Sunday, October 31, 2010

Driving on the Other Side of the Road, Part III

The Setting: Halloween. Just got back from a lovely drive through the Keys with Hoosband and his folks.

The Soundtrack: The clickity-clack of a different set of keys, as Hoosband finalizes an essay for application to a place where smart people go, and I divert myself with writing so as not to disturb him.

On The Stove-top: Stuffed so fully with raw oysters, crab cakes, alligator, conch fritters, grilled scallops, salad, and key-lime pie that I can't lift a finger to cook.

The Scenario: Wrapping up the Ireland saga, slowly but surely.

The Fota Island Hotel and Spa in County Cork is the kind of place you conceive of as a kid, gradually filling in the details and deepening the colors as you become an adult and your ideas of a good time expand to include luxury amenities and well-stocked bars.

One part Tiger Woods and one part tigers in the woods, the private island features three top-notch golf courses, a free-range zoo, and Ireland's premier cheetah run.

The hotel is fire and ice, light and earth and water. Stacked-stone walls and mammoth windows make you feel at once outside and in, adventurous but comfy.

To further aid your relaxation, the shimmery, trance-inducing spa features more than 60 treatments, from hydrotherapy to seductive chocolate body scrubs to signature caviar facials.

I checked into my room, peered peacefully out my window at the expansive rolling hills, and plopped onto the bed, sinking blissfully into the plush comforter for a brief perusal of the spa menu and a briefer attempt at napping before the alarm went off to dress for dinner.

Originally constructed in 1728 for Sir Richard Pyne, a former Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, the historic Ballyvolane House, or "place of springing heifers," could easily serve as the setting for the next re-make of The Secret Garden.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010, it would serve as the setting for one of the best meals of my life.

We were welcomed with bright and whimsical sloe-berry martinis made from sloe berries from the garden and shaken by Justin Green, the hospitable head-proprietor.

Martinis were followed by family-sized platters of homemade gravelox with cucumbers and mustard sauce. Resident chef Teena Mahon uses only locally-sourced fare for her incredible and sensual feasts, most ingredients coming exclusively from County Cork, and many from the Ballyvolane property directly.

The beautifully watermelon-hued salmon, caught by Mr. Green on the River Blackwater on the edge of Ballyvolane, melted in my mouth like velvety, briny butter.

Warm potato-leek soup in adorable miniature mugs was the perfect partner for the tender and crumbly brown soda bread I considered stuffing in my purse before determining instead to increase the amount I stuffed in my face.

When a platter of twice-baked Dubliner cheese souffles--saucy, delicate, creamy puffs of perfection--was placed before me, I had to close my eyes to keep them from rolling back in my head and bite my tongue to keep myself from releasing the inappropriately pornographic sigh of ecstasy I knew was imminent.

Lamb with a mint-and-mustard-seed salsa verde was accompanied by sweet and savory sauteed leeks, cut on the bias in a manner I had never seen and cooked more perfectly than I could ever have imagined a leek could be cooked.

Desserts were an amazing sort of free-form, panna-cotta-esque, lemon custard-mousse with fresh blueberries, and, perhaps the grandest revelation of the night, brown-bread ice-cream with sugar cookies.

Back at the Fota Island Hotel, I slept very, very well, if very, very briefly.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Driving on the Other Side of the Road, Part Two

The Setting: Woke up at 6:30 a.m. on my day off so Hoosband could show me the efforts of top PhD programs to woo him before he shuffled off to work. Proud Weefay. Awake Weefay. Just gave the arm of my love-seat and my leopard-print Snuggie a caffeinated baptism, so it's gonna be a good day. Time to write.

The Soundtrack: Judging by the whooshing wind and pouncing shadows of flailing palm fronds upon my window shade, it's about to be rain and lots of it.

On the Stovetop: Nothing yet, but by the time Hoosband gets home, the smell of German Short Ribs and buttery Spaetzle will greet him at his car and usher him up the front steps for an Oktoberfest fit for two.

The Scenario: Irish reminiscence, continued.

With Juicy in our hearts and butter on our brains, we set out for North Cork to witness the conception of the latter.

"The miracle of butter," beamed a very proud miracle-maker, "is how a white liquid transforms into a yellow solid with a little salt and a lot of love--no added colors here."

If you've heard lore of Irish butter, perhaps that it cannot be beat, I tell you you've heard correctly.

The grass in County Cork is so green you want to roll down the hills in a white linen suit and bring some of that vibrant color home with you. The air is so fresh you want to be the kite to fly in it. The cows consume this grass and this air and produce milk so full of flavor and goodness that when it is churned to golden perfection you fleetingly think, Calories? Hmm.... I believe I remember caring about those once... before the thought is gone completely and your world consists only of the Kerrygold Irish butter melting on your tongue and the brown bread it proudly adorns.

Lunch was Ardrahan cheese fritters with red-currant jelly and porridge with cream and honey at The Vintage, a charming establishment in Kanturk, County Cork, noticeably popular with the sixty-and-up crowd, happily serving breakfast all day. I may have received some funny looks from my own crowd when I ordered porridge, but let me tell you, Goldilocks and the three bears knew what was up: my lunch was just right.

The mid-day meal, however, turned out to be entirely unnecessary, as we were greeted at the Ardrahan Farm by Mary Burns and a full spread of her delicious, handcrafted farmstead cheeses, her son Gerald's signature Irish coffee, and the most incredible tiramisu-inspired cake to ever tickle my tongue.

