So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 7): Eating, Drinking … and Music

This series started with an introduction, and here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Now, let’s talk about those to-do categories we skipped earlier, shall we? I haven’t forgotten them.

10 Have a drink in a traditional Irish pub
11 Hear traditional Irish music
18 Shop for uniquely Irish items
19 Enjoy the food

I’m going to put off the post on shopping, since this one has already gotten longish. So let’s discuss food, drink, and music! Here’s a little bit of background that will help when you’re planning your trip.

Traditional Music
What you may be calling Celtic is called traditional in Ireland. “Trad.” More than likely, you’re going to find traditional sessions in a pub—look for signs in pub windows. Don’t look for a stage so you can sit close—the musicians will most likely sit at a table somewhere in the room. If you’re an old fogey like me, do be prepared to stay up late: the musicians won’t show up until after 9:00 or even 10:00 pm.

If you love this music—and who doesn’t!—look for music stores in larger towns, where you can pick up CDs by local musicians to take home.

Public Houses
Ireland is the only place I know that exports its pub culture. You can go just about anywhere in the world—even my little town here in Tennessee—and find an Irish pub. (Authenticity is another story. About a dozen years ago I visited one such establishment in Nashville—now defunct—and was dismayed to find the wait staff dressed in caps and vests and short pants, looking like they’d just stepped out of the 1840s. Oh dear.)

You can search the Web or travel guides for well-known pubs in Ireland, but as far as I’m concerned, you can stop into any pub on your route, enjoy the ambience of the moment, and it will be an authentic experience. In his wonderful book, McCarthy’s Bar: A Journey of Discovery in the West of Ireland, Pete McCarthy has a series of travel rules, the first of which is Never pass a bar with your name on it … and this works for me. 🙂 Tourists have subtly influenced authenticity, though, so the further out you get, the real-er they’ll feel. (No pressure to look like an Irish pub for the tourists, you see.)

Unlike England, where you find pubs with names like Red Lion, Goose and Cloud, or Saracens Head, many Irish pubs are named after the owner or a previous owner. (There are exceptions, of course: the Bleeding Horse and the Confession Box, both long-lived pubs in Dublin, are just two.) A lot of social life happens in pubs—celebrations of all sorts, meet-ups, and general relaxation. We have nothing in the United States that approximates Irish pub culture.

With that in mind, here are a few things you should know:

• Belly up to the bar, there may not be a waiter.
• No need to tip the bartender.
• Don’t run a tab. Drinks are bought (and paid for) in rounds; that is, you buy a round for the entire table. And then someone else does.
• It’s pronounced JEM-i-sun (short e), not JAY-mi-sun.
• Remove your hat, young sir.
• Don’t ask for an Irish Car Bomb or a Black and Tan. Please.

Pubs in the larger cities and towns probably offer food—pub grub—throughout the day. More than likely it will be casual comfort food—soups, stews, hot sandwiches and fries—but some city pubs chase the business lunch crowd with expanded menus; in smaller towns you might be lucky to get a cold sandwich. Still, if you’re on a budget, a pub’s a good place to eat.

The local—a good place to meet new friends!

The local—a good place to meet new friends!

Let’s talk about what to eat. Don’t worry about “traditional” food and forget any jokes you may have heard about the quality of Irish cuisine. Some of the best meals I’ve had in my life I had in Ireland.

These, then, are the things that will always be good:

• fish and seafood
• lamb
• potatoes
• pork: chops, sausages, bacon
• brown bread
• dairy: cheese, butter, buttermilk
• fresh fruits and vegetables
• soups and stews: Guinness stew
• breakfast: white and black pudding

Some things are just obvious: you are never far from the sea in Ireland, so fish and seafood are fresh, fresh, fresh. By now you’ve seen the sheep everywhere, so it makes sense that the lamb will be good. Pork too—the locavore movement is in full swing here as in the States; the demand for organic and local foodstuffs supports farmers across the nation. Gerry gets delicious sausage from his local butcher, made to the butcher’s family recipe and available nowhere else.

