Over dinner on my final night in Ireland, one of the other diners who is Irish said to me, “I just came back from Paris…”, and he hesitated for a moment, and continued “…and the food wasn’t very good.” It’s probably unimaginable a few years ago that someone from Ireland would be criticizing the quality of French cooking. But it shows how far Irish cooking has come.
I was recounting that story to someone over lunch yesterday back in Paris, who assured me that I was fortunate to have eaten so well during my trip. So of course, there’s good and not-good restaurants in every country, but over my dinner in Cork, Ireland, diving in to a pan-seared dry-aged steak, a pile of freshly sautéed spinach, and crisp French fries made from real potatoes and cooked so each one had a deep-brown crust, I had to say that in addition to the multiple Irish coffees, the rest of the food I had in Ireland was fresh, well-prepared, and surprisingly good.
Of course, finishing meals off with sweets like warm sticky toffee pudding didn’t hurt, either.
Especially good were the cheeses, which I stocked up on at the Midleton farmer’s market and brought back home. I had a moment of doubt when I went back to the hotel and left them to sit for a while, and noticed a peculiar odor in my room. And I think the housekeeper must have her doubts, too, because when I came back later, they were sitting outside, on the windowsill.
I had the classic ‘overhead bin vs. carry-on’ crisis when packing and recalled once when I made a long transatlantic flight, upon arrival, I sprung open the overhead bin and the stink of ripe Camembert wafted across aisles 19 to 27, and I could see reactions spanning from rows A through F. Fortunately the flight had come from France so no one really said anything.
However just in case, I picked up a sealable plastic container and the cheeses made it back with me without stinking up the rest of my clothes, or those of my fellow passengers. (I opted for checked bags this time, due to the short flight.)
And the butter. I’ve never had Irish butter before, and indeed the butter in France is one of its strong points. It’s one of the reasons I live in France.
But if I ever move, it’s likely to retire on the greener isles of Ireland. (Although I’ll never get used to driving on the opposite side of the road, so I’d not likely live there very long…) But the butter was pure yellow, not pallid white, and when I tasted it all by itself, it had the rich dairy flavor. Butter isn’t just something to bake or cook with, it’s a flavor, too. Which is something that often gets forgotten.
And although I love French cheese, I appreciate the offerings in Ireland and the United Kingdom. And I’m seeing them more and more of them represented in some of the better cheese shops in Paris.
In fact, when I went to the Salon du Fromage in Paris last year with a group of my American friends, we dialed in on the Irish and British cheeses there and basically parked ourselves firmly in front of their giant wheels of sharp cheddar, not moving while they fed us triangles of cheese, ignoring their Gallic counterparts.
(Actually it was the French cheese representatives that were ignoring us. Instead of talking to attendees, unless you were a young, attractive woman, they were sitting in the back of their booth drinking Champagne with their friends while we floundered around, looking for someone to help us.)
In Ireland, I was traveling with a small group of food writers and recipe developers. We’d been invited by the Irish Dairy Board to come to their country and see how butter and cheese are made. In all my years of using butter, I’d never been to a butter plant, so you can imagine how anxious I was to finally have the chance to go to one. I spent a morning in the butter processing plant, and although it was quite modern, it was a small facility, and it was interesting to see how small-scale the butter making operations were.
(I also think they might have scooted me out before lunchtime because they were afraid I’d get butter-fingered and slide a few pounds into my pockets.)
But what struck me most about Ireland were the vast expanses of water, the lush green hills, grass so green, when I looked at my pictures, I could have sworn that a gremlin got into my camera and dialed up the saturation. The people were so unguarded and friendly. And every time I looked out the window, there was always something mesmerizing to look at.
I sensed a genuine warmth from the Irish people, perhaps because they live on a small Island which although has had its share of problems, it seems that family and community is still important. (Perhaps that’s why some of the strife that has divided the country is taken to extremes.) And cows were everywhere.
I would imagine there’s a certain amount of large industry in Ireland, but in the drives that I took, even the three hour trip from Dublin to Cork, it was grass, cows, trees, and cows. And more cows.
