Eating my way through Ireland

My former memories of Ireland are fleeting and stretch back over 15 years to a brief trip to Dublin via ferry to Cork. I remember waking up stiff after sleeping a few hours in a hallway with my rucksack serving as a pillow, and queuing up at the counter for some semblance of breakfast. While I was planning on ordering coffee and maybe a croissant, I saw others grabbing pints of Guinness. It was 9 a.m.

By the time we pulled into port some hours later, I had clocked a couple at a nearby table go through at least 3 pints…each. The bus ride into town was understandably raucous, the majority of passengers already smashed, singing loudly and happily regaling in the their duty-free loot, which consisted mainly of packs of beer and cartons of cigarettes.

The rest of the trip is a bit of a blur. I remember meeting up with my boyfriend at the time who was there chaperoning a group of students. I remember visiting the Book of Kells on the Trinity University campus. I vaguely remember purchasing a little framed picture of an Irish phone booth that I still have today. I can’t remember anything about the food, so I can only assume that it was not memorable.

Because on that same trip I had first spent a weekend in Amsterdam, where I surprised myself by actually not hanging out in too many coffee shops, and where I had a very memorable bowl of hot and hearty stew in a quiet neighborhood pub. It was my first time traveling alone — my first time in the Netherlands — and happening on that cozy spot with the simple and satisfying meal it provided felt like triumph. I will never forget it.

So when Olivier and I embarked on our recent vacation to Ireland, I didn’t have high expectations for the food we were going to encounter, despite this encouraging article that Trish Deseine shared with me. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I don’t think we had one bad meal during the 9 days we were away.

The adventure began aboard the Oscar Wilde, an Irish Ferries Cruise ship that whisked us from Cherbourg to Rosslare. No sleeping on the floor this time – Olivier surprised me with a 5 star cabin! And let me tell you, once you go 5 stars, there’s no going back. There were little chocolates on the pillows and a platter of fruit on the counter. There was a sitting area and wine chilling in the mini-fridge. We were off to a good start. This was like no ferry I had ever seen. There were 3 restaurants, 2 lounges, a sports bar, a coffee/snack shop, an arcade, a casino and a movie theater. It was the Love Boat – we were in love and almost sorry when it was time to disembark.

But we were happy to see our friends who had flown in the previous week and were there to meet us at the dock. And we were thrilled to finally be on vacation, and to be taking our first trip together outside of France.

Pitstop in Waterford

I did a double take when I saw Waterford on the map as we looked for a place to stop for lunch on our drive up to Cashel. I’m embarrassed to say that I somehow thought Waterford was in England, even though I knew my grandmother had traveled there, excited to add new pieces to her extensive crystal collection. Rolling into town was a bit of shock as most of the shops were closed or boarded up. Things were not booming in this place that I had imagined to be somewhat glamorous — or, at the very least, flourishing.

I didn’t manage to bring up the couple of recommendations mentioned in the Irish Times article, so we pulled the car into a paid lot and walked down the main street to see what was what. Not seeing a lot of options (maybe we weren’t in the right part of town?), we settled on a small deli that offered a large selection of fresh salads, savory pies and baked goods of all sorts.

Olivier got a combo plate of salads: mixed greens, grated carrots and a light pasta salad. Our friends Chris and Corinne got a Shepherd’s pie and a salmon quiche, each with a side of mixed greens, and a fabulous little pastry-wrapped sausage for miss Lucy Kate, their 3 year old daughter. I unfortunately let myself be tempted by all the mayonnaisey salads, including a gloppy but delicious Waldorf. That would prove to be a theme for me – everything was yummy but not always the healthiest of choices!

Another theme would emerge as we made our way and with each encounter with the locals: never have I felt so relaxed and welcomed while traveling. It must be said that the Irish are some of the most calm and laid-back people I’ve ever met. Not once did we sense any kind of aggressiveness, mistrust or contempt. Even those who were busy and rushing about seemed to do so with humor and poise.

Rocking the Cashel

We arrived in Cashel tired from the car ride, and anxious to get settled in. Organization had it that we’d be staying at two different B&Bs that night, so after dropping Corinne and the little one off at their home for the night and catching a glimpse of the Rock of Cashel and Hore Abbey, we cruised back down the hill in search of Rockville House B&B. Upon arrival we were greeted by our host, Patrick. How to describe him…let’s just say that first impressions can often be misleading, and after at first worrying that we had landed in the Irish Bates Motel, we now plan on sending him postcards, often. The accommodations weren’t 5 star, but would keep us comfortable for the next two nights.

After a shower, a nap and some yoga, I was tasked with finding us a place to eat. It wasn’t difficult — the Internets all agreed that the best place in town was Chez Hans, and Café Hans its lunchtime counterpart. Chez Hans it was, and just a short walk up the street around the corner from our B&B. The building is beautiful and looks like an old church, though it never actually served as such. High vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows made for a romantic setting.

Now please keep in mind that I am not a travel writer nor restaurant critic when I tell you this next thing: I can’t for the life of me remember what we ate. That’s not to say that it wasn’t memorable — it was delicious and I would go back in a heartbeat (and you can see a sample menu on their website). I remember being disappointed because I had my heart set on mussels and that was the one dish they were out of. I think I had fish. I know Chris raved about his rack of lamb. Olivier had a hearty soup of some kind. The rest is a bit of a blur. I remember more about the ambiance and decor — the magnificent silver cutlery and big, ornate mismatched bowls and plates, the wonderful service. It felt like being in another time, and, sitting around that table with my husband and good friends, I felt blessed. I also felt, for the first time in a long time, completely and utterly relaxed. I was really on vacation.

