Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ireland and Scotland

The trip (at least to the former of the two places) that some Catholic Irish-Americans would categorize as more of a pilgrimage than a vacation (or holiday, if you will). I am just Heinz 57 enough to treat it as much more recreational, educational, and culinarily based than as a religious experience. However, I want to be careful to not understate the importance of what I experienced in either place. There is so much history on that side of the pond. I know that I can not come close to understanding it all, given the short time that we were over there. Nor can I even relay 100% of the little bit that I know to you, but I will do the best that I can (as I sit here drinking the Scotch that I brought back from Scotland, for inspiration).

I don't know how you all get pumped up for a holiday (yes, we will be using as much of the Queen's English as possible today, so prepare yourself for that and turn away if you cannot cope), but I like to have a little pre-holiday holiday. Since there are no direct flights from KC to Dublin (the first stop on our journey) and connections always suck, we used some Southwest points to fly to Chicago (where we were able to find a direct flight to Dublin) and stay a night before our long transatlantic haul. While we were in Chicago we met up with some friends for some late night food and drinks but made sure to get to bed early enough to get in an AM workout since we are training for the Kansas City Triathlon (as you know, I love me some triathlons).

Cinnamon sugar and Reece's minis
After our AM workout, my craving for street food kicked in and we headed over to Beaver's Donuts Beavers Donuts on Urbanspoon for a breakfast of champions. Amazing mini donuts, made fresh on the truck, and Cuban coffee! If you are ever in Chicago, make sure not to skip out on this one. But enough about Chicago, this post (that is already shaping up to be pretty long and we haven't even gotten to the point yet) is about the Celtic nations.

Fast forward (through an awesome airport dinner at Tortas Frontera Tortas Frontera by Rick Bayless on Urbanspoon and a long red-eye flight) to the next day, our arrival in Dublin. The first thing that we experienced after we got off the plane confirmed one of the most common stereotypes about Dubliners: They are some of the friendliest people that you will ever meet! The first friend we made in Dublin was Freddy, a cab driver. Freddy didn't just take us to our hotel; he answered any questions that we asked, told us about any historical buildings that we passed, and when he dropped us off he gave us his cell number and told us to call him 24/7 if we needed anything whether it be a ride or a restaurant recommendation. After helping us with our bags he began to cut up with the head bellman at the hotel, you can tell that Freddy makes his rounds, but this is also just how people are there! This is not just a cab driver putting on a nice face for customers, they get the fare either way, they do not have to say anything to you (In Scotland you will find a good mix of those that do and those that don't want to talk, but in Ireland we did not have a cab driver that was not friendly, no matter the time of day).

My favorite Freddy story came when we were inquiring about home values on the particular street that we were on. While explaining that home prices were ridiculously low because of Ireland's recent recession, he did take time to point out that all of the row homes on that street had doors that were painted different colours. He informed us that this tradition dated back to the Victorian era in Ireland. Ireland was still under English rule when Queen Victoria died and when the Royal Family asked that everyone paint their doors black in mourning... ... the Irish decided to paint the doors yellow, red, blue, green, or whatever colour they felt like. This tradition still stands today.

I believe that I have said it before, but if I haven't, I will say it now: When we travel to places, we do not like to do pre-scheduled tours and such, we like to be on our independent traveler tip. With that, we are free to come and go as we please and fill our days with what we want to do. So we appreciate when cab drivers are informative. We also appreciate not being stuck on a motorcoach all week, but there are some further-out and more touristy places that you may want to hop on a coach for a day simply because it is easier and more informative than driving yourself. SIDE NOTE: I strongly recommend against renting a car unless you REALLY want to drive to each little town on the coast and travel on your own schedule. I had always told myself that driving on the opposite side of the car and the opposite side of the road would be pretty easy, but it is hard to even remember which way to look when you are crossing the street since the US street system is so ingrained in our brains. It is best to leave the driving to the professionals. Don't be that tourist that causes a wreck and holds up traffic!