Some of the highlights of the trip:
Over breakfast my first morning in Cork, when I came down sleepy-eyed and surveyed the lovely breakfast spread, Aisling O’Callaghan, who owns the Longueville House with her chef-husband William, told me they were a historic inn and thus were prevented from serving butter in individual packets or commercial jam packed in small jars.
All the jams and compotes were made from fruit grown just outside. Thick, gloppy Irish cream was heaped in a bowl next to hot scones. And there were generous bowls of fruit, all from their gardens. I have to apologize to those who slept in for taking more than my share of the Autumn Bliss raspberries, but you snooze, you lose.
Due to a flight cancellation, I arrived just in the nick of time for dinner the night before, where others were exclaiming that they’d seen the largest berries of their life in the walled garden of the residence. So I guess you could say they did indeed get first dibs. So I don’t feel all that bad for them.
I can’t resist going into a restaurant kitchen, even after spending my entire life working in them (perhaps that because they’re the only places I feel truly comfortable) Chef William O’Callaghan gave me a peek in his kitchen along with the small walk-in refrigerator, where I noticed a gaggle of ducks hanging up. When I asked where he got them, he replied, “Oh, there’s certainly no shortage of hunters around these parts, David!” Which made me realize how truly deep in the countryside we were.
There was apple juice from their own orchards and smoked salmon as well. I’m normally not a big breakfast person, but on the last day I decided to have the “full Irish”, just because I was in Ireland and it would be foolish not to try it. I like sausage, but first thing in the morning, I wasn’t sure I could handle a big plate of greasy links, eggs, and fried potatoes
So imagine how happy I was when they brought out a nice, neat plate of a variety of sausages with a fluffy fried potato cake alongside, and two farm eggs. Along with a slice of their brown bread, and some scones and jam (you know, I know I said I didn’t eat much in the morning…but how could I resist scones with housemade jam?), I decided that breakfast very well could go back to being my favorite meal of the day.
Longueville House & Restaurant
Mallow, Co. Cork
When I die, I want to come back as the ghost that haunts Ballyvolane House. In fact, they said one of them in French, and he’s nice. So perhaps it’s a possibility. Justin and Jenny Green welcomed us into their gorgeous manor and I had a meal that was one of the best I’ve had in years.
Justin walked us around the well-groomed grounds before sitting down to eat, and it was nice to see all the fruit and vegetables, which they use in their cookery.
We didn’t see their salmon fishery, but we did go to visit the pigs. Each one was about the circumference of a Smart car, and seemed docile enough, although one randy one began sniffing around my trousers and made a beeline for the chapstick in my pocket. From what my Irish male friends call “The Curse of the Irish”, it’s likely he was confusing the diminutive lip balm in my trouser pocket with something else, thinking I was an Irishman.
But they say pigs are very intelligent animals, which must be true, because he quickly ascertained that I wasn’t Irish and lost interest whatever was in my pants and made a beeline under the skirt of a female guest. Being a New Yorker, she was no stranger to unwanted advances, and fended off the beast.
I sat next to Roshin, a lovely Irish lass, who charmed me throughout the meal, almost as much as the ‘champ’ (mashed potatoes) that was generously piled into a bowl and scattered with chives, both from the garden we’d just visited.
The young server brimming with adolescent excitement was a bit giddy, likely reflecting his youth, and I think I scared him when he asked if I’d like anything to drink after dinner, and I replied, “Yes, I’d like a glass of fresh-squeezed watermelon juice, please.”
The poor kid, who was taking his job so seriously, got the brunt of my sense of humor and I stumped him for a minute, although he tried not to miss a beat. Without breaking a beat, and continuing to smile broadly, he said, “I’m sorry. I don’t think we have that here, sir.” But dessert of fresh lemon posset (a whipped cream-enriched mousse) with fresh wild blackberries along with fresh mint infusion from the garden was probably a wiser choice to after dinner anyways. But the scare was good practice for me, for when I eventually start haunting this house in my (hopefully) distant future.
Castlelyons, Fermoy, Co. Cork
I once cancelled a reservation at a restaurant because I saw on the menu a single egg that had what I thought sounded like a pretentious name. I like eggs quite a bit and am always up for a good egg for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. But it’s like saying, “One perfect egg” or “An excellent slice of apple”; it just seems goofy to me to use such language to describe a simple dish.
