Tag Archives: ireland

A weekend in Dublin…

I’ve lived many, many years on these islands, but just sort of…never got round…to visiting Ireland. Sweden, Finland, Portugal, Bulgaria, Latvia, Malta? All done. From the Alps to the Black Sea, all done. But our nearest neighbour? Well, it’s sort of there and you just sort of expect to go at some point.

Now to say that we are as strangers is not quite true – I went to a wedding near Arklow a couple of years ago, but it was a case of fly in, train down the coast, wedding, party, sleep, recover, train, 2 hours in Dublin and fly back. So all in all, not really a chance to see much of Ireland (beyond the rather stunning coastline that the train route followed), or more specifically, Dublin.

And so it was, a couple of days in Ireland were booked. At last.

I’ve got to say, the trip over was quite hairy – budget airline (which was as you might expect) but the landing…woah! Windy in the extreme and the landing was less than delicate. The sort of landing that makes everyone go very quiet and clutch the seat arms with white knuckles. The sort of landing that actually prompts massive cheers when you land. You get the idea…

Now, my previous experience of Dublin was limited to a few moments on the main drag, O’Connell Street, in the pouring rain. This time, the Emerald Isle was to redeem itself, with pretty much non-stop sunshine. Arriving on a Friday evening, coming along the banks of the River Liffey, the city looked incredibly pretty.

I ended up arriving quite late, and so with limited knowledge of the town, headed to a veggie place called Cornucopia for dinner.

This place is sort of a restaurant and sort of like a cafeteria. Confused? Well, you go in, the very friendly staff sit you down and ply you with wine, but you go to a counter to choose the food. Not sure I got why you would have table staff and the counter thing, but you do then get to see what you could be eating. And that evening, it was a tasty selection of vegetable bakes, curry, salads and stuff veg. Quite homely, but very delicious. And to top it off, they had a harp playing. Now I know that it is such a stereotype, but I found it utterly charming. Nice place, great staff, and worth popping into for a hearty dinner. It’s not fine dining and doesn’t pretend to be, but I loved it all the same. Actually, this place did show me one little characteristic of the Irish that I found very nice. Back home, you ask what’s on the menu: “We’ve got…”. In Ireland, the waitress always seems to say “I’ve got…“. Very personal!

Dinner enjoyed, it was off into town to check our a few of the Irish bars, or “bars” as I would imagine they call them there. Guinness, beer and lots of shouting people. Got the feeling that people were enjoying themselves.

Of course…all that Guinness does not make for a great morning after, both in terms of the amount drunk or the cost of drinking it (6 euro per pint? Really?). In my delicate state, I headed down to check out the hotel breakfast. And it was not great. And they were looking for 10 euro for the privilege. Sorry, and even recognising that they’d laid on some soda bread, it was not appealing. So off into town in search of something better.

I had read that there was a food market along Cows Lane which was about 30 seconds away, so that seemed like a sensible place to start. Lots of stalls selling local fresh produce, jams, cakes and bread.

And Lo! Along the street was the teasingly-named Queen of Tarts.

The weather was sufficiently fine to entertain sitting outside, and I ordered a massive stack of pancakes. Just what the doctor ordered, and something that the hotel could have learned from! As you can see, both the pancakes and the breakfast omelette ticked many a box with those that had partaken of the Irish nightlife the previous evening.

So if in Dublin and not enamoured of what your hotel of guest-house is offering in the morning, this place is well worth checking out. It also has a fantastic selection of cakes, muffins, slices and just about any other sweet treat that you can imagine. Just the sort of stuff to give you lots of energy with what was about to come.

Yes, as a visitor, it seems almost obligatory to enjoy the sunshine and spend many, many hours walking around town. We left the Queen of Tarts and headed into town to see some of the sites – the famous Ha’penny Bridge (where locals were charges half a penny for the privileged of walking across the River Liffey, rather than waiting for a ferry), the impressive Trinity College, the green space of St Stephen’s Green, the grand Georgian area around the Dáil (Parliament) and the fashionable southside of the city.

Something I was curious about was whether I would pick up the odd word of Irish. I was prepared for this not being spoken day-to-day in most of Dublin, particularly around the tourist highlights. But the answer is a great, big, firm no.

While you come back from Spain merrily adding a bit of the lingo into everyday conversions, albeit with off looks from your friends and colleagues, Irish and I remain unfamiliar with each other. Mostly given that it looks unpronounceable to the uninitiated. So the odd “that’s grand” is about as far as it is going to go.

Still, I think the green street signs with the gaelic script look rather fetching.

Saturday evening was a bit of a repeat of Friday, albeit with some local friends and on a grander scale, so inevitably, Sunday too got off to a slow start. However, there were still a few more things to see, so it was a case of press on regardless.

Dublin does have some pretty impressive cathedrals, and I recommend checking out St Patrick’s and/or Christchurch. In my case, it was both. St Patrick’s in particular was fascinating, as the history of the country is reflected in a lot of the decorations and memorials in the building.

After the high culture of cathedral, it was time to pay homage to one of Dublin’s most famous daughters, the alluring Molly Malone. She was made famous by the song Cockles and Mussels (also known as In Dublin’s Fair City). It’s an Irish classic that you’ve probably heard, and the city’s unofficial anthem. And I gather that the locals sometimes refer to her as, eh, the “tart with the cart”. Got to admire that Irish humour and directness, eh?