Cliffs of Moher
We did choose to take a day trip on a motorcoach to the Cliffs of Moher, which was gorgeous! Standing 214 meters (or over 700 feet) tall, the cliffs are not just something impressive to look at. They are like a caricature of the Irish weather and landscape. The grass is as green as the Irish countryside. The towering cliffs, as seen from the ocean, remind you of the stone fences that stand throughout the Irish countryside (particularly in County Galway, which I can talk about next). And the weather can cycle through anything that it has in its repertoire within seconds. It can be foggy one minute, raining the next, and then clear out as soon as it came on. We went through about 3 full revolutions of that rotation in the hour that we were there. The winds blow hard enough that they could turn an elephant into a kite. Which makes it even more mind-boggling why would-be Darwin award recipients (mostly dumb college-aged kids) would hop the stone fence, that has been erected to protect visitors from the edge of the cliffs, just to get a picture of themselves a few feet closer to the edge. There is even a sign to memorialize all of those that have lost their lives at the cliffs. I beg you, if you ever find yourself at the Cliffs of Moher, please do not be these people!

As promised above: The stone walls/fences. I will not say that there are none, because surely there are, but I did not see any plain wooden or chain linked fences during our time in Ireland. All of the fences that we saw were made of stone. Most of them date back to the 1840s, when the modern farming practices took over. They divided up the land and that is how it is still divided today. However, those are not the only stone fences that you see, there is a much deeper history than that. Pre-historic inhabitants built stone fences as far back as 5000 years ago (the age was calculated by the depth of the fence that was burried in peat, which grows at a rate of 12 inches per thousand years) and during the great potato famine (when many Irish-Americans emigrated to the US) the British made the Irish build a wall to get rations of food. You can tell pre-historic fences by their construction, there is no mortar covering the top and the stones are arranged in a way that leaves wind holes in the fence so that the wind does not knock it over. You can also tell the fence that was subsidized by the Brits (because they were being pressured by the international community to help the Irish out, but were unwilling to give them something for nothing, so they made them build a wall to nowhere), as these walls go over hills in a nonsensical routing that looks like it just goes on for days. The British wall (as I will call it here) is in stark contrast with the neatly arranged farm walls, you will know it when you see it.

Other things that you will notice as you travel through the Irish countryside (and the Scottish as well) is that the road signs are in two languages. One is English, the other is Gaelic (pronounced "Gay-lick" in Ireland and "Gah-lick" in Scotland, but the Irish people will call their form of Gaelic "Irish"). The two languages are not the same, but they are similar. They have some of the same words and phrases, but the pronunciation is a bit different. I actually read an article in the paper, while we were in Ireland, about whether continuing to require Irish as a subject for all primary school students was a good idea or not?

Irish Coffees
It was in Doolin, a small town near the Cliffs of Moher, that we had the best fish and chips of the entire trip (and we had some excellent fish and chips all over both islands). O'Connor's is a 300 year old pub that we stopped into just after visiting the cliffs on a reco from our driver Ray (another awesome Irishman). After having spent the day riding across the island, in fairy forts (the birthplace of the Leprechaun), visiting St. Bridgit's church (whom we will talk more about later), and trying not to get blown off the Cliffs of Moher, I was so ravenous that all of my sense had escaped me and I forgot to take a photo of the most amazing fish and chips ever! My apologies! I did however get a picture of the damn good Irish Coffee that O'Connor's serves.

Guinness @ Guinness
You may remember me teaching you how to make real Irish Coffee here. We indulged in plenty of Irish Coffees over the few days that we spent in Ireland!

Irish Coffees were not the only alcoholic beverages that we partook in while in Ireland. We also went to St. James' Gate, or the Guinness Storehouse as it is better known. We had heard that Guinness is better in Ireland than in the US, like a lot better, and had always believed that it would be, but words cannot describe how much better Guinness is in Ireland than it is in the US. They teach you how to pour the perfect pint of Guinness, then you get to drink the pint that you poured while looking over the entire city of Dublin. Whether you are a Guinness homer or not (and I am not), it is really breathtaking what you can see up there!

