Monday, August 22, 2011

Ireland: Food & Drink

Whenever people ask me about my trip to Ireland, I respond, "It was amazing." If they ask for more details, I mention how the people are incredible, the scenery is breathtaking, pubs are unbeatable, and the food is fantastic.

Hawaiian Panini at the Strand House Cafe in Dingle
Let me put this into perspective for you. I live in a college town in South Dakota. 95% of the restaurants here are either chains or locally owned sports bars and pizza places. To be in a country that valued fresh, organic ingredients from local sources was surreal. I cherished each plate set in front of me.

In America, restaurants give you giant platters of grease, cheese, fat, and salt, and their business relies almost solely on the human weakness for junk food. In Ireland, restaurants prepare creative dishes from delightfully fresh ingredients, and they give you a satisfying amount that treats your taste buds with interesting combinations of textures and flavors.

When I ordered the Hawaiian Panini at the Strand House Cafe, a pile of greens accompanied the sandwich on my plate. I love salad, but I balked a little when I saw the bell pepper strips, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and small heap of potato salad at the top. Peppers and tomatoes still sit on the list of foods I'm working to acquire a taste for, and, well, potato salad has never even been on that list. Yuck.

However, I tried it. And you know what? I liked it. This potato salad tasted worlds better than any of the bright yellow monstrosities I had tried back home. I took a second bite--still no gagging. I finished the entire thing, and wanted more. The flavors were subtle, light, and pleasing. It wasn't overly salty or soaking in vinegar or mayonnaise. It was divine.

Then I tried the peppers, even though I knew thought I hated them. And I liked those, too! I ate the entire salad. And the panini. And then I teared up.

No, seriously.

Organic peppers at the market in Howth
Some of the other foods I tried and ended up loving were brussel sprouts, glazed turnips, mutton, chutney, pesto mayonnaise, muesli, soda bread, quiche, and brie (chicken-cranberry-brie panini? YES PLEASE!).

As for what I didn't like? Guinness. Sorry, Arthur, but your beloved brew did not hit the spot with me.

Free samples of Guinness at the St. James Brewery in Dublin
At one point in the St. James Brewery, the words "There's poetry in every pint of Guinness" were written on the wall. I liked that line, even though the sample they gave me during the tour was terribly unpleasant. I still understand the meaning behind it, though. The poetry is in the deep flavors of barley and hops, and the smoothness of the drink. I could appreciate that; I just couldn't appreciate the aftertaste. In fact, I turned down the free pint they gave us when we reached the top floor (a glass room giving a 360-degree view of Dublin). 

The 360-degree viewing room at the brewery

I will also add that the insane popularity of Guinness surprised me. Some people assume Minnesotans just sit around eating lutefisk all day, but I can assure you that I have never even seen lutefisk, and I've only met one person who has actually tasted it. I wondered if Guinness in Ireland was a similar misconception. Well, I'm here to tell you that it's not. Guinness was everywhere--on t-shirts in every store, on neon signs on every pub, on every bar counter, and in the hands of tourists and locals alike. The Irish love their Guinness. This is a mystery to me, but I find it endearing nevertheless.

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