Favorite Irish foods

As I begin to think about packing to return to America on Monday, my thoughts are turning to things I’ll miss about Ireland. My fabulous in-laws, of course. The wonderful hospitality and Irish spirit. The gorgeously green scenery. And, yes, the food.

Here’s a short list of the Emerald Isle foods I’ve grown to know and love:

Taytos. Taytos is Ireland’s answer to Lay’s potato chips, and like the latter, you can never eat just one. You see the little red and blue bags everywhere – in gas stations, quick-stops, bars and homes. The standard flavor is cheese/onion, which even my husband scarfs down. Now THAT’S saying something.

Bulmers. Even though I’ve tried, I can’t seem to develop a taste for Guinness. And while you can easily find American lagers like Budweiser and Coors in Ireland, it seems silly to me to order them here. Whiskey is a little hardcore for a relatively light drinker like myself. This leaves me with Bulmers hard cider, a choice I am more than happy to make when visiting the pub. It’s light and easy to drink, it’s slightly sweet but not too much, and it’s yummy. I’ve been told they now make Bulmers in pear and berry flavors, but I haven’t had opportunity to ask for them. A goal for my next visit, I suppose.

Cadbury chocolate. Cadbury Snack. Cadbury Dairy Bar. Cadbury Buttons. Cadbury anything. Yes, please.

Jaffa cakes. Part cookie, part cake, all good. Jaffa cakes are to Ireland what Little Debbies are to America. Start with a flat little spongey cake the size of a cookie, put a spoonful of orange marmalade in the center, then coat the whole thing with chocolate. Enough said.

The Irish fry. Anyone who’s ever stayed in Ireland has been asked two inevitable questions: “Will ye have a drop?” in the evening and “Will ye have a fry?” in the morning. The “drop” of whiskey is never just a drop, and for the uninitiated, a “fry” might bring to mind an order of crispy shoestring potatoes or a greasy Friday night fish extravaganza. Au contraire, mon frere.

For those who believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, the Irish fry is like brunch on steroids – a gluttonous and manly amalgamation of a fried egg, sausage, rashers (thick Irish bacon), black and white pudding, half of a tomato (fried, of course), and classic Irish brown bread or toast. Sometimes you’ll see other mix-and-match additions like baked beans and mushrooms. The whole thing is washed down with lashings of scalding hot tea, although coffee is gaining more favor in some circles. Somewhat surprisingly, potatoes usually aren’t included in a traditional fry; those are saved for roasting at supper later in the day. (More on this later…)

It’s not the kind of breakfast you could eat everyday, but as a once-in-a-while treat, it’s fantastic.

Potatoes. I would be remiss not to include the humble spud in this list. You can’t get away from potatoes here. Even meals like lasagna, curry and pizza come with chips. And let me clarify: here, “chips” are what we call fries, usually the thick steak-cut variety. What we call chips are known as “crisps” here, and that include Taytos and all other varieties. So when I say chips, I really mean fries. Got it?

The younger generations sometimes get away with a potato-free meal, but for traditionalists like my dear mother-in-law, a dinner without potatoes is unfathomable. I’ve tried and tried and tried to replicate her delicious homemade roasted potatoes at home in Indiana, and never gotten it just right. Something about the potatoes themselves, I believe, or perhaps my preparation technique. Who knows. I’ve given up trying to compete and accepted that when it comes to roasts and potatoes, she is and will always be the reigning champion.

Brown bread. While we’re on the subject of my mother-in-law, let me just say that her brown bread is delicious. Found in every restaurant and home in the country, Irish brown soda bread is not like the wheat bread you find in America. It’s a flat, dense, chewy disk of whole grain goodness that’s cut into thin slices and served for breakfast or lunch.

Again, I’ve tried to make it at home without the same success, although hubby has experimented enough to come up with a very tasty version of his own. I once asked my mother-in-law for a brown bread-making lesson, taking copious notes the entire time as she casually threw handfuls of flour into a bowl saying things like “use about this much and then add the buttermilk until it looks right.” She usually apologizes after making it, saying that it doesn’t seem quite right when, of course, it’s always perfect.

I know there is more I’m leaving out, but these are the biggies, the go-to items I seek out when we’re here. Two more days until we leave. I wonder how many last taste blasts I can cram into my diet before we go.

Sligo, day 2

Day two in Sligo. Spent a better part of the day sleeping, I’m embarrassed to report, but I always have a hard time with jet lag and it usually takes me at least three or four days to really get my bearings after the transAtlantic flight. Hubby has a much easy transition than I do, and even the baby is coping well. We all went to bed last night around 9:30 p.m. Baby and I slept for pretty much a solid 12 hours; hubby got up about 4 a.m. local time and escaped off to the lobby downstairs to do a couple hours of work before returning to bed. 

We all arose around 10 a.m. and set off in search of breakfast. There is a huge number of cafe-type places here in Sligo, so had our pick. This is a change I’ve noticed in Ireland since I started coming here four years ago – the coffee culture has definitely taken a firm hold. No Starbucks, mind you, but there are coffee shops popping up on every corner. You can barely spit without hitting one. We settled on a run-of-the-mill place inside a shopping mall across the hall from Tesco’s (the big supermarket chain here). It was almost a repeat of yesterday’s early morning meal – I had a muffin and a glass of milk while hubby again had a more-than-generous full Irish breakfast complete with eggs, toast, sausages, fried mushrooms, beans, a pancake and black pudding.

