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A Gastronome’s Diary of Eire Land – One Week’s Journey from Ancient Castles to Dublin’s Fair Metropolis

Jordan Wright
June 30, 2011
Special to The Washington Examiner

 

Dromoland Castle Golf and Spa Resort is a short drive from Shannon Airport in southwest Ireland

Dromoland Castle Golf and Spa Resort is a short drive from Shannon Airport in southwest Ireland


 

 

The Cliffs of Moher - photo credit Jordan Wright

The Cliffs of Moher - photo credit Jordan Wright

Harpist on the Cliffs of Moher - photo credit Jordan

Harpist on the Cliffs of Moher - photo credit Jordan

 

The lush terrain crisscrossing Ireland could break your heart with its raw beauty.  In a landscape where bright yellow hedges of wild gorse mingle with the snowy blossoms of the blackthorn and thousands of kilometers of centuries-old stone walls delineate emerald green fields, black-faced sheep and honey-hued dairy cows graze languorously beneath an impossibly blue sky.  For the traveler along the southern and western edge of the country in the counties of Cork, Limerick and Clare it is soul stirring.

From Shannon Airport in County Clare, we are just a few miles from our arrival at the lavish Dromoland Castle Golf and Spa Resort.  Built in the 5thC by the O’Brien family, descendants of the High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, the turreted castle overlooks its own golf course and falconry school on 375 acres offering grand suites decorated in elegant country style and a wealth of sporting activities like fishing, clay shooting and horseback riding.  Refined seasonally driven cuisine, helmed by noted chef David McCann, is reflected by roasted saddle of rabbit with leeks, clams and wild mushrooms in corn broth, filet of beef with a claret sauce, and chocolate coconut cream torte with red berry sauce.

The gardens at Dromoland Castle - photo credit Jordan Wright

The gardens at Dromoland Castle - photo credit Jordan Wright

The falconer at Dromoland Castle - photo credit Jordan Wright

The falconer at Dromoland Castle - photo credit Jordan Wright

From the castle it’s an easy drive to the limestone Cliffs of Moher on the southwest coast where guillemots and puffins frolic in Galway Bay beneath the shadow of O’Brien’s Tower.  In the distance the Aran Islands, a much-visited area noted for Irish music and thatched roof buildings dating from the mid 1400’s, are reachable by ferry from the nearby town of Doolin.

South of Ballyvaughan, lunch is at Gregan’s Castle Hotel, a lovely Georgian-style manor house, where you can park your wellies by the door for a bite of local steamed lobster or the delicious Burren lamb.  Expert local botanist, Tony Kirby, is there to escort us to The Burren National Park, and the iconic Poulnabrone Dolmen Monument.  The preserve is a beautifully desolate glacial karst of 98,000 acres filled with over 70% of Ireland’s native plants.

Throughout the countryside of this Neolithic land, are over 30,000 ‘ringforts’ and ancient stone monuments that speak of a civilization conceived before the pyramids of Egypt.  Conquered in turns by Celts, Gaels, Vikings, Visigoths and Normans, tribes built these ‘ringforts’ or ‘raths’.  But were they used for faeries or farmers?  Forts or sites for pagan mating rituals?  No matter.  The myths and mysteries, where Christian abbeys coexist with medieval castles and two million-year old subterranean rivers and caves, beckon the explorer.

The salad course of asparagus and morels at The K Club - photo credit Jordan Wright

The salad course of asparagus and morels at The K Club - photo credit Jordan Wright

Local oysters at the Farm Gate Cafe in Cork - photo credit Jordan Wright

Local oysters at the Farm Gate Cafe in Cork - photo credit Jordan Wright

A trip to Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, built in 1425, offers a glimpse of “knight” life.  Stroll through the restored village to reach the castle keep where period-costumed lords and ladies invite you to make merry with a bawdy madrigal concert and medieval banquet in the great dining hall.  Traditional fare includes mead, braised beef and raspberry fool.

The following day we arrive through the magnificent gates of the luxurious 19thC Castlemartyr Resort. This extraordinary country estate, once owned by Sir Walter Raleigh, sits on 220 pastoral acres and has an 800-year old castle ruins that was once home to the Knights Templar.  A pair of perfectly matched Kerry bog ponies-with-cart trots us around the gardens before cocktails in the clubby Knight’s Bar.  On the veranda a black-and-white themed wedding of stunning young royals plays out before we segué into the dining room for a sumptuous six-course dinner of Ballycotton prawns with artichoke puree and truffles, ballantine of foie gras, sea bass with coastal mussels and chervil, and Hereford beef with a potato terrine and carrot fondant.

Morning brings us to Cork to visit the famed English Market, a food emporium chock-a-block with local fish, meats and farm products.  Upstairs at Farmgate Café we lunch on Atlantic oysters, grilled lemon sole and rhubarb fool paired with a crisp Verdicchio from the Le Marche region.

Kerry Bog ponies at Castlemartyr - photo credit Jordan Wright

Kerry Bog ponies at Castlemartyr - photo credit Jordan Wright

Traveling along the Celtic Sea we reach the quaint fishing village of Cobh. Home to the Royal Cork Yacht Club, it served as the final departure point for the RMS Titanic’s ill-fated maiden voyage.  From the town’s quay we set out on a bracing sea safari in a 12-seat RIB boat past Spike Island.  On the way to Kinsale we watch grey seals and bottlenose dolphins cavorting in the calm waters beneath the soaring cliffs.

The lighthouse at Old Head Golf Links - photo credit Jordan Wright

The lighthouse at Old Head Golf Links - photo credit Jordan Wright

Perched above the Atlantic Ocean is the Old Head Golf Links, where duffers like Tiger Woods and Jack Nicholson summon the golf gods.  We enjoy a casual lunch of cod and chips on the outdoor patio of the Lusitania Bar where if you’re lucky you’ll see one of 15 species of whales. The tony club has recently added contemporary-designed suites and a spa for overnight guests.

