of syrup so I couldn't even mask the bland taste. The really comical thing is that the grocery stores all carry "American" pancakes in shrink-wrapped packages. Lastly, never, ever order nachos there. I don't even know what I was thinking except that I was cold and I wanted some hot cheese. My dog could throw up better-tasting nachos than these.

Lesson #2: You can't rely on your regular stand-bys.

Pastries in Ireland are hit-and-miss. A lot of them aren't as sweet as what we're used to in our sugar-soaked and soda-heavy diets. I did love the pie crusts. I don't know why they're so different, they just are. Less flaky, but with a hint of sweetness. They're delightful. What America has that sucks is chocolate. Our chocolate tastes like flavored cardboard compared to what they have in Europe. There were so many Cadbury options to drool over, things we just don't get here. I got D a bar with caramel and brownies and it has real layers of caramel and chunky pieces of soft brownie. Even their cheap, commercial, gimmicky, made-for-kids crap is dozens of times better than our "gourmet" bars.  Seriously, it breaks my heart.

Another very important meal all over the place is fish and chips. Fish and chips are the iconic Irish and British meal. Remember the scene in Angela's Ashes where his uncle eats his fish and chips wrapped in newspaper and he's starving so he licks the salt and grease off the newspaper when his uncle discards it? I was hoping they'd be wrapped in newspaper but they've probably learned something about how bad newsprint is to ingest with food. Anyway, I was really looking forward to this experience and Kristi found what claims to be the oldest fish and chips establishment in Ireland. We were in Dublin, it was our second night there, and we were ready to immerse ourselves.

But then they were awful. I have never had a meal with less taste than this one. This is why tartar sauce was invented. Even the grease didn't have a taste. Drowning them in vinegar just tasted like vinegar-flavored paper. Horrid. It was like 30-second sex. We did entirely too much walking and anticipating to make it even worth the trouble of ordering and picking up a fork. Unfortunately, this was the standard experience. These were definitely the worst, but most of them were just bland. On the last night, with our celebratory Guinness (for getting our ink done!), the wife tried one more time. This last option was made with cider batter and that just might be the difference between horrendous and outstanding. Or maybe they did something else magical, but these were the best fish and chips I have ever had.

Oh, speaking of fried, I have another new love. Fried brie. Just what it sounds like. They take a wedge of delicious creamy brie, batter that puppy up, and fry it. You slice your fork through that golden nugget and are rewarded with gooey, melty heaven. Tiny angels sing.

Sausage and bacon are not the same in Ireland. I couldn't wait to get home to have real bacon and I think it was one of the first things I ordered. Bacon in Ireland is like Canadian bacon, only slightly thinner and fried. Also very hard to chew. Sausage rolls are popular and consist of a pastry with sausage inside. Sort of like a sausage pop-tart but flaky. Their sausage is a different color, more of a white, and when we asked someone about this, he told us that it's all the rest of the pig that isn't used for other things. Well, we do the same thing with hot dogs, maybe it's just less processed. At any rate, it turned the wife off from it for the remainder of the trip.

The one thing I absolutely refused to put in my mouth was blood pudding. Because it's made with blood. They don't even hide the fact with a cute name. Why on earth would I want to eat blood voluntarily? I'm carnivorous enough that I like my steaks fairly rare and juicy, but they aren't called blood steaks for Pete's sake!! Kristi was fool enough to eat this crap not once, but twice. She claimed it just tasted like a veggie burger, which didn't make it any more appealing because I also hate veggie burgers. Blood. Icky.

One thing that I think is important to note is the fallacy of what is traditional Irish dinner. Every St. Patrick's day everyone wants to make a big deal of celebrating with corned beef and cabbage. This is wrong. Don't do this ever again. I never once saw corned beef on any menu. There might have been cabbage but it wasn't prevalent. Making corned beef because you want to be authentic is as lame as dying your beer green. Make a stew or fish and chips. That's the real stuff.

There is a lot more that I could bore you with, like what kinds of other gross sausages you find in the grocery stores or how giant the mussels are in coastal towns or how sad it is to know how much they love putting those adorable little leaping lambs into stew. But mostly what you need to know is that there are some wonderful dishes in Ireland to be found and they are more than willing to explain the odder-sounding menu items to you because it's important to them that you enjoy your dining experience. If you're ever in doubt, just order tea and a scone with some fried brie and you'll be happy as a clam.


Chris said...

Thank you for this great blog post. You have a great perception on the way travel can be done. Thanks again for putting in the time for all of us to benefit.

Mark said...

You could be a travel writer. Seriously. A perfect blend of funny, informative, with just the right amount of your first hand experience to add some spice. I'm in the mood for some scones -- and I hate the hard, dry, flavorless American version (which is all I've had so far). You're a great writer.

Kat said...

If I could get paid for traveling, I would totally do it. Thank you for the compliments.

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