Speaking of pork, be sure to enjoy the “full Irish” breakfast, wherever you find one; pay particular attention to the black and white pudding, which are really coarse sausages stuffed with oats or barley and pork (pig’s blood, in the case of black pudding). Seriously delicious. And the best B&Bs will be patronizing a local butcher for bacon, sausages, and puddings. Yum. Oh, and about breakfast: you’re not going to find a Denny’s or an IHOP in every town, so if you’re not staying in a B&B or otherwise find yourself in need of breakfast some morning and don’t know where to go, step into the local hotel, where the dining room will bring you a pot of tea and a menu right away. 🙂

Potatoes are served with just about everything in Ireland—fried, boiled, mashed, you name it. They are more flavorful than the potatoes you’re used to, so be sure to sample them. A decade ago we stopped at a pub for lunch and I ordered Guinness stew (a favorite of mine, and always a safe bet if you’re looking for comfort food); when the bowl of stew (beef, onions, and carrots swimming in gravy) arrived it was accompanied by a serving bowl of boiled, peeled potatoes. It was explained to me I should add one potato at a time to my stew bowl. Oh my. I felt like I was tasting potatoes for the first time, tasting ur-potatoes. I’ll never forget that meal. (Oh, and don’t you forget that french fries are called chips, and potato chips are called crisps!)

As noted, you can’t go wrong with a Guinness stew. And soup … OMG. Cooks across Ireland are stirring up the most imaginative pots of soup you’ve ever put in your mouth. I still fantasize about that bowl of parsnip and blue cheese I had in Glandore. Great pub food. You’ll also find delicious fried food in pubs—fish-n-chips, for example, and lovely fried chicken.

Parsnip and blue cheese soup with brown bread. OMG.

Parsnip and blue cheese soup with brown bread. OMG.

You can always count on these types of meals to be served with hearty brown bread and butter. By all means, set your diet aside (you’re going to walk it off anyway) and sample the bread, kids. Heaven!

Or put a slab of cheese on that bread. If your’re a cheese-lover like me, you’re going to love your stay in Ireland; artisan cheeses abound. Be sure to order that cheese tray from the dessert menu, or duck into a farm shop or grocer to pick up cheese to snack on later. (If you’re in Dublin, go to Sheridan’s Cheesemongers and they’ll take fine care of you. Try the English Market in Cork.) I could go on and on about this—one of the magic moments you’ll read about in the next post has to do with cheese—but just trust me: try the cheese.

One last thing: give tea a try, even if you’re a coffee drinker. The Irish drink a lot of tea, and they know how to do it right. And for a special treat, you should consider taking in a “high tea” (or call it “afternoon tea”) at an upscale hotel. (This will include sandwiches and baked goods in addition to your teapot full of joy.) We enjoyed this experience at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin (read about it here) and have already decided to do it again. It was special—and delicious—and it’s a quintessential Irish experience, so you should consider putting it on your itinerary.

Up next: Let’s go shopping!

London Has an Eye, and We Poked It

December 24, 2000, Sunday – Christmas Eve

We went back into London—this time driving with Anna and Eoin. And for the first time since our arrival—rain! Really, not much more than a drizzle, though it was enough to get us wet. And cold. Once again, we drove by landmarks and sites that seemed like something out of a dream: Buckingham Palace, the houses of Parliament, the Tate and other museums, Big Ben … and we stopped at the London Eye.

It’s a Ferris wheel, actually.

It’s a Ferris wheel, actually.

A viewing pod up close.

A viewing pod up close.

Intended to become an icon of the city of London, this is, well, a giant Ferris wheel. It has thirty-three giant pods, which are observation areas; each one holds up to twenty-five passengers (though on this relatively slow tourism day, each capsule got just ten or so folks) who enjoy a completely unobstructed view of London from a fabulous perspective (450 feet up, at the highest point). There are some very nice photos on Wikipedia, including a panorama, so be sure to look.

Jesse and I were so lucky to have just a few people sharing our pod.