Back at Castlemartyr a massage and facial before a short walk into the village of Straffan to Pat Shortt’s Pub for a farm-style dinner while enjoying a rollicking evening of traditional Irish folk music.  A fish chowder of ling, haddock and salmon, beef braised in Beamish stout, and apple rhubarb crumble accompany pints of Black and Tans, made with half Guinness stout and half Smithwick’s ale.

The K Club's ghillie - photo credit Jordan Wright

The K Club's ghillie - photo credit Jordan Wright

A mid-morning stop at the old Jameson Distillery, then on to The K Club, a 19th C Georgian manor along the Liffey River.  The drive takes us past the Galtee Mountains and through ‘The Golden Vale’ where the counties of Limerick, Tipperary and Cork meet.  Sporting two 18-hole Arnold Palmer designed courses, The Kildare Hotel Spa and Country Club, as it is otherwise known, is home to the Ryder Cup and a favorite haunt of US Presidents and rock stars.  Tea, scones and watercress finger sandwiches followed by a sampling of Ireland’s most exquisite cheeses – creamy St. Killian, tangy Cashel Blue, wonderfully lemony Cratloe Hills and the earthy Milleens.

Out on the green a challenging fly fishing lesson with the estate’s ghillie precedes a tour of the hotel’s museum-quality collection of paintings, tapestries and sculptures (Of historical note – a framed signing of the Belfast Agreement which took place here).  Then off for a massage and dip in the indoor pool.

The evening’s adventure beckons as we wend our way down a narrow hidden stairwell to find a world-class wine collection in the castle’s cellar.  Sipping champagne and nibbling on salmon canapés by candlelight, we gasp discreetly over rooms filled floor-to-ceiling with extraordinary vintages, Pomerol, Montrachet, Petrus, Medoc and Champagne, some dating back to the 1920’s.

At dinner Chef Finbar Higgins, and his staff of 18 Michelin-star graduates signal serious dining in the private Pantheon Suite with luscious langoustines, oysters topped with citrus foam and a risotto strewn with morels.

Jeremy and stable boy at The National Stud - photo by Jordan Wright

Jeremy and stable boy at The National Stud - photo by Jordan Wright

Daybreak brings the fifth straight day of sunshine and we’re off to Tully in County Kildare and the Irish National Stud to visit the Horse Museum, Japanese Gardens and stables of priceless breeding stallions. It was a premier stop for Queen Elizabeth on her recent royal tour of Ireland.

We head for Dublin and begin with a tour of the historic Guinness Storehouse, where they are currently celebrating 252years of brewing beer.  We learn that Guinness sells a staggering 10 million glasses every day in over 150 countries around the world.  A top-notch lunch of Irish mussels in Guinness cream, Irish beef Stew and chocolate mousse topped with red currants is prepared for us by chef Justin O’Connor in the private Rainsford Room.  On site are two public restaurants, The Brewer’s Dining Hall and The Gilroy Restaurant and The Gravity Bar 144 feet up affording spectacular views of Dublin.

Pimm's cup before dinner at The Fitzwilliam Hotel - photo credit Jordan Wright

Pimm's cup before dinner at The Fitzwilliam Hotel - photo credit Jordan Wright

Arrive at The Fitzwilliam Hotel, a super-glam contemporary hotel across from the  tranquil gardens of St. Stephen’s Green and a stone’s throw from the best shops on Grafton Street.

Pimm’s Cup served in the penthouse garden before strolling over to the ornate yet very hip The Cliff House Townhouse, a beautifully restored Georgian period hotel and restaurant. East Coast potted monkfish, braised Fermanagh lamb with confit shoulder and garlic sauce, chocolate tart with candied orange and petit fours.

After breakfast in bed we walk to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Trinity College to see The Book of Kells, dropping in at the Queen of Hearts, a perfectly adorable tea shop, to gather up some lemon scones and apple crumble.

Lunch at the Avoca Café, a charming upscale general store cum food hall with a rooftop garden restaurant and eight cookbooks to its name.  Chunky ‘chips’ cooked in duck fat, a coconut-crusted sea bream tempura with nam jim sauce, and apple crumble.

Sweets at the Queen of Hearts - photo credit Jordan

Sweets at the Queen of Hearts - photo credit Jordan

Jam session in St. Stephen's Green - photo credit Jordan Wright

Jam session in St. Stephen's Green - photo credit Jordan Wright

City sightseeing by double-decker bus and back to The Fitzwilliam for an imaginative dinner prepared by famed Irish chef, Kevin Thornton, whose Michelin-starred restaurant, Thornton’s, is in the hotel.  Dublin Bay prawns with prawn bisque and sabayon, Bere Island scallops with truffle mousse, noisette of Sikka deer with potato gnocchi and Valrhona chocolate sauce, and lemon tart with cassis sorbet.  Beautiful ingredients exquisitely prepared.

Sadly we catch our flight back to the States at the crack of dawn, treasuring our memories of the rugged Atlantic coast, green-canopied roads and baronial castles beside picturesque farms, of tiny villages and the cosmopolitan city of Dublin.

Still in our thoughts are the hearty breakfasts, redolent of thick-cut bacon and homemade sausages, house-cured salmon served on hearty brown bread smeared with sweet butter, poached eggs with marigold-hued centers and glass pots of fresh yoghurt. Today’s modern Irish chefs have launched the ‘new’ Irish cuisine and that radical culinary shift is the country’s most recent appeal.

For a guided tour of The Burren. www.heartofburrenwalks.com

For the sea safari. www.safari.ie

For more information on Ireland visit www.tourismireland.com

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