What do the Irish in County Kerry eat on St. Patrick's Day? Ask Americans Joan and David Harrington who last July opened a bed-and-breakfast on Valentia Island, just off the Ring of Kerry.
After 30 years of government service, spent mostly in the Washington area, Dave Harrington retired from the Commerce Department in 1979. Together with his wife Joan, also a retired government employe, he headed for Rehoboth Beach to buy a motel. Discouraged by Delmarva real estate prices, the couple instead found an empty store there and started Mostly Irish, an import shop that is now open all but three months of the year.
"We knew there was a reason why the motel idea didn't work out just then," says Joan Harrington. "Our instincts weren't wrong, we were just on the wrong side of the Atlantic."
In November 1979, the couple set off on a 4,000-mile trek around Ireland to look for a thatched cottage they could restore and turn into a B&B.
"But the thatched cottages we saw were beyond repair," Joan Harrington remembers. "Besides, at our age, we were getting a hankering for American comforts like a bath in every room and central heat." So the couple decided to start from scratch.
The site they chose was at Glanleam, the first piece of property they had been shown. As the Irish measure, it was two acres, two roods and a perch, or slightly under three acres, on the island of Valentia overlooking Dingle Bay.
"When we came back to Glanleam after that 4,000-mile trip," Joan Harrington says, "the sun was shining brilliantly, the yellow scallop draggers were lined up in the bay, and I fell in love with the spot, even though it fit none of our initial specifications. I wondered later if the real estate agent had previously arranged the post-card view."
According to Dave Harrington's plan -- and he designed the house himself -- six of the guest rooms and all three common rooms in Harrington House have this view of Dingle Bay. But the seven-bedroom structure did not materialize overnight.
"We made a lot of mistakes," Dave Harrington admits, "but we've always been people who have learned by the seat of our pants." His major error in judgment, he says, was to engage a contractor who was not from the island. The six-month construction time promised turned into a troubled 4 1/2 years. During this period the Harringtons endured such long-distance nightmares as hearing from their Irish neighbors that the walls were being plastered before the roof had been attached. In the end, Harrington, who had not only built the family house in Rehoboth, but also had doubled the size of his Fairfax County home years earlier, did almost all the finishing himself.
The B&B opened in July and immediately began to attract clientele from the shop in Rehoboth. Even before it was officially christened by honeymooners from the United States, the guest house had become a stopping-off place for the local people on their way home from the pubs. "It's probably just the coffee we serve," says Joan Harrington. "We do have Rombouts (a Belgian import) and it is the best coffee on the island."
The only way to keep the neighbors away, Joan Harrington says, is to turn off the lights and sit in a dark living room. But they don't do that often. After all, it's well known in Irish lore that those practicing the art of hospitality have guaranteed access to the higher circles of the next world. Besides, hospitality comes naturally to the Harringtons, who host monthly Irish coffee parties at their shop on this side of the Atlantic.
What Joan Harrington did have to learn was Irish cooking. "I got accustomed to the idea that the house was not vintage thatch, architecturally," she says, "But I have always loved to cook and I was determined that our guests would find the meals served from our kitchen as authentic as any around."
So while Dave Harrington was attending to construction details, back on the Kerry mainland at the B&B at Cahirciveen where they were staying until their own house was finished, Joan Harrington apprenticed herself to the lady of the house. Harrington says she knew she was getting the hang of it when she found herself calling the stove the "cooker" (pronounced "kooker" by the natives of the region). Now, she says, she is convinced that her scallops and lamb can stand beside those of the best cooks in Kerry.
What she enjoys most, she says, about the food in the southwest of Ireland is that it is simply prepared and makes ample use of fresh ingredients. Harrington plans her meals around whatever fresh vegetables she can buy locally, and for more exotic offerings she can travel to Tralee. In winter months, she says, the Kerry cook must rely on more tinned food than she likes to use, but still there are plenty of potatoes, cabbage, carrots and onions.
For centuries on Valentia Island, the fish has been the prime commodity. "The scallops here are the best in the world," Harrington says, "and almost every day someone comes knocking on our door with an extra fresh salmon or two." The local lamb is delicious, and she was pleasantly surprised at the high quality of steak she could buy on the Kerry mainland.
Harrington House is open from May to October and the $25 per person per day includes three full meals that Harrington prepares in her stainless-steel kitchen imported from Italy. If visitors want to hike to nearby St. Brendan's well, or have an islandman ferry them to the famous Skellig Rocks nearby, or to the lesser known but equally intriguing Church Island just across the beach, then Harrington will prepare a picnic for them to take along.
At dinner, young Irish girls from neighboring families help serve, and Dave Harrington says they are so apt to break into an impromptu song or reel for their guests that he is considering starting up a cabaret.
The Kerrymen take their celebrating seriously, Joan Harrington says. And while Dubliners may scoff at Americans' somewhat flamboyant wearing of the green on March 17, in the southwest of Ireland, Joan Harrington says, "Saint Patrick's Day dinner is often done up like a Thanksgiving feast."