Jesse and I were so lucky to have just a few people sharing our pod.

“Because it is situated on the banks of the River Thames, in the center of the City,” the official guidebook says, “it overlooks many of the city’s most famous and impressive landmarks … on a clear day you can see for 25 miles—as far as Heathrow Airport and Windsor Castle.”

On a rainy day we couldn’t see Windsor Castle, but I was delighted with this view of Big Ben and the red doubledecker buses.

On a rainy day we couldn’t see Windsor Castle, but I was delighted with this view of Big Ben and the red doubledecker buses.

It wasn’t a clear day for us, though. As mentioned, it was rainy (and cold, once you got out in it); Anna and Eoin decamped to a coffee shop to stay warm and dry while Jesse and I stood in line for the Eye.

The London Eye is situated on the banks of the Thames, just across and about 700 feet north of Westminster and Big Ben.

Here we’re looking south past Westminster now (in the lower right corner here); the rain’s really come up.

Here we’re looking south past Westminster now (in the lower right corner here); the rain’s really come up.

This massive building just across the river from the London Eye is the Royal Horseguards Hotel.

This massive building just across the river from the London Eye is the Royal Horseguards Hotel.

This is London County Hall from an interesting angle.

This is London County Hall from an interesting angle.

It was built to celebrate the new millennium (in fact, it was first known as the Millennium Wheel), so when we were visiting, it was not quite a year old yet (it had opened on 31 December 1999). The Eye has since become the most popular paid tourist attraction in the UK; when we were there in 2000, we’d heard stories of people waiting in line for three hours … but because it was Christmas Eve and raining, the lines were short and we were on board in less than fifteen minutes. Timing, as they say, is everything.

After our trip aloft, it finally stopped raining. These photos were made with a 1970s-era Canon F-1. If you wanted to zoom you had to change lenses, and I didn’t have the will to carry around more than one lens (the camera, with its all-brass fittings, was heavy enough). So I’m pleased with what I got, all things considered.

After our trip aloft, it finally stopped raining. These photos were made with a 1970s-era Canon F-1. If you wanted to zoom you had to change lenses, and I didn’t have the will to carry around more than one lens (the camera, with its all-brass fittings, was heavy enough). So I’m pleased with what I got, all things considered.

With the light dwindling, Eoin gave us a final pass through the city’s various districts: the West End (a social and cultural center, as well as the London home of the royal family); Westminster (the center of political and religious power); Kensington (an exclusive area of parks, museums, and hotels); Regent’s Park (an area of upscale, mostly Georgian, homes); Southwark (the riverfront area); and “the city” (the financial district). “The largest city in Europe”—I’m quoting the guidebook here, though Anna claimed England was not in Europe!—“London is home to about seven million people and covers 625 square miles. Founded by the Romans in the first century AD, it has been the principal home of British monarchs for a thousand years, as well as the center of business and government … in addition to its diverse range of museums, galleries, and churches, London is an exciting contemporary city.” Typical British understatement. 🙂

During this farewell tour, we made our last stop at a pub, to raise a glass to this part of our visit. To London! Eoin took us to Prospect of Whitby—the oldest continuously operating pub on the river. Here’s some history: the famous riverside public house ‘the Prospect of Whitby’ on Wapping Wall dates back to 1520 and was once notorious for being a den of thieves and smugglers. (It’s even mentioned in the diaries of Samuel Pepys.) Originally it was known as the Devil’s Tavern, probably for good reason.

Anna and I each had a shandy, which is a beer/lemonade combination, and while you may wrinkle your nose at the thought, I am here to tell you it was delicious. (My friends will know I have a great margarita recipe that calls for a can of beer, so in fact this notion of beer and citrus juices is not so farfetched.)

After this we drove home to Berkshire, where we changed clothes and went off to the carol service and midnight mass at the Corpus Christi Church in Wokingham. We sang carols and pinched ourselves—Christmas in England!