We toured the farm, met the cows, and watched as two adept women crafted wheels of Duhallow farmstead cheese. Artisan cheeses may be any cheeses that are made primarily by hand according to traditional procedures, but farmstead cheeses are only those that are made on the same farm where the milk is produced. This is Mary's business.

Fully integrated, from the cows to the aging rooms to the packaging, Mary and her small, dedicated team do it all.

Two cheeses are produced here: the mild, fresh-tasting Duhallow (named after the region where the farm is located), and the more pungent, washed-rind Ardrahan (the flagship cheese, named after the farm itself). Very different cheeses, both are sold in the States, and both are very good.

Asked if she might launch another cheese in the future, Mary said no with such conviction that I almost believed her. But the gleam in her eye was full of maybe.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Driving on the Other Side of the Road, Part One

The Setting: Slipping on the much-required lounging uniform of elastic-waisted pants and an over-sized T-shirt and sliding onto the sofa after a day full of cheese tastings and wine pairings.
The Soundtrack: Nothing yet, but as soon as my fingers bore with the keyboard, it will be last week's episode of Glee on Hulu.
On the Stove-top: A steaming pot of veggie chili. Healthy? Truly. Tasty? Let's hope.
The Scenario: Dreaming of returning to Ireland...if my wallet or my waistline can ever afford it.
The trip was amazing.

I left MIA excited, nervous, frightened, and thin, and returned exhilarated, worldly, and considerably more well-padded around the midsection.

Dopey from sleep deprivation, high on briny Atlantic air, and bewitched by the melodically lyrical Celtic language, suggestive of magic and mischief and bedtime stories, I consumed pints of stout and three-course meals with far less discretion than a squirrel gives to nuts.

Analyzing the subtleties of Cheddars by day and raising cheers and beers by night, four days felt like weeks but flew by too fast all the same.

We arrived in Dublin and were whisked off to lunch at the O'Callaghan Davenport Hotel, where I first pledged my eternal love to the exquisite cultural treasure that is brown soda bread. Speckled, hearty, moist, and surprisingly complex in flavor, from bite one I was rendered incapable of resisting this necessary component of every Irish table.
My resolve for moderation was further weakened at our next appointment, a cheese tasting with some lovely chaps who grade cheddar for a living. Not a bad gig, though I fail to see how they remain so thin if they are perpetually surrounded by the Vintage Dubliner my hands kept sinfully reaching for.

Dinner was foie gras terrine with cherry sauce and brioche toast, risotto with cepes and truffle oil, and strawberry-rhubarb crumble with homemade vanilla ice-cream at Peploe's Restaurant. A former president dined two tables down.

Morning came early. At the train station I tried to buy a phone card and failed. However, while tarrying unsuccessfully at the uncooperative automated kiosk, I discovered another Irish treasure, undoubtedly soon to make its mark on the States. Butler's Chocolates, founded in Dublin in 1932, is in the business of purveying happiness--seriously, it's their motto. But that's not just lip service. Order a delicious (ethically sourced, they assure you) espresso drink from a Butler's Chocolate Cafe, and select the complimentary chocolate of your choice. I selected a chocolate-hazelnut confection with which I would love to arrange a recurring renz de vous. Thinking of applying for a franchise? Might I suggest you come to Florida?

The train took us through the Irish countryside to the Carbery Co-Op, where I gobbled more Vintage Dubliner and incredible, homemade brown bread after donning a lab jacket and touring the cheese-making facilities.

Down the road just a smidge, we were welcomed with coffee, tea, and mountainous servings of banoffi pie at a quaint, family-run market. I almost marvel at how I was able to inhale the pie with such speed and entirety, but then I remember the crumbly looseness of the crust, the gooey, caramel-ly filling, the happy clouds of whipped cream, and the subtle shavings of milk chocolate, and ravenousness sets in once more.

We couldn't stay for seconds, however, as we had a hot date with a stunning herd of cattle. When you meet the cows who produce the milk for the Carbery Co-Op, you understand why the cheese tastes so good.

"Why aren't they mooing?" someone wanted to know, as we stood upon the cows' abundant kitchen table. "They're so quiet."

"They aren't waiting to be herded or to be fed," the farmer said. "They don't take feeding cues from us. They eat when they are hungry. They are happy. They have no reason to moo at you."

The cows looked us straight in our faces as if to say, "Yes, we are awesome. Bow down if you desire."

The next stop was Kinsale, where I instantly began making plans to buy a home: Step one) pack. Step 2) come into money....

We took a street-train ride through the fishing village to the highest point in town, overlooking the water-side shops and bars. Postponing dinner at the Bulman Restaurant just long enough to enjoy some pints in the barely brisk, new-autumn air, we eventually gave in to hunger and enjoyed fresh seafood in the posh, upstairs dining room. I appetized on oysters and entreed on scallops and regret only that I failed to squeeze in some sticky toffee pudding for dessert.

Before catching what few Zs we could at the enchanting Actons Hotel, we hit Ned Kelly's tavern for a night cap or few. A talented one-man act provided mood music with a mix of pop songs, traditional Irish tunes, and Southern rock. I had never witnessed a crowd sing along more aggressively to John Denver than to Sweet Home Alabama, but then, I hail from the SEC. In the middle of "Country Roads, Take me Home" a lasting treat came in the form of a bar brawl when a fellow by the name of Juicy was forcibly removed from the establishment. Juicy remained a topic of fond memory and reflection for the duration of the trip. How did he receive such a nickname? What got him all rawled up? And as the trip progressed, all questions were answered with the ponderance W.W.J.D. What would Juicy do