Boiled ham (cooked with cider in the water) and cabbage is a standard main course, but Harrington has not found a satisfactory equivalent of the Irish ham in this country. Instead she suggests lamb and describes her menu as "a very Irish supper which I'd be serving myself if I were there on St. Patrick's Day."
It is a simple dinner that begins with fresh cream of mushroom soup. For the main course there's lamb steak O'Driscoll with colcannon and for dessert baked apple crumble. Before all her dinners Harrington serves wine, an Irish cheese like Blarney, and brown bread that she makes from Howard's Brown Bread Mix, readily available at Irish shops and some gourmet sections of area supermarkets. Her own homemade version of Bailey's Irish Cream follows the meal.
MUSHROOM SOUP (4 servings)
During the Middle Ages in Ireland, vegetables were plentiful and varied. Mushrooms, along with leeks and artichokes, were favorites long before the discovery of America. However, the successive famines of the 19th century dramatically interrupted the evolution of Irish cuisine. Consequently, even today, particularly in country areas, the Irish prefer simple food, simply prepared.
1 pound fresh mushrooms
1 medium onion
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter
4 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup whipping cream
Remove tops from mushrooms and set aside. Chop stems and onion and saute' in 2 tablespoons butter for 5 minutes. Add broth and simmer 20 minutes. Slice caps and lightly saute' in remaining 2 tablespoons butter until just barely browned. Remove 1/2 cup broth and mix in small bowl with cornstarch until smooth. Return the mixture to the soup and stir until blended. Add the mushrooms to the broth. Season to taste. Add cream and reheat without boiling.
LAMB STEAKS O'DRISCOLL (4 servings)
The O'Driscolls of this recipe are neighbors who supply the Harringtons with lamb from their Valentia farm. A stateside butcher suggests that for the lamb steaks called for in the recipe, one can use round bone lamb chops, allowing 1/4 to 1/2 pound per person. Or you can have the butcher slice off two 1/2-inch-thick slices from a leg of lamb and set aside the remainder of the leg for roasting later. The Irish peas (Bachelor's processed peas, 440 gram can) are available in most Irish import shops. One cup of fresh or frozen peas can be substituted, but the effect will be different, because the Irish peas disappear into the gravy during the cooking.
4 large carrots
4 lamb steaks
2 tablespoons butter
1 small can Irish peas (440 grams) or 1 cup fresh or frozen peas
1/2 cup of thick mushroom soup*
Salt and pepper
Slice carrots thinly and boil in 1 cup salted water for 10 minutes. Drain and reserve liquid. Brown steaks in 2 tablespoons butter. Add carrots and drained canned peas or fresh peas. Add soup and reserved carrot liquid. Season with salt and pepper and cook 20 minutes or until carrots are tender.
*If using the mushroom soup recipe from above, reduce 3/4 cup to 1/2 cup.
KERRY COLCANNON (4 servings)
No Irish holiday meal is complete without colcannon. In west Cork, the neighboring county to Kerry, the cooks enliven the dish with fresh sage. Some food historians insist kale is the preferred vegetable, but cabbage is by far the more common and more available green. The darker green color of Irish cabbage gives more visual appeal to the colcannon in Kerry, but Joan Harrington adds that, in the waning months of winter, even the natives have been known to resort to the American variety.
6 to 8 large potatoes
1/2 to 1 medium head cabbage
3 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups milk
Salt, pepper and fresh parsley
Peel potatoes, put in cold water and boil until tender. Drain well and mash. Core and coarsely shred cabbage. Boil in 2 cups salted water until tender, no more than 8 to 10 minutes. Drain well and toss with 3 tablespoons melted butter. Pour milk into a saucepan and add finely chopped scallions. Bring to a boil. Pour in mashed potatoes. Add salt and pepper, beat until fluffy with a wooden spoon or electric mixer. Fold in cabbage and heat over a low flame, adding milk if necessary. Mound into a serving dish, make a well in the center, add additional butter and garnish with fresh parsley.
BAKED APPLE CRUMBLE (4 servings)
St. Patrick brought more than Christianity and a written language to the Irish in the year 432. Legend says he introduced the apple tree to the island and apples have been a staple in Ireland ever since. In fact, apples were so important that ancient laws required that a departing tenant farmer be compensated for any apple trees he had planted while working his landlord's property.
8 cooking apples
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons water
FOR THE TOPPING:
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup oatmeal
3/4 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cloves
FOR THE GARNISH:
1 cup whipping cream, whipped
Peel and thinly slice the apples and place in a buttered 9-inch pie pan. Sprinkle with sugar, cinnamon and water. For the topping, cream butter and sugar, add oatmeal and dry ingredients and beat until well blended. Cover the apples with the mixture. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes. Garnish with whipped cream.
MRS. HARRINGTON'S IRISH CREAM (Makes about 4 1/2 cups)
Dinner winds down at Harrington House with a round of a delicacy Joan Harrington has developed herself. It can be served as an after-dinner cordial or poured over ice cream for an alternative dessert.
1 3/4 cups Jameson Irish whiskey
14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 pint whipping cream
2 tablespoons chocolate syrup
2 tablespoons instant coffee
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
Combine all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Cover tightly and refrigerate until ready to use. The mixture will keep, refrigerated, for a month.