Upon our return home, we observed traditions from both Eoin’s and Anna’s families: we ate mincemeat pies (which Eoin had made earlier in the day) and sipped ginger wine—the former tradition from Eoin’s side, the latter from Anna’s. And with this glow in our stomachs, we toddled off to bed.

Real London!

16 December 2000, Saturday

My body clock was right on schedule: I woke up at 5:30 a.m. Nashville time. The rest of the household, however, was snug in their beds, so I read for a bit and then dropped back to sleep. Sunrise seemed to come very late in England … or perhaps it was just the cloud cover. No matter—after months of rising at five o’clock without fail, it was heaven, just heaven to sleep in. (Also, the Lambkins—as many people do—like the house to be cool at night; this made it an easy decision to stay snug under the covers until the heating timer switched on at eight.*)

We had a leisurely morning, then drove into London. Real London, y’all! The city of my adolescent dreams and fantasies! (I grew up during a time when London was the epicenter of all that was cool, and I’d never lost that childish awe of the place. For an idea of what I mean, read Ready, Steady, Go: The smashing rise and giddy fall of swinging London, by Sean Levy.)

Harrod’s, with its royal seal. Meh.

And it was just like the pictures. Once again, I pinched myself … we drove by so many sights and landmarks, things I’d read about and never imagined I’d ever get to see in person. (That song you hear playing in the background just now is “Rule Britannia.”) And the architecture! Oh my, pick your period—Georgian, Regency, Victorian, Palladian, Gothic—London is chock-full of magnificent examples.

First order of business, though, was to visit a Bureau de Change to turn travelers’ checks into money. As a member of AAA, I’d purchased American Express travelers’ checks in British pounds at no charge, without having to order them in advance (my bank wanted me to place an order in advance and charge me 4 percent). At any rate, I was charged a 5 percent fee at the Bureau de Change but later found an American Express office that redeemed the checks for free.**

Can I tell you how completely charmed I was by British currency? The paper money came in a variety of hues, and the coins … oh! such a myriad of sizes and shapes to learn! Unlike our dollar bill, Britain does not have a one-pound note. It’s a coin. So one very quickly accumulated a pocketful of change, dominated by the lovely, satisfyingly thick one-pound coin. I must’ve brought two dozen of them home.

Our main activity that afternoon was a visit to the Tower of London. We were not going to spend a lot of time in the city, because there were other things to see in the countryside. So Anna and Eoin gave us the driving tour and chose a few special stops. The Tower was one.

I confess I had not reviewed English history thoroughly enough, so I had this image in my head of a literal tower (tall, narrow, dark), which had once been a jail for political prisoners (a couple of Henry VIII’s unfortunate wives spring to mind) and which now house the crown jewels. But, my friends, the Tower of London is so much more than this! If you have limited time in London, as we did, I would recommend this historic place as being representative of the majesty of England’s antiquity, its thriving monarchy, and its willingness to take an unflinching look at its own historic past.

These gentlemen are named Gin and Beer (for the 2 most important beverages of the time). That’s Beer on the right, with the tankard. Carved wooden statues located in the White Tower, dating from the 17th century, taken with ambient light.

“For over 900 years,” the official guidebook says, “the Tower has dominated the city of London and today is still one of the capital’s most prominent landmarks and a world-famous visitor attraction. Throughout its long history the Tower has served as a royal palace and fortress, prison and place of execution, an arsenal, royal mint, menagerie, and jewel house. Today, London’s great royal fortress is home to some of the most potent symbols of British history: the Yeoman Warders [you may know them as Beefeaters], ravens, and crown jewels.”

London was once called Londinium; the Romans built it. Most of the original city wall erected by the Romans is long gone, but on the grounds of the Tower of London, some small stretches remain.

This is part of the wall the Romans built around their city Londinium. Can you imagine a time when that much of a wall was all it took to feel safe?

The Tower itself was built in the reign of William the Conqueror (1066–1087), and remained little changed for over a century; then, between 1190 and 1285, the building now known as the White Tower was encircled by two towered curtain walls and a great moat.