However the fried egg that Chef Paul Flynn made for me for breakfast at the The Tannery was nothing short of perfect. Golden-yellow with bits of crunchy Maldon salt embedded in the yolk, it was gooey perfection speared up with slices of fresh Irish soda bread.
Chef Flynn doesn’t normally serve breakfast but he did just for us, and it included fresh Raspberry Muffins and yogurt parfaits. And the strong coffee? I had four cups.
At our dinner the previous evening, we had his local version of Bouillabaise, which was made with locally-sourced fish and giant potatoes from, where else?—you guessed it; their garden just outside. I slipped away with his recipe for Irish Oatcakes and I’m going to share that recipe here on the site in the near future, because they’re one of my favorite things in the world and I can’t believe how easy they are to make.
10 Quay Street
Dungarvan, Co. Waterford
Even after I’d spent the morning at the Midleton Farmer’s Market, during a few hours of downtime, Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan of The Kitchn (beaming above, just after our buttery breakfast), and I, decided to hit the English Market in Cork. This thriving indoor market has a jumble of things, from twirls of sausages to puckery green limequats.
I was about to pick out a loaf of bread to bring home with me and when I asked for one, instead of just bagging it up and handing it over, and explained what all the breads she offered had in them. She was just lovely and the bread, when I got it home, had a slightly sweet, nutty crumb and went well with the cheeses I brought home along with the bread.
Even though the smoked ox tongues were “only” €7, I managed to resist those. I did, however, pick up a few jars of dark Irish honey and one bulging sack of limequats. But I presume if I ever change my mind about those ox tongues, a few might still be there.
Shortbread is traditionally associated with Scotland, but with all the terrific butter in Ireland, why confine it to one country? This recipe comes from Kerrygold, who provided this recipe for shortbread, which I’ve adapted.
I had never had Irish butter before this trip and I can honestly say it is really lovely butter, with a pronounced dairy taste and as good as some of the butters I’ve had in France. Since shortbread has a lot of butter in it, be sure to use a good-quality butter, the best you can get—no matter where you live.
1 1/4 cups (180 g) all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached
1/2 cup (65 g) corn starch
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup (100 g) sugar
8 ounces (225 g) best-quality salted butter, cubed and chilled
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Preheat the oven to 300ºF (150ºC).
2. Lightly butter a 9-inch (23 cm) tart ring or springform pan with a removable bottom.
(I used an open tart ring placed on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper.)
3. Whisk together the flour, corn starch, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer.
4. Add the butter and mix on low speed until the mixture starts coming together in clumps.
5. Add the vanilla and continue to mix until the dough forms solid clumps.
6. Use the heel of you hand to press the dough evenly into the tart pan. (If using a springform pan, you can use the bottom of a glass to tamp it evenly into the pan. A sprinkle of flour or confectioners sugar may be needed if it’s sticking too much.) You want the top to be a smooth as possible.
7. With a sharp knife, score the shortbread into twelve even wedges and prick each wedge three time with the tines of a fork.
(Note: When I baked these at home, using French butter, both the score marks and the tines disappeared. So be aware that that’s something that might happen. If so, just continue on and cut the shortbread as directed in the next step.)
8. Bake the shortbread for 45 to 55 minutes, or until the top is light golden brown. Remove from oven and immediately use a sharp knife to cut completely through the dough, where you previously marked it, into wedges. Let the shortbread cool completely in the pan. Once cool remove the outer ring of the tart (or springform) pan, and separate the wedges.
Storage: Shortbread will keep for up to one week in an airtight container. It can also be frozen, if well-wrapped, for up to two months.
Recipe Notes: The original recipe said that if using salted butter, reduce the amount of salt to 1/8 teaspoon. But I like the taste of salt and salted butter, so I used the quantities listed in the recipe. If you wish, you can follow their guidelines.
Potato starch is often used as a substitute for corn starch. I haven’t tried it, but you are welcome to try it if corn starch is unavailable where you live.
(As noted in the post, this trip was organized with the assistance of the Irish Dairy Board. This is not a sponsored post nor was any compensation received for writing it or mentioning any products. For additional information, read my Disclosure Statement.)