Foodie Paradise

Cheese Table at Schull's Farmer's Market
Cheese Table at Schull’s Farmer’s Market

I feel sorry for all the foodie tourists of the world who think that France or Italy or Spain is the ultimate food-lovers destination. As far as I’m concerned, Ireland, but specifically for this post, West Cork, is hard to beat.

C and I spent the weekend in Schull, West Cork. West Cork is one of my favorite places even minus the good food, but the food certainly keeps a foodie like me counting the moments until I can go back.

When we spent my mother’s birthday in Durrus three years ago, the weather was awful. One of the worst summers on record. We got through the days finding wonderful food to eat. We watched Durrus Cheese be made as we stood in torrential rain, we ate fish and chips washed down by a Sancerre in Schull harbour, and on our last night in Durrus, we went to Good Things Café.

Fish Stew
Fish Stew

Good Things was definitely a highlight of a good food week. I went back two years ago in October, on the last night they were open for the season. C and I managed to sneak in at the last minute this weekend; the first weekend they were open for the season. Boy oh boy are we glad we did.

Fresh Summer Greens
Fresh Summer Greens

Good Things does exactly what it says on the tin. Carmel Somers, the owner and chef, is dedicated to serving the best of West Cork’s ample cornucopia of goodness and to teaching people how to cook it well themselves. The restaurant is tiny (by city standards) and cozy. It is surrounded by lawn and herb gardens. As we got out of the car we were greeted by three sweet Donkey’s.

His Main
His Main

As it was the first weekend of the season, there was a set menu. C and I tried one of everything on offer, because, well, obviously. I don’t actually have enough adjectives to do the meal justice. The food is homemade, hearty, fresh and simply, wonderful. There wasn’t a bad item in any of the dishes. It was all early summer loveliness. A perfect way to kick off our West Cork weekend. (I didn’t get a photo of the rhubarb pie dessert because it somehow disappeared before it could be photographed.)

Her Main
Her Main

The wonderful thing about West Cork is that you can find incredible food in pretty much every town along the peninsulas. Pubs serve food that would put many city restaurants to shame. It is all simple, local and delicious. No one is trying to re-invent the wheel, but with cheese and salmon and fresh fish this good? Why would you want to? And chips. Pub’s in West Cork never go easy on the chips.

One of my favorite examples of this is O’Sullivan’s pub in Crook Haven. Go on a grey or rainy day when it’s not too crowded (it’s vicinity to the gorgeous Barley Cove beach means it does get crowded). Cuddle into a window seat and order the smoked salmon. Or the chowder. Or the fish n chips. Good luck finding something that doesn’t scream “Ireland!” “Fresh Food!” “Heaven!”

A Typical O'Sullivan's Lunch
A Typical O’Sullivan’s Lunch

We drove over to Union Hall for dinner one evening. We’d had a tip-off that Dinty’s was the place to go for a good steak. Our tip off was correct. C went for the mixed seafood plate. You can never go wrong with seafood in West Cork. Obviously.  But when someone tells me a steak is good, I don’t read the rest of the menu.

Dinty's Finest. And a Murphy's to Wash it Down.
Dinty’s Finest. And a Murphy’s to Wash it Down.
His Seafood Special
His Seafood Special

We ventured to the farmer’s market in Schull on Sunday morning. It is exactly what every good farmer’s market is. The only difference is that West Cork makes some of the best cheeses and sausages in all of Ireland, which means in all of the world. Buying the goods right there mean prices are half what they would be in fancy whole foods markets up here in Dublin. We stocked up.

West Cork honey has the reputation of being some of the finest honey in Europe. The European Restaurant’s Society voted it one of the key ingredients in any fine European pantry. Butter was the other Irish winner. As we walked along the roads over the weekend, the fields were alive with the humming and buzzing of thousands of happy, very busy, bees. I am lucky enough to have married a man whose uncle harvests prize winning West Cork honey. Yes, I am smiling smugly.

So to all you foodie tourists out there: go sweat in Italy or battle the chic set along the Mediterranean or the Riviera if you fancy it. Sure, Ireland cannot promise you sunshine, but I guarantee you will eat some of the finest food you have ever tasted.

Foodie Paradise

Porridge! Oatmeal! Whatever!

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The first time I fell in love with oatmeal was in 1995. I was on an outdoors adventure program in the Adirondacks. I sat by the little fire outside our lean-to in the early spring morning, the smell of warm cinnamon and raisin flavor Quaker instant oatmeal cutting the cold air. Our teacher told us to pour some hot chocolate into it the steaming plastic bowl. It was delicious: chocolatey, cinnamony and comforting. This was also my first time having hot chocolate for breakfast, but even that was not as exciting as the oatmeal.

I’ve always been a fan of breakfast; I wake up hungry. That bowl of oatmeal was one of the best things I had ever tasted. I had just slept outside for the first time in my life, in a lean-to, with ten classmates. Despite spending every summer living on the edge of a forest, camping was not something my family did. I had never eaten breakfast outside. The oatmeal that morning was so good I said to myself: “I will never eat anything as delicious as this again. And I will eat oatmeal every day for the rest of my life.”