The White Tower. The moat is now grass.

Much of this was done by Richard the Lionheart’s chancellor; the justification for the expense and effort this involved was the political instability of the kingdom and the Crown’s continuing need for an impregnable fortress in the city of London—which had, by the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, become the most powerful city in England. Subsequent kings (and queens) added to the living quarters and other buildings, though the only significant enlargement of the tower was the addition of the wharf, begun by Edward III (1327–1377) and completed under Richard II (1377–1399). As best I can tell, the Stuarts were the last of England’s royal family to actually make their home in the Tower of London, which would mean, I think, it ceased to be a royal residence in the mid-1600s or very early 1700s.

And those crown jewels … holy sparkle, Batman! You’ve seen ’em on TV, adorning the current queen, but let me tell ya, they are most impressive in person. The absolute value of all the gold, silver, platinum, diamonds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and pearls in the royal collection is way beyond comprehension. Add to this the fact that the crowns and other artifacts have been worn and used by kings and queens of England for hundreds of years and you quickly realize they are priceless.

“Although the Tower of London is today seen as a visitor attraction”—again from the guidebook—“it is also a thriving community; about 150 people still live within its walls, mainly Yeoman Warders and their families.”

Apartments for the Tower residents. Nice enough neighborhood but too many tourists.

And perhaps most interestingly, the Tower is inhabited by a small flock of ravens (they’re large birds), which is attended by an official Ravenmaster.

Me: “Stand by the raven, honey, and let me take your picture.”
The Boy: “But Mom, he’ll peck me.”
Bird reaches over and pecks Boy’s leather jacket.
Me: (sigh)
The Boy: (sigh)

In theory, the indigenous birds were attracted to the smell of corpses (remember, the Tower was a place of execution) and thus just hung around the place. There are all sorts of legends, of course, including the most famous, which has it that should the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the White Tower will crumble and a great disaster will befall England—and that King Charles II (1660–1685) decided not to buck it, even though the birds were pooping on his new telescope. During those delicate times following the English civil war (you know this as the period of the restoration), an irate Charles was reminded of the legend, spared the ravens, and moved the observatory to Greenwich. It’s a swell story … but historians believe it may have been a Victorian (ahem) flight of fancy. The Victorians did like their little stories.

We spent several hours at the Tower, then drove into Chinatown for a wonderful meal. Eoin knows London like the back of his hand and was great at pointing out sights and landmarks as he drove. A post-dinner stroll through Chinatown was most pleasant.

And the day wasn’t over! We drove back to Barkham, where we stopped at a Walmart-like store for provisions. Specifically, Eoin needed a bottle of whisky for a friend/coworker that we were about to meet. “American Bob,” he and Anna called him, because, well, he was (although he’d lived and worked in the London area for five years at that point).

So around 10:00 p.m. we removed ourselves to the local pub to celebrate American Bob’s fortieth birthday. Walking, as it was just around the corner. The Boy had his first-ever beer, a mild one picked for him by Eoin. (Yes, he was just sixteen; sue me.) He fit right in to this lively place, which Eoin and Anna insisted wasn’t a real English pub, though you could’ve fooled me—snug, warm, full of bonhomie, and low ceilings. Just what I’d imagined. Sometime after midnight we fell exhausted into bed.

* You know how sometimes the cold can just settle in your bones and you can’t warm up? I had that problem in England. I slept in sweats and socks and a sweater, and stayed similarly bundled during daylight hours. I hugged the radiator, while Anna and Eoin walked around in short sleeves, their breath condensing in the air. I know it’s just a matter of getting acclimated—the outside temperature was in the 50s the whole time we were there, which would be typical for Tennessee that time of year too. For me it was chilly. It’s probably healthier to keep the home a little cool.

** Remember, this was 2000; does anyone use travelers’ checks anymore? I remember movies made in the ’60s and ’70s, particularly those set in Europe, showed the ubiquitous American Express office; the hero was always ducking into one. This all seems very distant now, though, almost quaint.