Panorama of the Gravity Bar at Guinness
"Guinness's", as the locals call it (I also believe that this could possibly be the origin of "Walmart's" and "Target's"), is not the only place that you need to see while you are staying in Dublin. Kilmainham Gaol (or "Jail" for those that are not hip to Irish pronunciations) is where you can learn more about the fighting between the British and the Irish that I mentioned earlier between the painted doors and the "fence to nowhere", and the political prisoners of those rebellions. If you tour the gaol, you will also easily see how Notre Dame got the nickname "Fighting Irish".

Dublin is a pretty small city, it is very walkable. If your hotel is centrally located (like ours was), it is easy to walk to Grafton Street, "Guinness's", Jameson, Kilmainham, and any other touristy spot that you may want to see. One thing that you may be told, when visiting Dublin, is that "3 days is more than enough to see everything that you want to see". We were told this by more than a couple people and it could not be farther from the truth! True, 3 days is more than enough time to see all of the touristy things that you may want to see. However, 3 days is not nearly enough time to see all of the pubs, enjoy all of the food, and meet all of the people that you will want to.

Speaking of trying all of the food (since this is technically still a food blog, I guess, for now), I had a list of foods that I wanted to try in Ireland and Scotland. It was not an extremely long list, but it was important to me. Here it is: In Ireland I really wanted to try black pudding and white pudding (preferably part of a full Irish breakfast). In Scotland I felt like I owed it to myself to try Haggis. I also knew that both places have extremely rich fishing grounds and wanted to find some fresh seafood (like really fresh).

Irish Breakfast
I had expected black and white pudding to be sausage like, because the makings of black pudding are very similar to blood sausage and the makings of white pudding are similar to black pudding but using fat instead of blood. I did not know how off the mark I was. I personally did not think that either pudding reminded me of sausage. They tasted instead of predominantly the barley that comprised them with the blood and fat respectively acting as little more than a binding and flavouring agent. They were both seasoned with savoury spices and tasted delicious! They went perfectly with the rest of the Full Irish Breakfast (pictured to the right). I will speak more about Haggis when I get to the Scotland part of the trip (if you are still reading by that point).

A short note about "bacon" in Scotland and Ireland: When we think of bacon in the US, we think of belly bacon. When they think of bacon, more often than not, they are thinking back bacon. You can get belly bacon over there, but it is not as popular.

Mussels and other pub fare
I also made sure to try pub stew. Each traditional Irish pub has their own unique recipe of stew. Most variations involve at least a little Guinness and/or beef, but some do not. Fish and chips was the main dish that everyone chose to order while in Ireland, but fresh mussels were excellent as well.

If you get a scampi (small lobster native to the Irish Sea and other waters around these parts) in a seafood stew, do yourself a favour and suck the head (especially if you have never done this). The most tender (almost fall apart in your mouth tender) and delicious meat is in the head. It may be a bit weird at first, and people may look at you, but you will be happy you did. And if people look at you for something like this, then they obviously don't know the best way to eat food, so disregard their opinion anyways.

To chase down your meal, as an appetizer to it, or both, you will probably want a fermented beverage. Since we have already been over Irish Coffees I will skip straight ahead to the beers while noting that if you are a fan of Irish whiskeys that you probably already know more than I would type here about them anyways. If you do not know anything about Irish whiskeys, plan a trip to Ireland and find out about them. But back on task with the beers: You know about Guinness (or at least you should) but you should also know that Ireland has many more beers that are worth trying besides just "the dark stuff".

There are a lot of Irish beers that we have in the US that I expected to see more of in Ireland. For instance Murphy's (which I later found out is pretty much isolated to County Cork). But surprisingly enough, the most common beer in the pubs (excluding Guinness) was Heineken. Heineken was then followed by a slew of other lagers from Holland, the US, and so on. You will occasionally find a Smithwick's but anything past that is like pulling teeth. This boggled my mind that bars that I frequent in the US will have more Irish beers available than the pubs in Dublin. I think that a lot of this has to do with money, politics, and... Big Brother trying to keep the little man down.

