May 2008

We’ve been in Ireland for over five months, but aside from our train trip from Dublin after flying in, and our trip to Glasgow, we hadn’t been outside County Cork before this last weekend. That was due in large part to not having a car the first two months, then within a week realizing we’d bought a lemon because the car was stalling at stops. It took weeks for a series of mechanics to even look at the car (they kept promising to, but never did), and more time to fix it by trying one idea after another until one mechanic finally just restarted the computer in it, which seems to have done the trick. Finally, though, we had a car that didn’t stall and the possibility of good weather, so we bought a tent and sleeping bag, and hit the trail.

Okay, we didn’t really go that far, just to County Kerry, the next county to the West of County Cork. First up was Killarney, which is nice and disappointing at the same time. It’s clean, cute, and completely designed for tourists. Maybe it’s best to explain how it felt by comparing it to Cork. In Cork, there is music in many of the pubs, and one in particular, Sin é (pronounced shin-NAY) , has trad sessions on Wednesday and Sunday evenings. The pub is crowded with people, and eight or nine great musicians just show up and play traditional Irish music , packed into a back corner and drinking Murphy’s and Guinness. As we walked down the street in Killarney, we passed a place with no character and two teens playing trad music. The boy in particular looked like he was being forced to practice before being allowed to go play football.

We knew the food would be a disappointment, too, as soon as we sat down in a little restaurant for lunch. The biggest tip-off was the laminated menu with pictures of desserts so common in America but which we’ve never seen here. This was a restaurant for American tourists, not the locals (we came up with the idea for this trip too late for Amy to get advice from co-workers on where to eat). Since it was clearly an American place, I decided to get my stand-by American diner food, the club sandwich. Here, though, only the middle slice of bread was toasted (I can’t explain it), and there was no bacon or cheese, just a thin strip of ham, and not much else. It wasn’t terrible, it just wasn’t a club sandwich.

Deciding we needed help, we asked the girls working at an ice cream parlour where to eat for dinner, and they recommended a place across the street. It looked promising, but in the end we couldn’t finish our meals. Amy’s salad was greasy (yes, greasy, from the fried croutons), and my pasta sauce tasted like it came out of a jar. The hostess asked if it was okay, and we decided to be honest. To their credit, they comped the meal, which made me feel horribly guilty and I felt like explaining that we weren’t ugly Americans who hated everything we tried while travelling. Actually, we were disappointed because the food in Killarney compared so poorly to the generally excellent food we’ve had all over County Cork.

Even the buskers are different. In Cork, there are buskers at certain street corners in City Centre, and they seem, well, real. You can hear people playing the accordion or the fiddle, or singing (some good, some not), or performing some other show, and they’re out even when there doesn’t seem to be a tourist in sight. In Killarney, we saw one man on the sidewalk, wearing a cheesy leprechaun hat with fake green hair, a yellow shirt and green track pants. Trust me, people, this is not what the Irish usually wear. Normally they wear fake orange hair, green shirt, and yellow track pants. His act (though I never saw him actually perform) involved some sort of cardboard cut-out leprechaun.

During the day we had gone to Killarney National Park, which was gorgeous, but also quite familiar. The lake, with its beautiful but odd little islands, was not like anything we’d seen, but so much of the park reminded us of Oregon, and in particular Silver Falls State Park. The greens of the trees, moss and ferns, the rocks lining the trail, everything around Torc Waterfall made me conclude that if a visitor to Silver Falls was magically transported to Torc he’d think he’d just moved on to the next waterfall in the park. For those of your familiar with Silver Falls, look at our Flickr pix to see what we mean.

On Sunday, we drove the Ring of Kerry, the peninsula just south of the Dingle Peninsula. The road is narrow much of the way, but luckily it’s not quite the high season so there weren’t too many buses. Well, not too many until pulling into a small town at lunchtime and seeing bus after bus lined up on the road. For our own lunch, we waited until we got to O’Carroll’s Cove Beach Bar, “Ireland’s only beach bar and restaurant.” It was right on the beach, and sitting in the sun in our shirt-sleeves was wonderful. The water looked straight out of the Caribbean, and our guidebook told us it was the warmest water on the coast of Ireland. It didn’t quite numb your feet within seconds, but it didn’t exactly encourage long swims, either.


