By Marcia Pilgeram
I’ve circled this island so many times, anxiously peering out the window as the airplane dips and banks, offering me a glimpse of the variegated green landscape of my beloved ancestral homeland: Ireland.
This trip is a bit different, as I am on a mission and tight schedule, scouting out potential spots for tour groups I’ll be accompanying here next year. Honestly, I’m a wee bit anxious — it’s a bit like bringing home a boyfriend. Will my friends and clients love Ireland as much as I do? Have I oversold it? I have a lot of work to do this week.
One common misnomer I’ve often heard repeated is the lack of quality of Irish food, and at the risk of sounding like I work for the Culinary Tourism Board of Ireland, I am here (literally) to tell you that the days of plain, overcooked meat and potatoes are gone. The past couple of decades have seen a rise in new chefs, fusing traditional Irish fare, with fresh local flair.
In Cork City, you’ll encounter the Old English Market, and it lives up to its name. This covered market was established in 1788 and is home to generations of venerable butchers and bakers — and yes, candlestick makers. The family-run stalls are filled with a mix of young learner/old teacher proprietors, and some of my favorite shops are those of the meat, fish and cheese mongers. I look forward to these visits and I’ve come to love the lively, back and forth banter that accompanies every purchase. The foods you’ll encounter there are fresh and local, and anything but bland or boring.
Just 20 miles down the road is Ballymaloe House, a family-run country inn and restaurant in the countryside of East Cork, famous for its fresh and innovative Irish cuisine. I’ll be taking the ladies there next April, so I stopped by this week to introduce myself. The dining manager, Lindsay, as well as the general manager, Peter, joined me in the drawing room and over coffee and biscuits we first talked U.S. politics (everyone’s favorite subject over here), the travel industry and, finally, discussed the menu for my groups.
I was there a couple years ago and was blown away by the best food experience I have ever had — anywhere. I never stop thinking about it and can’t wait to share it with all the others. Their award-winning Trolley (dessert cart) remains the most over-the-top showcase of sweets that you’ll ever encounter. Last year, I arranged a reservation for our own Kate McAlister — a surprise anniversary trip from her hubby — and when Kate couldn’t decide what to choose, the server suggested she simply sample everything on the trolley.
Not far down the road is the world-famous Ballymaloe Cookery School, founded in 1983 by Darina Allen, the daughter-in-law of the Ballymaloe House proprietors.
Allen is known as the “Julia Child” of Ireland, and is well known throughout the culinary world for her works in the Farmers Market and Slow Food movements. The cookery school has turned out many noted international chefs and remains one of the most highly regarded culinary schools in the world. I have admired Allen since a visiting Irish friend gave me her first cookbook, more than 25 years ago. This week, I was thrilled to meet her, tour the kitchens and, then, honored to be invited to stay on for lunch, which is prepared daily for staff and guests.
The kitchens were a flurry of activity, operated with military-like precision. The hands-on instructors (in green aprons) supervised and critiqued serious students (in black aprons) who prepared a buffet of breads, salad, two or three entrées and a sideboard laden with desserts. I’m not sure if every Monday is seafood day or if it was just Irish luck, but I was treated to fresh oysters, local mussels and platters teeming with sweet, young shrimp served with a light and creamy lemon mayonnaise. Besides the seafood, there were fragrant meat pies, topped with flaky pastry, and a huge bowl of salad greens and squash blossoms, picked just before serving.
Then, we were on to that sideboard of cakes, sweet breads, Carrageen Moss pudding and heavenly scented, saffron-poached pears.
I’m not cooking this week, but as I continue to eat my way through Ireland, I’m collecting a few recipes for my files and I’m starting with Darina Allen’s recipe for the pears, which she says are perfect for our winter holiday table. I hope you will like them as much as I did.
Darina Allen’s Saffron-Poached Pears • serves 4
• 1 cup granulated sugar
• 1 ¾ cups water
• 6 whole cardamom pods,
• ¼ tsp good quality saffron
• 3 tbsp freshly squeezed
• 4 ﬁrm pears
Step 1: Put the sugar, water, cardamom pods, saffron and lemon juice into a shallow, wide pan (we use a stainless-steel sauté pan). Stir to dissolve the sugar and bring to a simmer. Meanwhile, peel the pears, cut them in half and remove the cores. As you prepare each pear, drop it straight into the simmering syrup, cut-side up.
Step 2: Cover the pan with a circle of grease-proof paper and put the lid on top. Simmer away gently until the pears are tender, approximately 20-30 minutes, spooning the syrup over them every now and then.
Step 3: Once the pears are cooked, carefully lift them out of the pan and arrange them in a single layer, cut-side down, in a serving dish. Pour the syrup over the top. The syrup may be reduced a little after the pears have been removed to a serving dish. Be careful not to cook it for too long or the syrup will caramelise. Serve chilled. This compote keeps for several weeks, covered, in the fridge.
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