Galway Bay Brewery glass
The Irish are slowly starting to find out that there are beers out there with taste to them. Luckily, our hotel was situated atop one of a very few craft beer bars in Ireland, Alfie Burns (named after the famous Irishman). The restaurant is owned by the Galway Bay Brewing Company, one of the dozen or so craft breweries that have begun to teach Irelandians about craft beer. The craft beer scene in Ireland really didn't start to boom until about 3 years ago, long after the craft beer movement in the US and other countries was well on its way. Galway Bay owns a few other gastropubs, including the Brew Dock, that as the name suggests is right by the dock.

To confirm another stereotype about Ireland, we made friends or had conversation with complete strangers at almost every bar or pub that we sat down in. The most notable of which were a couple members of the Dublin Ladies Craft Beer Society! Look them up if you are ever in Dublin. Check them out here. Or contact them and offer to send them some craft beer that they cannot get over there, they are thirsty for more flavour! We sat and shot the breeze with them all night, they are awesome (uber American word used intentionally here) people!

Other conversations of note: Our new friends from the Dublin Ladies Craft Beer Society informed us that St. Bridgit (whom you may remember from visiting her church earlier and who was actually the first missionary to Ireland, even before St. Patrick) is the patron saint of brewing and that she had a vision that she would have a place in Heaven next to a lake of eternal beer (that she would be serving to everyone).

For those hesitant to visit Ireland (disclaimer: this disclaimer does not apply to Belfast and Northern Ireland), Ireland is an extremely safe country and you can walk anywhere at any time of day and feel safe. You have to be smart about your belongings, do not leave your stuff laying on the bar and go to the toilet. Your things will grow legs and walk off, but those are things that you would not do at home either!

Even the buildings wear green on St. Patrick;s Day
Dubliners were extremely apologetic about the actions of those around the city, as we were there over St. Patrick's Day (St. Patrick was actually quite different from the man that you hear about in the legends, but that is a story for another day). The friendly, fun-loving people that they are have no tolerance for people that get out of control. Don't get me wrong, it is almost expected that you will drink while you are in Ireland, you will probably be encouraged to drink a lot, but you are to hold your liquor! They also warned that it is hard to find a Dubliner in Dublin on St. Patrick's Day, which I found to be not true. The influx of so many French, German, and American tourists does inflate the city's population and dilute the Dubliners, but they are still there. Despite all of the pre-apologies and pre-warnings we did not see a single Irishman get out of hand or be the slightest bit rude! The only rude people we really encountered were French, and after discussing this with a friend that we made at Alfie's it was confirmed that French people are not just assholes in their own country, they are assholes in everyone's country (especially when they are on holiday). The Dublin parade saw much less drunken debauchery than even the Kansas City parade did this year. A drunken idiot punched a police horse at the Kansas City parade this year, for crying out loud!

Other good food finds (on the fresh seafood front): We took the train from Dublin out to a suburb called Dalkey. We went looking for fresh seafood, but also found a lovely little town and an island with history that is larger than it's square footage. My favorite Irish-American Chef Shaun told me that if we had time to make it to Dalkey that we had to check out Ouzos, a restaurant that he used to work in. Ouzos was founded to remedy the inability of Dubliners to get fresh seafood.

Ouzos bread pudding
Once upon a time, it was impossibly to get fresh seafood in Dublin. All seafood was caught in Ireland, shipped to be processed in France, and then shipped back. The owners of Ouzos decided that was not good enough. They could not purchase from any of the commercial fisherman, as the fisherman could not break their existing contracts with the seafood processes. So what does a restaurant owner do when they want fresh seafood and cannot get it? They buy their own boat, of course! Not only does Ouzos serve some of the freshest seafood that you will find, but they have some of the best seafood chowder as well (not to mention the second best bread pudding that I have ever had, second only to Chef Shaun's)! The back of the menu will even tell you about the every day grind of being an Ouzos "fishing-boat captain" (in my Forrest Gump voice).

