Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Food and Drink in Ireland

Ireland's location and climate have combined to produce an agricultural abundance: Its lush grasslands support a thriving livestock idustry, resulting in good beef, lamb, and pork; its extensive waters yield a fine harvest of fish and seafood: sole, plaice, mackerel, sea trout, salmon, lobster and crab, prawns and scallops, oysters and mussels; its Soil and mild climate nurture barley, wheat, sugar beets, and potatoes as well as other vegetables, when Irish farmers can be persuaded to grow them.

At its best, Irish food is fresh, nourishing, and prepared simply. There are several regional variations and a few local specialties, but the real geographical division is between the coast and the interior. On the coast, which is heavily visited by travellers, food is on the whole good and its presentation attractive. The flat heart of the country has barely emerged from the dark English provinclal ages that dominated food in Ireland for a century and a half.

The timing of meals in Ireland is Important. The Irish food day is divided into three main meals and almost as many side events. The weight-conscious visitor will sImply have to pick and choose and try to be selective.

Irish breakfast

A typical Irish breakfast starts with porridge (a flavorsome boiled oatmeal topped with cream) and continues through a main course of bacon and eggs accompanied by grilled tomatoes, toast, and orange marmalade. The eggs may be cooked any style and the bacon is good although not crisp. A black or whIte pudding (both are kinds of blood pudding) or even kidney or liver may accompany the meal.

A breakfast alternative offered on the coast is plaice, a delicate-tasting fish, or fresh mackerel if they are running. Try both for a new and delightful breakfast experience.Instead of toast a coarse, wholemeal 'brown bread homebaked, nutty, and deltcious or soda bread plain white, usually made without raisins may be served.

To dine or not to dine is a big question for the traveller. For most Irish people, particularly those in the countryside, luncheon is the main meal, taken about 1 0'clock, and usually consists of soup, meat (beef or chicken), vegetables (peas, cabbage, carrots, and usually potatoes), and dessert (the Irish call them sweets), generally puddings or pastries. Here or there, a visitor may encounter carrageen sweets, moulded jelly with extract of Irish moss, a species of seaweed, flavored with lemon rind and served with heavy cream or fruit.

They are mild and subtle and entirely pleasant. Cheese is often offered as an alternative to dessert. Irish cheese is good and some hotels have a tempting cheese board that includes French and other European varieties. Visitors staying with an Irish family should follow custom others can do as they Iike. Most hotels and resaurants feature a formal midday meal, and a saving grace is that although It is fundamentally the same meal as that served in the evening, it costs up to 50% less.

The alternatives to a full hot lunch are luckily multiplying in Ireland. Hotel coffee shops or lounges will serve cold plates of smoked salmon, chicken, salads, or sandwiches. The Irish pub which hitherto concentrated on one thing, drink is gradually extending its menu from sandwiches (which are thin and bready by American standards) to include soup, cold plates, salads, and hot meat pies. These meals are indicated by signs that say pub grub.

Or visitors may prefer to skip lunch and sustain themselves until the main evening meal by having afternoon tea. This fine English institution is, like many other colonial relics, slowly fading from Ireland. Afternoon tea is undeniably a spiritual refreshment; it can rise to ritual, however, when it include delicate finger sandwiches of ham, chicken, or cucumber; strips of toast WIth honey; chocolate eclairs; heavy fruitcakes; or wedges of apple tart with cream.

The domestic Irish evening dinner meal is usually called tea or supper high tea to distinguish it verbally from the afternoon version. In winter it might be quite a substantial meal a mixed grill (sausage, bacon, kidney, a small pIece of steak, and a lamb chop), steak and potatoes, or fish in the coastal areas; in summer, it may be something lighter, such as boiled eggs with toast, bread and jam, or a plate of sliced cold chicken or ham. Tea is rounded off with cake, a fruit tart, pudding, or scones.

Among the traditional Irish dishes not to be missed are oxtail soup, Irish stew ( layers of onion, potato, and mutton), and fresh salmon when in season for which the country is justifiably famous. Seafood, surprisingly, has only recently become popular in Ireland, though the coastal waters abound with prawns, lobster, mussels, and oysters. Each October, at the beginning of the oyster harvest, a festival is held in Galway City, during which bushels of bivalves meet their doom in a deluge of porter (a dark beer).

Briefly thereafter, oysters become available in the shops. Another delicacy sometimes served in restaurants is the periwinkle, a tiny sea snail that is boiled, picked from in the shell with sewing needles or wooden pikes, and eaten.

Dipped in melted butter laced with garlic, the winkle need not blush before the escargot. At fairs or horse races, little bags of dried seaweed are often sold as though it were candy; this is dulse, and it makes a tasty, salty chaw a fine accompaniment to a glass of stout.

Drinks in Ireland

This brings us to the subject of drink. The favoured beverage is stout, or porter, a dark, pungent brew served by the jar, with a head like thick cream and a reputation for being able to support life single-handedly. Guinness is the largest brewer, though other brands are locally obtainable outside Dublin.

Good lager and ale, like stout, are drawn at room temperature; the Irish regard the American custom of taking such beverages icy cold with the wry detachment of the anthropologist. They privately think it is a custom suitable only for savages. A dash of sweetened lime juice in a glass of beer makes a refreshing drink.

If you are thinking of hiring a car at Dublin, Cork, Shannon, Galway or Knock Airport, you can book car rentals before you fly. You may want to leave the hire car at your hotel if you are planning an Irish pub crawl, but this is the perfect way to get around if you want to explore the countryside and cities of Ireland.

Most Irish bartenders do not mix drinks, but will sell small bottles of mixers at an extra charge. The spirits of choice are gin, Scotch, and Irish whiskey. The whiskey distributed for home consumption is far smoother than the youthful export stuff, though of slightly lower proof. It is, like the great malt whiskeys of Scotland, a straight liquor, unblended, and it has a distinctive fruity bouquet and trace of sweetness. In recent years, wines have become a popular potable in Ireland, and although only small quantities of wine are produced in the country, a wide assortment of European vintages, as well as selections from as far away as Chile and Australia, are available.

California wines, including nonalcoholic varieties, also have gained acceptance in the Irish marketplace. Don't miss a chance to sample that famous after-dinner treat Irish coffee, a tantalizing concoction of hot coffee and whiskey topped with a thick layer of gently whipped cream. (For a more complete discussion of beers, ales, and liquors, as well as a selection of the best watering holes in Ireland.

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