What a mess! Ireland seems to be a poster child of how not to run a public health care system. It seems like some new health related scandal is in the news every week, and I have yet to meet an Irish person who is satisfied with the job the Health Service Executive (HSE) is doing.

The HSE was set up in 2004 to “improve, promote and protect the health and welfare of the public.” From what I have observed so far, it is just one huge bureaucracy overflowing with middle management and consultants. A whole lot of talk, and not much action.

Here are some examples of the appalling money mismanagement that have been in the news lately.

Daily Irish Mail Tuesday, April 8, 2008

In Cork’s Mercy University Hospital, a €5 million, state-of-the-art Admitting and Emergency (A&E) unit has been in disuse for over a year, due to the HSE’s failure to provide funding to staff the facility.

A multi-million euro hospital in Tullamore is sitting empty because the HSE has not allocated funds to staff it.

A multi-million euro A & E in Portlaoise hospital has been sitting empty for over a year due to lack of staffing.

In 2007, The Daily Mail printed a photo of a €1 million CAT scanner still in its box in a hospital laundry room. The hospital had stored it there because there was no staff to operate it. A similar situation was recently exposed in an East Cork hospital due to staffing deficiencies.

From what I can glean from the papers, internet, and talking to people, these problems are not due to lack of funding, but because of incredibly poor planning. The HSE seems to have these grand plans which they throw a lot of money at, but they don’t bother to look at the long range needs around the plan. So the country ends up with state of the art medical facilities and brand new equipment that sit idle for months on end, because the HSE hasn’t had the forethought to hire the staff to run all of these new projects. Meanwhile, there is a 7 month wait for people with questionable spots on their lungs to get a CAT scan. If that questionable spot is cancer, you could be dead before you are even diagnosed! (There will be more about long waiting lists, misdiagnoses, and people lying on trolleys for hours in future posts.)

The country ushered in a new Taoiseach (The equivalent of the UK’s Prime Minister) this month. There was hope that he would make some sweeping changes in the way the government was run, including replacing Mary Harney, the current Minister for Health and Children. Sadly though, it appears that holding the status quo is going to win the day.

With so many Polish people here in Cork, it makes sense that there are dozens of small markets catering solely to Polish customers, but there are times I wish there was an American Store. So, I asked Amy, if we wanted to open a store catering to Americans and the things they can’t get here, what would we sell? Here are just some of the things we’d stock:

Ranch dressing. Actually, the overall selection of dressing is pretty meager here compared to in the states. Amy went to a good sized grocery store the other day and swears they only had two kinds of dressing. Some places have a better selection, but nothing like in America.

Pizza. Okay, they have pizza here (see our earlier post on eating out) and Gino’s in City Centre is actually good, but most of the other pizza we’ve tried sucks here. To give you some sense of how bad it is, the local paper The Evening Echo had a section a couple of weeks ago recommending several restaurants in Cork. So what did they come up with for pizza? Domino’s.

Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Love it or hate it, you won’t find it here. You won’t find any elbow macaroni, either.

American Cheese. Enough said.

Hershey’s chocolate. The Irish don’t really like American chocolate, so it’s impossible to find Hershey’s candy bars, chocolate chips, syrup, or Kisses.

Pepsi. For all of you who know I’m a Coke fiend, you know how hard it must have been for me to write that I would stock Pepsi, but I think I’ve seen Pepsi in only three or four places (one of which was the Euro store). The company just doesn’t have a presence here, but it’s not just Pepsi that’s missing. A few places have a better selection, but most stores here that sell minerals (pop) usually have about four choices: Coke, Diet Coke, maybe 7 Up, and possibly an orange drink like Fanta. In America, usually there will be dozens of choices in even the smallest of stores. Amy insists we stock Dr. Pepper in our store, just for her.

Fountain drinks. From our earlier post, you know that although fountain drinks exist in a few restaurants and in movie theatres, I have yet to see a store, any store, with fountain drinks.

Mexican food. As mentioned in an earlier post, most stores stock just one brand of Mexican food, Old El Paso. Some stores also have some Uncle Ben’s Mexican foods, and rarely will you see any other brands. Besides a limitation in brand selection, some foods such as pinto beans, jalapenos, and canned green chilis can’t be found here. Making chili (which can’t be bought here, either), is not going to be easy.

Chips (crisps here). It’s impossible to find a big bag of unflavored potato chips, and difficult to find tortilla corn chips (except Doritos). Fritos, too, are not to be had.