The only bad part, and I mean the ONLY bad part, about going to Ireland over St. Patrick's Day was that you cannot get any NCAA Tournament games over there. Not even on an app on your phone, the app can tell from your IP address that you are not in the US (trust me, I tried). However, you can find other sports to entertain you while you are there. They play futbol, but it is not nearly as big as it is in England and other countries. The two biggest sports in Ireland are Rugby and Hurling. We were actually fortunate enough to be there during their Rugby match against France in which they sealed their 6 Nations Championship. It was pretty cool! People were walking down the street requesting high fives for Ireland rugby (and who am I to deny someone a high five?). But when we got to Scotland (another member of the 'six nations'), without even asking, we were informed that no one wanted to talk about rugby.

I guess this is as good of time as any to make our transition over to Scotland. One the whole, Scotland was even prettier than Ireland, albeit less friendly (as mentioned about the cabbies above).

We flew from Dublin to Edinburgh (pronounced "Edinboro"). Edinburgh was probably the most beautiful city that I have ever seen! The "new" buildings in the city centre were built in the 1800s, the old ones were built in the 1600s and 1700s. Sadly, a lot of the storefronts on the ground floors of these buildings have been commercialized and turned into Gap, H&M, and Nike stores, but some of them still house locally owned restaurants and traditional Scottish tailors.

On that note, some of you will be excited to know that the hipster movement has made it across the pond (for which I blame every last one of you that wears glasses with no lenses in them). We ate at this nice little hipster restaurant that was situated between the Edinburgh Castle and the university (righteous place for a hipster restaurant, right?). This was where I experienced my first taste of haggis.

Haggis and Mash
One might assume that haggis has some sort of foul odor or game-y taste to it by all of the disgusted faces that you get from culinary hard hitters when you mention it. Even a good chef friend of mine described haggis as an acquired taste that you can get used to, but never really enjoy. This reaction seems to be reasonable given the ingredients of haggis, but I have eaten street tripe in Mexico after all, so I figured "what the hey?". I was pleasantly surprised to find that haggis was not only absent of any foul taste or odor, but was downright good. I could not believe it! I even tried it another morning, for breakfast, just to confirm that I didn't just get a batch of good-tasting faux haggis. It was confirmed. My reco: Do not shy away from haggis, embrace it. It tastes like any other well seasoned minced meat.

View from our room in The Caledonian
After our hipster haggis, we found a food cart selling Brazilian crepes. We were not in Brazil, but I cannot pass up cart food of any kind (ever), and our crepe was delicious!

After all of this eating we retired to our hotel (The Caledonian) that happened to have a pretty sweet view of the Edinburgh Castle! This was probably the nicest, and most beautiful, hotel I have ever stayed in. It is an old train station turned hotel. They even brought us wine and fruit in the evening to enjoy the lit up view of the castle with.

The other big food item that I had in Scotland was a Scottish Breakfast. It is similar to the Irish Breakfast in some ways, but different in others. Where the Irish Breakfast comes with mushrooms, the Scottish Breakfast comes with beans. The Scottish Breakfast also comes with a potato scone (which tastes like the lovechild of a pancake and a pita bread). The Scottish Breakfast is very good, but the Irish Breakfast is the clear winner in this battle!

The next day we visited the Edinburgh Castle. The views were awe-inspiring! If you ever get a chance to visit Edinburgh, the castle is a must.

Just one wall of the hallway that is the world's largest
Scotch whiskey collection
And just outside of the castle, you will find the Scotch Whiskey Experience where you learn about the 4 primary regions in which Scotch whiskey is produced and sample whiskeys from those 4 regions (as well as a blend). You learn about the stereotypical tastes that you will find in Lowland (citrus), Highland (floral), Speyside (fruit), and Islay (peat) Scotches. I learned that I prefer the Lowland Scotches, of which I brought home a litre of Auchentoshan. I also learned that Lowland whiskeys are not the most popular, which does not help my hipster score (but I like it because I like it, not like it because it is unpopular). Scotches are aged in breathable barrels and take on the flavours of the elements that are in nature around them. The Scotch Whiskey Experience is also home to the largest Scotch collection in the world.

