Empenadas

We had left Buenos Aires and were in Cordoba when a man there gave us two warnings about Bolivia.  First, he mentioned the crime there, but said there is crime everywhere.  Then he mentioned food, and we thought we were in for the usual lesson about not eating fresh vegetables or street food.  But no, he struggled to describe the food there until we supplied the word for him – hot.  His eyes lit up, and he agreed, “Hot, yes.  The food there is too hot.”  Before Argentina we had spent six months in Mexico, and we both love hot food, so his words were more a promise than a warning, but the fact that an Argentine might think food was a bit too hot and flavourful was not a surprise.

The food in Argentina, particularly in Buenos Aires, was often disappointing, and one of the main reasons for that was it was so limited.  Steak, empanadas, pasta and pizza represent most of the food options easily available to us, at least in the neighbourhood we were in.  The steak was very good but not the best ever (as we’d heard beforehand), the empanadas inconsistent (even in the same restaurant), and the pasta unexciting.  We had read in travel guides that despite a huge influx of Italian immigrants to Argentina long ago, the Italian food options were “boring” and the travel guides were right.  The “exciting” topping on the pizza was ham.  No salami, no pepperoni, nothing but ham and cheese, no matter what pizza place we went to.  Sandwiches, too, were invariably ham and cheese.

They start with good products in Argentina, like some of the best beef anywhere, but they just don’t do much with it.  The steak is nicely cooked to bring out its natural flavour but they don’t put any seasoning on it in most restaurants.  In over a month in Argentina, we saw pepper on the table once.  Really, just one time, in dozens of visits to restaurants.  To give ourselves a little variety, we had hoped to cook some of our own food in Buenos Aires, but when we visited the grocery stores and looked at the spices available, our hearts sank.  There would be literally a total of from 8 to 12 varieties of herbs and spices in a store with a good selection, leaving me to wonder whether Tang would make a good substitute for paprika.


Agua Azul vendor

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

We bid goodbye to Europe (for now) and headed to Mexico. That we’re in Mexico might come as a surprise to some, since we had been talking for a year about returning to southern Spain to live in the village of Ojen for fall term. Unfortunately, in July, we heard about the Schengen Agreement. The treaty covers most of Europe and requires all signatories to drop their border restrictions within the treaty area, but beef up their border checks with any countries not in the Schengen area. It means that you can get on a train in one country and travel through several others without once showing your passport. But instead of having 90 days in each country (this seems to be the most common time limit for travel without a work or student visa) travellers have 90 days (out of any six month period) in the whole area.

We had spent too much time in the Schengen zone to stay there this fall, so we considered our possibilities. Should we head to Africa? Maybe the Balkans, which isn’t yet in the Schengen zone? Do we take the Siberian Express to Asia and spend a term in Thailand? In the end, Mexico seemed like a good choice because it would let us continue to work on our Spanish while seeing someplace new, and we’d just be that much closer to the States when we head home for the holidays.

We wanted to end up in Guanajuato, so we checked flights to Mexico City (about 4 hours away by bus) and on to Leon/Guanajuato airport but there was always a problem with the arrival time, the layover, the price, or something. We then noticed Guadalajara was just as close to Guanajuato as Mexico City, the prices were just a little better, and the arrival times not too bad. So, after about 20 minutes consideration we bought ticket to Guadalajara, Mexico.

We knew almost nothing about Guadalajara until we got there. It has a population of over a million people, and it turned out to be a great city. We planned to spend three days there, then extended that by four days, and probably would have stayed even longer had we found a good, inexpensive private room somewhere (the only downside of Guadalajara for us was accommodation).

What’s so great about Guadalajara? The food there was outstanding. We’ve since moved on from Guadalajara, and when we mention the food there, people always say it has the reputation for having the best food in Mexico. That’s easy to believe. At Karne Garibaldi, for example, I found myself making yummy noises every second bite. Seriously, I couldn’t stop doing it. If I described the food at most of the restaurants, it would sound pretty much like the Mexican food people are used to in the U.S. because it’s primarily a meat, some beans, and a salsa or pico de gallo, all wrapped in a tortilla (which is almost always a corn tortilla down here, unlike in America where flour is much more common). But it’s just different, trust me. And unlike places in America which always have the same large selection of tacos, burritos, enchiladas, tostadas, etc., some places here only serve one or two things. This is why Karne Garibaldi has the world record (something like 13 seconds) for getting a meal on the table after it’s ordered (the order pretty much consisting of the size plate you want).

It really seems Guadalajara is a very forward-thinking city, too. For several hours on Sundays, many of the main streets are shut down to automobile traffic so people can walk or ride bikes all over town. Because cars are still allowed on the cross-streets, every intersection has one or two people there to hold traffic until there is a break in the pedestrian and bike traffic. I don’t know if the traffic controllers were volunteers or paid, but either way it’s a massive undertaking. The parks department even has free bikes for people to check out if they need them. Many people headed toward the center of the city, which was also shut down to cars, and people filled the streets and shopped at the stalls of hundreds of vendors.

