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.
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.
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.
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
• 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.
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!