What is black pudding, Americans may ask? Well. Let me tell you. I’ve been urged to try it on every visit to Ireland thus far (and this trip makes my sixth), and I have refused. Black pudding is sort of a mush-like concoction – essentially, it’s a thinly sliced fried sausage patty that is held together with pig’s blood as a filler, which gives it a black-ish appearance. VERY popular here in Ireland, it’s seen regularly on breakfast menus, and sometimes incorporated into other recipes as well. At the wedding of one of my sisters-in-law, one of the entree menu choices was a chicken breast stuffed with black pudding. Many guests selected it. Not me, but many other. Sorry, I just can’t bring myself to do it knowing what it is.

After breakfast, hubby set off toward Rally Ireland. The baby and I retired back to the hotel for a nap. We arose mid-afternoon, baby had lunch and we set off for a walk around Sligo. This is really a nice town, there are tons of shops, cafes, bookstores and such. The weather is chilly and typically Irish today. Not terribly cold, but terribly wet, cloudy and off-and-on rainy. No problems with static electricity here, let me assure you. Every time I come to Ireland, I optimistically pack my hair straightener, and every time, I kick myself for having bothered and just resign myself to frizzy ponytails for the remainder of the trip. 

Baby and I stopped into a small cafe called Grappa so I could grab a cup of tea. Despite the recent influx of coffee shops, tea is still the thing here. It’s available everywhere you go, and never served iced, only hot. It must chase away the damp. Three years ago when hubby and I were married here, my brother and my dad came over for the wedding. They immediately idolized my father-in-law, as did I. When my mother-in-law offered them hot tea, they first looked to my father-in-law to see him readily accept before doing so themselves. I don’t think either of them had ever drank a cup of hot tea in their lives, but if Andy was having some, then it was obviously the right thing to do. My dad remains a hard-core coffee drinker, but when in Ireland, he enjoys tea instead.

I also chuckle at the memory of a trip to Wales with my hubby before we were married. We went into a small cafe to grab a quick lunch and a group of burly, local construction workers occupied the next table over. Every single one ordered a pot of hot tea. This is no biggie in the U.K. or in Ireland, of course, but as Americans, we are conditioned to view hot tea drinkers as stuffy, high-falutin’ types. I secretly chuckled to see this table of most manly men enjoying their cuppas. It changed my view of tea aficionados, for sure. 

Anyway, back to Sligo… We regrouped with hubby for a pub dinner tonight. My mission of the day was to find a nice location for our evening meal, and I chose a pub called Fiddler’s Creek, just down the river a short walk from our hotel. This is a quintessential Irish pub – heavy dark wood decor, a well-stocked bar, a handful of regulars, lots of casual tables and several strategically placed televisions alternately showing rally coverage and Eastenders, a horribly melodramatic night-time English soap opera.

The place was just crowded enough, I imagine they’ll get a lot of business over the weekend due to the rally. We started off with the hubby ordering a Guinness, of course. Everyone says Guinness tastes much different, and better, here in Ireland than in America. And it certainly seems true, these pints are poured in two steps and arrive at the table with a head of creamy foam thick enough to top a milkshake. Alas, I am not a Guinness fan. I really wish I were, but the taste is wasted on me. I can appreciate the pints for their aesthetic appearance, but when it comes to Irish libations, I’m a Bulmer’s girl at heart. Bulmer’s is a light, not too sweet hard cider that I love. Another selling point of Irish pubs is that you can order a “glass,” or half pint, of beer, cider or whatever if you don’t want another full pint. Nice!

 

a perfect pint

a perfect pint

 

Irish pub menus seem to have steadily improved in the past few years as well. You are still hard-pressed to find any sort of fresh salad or side that doesn’t consist of “chips” (fries), but it’s getting better. I ordered a large and juicy breaded chicken breast that came with mashed (“creamed”) potatoes, a little ramekin of peppercorn gravy on the side, and a little bit of salad that contained mixed greens, green onion, shaved carrots and corn. Hubby got chicken fajitas with the same salad. Very, very tasty stuff and we were well pleased. Dining out in Ireland is expensive though… this meal, a starter of garlic bread, two pints of Guinness for hubby and a pint and a glass of Bulmer’s for me, ran us 60 euros (not including a 5 euro tip). That’s about $70, and reasonable by Irish standards.

When baby started kicking up a fuss, we decided to beat a hasty retreat back to the hotel room. Hubby has currently taken him down to the bar downstairs to enjoy a post-meal pint (for hubby, not baby) so I can write. Tomorrow, we’re headed south to my mother-in-law’s house in Millstreet, County Cork. Should be about a five hour drive. Wish us luck.

Fiddlers Creek, Sligo:   http://www.fiddlerscreek.ie

view from our hotel room in Sligo

view from our hotel room in Sligo