Three days later we returned to the school, to our parents, and to our homes with windows, doors, and central heating. On the way back from school I asked my mother to stop at the grocery store. I wanted to buy some Quaker Instant Oatmeal. As far as I was concerned, I wouldn’t need anything else for breakfast again.

The next morning I was down in the kitchen earlier than normal. I wanted to boil the water on the stove and not use the microwave as the pack suggested. I was trying to keep this home cooking as close to camping as I could in my big, warm kitchen. I decided that I would drink hot chocolate in the mornings too. If I was boiling water anyway, might as well make hot cocoa. I poured the hot water over the powdered chocolate and the dry oats. I stirred each in turn. I took them to the table and, as in the mountains, I poured a bit of my hot chocolate into the oatmeal.

“What are you doing?” asked my younger sister who had yet to experience the joys of outdoor breakfasts.

“This is the best thing you will ever eat.” I repeated matter of fact.

“No, I don’t like oatmeal” my sister continued as she popped a bagel into the toaster.

I couldn’t help but think how bleak my sister’s future was: an oatmeal and cocoa-less life of sad mornings.

As I tasted the oatmeal I had made – just like the oatmeal I made in the mountains – I was shocked to find that not only was it not as good, it wasn’t any good. I ate the contents of the bowl, just to make sure. I said to my mom, “It doesn’t taste the same as it did on the trip.

“Nothing tastes the as good as it does when you are camping.” She replied. Why she never decided to take us camping, knowing she feels this way, is a mystery.

There are very few disappointments more upsetting than discovering you’ve made food that tastes badly. That particular disappointment was more than my 14-year-old self could bear. I gave up oatmeal for years. I didn’t touch it in high school or college cafeterias. I went back to my old standards: cold cereal or a bagel. It wasn’t until I moved to Ireland that I re-discovered oatmeal.

Here it is porridge, and it is a staple of many an Irish childhood. Porridge in Ireland is treated like tuna salad in the States: everyone has their own way of making it and it never tastes quite the same at any one house.

I had my second life changing run in with oatmeal/porridge in Skibereen, West Cork. C and I went down to stay with his uncle on the family farm. Breakfast is porridge. That’s it. On the farm it is made with fresh milk from the cows that are milked yards from where you sleep. It is simmered and warmed for a long time. More porridge than you could ever eat is made in the pot and then what is left over sits ready to be the base for the next morning. I follow uncle Donie’s lead, drizzling honey on the steaming mass in the bowl—honey that is also made on the farm—and a bit of cream. The decadence! The porridge is sweet and rich and warm. It feels Irish. I feel more Irish eating it. The idea of eating a bagel in Skibereen is like having beef stew for a picnic on a Greek Island in August.

My love of porridge is re-awakened. Now I have lived long enough to know that certain food experiences cannot be re-created. I will never make porridge the way that Donie does on the farm. Nothing will ever taste as magic as cinnamon-raisin Quaker Instant Oatmeal on the top of a mountain on a cold spring morning. Regardless of these hard life truths, I have embraced porridge-making fully.

Three years ago I returned home from a trip to India by myself. C stayed on for two more months. January is a hard month to return to Ireland after the sunshine and madness of India. I lit lots of candles and had fires every night. I made chilies and stews. But I really focused my attention on porridge. I had come back from India with fresh nutmeg, cinnamon, and vanilla (among other spice delights), and I used them liberally. As per my mother-in-law’s suggestion I soak the oats (sometimes overnight, sometimes for an hour in the morning while I exercise) in a bit of water. That January I would soak my oats in the spice mix every evening and leave it overnight. In the morning I would come into the kitchen and raise the lid on the porridge. It smelled of winter warmth with a hint of sweetness. I would light some candles (I heard that the Norwegians always light candles first thing on winter mornings to keep depression at bay), and pour in the milk. Once it was warmed up and the milk was stirred in, I would add some raisons and toasted nuts. It was heavenly. Addictive. It got me through those long, often lonely, winter mornings.

I still take porridge quite seriously. Lately I have been adding chia seeds because they are the hip thing to add to any dish, promising beauty, smarts and a regular digestive tract. I sprinkle in cinnamon and nutmeg, and sometimes fresh vanilla that we brought back from our honeymoon in Vanuatu, though I am rationing that.

My Famous Pumpkin Pie Porridge (secret: stir in a spoonful of pumpkin purée)
My Famous Pumpkin Pie Porridge (secret: stir in a spoonful of pumpkin purée)

Porridge is a wintertime meal. It’s for cold mornings. I don’t eat it in the summer unless the morning is particularly grey and chill. I tend to eat seasonally naturally, so as of March, porridge drops off the menu. Smoothies come back into the breakfast cycle, and homemade granola and yogurt shows up occasionally. Once the nights get longer and the air colder, though, I begin to dream about porridge toppings.

No single bowl of porridge will ever taste as good as it did that morning in the Adirondacks, but I have definitely come close.

Porridge! Oatmeal! Whatever!