Monday, September 29, 2014

Ireland, Part Two: The Sights

Hope you enjoyed reading my previous post on all the wonderful food I had on my recent trip to Ireland. Now for the beautiful places we saw.

My friend Val and her husband Tim are Austinites who split their time between here and Ireland. They bought land a number of years ago, and built a house in County Mayo, just north of the County Galway border, not quite an hour from the city of Galway. Their house is situated up on a hill, about three-tenths of a mile (seems longer!) from the narrow, winding, shoulder-less road. They allow their neighbors to let a small flock of sheep come and graze, so this is the view from the house. For me, sheep, and green grass, and stone walls were never tiring to look at!
The town of Cong is about 20 minutes away from their house, and many buildings there were part of the 1952 movie The Quiet Man starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. The town is extremely proud of it's association with the movie, and tourists can visit all the well-known sites in town and pick up their Quiet Man souvenir postcards and assorted tchotzhes.  Nearby is Ireland's oldest castle, Ashford, which dates to 1228, with several additions since then; it is currently a five-star hotel. It's backside looks over the Loch Corrib, which is dotted with tiny islands.
Ashford Castle's  beautiful grounds also house Ireland's School of Falconry where you can (for a fee of course) learn to hold and fly a hawk. Next trip! (The people in the background are looking at some of the birds in their enclosures; I think they have over 30 birds -- hawks, falcons, and an owl!)
Galway is a quaint city with a nice area of shops, pubs, and restaurants that is closed off to motor traffic. Unfortunately a number of tourist shops too, and once you see one shamrock placard or Guinness key chain, you've seen them all. Fortunately, there are other things to see, like the home of the claddagh ring, and just the hustle and bustle of locals and tourists.
We were there on a Saturday morning, and the farmer's market and a few food trailers are set up around St. Nicolas Church, which dates to 1320 and is the largest medieval church still in use in Ireland. We also saw the building where a young man named John Lynch was killed, giving way to the term "lynching".
It was then off to the Aran Islands, a chain of three small islands accessible by a 45 minute ferry ride from outside of Galway. We spent the night on the largest of the islands, Inishmor, which is roughly 9 miles long by 2 miles wide at the widest point. Part of the charm of these islands includes that fact that the native still speak traditional Irish amongst themselves (called Irish, as opposed to Gaelic, I learned) and English with the tourists. Inishmor only has a population of about 1000 people, and most everyone knows everybody. What once was a fishing industry has given way to tourism, and there are lots of B + Bs scattered throughout.

