In the span of fifteen years, Ireland has gone from being one of Europe’s poorest countries to one of its wealthiest.  When walking through downtown Cork, one can easily count a minimum of eight cranes at work erecting various high-rise buildings.  The financial boom has had a significant effect on Irish cuisine as well.  In the not too distant past, Irish fare was best known for boiled cabbage, boiled potatoes, boiled parsnips and generally bland uninspiring food.  While you can still find these mushy and less than savory items on menus in some restaurants, they are no longer the norm.

County Cork has become well-known as a foody’s paradise.  Chefs have access to an abundance of fresh food here:  an impressive array of fish from the local rivers and ocean, local farmhouse cheeses, acres of potato fields and grass fed lamb and beef.

It is a delight to have so many restaurant choices, but it can make quite a dent in the pocketbook.  Vegetarian soup, such as potato-leek or carrot-parsnip, served with one or two slices of brown bread is consistently the most affordable item on most lunch menus.  This meal usually runs around €4.  A simple sandwich with mayo, ham and cheese and a very small side-serving of salad usually costs between €6-8.  Most other items on the menu are €11 and up.  Dinner menus are even pricier.  It is almost impossible to find dishes for less than €15 for dinner, and most are €20 and up.

Ireland has become much more ethnically diverse in recent years.   The country’s booming economy and the recent addition of several Eastern European countries to the EU have turned Ireland into something of a melting pot.  At the Cope Foundation I work with a woman from Germany, two men from India, a man from Nigeria, and two women from South Africa. 

With this level of diversity in a city of over 120,000 people one would think that there would be a number of ethnic restaurants.  Poland has a particularly large community of immigrants in Ireland and, while there are many small Polish grocery stores, I have not yet seen a Polish restaurant in Cork.  There are several Chinese and Indian restaurants, but Mexican food is definitely a rare cuisine for the Irish.  One will occasionally see quesadillas on a lunch menu.  The pronunciation “Kay su dee ah” is sometimes put next to this item, which seems to indicate the lack of familiarity with this genre of food here.

Pat and I decided to try out the only Mexican restaurant in town for dinner on my first week of work.  Several guidebooks and a couple of locals had endorsed it with pride and raved about the good food to be had there.  Since enchiladas are my favorite dish, I decided to give them a try here in Ireland.  In America, all Mexican food meals begin with a complimentary bottomless basket of chips and salsa.  Here, a small basket of corn chips costs €2.  My enchilada cost €15, and it was a lone enchilada wrapped in a flour tortilla instead of the standard three corn tortilla enchiladas you usually get in the States…and no beans.  I absolutely love refried beans, so this was a bitter disappointment to me.  While the food was fine, it did not come close to the flavor and authenticity that can be found in so many Mexican restaurants back home.  At the end of the day, for two main dishes, no chips and salsa, and tap water to drink the meal cost $58.19 American.  To put this in perspective, Café Mexicana is billed as good value for the money here in Cork.  Ouch!

The high prices here in Ireland don’t just affect the tourists.  Everything is expensive here:  restaurants, the price of homes, petrol, apartments.  This really hit home for Pat and I when we went to Glasgow in February.  We hadn’t exactly gotten used to the high prices in Ireland, but had started to resign ourselves to them.  After seeing pricey menus for so many weeks, it was a treat to be able to find affordable meals and entertainment. Now that I am earning euros, I am sure that we will take advantage of the cuisine and culture that Cork has to offer on a more frequent basis.  I suspect, though, that we will feel more able to do so when we are touring about in other more affordable areas of Europe.

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