Actually, I could list so many other wonderful qualities about Guadalajara that this posting would fill a couple of pages. For a choice made entirely for its convenience, Guadalajara couldn’t have been a better jumping off point for our time in Mexico. We’ve already discussed that when we come back to Mexico (and we will) we’ll be sure to check on flights to Guadalajara first.

When we first arrived here just before Christmas last year, many Irish remarked to us that they thought Thanksgiving was a bigger holiday than Christmas for us Americans.  We weren’t sure why people had that impression until we spent our first Thanksgiving here, when Amy came up with a theory.  She really missed having Thursday and Friday off, and talked about it at work, a lot.  I suppose a few days of bitching about not getting the holiday days off might make people think Thanksgiving was pretty important.

To celebrate on Thursday, Amy and I met Denise (another American working for the Cope Foundation) and went to Suas, a pub showing American football on TV (we saw the Lions getting thrown to the Titans), then to Captain America’s for a cheeseburger.  It may not have been a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, but it was American (except the price, which was purely Irish — around 14€ for a bacon cheeseburger).

Our real Thanksgiving dinner came yesterday at Denise’s.  She and her Irish fiancé Michael hosted a Thanksgiving dinner and invited around 20 friends.  Denise and Michael cooked the turkey and made the gravy (which was excellent), and everyone brought a dish or two.  The food was great, but again we were reminded of how different this was for most people here.  At one point after dinner everyone shared something they were thankful for and most of the Irish mentioned being thankful for being invited to their first Thanksgiving dinner.  I realized this was my fortieth.

One of the guests mentioned he was happy to have tried so many different foods he hadn’t had before, which struck me because there wasn’t a thing on the table that would have looked out of place in most American homes.  Another  guest had gotten hold of a cornbread mix and made corn muffins, and he said he would be waiting to see how Amy reacted when she tried one to see if he’d done them right (he had, and she liked them).  All the food was wonderful and it felt very much like a Thanksgiving back home.  We asked a few people what a traditional Irish Christmas dinner was like, and we were surprised to hear that usually there would be only three kinds of potatoes.

One digression.  After dinner, we played Catchphrase, in which a person gives clues to her teammates so they can guess a word or short phrase (it’s a bit like Password).  As we’ve explained in an earlier post, the th- sound is pronounced simply as t- by most people here, so last year when the game was played, and an Irishwoman had to give clues for the name Goldilocks, she said, “And the three bears . . .”  All the Americans on her team yelled out, “Fruit!”

Shopping for food in Ireland is a bit different than in America, but then much of that would come from moving to any new place. I’m one of those people who hates shopping in grocery stores I’m not familiar with, even in America. I wander aimlessly, and while I may have looked at every inch of aisle 4B seven times, I still can’t seem to see the jars of peanut butter I seek sitting there. Now, to help you understand shopping in Ireland, imagine you’re browsing in a store, and you don’t know if they even sell peanut butter. Finally, when you do find it, not a single brand is familiar to you. This is the dilemma facing an American shopper in Ireland (but at least the product labels are in English). I’d guesstimate that about 85% of the brands are different than those in America, as you might expect. Have a favorite type of bread, cereal, jelly, or soup? You probably won’t find it here, and even if the brand is here, the actual product may very well taste different. Not necessarily bad, just different.

With some things, though, the changes are wonderful. The English Market has been a trading center in Cork since 1788, and currently has four butchers (beef and lamb), two poultry stalls, four fish merchants, two pork and bacon sellers and other stalls selling cheese, eggs, fruits and vegetables, breads and pastries, and a few other odds and ends. Looking for a cheese to replace your favorite Tillamook? Sidle up to On the Pig’s Back and they’ll be happy to offer you samples of whatever interests you, and the selection of local cheeses is stunning. Expect to find cheeses made from cow, sheep or goat milk, but don’t expect it to be pasteurized.

When we lived in Corvallis, we would regularly go to the Saturday Farmer’s Market and while we loved the produce we purchased there, it was really more of a social outing than anything. Don’t get me wrong, the selection and quality of produce was great, but since we had Richey’s Market available with great local produce, that was our usual first stop. Here in Ireland, though, the grocery stores seem more like the big chains in America, with everything (including the produce) a bit too pre-packaged, so we shop around. I don’t think we’ve bought meat or poultry from a grocery store since we’ve moved here, and almost all of our vegetables and even our rice is bought from one local vendor or another. Yes, I know the rice isn’t locally grown, but packaged rice in the big stores just doesn’t taste as good.

Not surprisingly, our eating habits have changed. Our fish intake has gone up (it almost had to, starting as it did near zero), as has our vegetable consumption. We eat more potatoes and bread and less rice. It is a sad fact, though, that once you know you can’t have something, that’s what you want. Several times since we’ve moved, we’ve been wanting a good pizza delivered, but that’s not going to happen here. And while I’m a pretty good cook, and can make everything from chicken paprikas or beef Bolognese sauce to shoyu chicken or chicken and sausage gumbo, I have to admit that I’m a little saddened by the knowledge that my next Frito pie is years away.

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.