Another trend in Scotch is to age in multiple barrels, of different wood types, rather than aging them for longer. This results in younger Scotches with wider flavour profiles. Old Scotches are still popular with the old guard, but you will see more and more of the new as well.

Doubletree Dundee
After leaving Edinburgh, we took the train north to Dundee. The ScotRail, by the way, kicks the CTA that we took to the O'Hare airport, in Chicago, in the giblets! ScotRail trains are new, clean, have free WiFi, and have seats with good lumbar support. How much more could you ask for?

Another question you may get if you are a tourist staying in Dundee is "You must have family there, otherwise I cannot imagine why you would stay there.". Not so! We were just using Hilton points to pay for our hotels and the Dundee Doubletree was a nice, conveniently located hotel that is close to a train station that you can use to take a day trip to Loch Ness. It's a nice town and a nice hotel. But that is not all. Dundee is only a 20 minute ride from St. Andrew's golf course, the birthplace of golf! If you are into that sort of thing. I personally am not, but I know that a lot of people are.

One of my favorite things that we did in Scotland was take the day trip up to Inverness (and subsequently Loch Ness). The town is amazing! There is a chocolatier called So Coco that makes the best hot chocolate (which you will probably need, FYI) and pretty good food too. It is even better than the hot chocolate that we had at Coolhaus, in New York. There are numerous local restaurants that line the river that will serve you some of Scotland's best seafood. And then there is Loch Ness!

Loch Ness
Loch Ness is the largest loch in Scotland, by volume (not by surface area, and not the deepest, but the most voluminous). Perhaps you have heard of it, as it is the home of the fabled Loch Ness Monster (although we should discuss the term "monster" since she has not killed anyone in almost 1450 years, when St. Columba went out and prayed over her, as our tour guide informed us). We went out on the loch and then to another castle before heading back into Inverness just in time for another So Coco hot chocolate before we had to catch our train back to Dundee.

You see plenty of sheep on the train ride. Some of those sheep will end up in Shepard's Pie, which is still very popular over there and very delicious. Anther thing that you will find in Great Britain (while it is still called that, as Scotland will be voting for it's independence later this year, should that be the popular selection) is high tea. Yes, that is still a thing. Yes, they take it very seriously. Yes, you get a shortbread cookie with it.

The food we missed out on: In Scotland I had also wanted to try a fried Mars bar and a Scotch Egg. We had to skip out before we got to those things, but both are available at Scottish chip shops. It is said that they will fry anything, and I believe it. It is also said that Scottish chip shops are where the fried Mars bar (that are often associated with carnivals, and funnel cake trucks, in the US) was invented. Perhaps I will get to them next time.

Canal in Dublin
The weather: The whole time that we were there it was cold and drab. Not as cold as the -5 degrees F that it was when we left, but the lows were probably 45 F with highs around 55 F. There is much less variation in the temperature there. And it does rain a lot, how else do you think it stays to green? We did luck out and get at least a little sun each day that we were there, which we were told is very rare. It was even nice enough for us to get in some outside runs some days. We took a nice jog along the canal in Dublin (photo to the right taken on said run), it was beautiful and the canal water was so clear.

On the way back home, we laid over in Chicago again. We spent our short time in Chicago starting our beer passports at Goose Island and sticking with our doughnut theme that we started when we came through the previous week (only this time we went to Do-Rite DonutsDo-Rite Donuts on Urbanspoon). I am not a huge fan of the "throw bacon on anything and it makes it better" trend that has been going on in food for some time, so I bit into the maple bacon donut from Do-Rite expecting it to be overrated and possibly even hate it. It was the best of the 6 donuts that I had! It tasted like pancakes and bacon, together, in one. I still do not like the trend, but I cannot be a Do-Rite hater, all of the doughnuts were fantastic!

I hope that I have been informative (and not put you to sleep) while trying to teach you just a small part of what I learned while on holiday across the pond. If you have any questions, please ask me (whether below in the comments or by email), I would love to talk about it more in depth! But the only way to truly experience the culture is not by reading a blog post but by going over there yourself and living it. Happy eating and happy travels!

No comments:

Post a Comment