When fishing was the dominant way of life, each family would knit wool sweaters in a pattern particular to them (like a coat of arms), so if someone were lost at sea, the body could be identified by the sweater. (A bit morbid, but practical.) The anthropologist in me enjoyed seeing the different patterns and their meanings; these hung in the Aran Sweater Market.
We took a tour of the island by pony trap, and at the northern part of the island is the 3000 year old Viking fort, Dun Aengus. It was a bit tricky walking the path up to it, as the stone pathway was a bit slick, but the view headed up and from the top made it all worth it.
The fort was built with three concentric ring walls and a cheval de frise in place. This was a defense system, where they place the stones upright, pointy ends in the air, so if invaders did penetrate the island, they or their horses would have a hard time walking through the stones to the inner-most ring.
You can also lie down flat on the top of the rock and peer over the side and 300 feet down to the water! It was a bit freaky looking over the edge, but it's now one of my favorite memories of the trip.
Returning to the mainland of Ireland, we drove through County Clare and the geologic area known as the Burren. It is what's called a karst landscape, where the limestone was eaten away by glacial formations millions of years ago leaving a pavement of stones (for more explanations, go to Wikipedia or the Burren National Park's site).  The remaining soil is nutrient rich, and about 80% of all Irish plants are only found in this region, which accounts for about 1% of Ireland's landmass. It's also an area where many ancient tombs have been found, including this, Poulnabroune. It's roughly 5000 years old  (give or take a century!), and over 30 bodies were found buried in it, including children.
We also discovered the very off-the-beaten-path Burren Perfumery, which was a treasure in the middle of nowhere! Literally a cottage industry, they blend their own natural scents and make perfumes, lotions, soaps, and candles. There's a shop, an education room, tea house, and gorgeous garden to boot. Well worth a stop should you be in the area!
Leaving the Burren, we spent the night at a B + B in Doolin, and headed to the Cliffs of Moher the following day. (Doolin in the foreground, and the Cliffs begin just past the far point in the picture.)
While it was heavily infested with tourists, it was completely worth it. An accordion player (or maybe it was a concertina?) busks for handouts along the path to the visitors center, which was built into the cliff side. Going up the stepped-path to the top, a harpist is playing. And the views are stunning, even with the bit of haze on the horizon. On clear days, you can see the Aran Islands, and the similarities of the geology between Dun Aengus and Moher are evident. And if you remember the movie The Princess Bride, this is where the Cliffs of Insanity were filmed. You can walk all the way to end point in the pic below, which is looking south.
Just a few miles west of Moher is St. Brigid's Well, an homage to the patron saint of Ireland who lived in the 5th century. People come an leave their mementos for her in the little grotto.
We continued south to Dingle, which is the western-most point of Ireland, and home to some scenic views along the way.
Dingle is a such a cute little town, filled with pubs and shops, many of which have high-quality local crafts, such as paintings, ceramics, woolens and jewelry. I realized going through my pictures that I really didn't get any pictures of the town, but it's cute, so you'll just have to take my word for it! We took a drive out to the very western point, and along the way, stopped to see some of the ogham stones in the area -- writings from about 400-600 AD in the forms of lines and dashes.  And we found  a little sandy beach where we dipped our feet in the Atlantic!
Traditional Irish music (or trad music) has become a mainstay in Dingle's pubs, and a trad music festival was taking place the weekend after we left. We were treated however, to a fabulous show at O'Sullivan's Courthouse Pub, which is owned by friends of my Irish hosts. Turns out one night we were there was a CD release party for two well-known Irish musicians, Jackie Daly and Matt Cranitch, so I shall leave you (almost!) with the one and only video I took (and I never take video!) of some fabulous foot-thumping music!
Ireland was a fabulous place to visit, and of course it didn't hurt that I had the best hosts ever. Ever! I can't thank them enough for their hospitality and helping to plan such a wonderful trip. Like I said before, green hills, grazing sheep, and miles of rock walls are amongst the things that make me smile and think very fondly of this beautiful emerald isle.(As well as the crazy narrow roads with no shoulder!)
And, our faithful travel companion, Rua! Slainte!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Ireland, Part One: The Food

I just returned from a wonderful 10 day trip to western Ireland where a friend and I had the privilege of staying with another friend who owns a house north of Galway city, just over the border in County Mayo. I'll start with the food, and my next post will be the sights.

Fortunately, Ireland is a land of more than just potatoes, as evidenced by the beautiful array of produce in Valerie's sizeable garden.
The zucchini, or courgettes as they known there, grow INCHES every day; the large one here weighed just over 2.5 pounds. We did not go hungry while staying there!

From Puddleducks, a cafe in the town of Cong, a marvelous salad with copious amounts of Cashel Blue Cheese. We couldn't believe how much cheese was on here!  (Named after Jemima Puddleduck from the Peter Rabbit stories!)
McDonagh's in Galway -- fish and chips; this is pollock, but we also had hake which isn't as overfished. (I couldn't really tell a difference between the fish, they're both whitefish of very similar texture.)
Some of the most wonderful mussels I have ever had, and they were probably just hours out of the waters at Killary Harbor and the town of Leenane. Served simply at the Leenane Hotel with white wine, garlic, and herbs, along with brown soda bread and chips (french fries) of course.
Over to the isle of Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands. Near the entrance to the Viking fort of Dun Aengus (more on this in my next post!)  was the Nan Phaidi House cafe that catered to the tourists, but had delicious food. Here, Guinness beef stew; really nice flavor, though the beef could have been a little more tender. The islands, which were traditional fishing villages, are also known for houses with thatched roofs. And as throughout Ireland, gorgeous flower baskets on your house or business.

