A taste O' IRELAND

A culinary renaissance has Irish eyes smiling

March 15, 2000|By Carol Nuckols | Carol Nuckols,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

People don't go to Ireland for the food. But they would if they knew.

Ireland, where lamb stew and Guinness stout come to mind. Where salmon reign in the cold, fast-flowing rivers and the icy Atlantic beyond. Salmon that end up poached or delicately smoked.

Where the cows are fat and their cream is rich. Where the cream -- whipped alongside your wedge of chocolate cake or gently piled atop your Irish coffee -- is tinted slightly yellow, butterlike.

Even oatmeal tastes better here. With a texture so chewy that it sometimes resembles barley, it is more filling, too. Of course, it's cooked in whole milk and drowned in -- you guessed it -- cream. No wonder it tastes so good.

So when you're asked, "Would you like cream with that?" say yes. This is not the time or place to worry about your cholesterol level or your calorie intake. This is the time, and the place, to enjoy fine cuisine or simple, hearty fare, prepared with care from high-quality ingredients. 'Tis true that Ireland doesn't immediately come to mind when the subject is haute cuisine. And yet, quietly, a culinary renaissance has been taking place here for the past 10 or 15 years. Chefs train on the Continent or in England, or they undergo a two-year training program sponsored by the Irish government.

Local farmers and producers supply hotels and restaurants with top-notch meats, cheeses, herbs and vegetables. With Ireland's booming economy and a youthful, well-traveled and sophisticated population, the country's demand for fine food is growing. And it is being met. "Today is a time of renaissance for Irish food," says Declan Ryan, owner of the Arbutus Lodge in Cork. "It's the most exciting time ever."

Ten or 12 years ago, "There were only six or eight serious restaurants in the country -- like little lighthouses in the fog." Now, Ryan can't count all the fine dining establishments, he says.

Patrick Curran, general manager of the Aghadoe Heights Hotel in Killarney, credits the country's economy. Instead of relying primarily on agriculture, the economic base has diversified, fueled by a strong high-tech industry. "The Irish have a lot more money to spend, and it's socially acceptable to eat out and talk about food," he says. "People are prepared to pay good money for good food."

As a result, restaurants have improved, along with the scope and quality of locally available ingredients. As in the rest of Europe, Ireland's culinary history goes way back, Curran says. "Unfortunately, ours was interrupted by the famine [the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s]. Everything ceased and started all over again."

Before that catastrophe, the island was blessed with fine cheeses, among other delicacies. "Now, nobody even knows what the cheese tasted like." Ryan used to import cheese from France. "Now I have nothing but local cheeses on the board -- all farmhouse cheeses, nothing from the factory," he says.

In the past, he had to grow his own fresh herbs on the premises. "Now I have a choice of three different herb growers."

As a tourist destination, Ireland is becoming increasingly accessible, thanks to more direct flights. "We're seeing a growth in hotels and restaurants," Curran says. "It's possible to make money out of a restaurant." Or out of supplying a restaurant, he adds, mentioning "the local person that makes the bread or makes the marmalade for breakfast."

Although the Irish may not (yet) be known for their cuisine, their friendliness and warmth are renowned. Kenneth Broderick, a bartender at Shannon International Airport, where Irish coffee is said to have originated, was asked if he could make a decaf version of that concoction. "Well, it wouldn't exactly be an Irish coffee," he replied. But he was quick to amend, "If you want, I can do it that way, no problem."

And share the recipe, too.

At the Twelve Pins Lodge in Barna, County Galway, disappointment at the unavailability of mussels sent the waitress scurrying back to the kitchen to dispatch a boy to the pub across the road to see if it had any of the tasty bivalves. Alas, it didn't, but her effort exemplifies the eager-to-please charm of the Irish.

So forget the corned beef and cabbage. Why bother, when you can feast on Roast Rack of Lamb on a Bed of Creamed Spinach served with Gratin Potatoes, followed by Bailey's Souffle in a Chocolate Cup at the Beaufort Bar and Restaurant near Killarney? Or Wholemeal Bread (a version of Ireland's ubiquitous brown soda bread) or rich, intensely flavored Chicken-Liver Terrine at the Purple Heather in Kenmare?

Lightly fried Galway Bay oysters; lean, salty bacon; silken foie gras; artfully arranged seafood cassoulet in phyllo pastry; heady cream of tomato soup -- the list goes on. So the remark of a satisfied diner, upon completion of an elaborate meal at the Arbutus Lodge, seems apropos:

"We're not really in Ireland; we're in heaven."

Chicken-Liver Terrine

Serves 6

12 ounces bacon, cut into small pieces

2 ounces butter

1 small onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 1/2 pounds chicken livers

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