Irish breakfast: so many choices

B&Bs offer the high-calorie traditional morning meal that tourists have come to expect


Dublin, Ireland -- You can travel to Ireland and not visit the Cliffs of Moher or Bunratty Castle, but you can't not eat breakfast.

The Emerald Isle has turned into a nation of bed-and-breakfasts, with the emphasis on the morning meal: eggs, bacon, sausage, grilled tomatoes, homemade breads, cold cereal, fresh fruit and juice, at the very least.

The accommodations may be modest, and when you consult the guidebooks you quickly learn to be wary of B&B descriptions like "comfortable" rather than "spacious" and "luxurious." (Luxurious can mean nothing more than a shower with good water pressure.)

But when you stay in someone's home, you can be sure you will get a lavish, delicious and varied breakfast, usually in the family dining room. It's simply hard to miss when you're being served good Irish butter, whole milk, freshly baked breads and blazing hot pots of tea.

On a recent trip to Ireland, we stayed at six different B&Bs in a week. It wasn't the most restful way to do it, but it did make me something of an expert on Irish soda bread.

"You never get the same taste of any bread in any house," Pat Greaney, who runs High Tide B&B in Galway, told me. She explained that everyone has her own mother's recipe, handed down from generation to generation.

These breads are served on a plate in thin slices, to be eaten with the delicious high-fat-content Irish butter. They are never toasted unless you ask. If you have toast without requesting brown bread, you will get white-bread toast, perhaps served in racks so it won't get any soggier than it already is as it cools.

Each place we stayed at had the traditional Irish breakfast (more about it in a moment), but that was only the beginning. At High Tide, for instance, Greaney - with no help in the kitchen - offers not just breakfast but a whole breakfast menu that includes everything from French toast to lemon sole with potato cake, mushrooms and tomatoes. She also makes her own marmalade and jams.

High Tide is, in spite of its grand name, a small house in a development with only four rooms to rent out.

Interestingly, the traditional Irish breakfast is not something most Irish eat on a regular basis unless they are day laborers. It consists of fried eggs, sausage, Irish bacon (meatier than ours), grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, and black and white pudding (not dessert but two different kinds of blood sausage).

Teresa O'Donohue, whose Sanborn House in Ennis has four en suite rooms (that is, with private bath), no longer serves black and white pudding with her traditional Irish breakfasts. The tourists leave it on their plates when they find out it's made with fresh pig's blood and suet.

"There are some rubbish brands on the market," she said. "But with the good ones, the flavor is fantastic."

What about the baked beans you'll find in the breakfast buffets of city hotels? Not traditional, Greaney said firmly. They are an English import.

And the potato cakes?

"The Irish never eat potatoes for breakfast," said Annette O'Mahoney of the Shores Country House near Castlegregory. "They are solely for dinner."

Although there is some disagreement on its elements, the traditional breakfast, blood sausage and all, has become a sort of mythical lure for tourists who want to experience the "real" Ireland. Sometimes it seems as if they are more in love with Ireland's past than the Irish are.

"We never eat the traditional breakfast because of the high fat content," said O'Mahoney, whose B&B, with six bedrooms, was one of the most beautiful we stayed in. Her own breakfast is usually cereal and fruit, "a Weetabix and a pear," she said.

But tourists, especially Americans, expect a huge, caloric breakfast, so that's what she fixes, along with fruit plates featuring, among other things, fresh pineapple and Crenshaw melon; croissants with ham, mushrooms and cheese; waffles and maple syrup; and much more. Each morning she has a different quick bread like banana with sour cream and walnuts along with her brown bread.

One thing she doesn't serve is tea scones.

"Scones are not for breakfast," she said. "And we never have them with gravy."

This remark puzzled me until I realized she equated scones with American biscuits, and when she visited the States she had had biscuits and gravy in the South.

My daughter confounded our hostesses by asking for porridge every morning - not something many Americans do, apparently. Porridge, or Irish oatmeal, is made from steel-cut oats. These are fine-cut oat groats, which are chewier and take longer to cook than our oatmeal. Have it with buttermilk, cream, sugar or "a knob of butter," as Greaney says she prefers.

Every B&B we stayed at offered coffee, but nothing is better than a good cup of freshly brewed Irish breakfast tea. Usually, though, it's brewed from tea bags, although Greaney assured me she would have used leaves if she had known I'd appreciate them. The tea of choice seems to be Bewley's, which can be bought in any supermarket in Ireland.

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