Back on the "mainland" and down the coast a bit to Doolin, where we stayed and dined at the Roadford House B & B. Trip Advisor rates them as the best restaurant in Doolin, and it was easy to see why. Beautifully prepared lamb three ways: sausage, medium-rare chops, and confited and made into a patty.
And on to the town of Dingle, which is on the western-most peninsula of Ireland. Lunch one afternoon was at The Garden Cafe, where I was delighted to have their Dingle Dog of the Day: lamb and herb sausage with caramelized onions. The sausages are made locally, as are the buns. This was so simple, and so good! I couldn't really identify the herbs in the sausage, and unfortunately, our waitress didn't know either, but it was tasty. We sat outside in the garden, where the local cat kept an eye on everything.

Dinner that night was at Out of the Blue, which creates their menu based off of what they were able to get fresh at the fish market each day. This was a potato-crusted pollack with chives and cream; they shredded the potatoes to make the crust, and seared the heck out of it to make it marvelously crisp.
We also spent time at the Courthouse Pub where I did manage to try a Guinness. I normally don't care for dark, heavy stouts, and have not cared for Guinness when I have tried it in the States. I asked the bartender for a half-pour, and was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it and drank the whole thing! It wasn't bitter like I recall it previously, and apparently Guinness beer in Ireland is not pasteurized which may account for the taste difference.
The prize for the worst meal of the trip goes to John Bennys Pub -- our three separate dishes (pork loin, steak, and scallops) were all horribly overcooked. We got a good laugh out of it though, and went back to Murphy's Ice Cream for the second time that day! On my first trip, I had Dingle Sea Salt  (like heavy cream with a touch of salt) with Caramel Honeycomb (yes, as good as it sounds!), and my second, Toasted Irish Oats (subtle toasted oat flavor and texture) and Chocolate.
From the town of Ennis, at the Nolan + Lambe cafe, a very rich goat cheese tart with potato and Waldorf side salads.
And back in Galway, from the Charcoal Grill, a fantastic doner kebap (where the meat is roasted vertically on a spit, like a gyro) place, where I had chicken and lamb, topped with garlic and chile sauces. (This place happens to be the favorite of my friends who live in Ireland, and I can see why!)
All in all it was great eating in Ireland!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Bits and Bites -- Austin Food News!

-- Incredibly saddened to hear of the sudden passing of Art Blondin, founder of Artz Ribhouse, and pit master of the best baby back ribs anywhere. RIP to one of the good guys.

-- Olive + June hosts a Tasca d'Almerita wine dinner, September 3, $80/person, tickets here.
-- The upcoming Sunday Supper at Swift's Attic is a benefit for owner CK Chin's birthday; $10 or a donation of gently used business attire will benefit Dress for Success; more info here
-- Jack Allen's Kitchen (Oak Hill) and Hops + Grain Brewery are having a five course beer dinner, September 9th, $55/person, email for tickets.
-- Food, Fun + Fore! Golf Tournament  will benefit the Austin Food and Wine Alliance's culinary scholarships, September 19th at Falconhead Golf Course.
-- Russian House will host a vodka fair, September 25th, $10/person.
-- The Texas Craft Brewers Festival is September 27th at Fiesta Gardens, $10 and up.
-- Springdale Farm Aid will be September 28th at Springdale Farms, $50/person, tickets here.  This sip and stroll fundraiser event will feature many local chefs!

-- New prepared foods spot, Independence Fine Foods has opened at 1807 Slaughter Lane.
-- New trailer, Chico + the Fox has opened at 1311 South Lamar, specializing in pulled pork.
-- After much anticipation, Olamaie has opened (in the old Sagra/Mars spot on San Antonio St.), featuring modern southern foods.
-- Jacoby's Restaurant + Mercantile has opened on East Cesar Chavez.
-- aRoma Italian is now open for lunch, 11am - 4pm M-F, and 12 - 4pm on Saturdays; happy hour 3 - 6pm Mon - Sat.
-- The Parish Underground now offers a 25 cent martini with lunch, Mon - Fri, 11am - 2pm. 
-- The Kebabalicious trailer is joining The Picnic food trailer park on Barton Springs.
-- The Smokey Denmark BBQ trailer has a new pit master, formerly of John Mueller's.

And with that folks, I am off to Ireland for 12 days! Slainte!