Molly visited and respects paid, time for a coffee. I had been given a tip-off from friends that there was a good café on the top floor of Avoca, which I can best describe as a department store for gifts and household furnishings (so good to buy the presents to take back home).

The bad news: it’s a about 5 floors up. But the good news: it’s a cute place and serves some great food. Still feeling delicate, it was time for coffee and a large plate of garlic mushrooms on cheesy bread with rosemary roasted tomatoes. And you know what? In my state, it was delicious and hit the spot perfectly. And it seems to be just a little off the tourist route, as it was crammed with locals.

So Dublin – was it worth the wait? The people are great, and there are some impressive things to see and good places to eat. It also has a thriving independent coffee house scene, which is perfect for the traveller in need of a caffeine fix. The bad news is that it is on the pricey side  (and if someone who lives in London says that, you know it is true), but if that is your only criteria for travel, then you are cutting yourself off from a lot that the World has to offer. And of course…you’d miss out of sitting in a Dublin bar, singing three rounds of the Molly Malone song with the locals. Now that is worth it!

Queen of Tarts, Cows Lane, Dame Street, Dublin 2. Tel:+353 1 633 4681

Cornucopia, 19/20 Wicklow Street, Dublin 2. Tel: +353 1 677 7583

Avoca, 11-13 Suffolk Street, Dublin 2. Tel: +353-1-672 6019

LondonEats locations map here.

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Irish Soda Bread

You wake up, and realise several things. Firstly, there is no bread in the house. Second, you forgot to set the bread maker the night before. Third, in spite of your best efforts, you can’t find any bread or bagels in the freezer. What to do?

Clearly, it would be very, very easy to pop down to the shops and actually buy some bread, but there is an alternative – quick and easy Irish soda bread. Not sure about it? G’wan, g’wan, g’wan, g’wan, g’wan, g’wan!

Irish soda bread – as the name might suggest – does not rely on yeast, so there is no need to leave it for aaaaaaages to prove.

The secret is all the chemical-sounding stuff. You add baking soda, cream of tartar and buttermilk to the mixture, and these get jiggy together to produce the carbon dioxide necessary to make the loaf rise. In fact, things get, eh, “jiggy” as soon as you add the buttermilk, as its mild acidity starts the reaction. This means that you do need to work quickly – the reaction is on the go from the start, so you want just enough mixing to get everything combined, then whack the loaf onto a baking tray, let it stand for a moment, then slam into the oven.

This method of baking has its origins in the type of flour that was prevalent in Ireland a hundred or so years ago – not the strong bread flours that we have today for bread making, but softer types that worse less well with yeast. However, these flours work very well with the softer flour that was produced in Ireland. And Irish soda bread was born!

But that’s enough history for this early in the morning. You want to get your coffee on the go, and read the news on your laptop, feeling very pleased with yourself as the loaf bakes.

But there are many reasons why this is a great loaf. There is no kneading – just a quick mix, then shape roughly by hand. The rustic look actually adds to the charm. You want something that looks as if it came out of the oven of a little seaside cottage on the Irish coast. Another excellent thing about it is that it can be eaten while still warm. With yeast-leavened breads, they tend to have to cool down to be sliced properly. However, with its softer, more cake-like texture, Irish soda bread is utterly sublime cut into thick slices and spread generously with butter. It’s great with soups or cheese, but I like to add a large dollop of heather honey, and let the honey and butter melt into the bread. Perfect first thing in the morning scoffed down with a cuppa.

Now, while this bread is great fresh from the oven, it doesn’t keep very well. It’s good the day you make it, but the next day it sort of loses it. But no fear! Simply cut into slices and pop into the toaster – it is delicious! I’m not usually a big toast fan, but it really does wonders on this bread. Again, slather it with butter and honey for a great snack.

You’ve also got a bit of freedom in how to make this loaf. You can use just white flour, just wholemeal or a mixture of the two (I go for a mixture). If you like a but more texture, you can also add a handful of rolled jumbo oats. But if you’re going to be that healthy, make up for it with a decent slab of butter on top.

Finally, just one little note about the milk – you should use buttermilk if you can. You need the acidity of the buttermilk for the authentic taste and to get the reaction with the soda going. If you don’t have buttermilk, use normal milk which has been soured with a little lemon (see below in the recipe).

To make Irish soda bread:

• 150g white flour
• 300g wholemeal flour
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
• 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
• 50g butter
• 300ml buttermilk(*)

Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F). Dust a baking sheet with plain flour.

Put everything except the butter and buttermilk into a bowl and mix well. Rub the butter into the flour mixture until there are no lumps of butter left.

Add the buttermilk, and mix quickly using your hands. Knead very lightly – stop as soon as you have a soft dough. Form a ball and put on the baking sheet. Use a sharp knife to make a cross on top of the loaf. Allow to sit for one minute, then put in the oven. Put a separate dish with water in the oven to create steam.

Bake for 30 minutes until the crust is golden. When done, remove from the oven. You can slice and eat the loaf while still warm.

(*) If you don’t have buttermilk, you can use regular milk. Bring the milk to the boil, then allow to cool. Add a teaspoon of lemon juice, and leave to stand for 5 minutes.

Worth making? Super easy and very, very tasty. This is the sort of bread that you want before you go for long walks on chilly days, or to set you up for a day of activities. It also makes a great way to mop up a thick, tasty vegetable soup.

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