Almonds. We’ve looked but haven’t found roasted, salted almonds here. It is possible to find raw almonds, but they are expensive.

Sunflower seeds. Like almonds, you can occasionally find the raw variety, but that’s it.

American peanut butter. Like choosy moms, we prefer Jif. We eat quite a bit of peanut butter, and I think the Panda brand is fine here, but Amy pines for her American peanut butter.

We would also stock a selection of dry goods, such as three-ring binders, deodorant (they have it here, of course, but most places have a very limited selection), contact lens solution (one pharmacy had only one brand, which I didn’t recognize, another said most pharmacies didn’t stock it, and only Boots has the brand I use, Opti-Free. Grocery stores don’t have any contact solution, either, so the recommendation is to go to an optician’s office, which is probably closed at lunch and on weekends). Finally, we would sell measuring cups for dry measuring. There are the Pyrex one- and two-cup variety, but the smaller half-cups and so on don’t seem to exist here because recipes usually use weight and not volume, so converting American recipes can be a challenge.

Pig’s Head and feet

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

In her book, Traditional Cooking, Darina Allen writes that Cork has been a key trading port since the 1500s and the provisioning of ships in port involved thousands of people. The good meat was sold to the upper class folk, but a great deal of offal was eaten by the Corkonians themselves. Apparently, a certain weight of offal was given to each slaughter-house worker as part of his weekly wages.

According to Chris Cosentino, executive chef of San Francisco’s Incanto, offal is “those parts of the animal that are used as food but which are not skeletal muscle.” The term literally means “off all,” in reference to the pieces that fall from the carcass when it is butchered. More specifically, offal refers to an animal’s entrails, organs, tails, feet and head (including brains and tongue).

When wandering through the Cork English Market, it is quite easy to find stalls offering a variety of offal: pigs’ heads, tails (irreverently known as “slash farts” and “pigs’ mudguards”), kidneys, and crubeens.

Before coming to Ireland, my knowledge of traditional Irish food was limited to corned beef, cabbage, potatoes and soda bread. For some inexplicable reason, crubeens have really piqued my curiosity. Much to Pat’s chagrin, I might add. He knows that my determination to try crubeens means that he will get roped in to the adventure, too. A fondness for this dish is not limited to Ireland. They are enjoyed in Germany, are a popular African-American soul food, and are also well-loved in many Asian countries. The great Billie Holiday even sang a song entitled: Give me a Pig Foot and a Bottle of Beer.

Crubeens became widely available in Ireland when bacon factories in Cork, Waterford, Limerick, Dublin and Belfast began operating in the late 1800’s. According to historians, big pots of pigs’ feet were cooked up on Saturday nights and served in the pubs. This was a very shrewd business move by the publicans as crubeens are very salty and would cause the diner to work up quite a thirst. Many a pint of Guinness, Beamish and Murphy’s stout were sold thanks to crubeens. Crubeens are apparently also quite greasy, and the grease marks proved quite difficult to wash off the glasses. For this reason, many of the “upper class” pubs stopped serving pigs’ feet in their establishments.

So what do pig’s trotters taste like? I have not yet found a restaurant in Cork that serves them, but from what I have read the meat is soft and tender with a salty bacon-like flavor. If and when I do manage to try crubeens, I’ll make sure and report back on my findings.

For those of you back home that are just dying to try pig’s trotters for yourselves, here is Darina Allen’s recipe:

Serves 6
6 crubeens
1 large onion
1 large carrot
1 bay leaf
5 or 6 parsley stalks
A good sprig of thyme
A few peppercorns
Enough unsalted cold water to cover well

Put all the ingredients into a large pot, cover with plenty of cold water, bring to the boil and skim. Boil gently for 2 or 3 hours or until the meat is soft and very tender. Eat the crubeens either warm or cold, smeared with a little mustard if liked.

Cliff flowers

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

Last weekend, I got a sunburn. In Ireland. In May. Amy and I drove out to Ballycotton in east County Cork for lunch and a cliff hike along the coast. It was a magnificent day, warm, sunny and almost windless, and the hike was fantastic. We were out about an hour and forty minutes and by the end of the hike I was actually sunburned.

Before we began our hike, we stopped in at The Nautilus Restaurant, where I had fish and chips and Amy had the sweet potato ginger soup. The chips (fries) were possibly the best I’ve had here, and that’s saying something. They were so good, after the hike we went back and each got an order of chips, and nearly foundered. I may have been burned and stuffed like a bad Thanksgiving turkey, but it was a wonderful day.

