Irish Cooking: A Culinary Quest

From Plump Mussels to Blood Pudding, Surprises Are in Store

By Ambrose Clancy
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 16, 2008; Page P01

The world's shortest volume: "Irish Cooking." Only one recipe: root vegetables and meat boiled several stages beyond exhaustion.

But all is changed utterly, say the Irish hospitality industry and foodie buzz. The Irish have become prosperous and, of all things, European. I decided a food safari was in order to smell what was cooking. Here is a chronicle of some meals during my recent visit: a sampling of the new and old, a search for the best seafood chowder in the West, and how I came to love the blood of pigs.

A prudent travel plan is to eat what the country does best, and so it's said that when in Ireland, eat breakfast three times a day. So my wife, Mary, and I start the hunt at Galway City's Elles Cafe, a modern place advertising "certified organic coffee." Alas, a "classic" omelet has the lightness of a paving stone, with slices of bubble-gum-colored ham fresh from shrink wrap, and pieces of greenish tomato with a hunk of stem still attached. The coffee is certifiably appalling.

Ah, but lunch. Now we know what they're talking about. On Quay Street, a pedestrian-only street of this medieval college town dedicated to fun, we find Trattoria Pasta Mista . It's a true trattoria, like those found in every town in Italy, down to murals of local sites committed by a less-than-Sunday painter, moronic Euro-pop, crisp and professional service, and sensational food: plump mussels posillipo with fresh tomatoes, mopped up with toasted spears of Tuscan bread. Scarlet carpaccio on a nest of baby arugula topped by broad shavings of Parmesan. Prawn and crab ravioli topped by sweet sun-dried tomatoes strewn with bitter olives, creating an opposite-attracts love affair.

The next morning, at Darry Ryan's B&B in the heart of town, the old advice is true; we could eat this breakfast all day. Eggs over easy fried in bacon fat, two small mild sausages, a grilled half-tomato garnished with fried mushrooms, white toast in a rack, brown bread, strong tea.

There's also black pudding, which I eyeball carefully. You can't have a proper Irish breakfast without black pudding, a sort of sausage that uses pig's blood as its dominant ingredient. Added to the blood are oatmeal, milk and bread. It's baked and then cut in thick circles and fried.

The texture is dense; ditto the taste, heavy and unpleasant. I drown it with tea.

"You don't have to eat that," says Mary, slathering toast with rough-cut marmalade. She had tasted a small morsel once and immediately pushed the pudding to the side of her plate, stared at it and said, simply, "No."

Hold the Curry

The 16th-century severity of Churchyard Street hosts a lively farmers market circling through fog around the Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas. Delicacies bump into each other, Galway Bay oysters next to dozens of farmhouse cheeses.

Organic farmer Martin Korek offers his specialty, wild garlic pesto, "made last night." He holds out the flowers of the garlic, a gentler scent than the bulb. Here's a small, perfect pumpkin. Korek notes that in the past, the Irish raised big pumpkins suitable only for watery soup. "This, just slice and bake, a little salt, a little honey. Delicious."

Steps from the market is Griffin's, a traditional Irish bakery here since 1876, with jaunty, white-capped shopgirls working the counter. New Ireland is around the corner in the form of the Gourmet Tart Co., a spare gallery that lets the art do the talking, with glittering confections posing like museum pieces.

Pubs now offer oddities such as curries or pasta, but stay with sandwiches and soup in the labyrinthine rooms packed with fans glued to a soccer match from England. At the Front Door, Mary deems the seafood chowder "nice."

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