13 November 2012

The Full Irish

This is what an Irishman eats in the morning.  A "full Irish breakfast." Variation may occur in the number of components, but usually not in the style.  Of all the full-Irishes we saw, this one was the most complete. Two eggs, cakes of potato "mash," sauteed mushrooms, sausage, fried ham, toast, cooked tomatoes, baked beans and black pudding.  Sometimes there may be white pudding too, or perhaps some pan-cooked kidney. Contrary to popular belief, an Irish breakfast is not just a pint of Guinness.
We found this hearty specimen at The Courtyard Bar in Clonakilty, where, like many places, they serve breakfast all day.  Clonakilty is famous for its black pudding - which is spiced blood sausage fried in a pan. It's delicious.
At Dublin's Heuston train station, on our first morning in Ireland, the ticket lady was apologetic.  "Train's not for two hours," she said, looking us up and down.  We were foggy-headed and grubby from a long journey.  "Why don't you go get yourselves something warm to eat," she said.
The station restaurant (called Galway Hooker) had all the worn, wood-panneled appeal of any pub in the country - tatty couches, framed oil paintings, the smell of cooking eggs and singed toast.  There were men drinking, and families with bags arrayed around them like the sides of a nest.  A man stood behind a high counter with steam rising around him.  He stirred beans, cracked eggs, flipped ham, served customers and took a little time to sip his cup of tea.  Each breakfast component was priced individually - so much for an egg, this many cents for black pudding.  A blank-faced girl rang us up.  She was utterly bored by the beer and bacon.
Breakfast on the island doesn't have to be heavy and meaty.  There were plenty of "mini-Irish" offerings, which might include one egg, toast and some bacon. Some people had yogurt and granola. We even spotted a few pancakes here and there.  In Galway, at the comfy Ard Bia at Nimmo's, a relaxed crowd sipped cappuccinos and browsed their table of baked goods.
If there's a really Irish breakfast food, though, it's got to be porridge.  On a wet November morning, with fog over the fields and frost on the windows, its a great dish to sit down to.  Our favorite version was made for us by Gertie Ormond, at Kilcannon House.  Simmered in milk, the oats were topped with brown sugar, whipped cream and a shot of Irish whiskey.  "I like booze in my food," Gertie told us, with no attempt at humor.  It was delicious, but it made me want to get back in bed.
It was important to our hostess that we apply the toppings in the right order - first the coarse sugar, then the whiskey to "caramelize" the sugar, then the whipped cream to melt down over it all.
Gertie's breakfast didn't begin or end with the porridge - it was a three course, stuff-til-bursting, early morning extravaganza.  She greeted us, when we came downstairs from our room, with a quivering plate of freshly-made panna cotta, which she served with four different stewed fruits: prunes from the garden, pears cooked with saffron, poached apples and late-summer rhubarb, sweetened and spiced with ginger.  There was also fresh melon and scones, of course, and a foursome of handmade preserves (gooseberry, blackberry, etc...).  After the porridge, we were given a choice of eggs - on a menu, no less - from the "chuck-chucks" in the barnyard.  The first morning we had an herb-filled omelette, the second day we were given a chive scramble.  It was a meal designed to prepare us for the day - we certainly didn't need lunch.
Much simpler and quicker, the ubiquitous Irish oven goods usually sufficed.  Scones (like the rhubarb ones above, at The Bake House in Cashel, where old men ate beans on toast), crumbles, pies, cookies, barm brack, brown bread, cakes... walk a few steps in any town in Ireland and you'll come across the smell of something baking.  It's hard to resist the baking-soda lightness of a raisiny soda bread, or the sugar decadence of a hot berry crisp.
At Lemon Leaf Cafe, in Kinsale, we had the inevitable full-vegetarian-Irish: peppered potatoes, mushroom, tomato and spinach, but, curiously, no beans.  It was also the only breakfast we had with tea, which is really more Irish than coffee (despite "Irish coffee").  People here drink more tea per capita, they say, than anybody else on earth, and they certainly like their brew strong.  After a few cups, we were more caffeinated than we should have been.  I had to have a raspberry tart to calm myself down.


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