Three weeks ago we went on a trip to two other east County Cork villages, Midleton and Youghal (pronounced yawl, or, if you’re Texan, y’all). While walking down the main drag, I saw a sign across the street pointing back in my direction and indicating there was a castle there. Sure enough, I turned around and there it was, a castle that I’d simply walked by without even registering its existence. So many buildings are made of stone here, and the castle was an unassuming little thing, tucked in between other buildings of about the same size, it hadn’t even made an impression on me. It amazes me that castles can be just another building here.

Castles aside, Midleton and Youghal, while pleasant enough towns, aren’t likely to make the top ten on most visitors’ must-see lists, unless you love whiskey, in which case a trip to Midleton might be a priority. Midleton, you see, is the home of the Jameson whiskey distillery.

According to the Jameson website, the distillery was founded in 1780, before the United States was finished breaking away from England. (A quick aside: I love that there are businesses here that are older than the United States. Actually, the Brazen Head Pub in Dublin claims to be the oldest pub around since there has been a pub in that spot since 1198. Other sources, including the Guinness Book of Records, claim that Sean’s Bar is the oldest, with some evidence pointing to a 9th century and even to a 5th century pub.)

We strolled through the visitor center, and not being much of a drinker, I asked the clerk a couple of questions. So, does whiskey continue to get better with age, or does it peak? I didn’t get a complete answer, but apparently it continues to improve while in the cask, but it declines once it’s in a bottle, so if you’ve been saving that bottle of whiskey for a special occasion, make one up soon. To decide for ourselves if we could tell the difference between differently aged whiskeys, we bought a little sample pack of three tiny bottles (think airline or mini-bar size) of eight, ten, and twelve-year-old whiskey. We decided to pass on the limited edition bottles priced in the thousands of euro.

We just tried all three, and the winner is: Amy liked the 10 year-old whishkey, while I perferrred the 12 yer old, but kkldlo

Amy wanted to bring some cookies to a work meeting, so a few days ago we sent an email to some of our American friends and family to get the recipe for Nestle Tollhouse Cookies, that staple of American baking. Thank you to all who replied. The only problem is, the recipe is worthless here.

We knew that the recipe would be a little different no matter how hard we tried. Flour is a little different here (although the main difference seems to manifest itself when baking with yeast, because it reacts differently), and the chips wouldn’t be Nestle (you can’t find that here because the Irish hate American chocolate – more on that in a future post). But the big problem was when I began to mix the dry ingredients and noticed we had baking powder but not baking soda. No problem, a quick run to the Centra would set me right, I thought.

When I got to the store I only saw baking powder on the shelf, so I asked at the checkout if they had baking soda. One of the clerks thought they might and brought me back to the baking supplies, and pulled out a bag labeled “Bread Soda.”

“Is this the same as baking soda?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied, looking a little unsure of herself. “I don’t cook much. Let me ask someone.” So we went to the little deli section of the store, where two more women decided it was the same thing. By then, though, the manager had come out and was looking at the bread soda and one of the women from the deli joined me as we went to talk to her.

“I don’t think it’s the same. You need baking powder,” the manager explained.

“But baking powder and baking soda aren’t the same thing,” I said.

She laughed. “I wish we were speaking the same language. You can’t use the bread soda, it’s not for baking. It’s for cleaning.” She looked at the back of the package. “Oh, I guess you can use it for baking.” She showed the package to the other employee.

After hearing what I wanted to do, the manager offered some help. “I have a really simple recipe for good chocolate chip cookies.” From memory she gave me the recipe, and then ventured that this was probably the strangest visit to the store I’d had. I had to agree.

When I got home, I checked, and while there are ways to substitute baking soda for baking powder, there are not, apparently ways to substitute baking powder for baking soda. The problem is baking powder is baking soda and a little bit of acid. You can add the acid, but you can’t take it out.

Oh, and the cookies? They were okay, but cakey. I haven’t been back to talk to the manager of the store, but I’m pretty sure that I did something wrong with them since our friend Angela assured us that Irish cookies are not known for being cakey. Amy talked to her mom yesterday and she told us that sodium bicarbonate is the only ingredient of baking soda, so I’ll have to check out what’s in bread soda. Maybe Tollhouse Cookies are still possible after all.