The next morning Patrick served me up a full Irish breakfast and we became fast friends. We met some of the other guests including two American couples and a jolly band of Germans at the next table over. I would come to regret that Irish breakfast, however, satisfying as it was. Because later that day we stopped over to Café Hans where I looked on longingly at everyone else’s food, still full from sausage and eggs and bacon and tomato and lovely brown bread with butter. More fresh thick and hearty soups, quinoa salad with butternut squash, chick pea salad with carrots and cilantro, and of course more of those lovely breads with creamy butter that are a staple of every table in Ireland. This is the kind of place you could come to everyday and not get bored. I would be going light on breakfast from here on out.

For our final dinner in Cashel we went to Fahys Bar and Restaurant on Patrick’s recommendation. A simple, cozy local pub, it was the perfect place to have my first pint of Guinness of the trip and take on a big plate of fish and chips. Of course, no one in Ireland seems to call them that, but rather “fried cod and potato wedges”.

On to Bunratty

Bunratty is a small town just outside of Limerick, known for its Castle and Folk Park, neither of which we visited. Next time. Instead we walked a lot to and from our B&B about a kilometer or so down the road, spent time browsing the massive gift shops in town, and eating. We had lunch at J.P. Clarke’s, a big, modern place, but beautifully done, with a large selection of fresh fare including burgers, salads, soups, and sandwiches of all kinds. Biggest potato wedges I’ve ever seen, and fried up with some kind of chili for a nice, hot kick.

Dinner would be at Durty Nelly’s for more beer, oysters on the half shell, and to watch France play Switzerland in the WordCup. I mean, how can you not go to a place called Durty Nelly’s? And what’s more, how can you not buy a t-shirt?

Diggin on Dublin

We arrived in Dublin by way of Galway, where we drove to drop the rental car off and hop a train. Olivier and our Cameroonian taxi driver prattled away in French as we drove through the city streets in search of our apartment rental. A word of caution when renting apartments versus B&Bs: there aren’t always peer reviews available and the agencies don’t necessarily check to see if property owners are giving an accurate account of the state of affairs. The place our friend’s rented through was neither in the kind of neighborhood described, nor did it look at all like what had been advertised. It was a sub-level flat, with water damage everywhere, dirty floors and mildew visible in spots here and there. It was more or less central (Dublin is not a very big city), and with the little one in tow, changing at this point was going to be more trouble than just accepting that we’d been had. Once we got over that, we had a grand time.

I’m already feeling long-winded at this point, so won’t go into a full account of our four days and three nights in Dublin. But here are some of the highlights, especially where food is concerned:

Botanical Gardens

Olivier and I love to walk. We walk at least 3km a day at home in our rural Normandy, so when Corinne & Co. announced a trip to the zoo for them, we decided to do our own thing. The National Botanic Gardens were about a 35 minute walk from the apartment, which is just a tad less than our usual circuit. We left early enough to avoid the heat — we had been having the most amazing weather throughout the whole trip. I never thought I’d hear myself say that I went to Ireland and got a tan.

The gardens are beautiful and massive and entrance is free. There is a “tea house” with fresh salads and veggie wraps for lunch, or big sweet cakes and cookies for an afternoon tea. There is also an art gallery with rotating exhibits (the prints on display for the New Silva were fabulous, really wanted to purchase a couple, but shipping was problematic). I would highly recommend this as an alternative excursion for a visit to Dublin – perfect for families too.

The Larder

After spending so much time with our friends, we decided on a date night, and happened on the Larder on our walk down Capel Street, across the river and into the city center near the Temple Bar district. A self-proclaimed “boutique” restaurant, it had a pleasing modern decor and “hip” wait staff. Probably a bit overpriced for what is was, it was date night, but we certainly would have been better off trying some of their craft beers rather than splurging on that bottle of Sancerre.

Olivier had a tasty lamb burger, while I had the delicious Roasted Butternut Squash Tagine. It’s one of those restaurants that’s nice to experience, but not to rave about. Although I almost feel like I’d want to go back just to make sure — first impressions and all.

Las Tapas de Lola

The next night was girls’ night, and Corinne and I went out on the town while the men stayed at home with the kid, some beer and a match. I wasn’t having much luck with Trip Advisor — too many choices — and the Irish Times article mostly listed high-end dégustation menus. We were after something simple. That’s when I happened on Girl Eats Dublin, a blog by Catherine Flynn, and just what I needed. After browsing her top picks for 2013, we settled on Las Tapas de Lola, and we weren’t disappointed. I tried Tinto de verano for the first time, which I actually plan on serving en apéritif tonight for our guests. Tapas included fried calamari served with allioli, grilled goat’s cheese with tomato marmalade, spicy shrimp with garlic and a spinach salad with blue cheese, bacon and pine nuts. Great service and very affordable — it’s a place you go back to.

The Black Sheep

“Crafty beers, simple food.” Such a great tagline. More than a pub, this neighborhood bar/restaurant was just across the street from us, and we saved it for last. Kind of a hipster spot, but not too far gone, with a relaxed atmosphere and cheeky undertones. Once again, Irish service didn’t disappoint, and we were treated to some samplers of their craft beers before settling on some bitter ales and a local stout. Then on to sweet potato wedges (yum!), Cajun deep fried calamari (I can never get enough calamari), and more soup of the day (an ongoing theme throughout the trip). This is the kind of place where I’d become a regular if I lived in Dublin, and where I’d love to return with a few beer-lovers I know to continue trying out the 50+ ales, wheat beers, lagers and porters on the menu. We’ll be back.

I didn’t take a lot of pictures during the trip, but if you’re interested in a few, check my Instagram account and the hashtag #ireland2014.