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Culinary Delight in Ireland

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Photo: Ditte Isager

Pearse Street in Clonakilty is a handsome high street of pastel-hued Georgians with bronze door knockers, upscale design shops, baby clothiers, and bookshops. On a balmy July night, the storefronts were shuttered but the street was crowded with cologned lads in tracksuits piling out of cars and into back-alley nightclubs. We were searching for the right pub, a quiet place where we could indulge in the whiskey taste-off we’d been itching to stage since we’d landed at Shannon Airport: a contest between Ireland’s two most popular bar brands, Paddy and Powers.

A sandwich board advertising a trad music session guided us through an arched shortcut to the next street over. We trod past a fortress of spent ale kegs toward a white cottage, and pushed open the lacquered red door. On the other side, we found ourselves in what seemed like someone’s parlor, with a standing-room-only crowd who were silent, rapt, and staring at…us?

No, they were scrutinizing the musicians—fiddler Maighréad Casey and guitarist Tom O’Leary—seated so near the entrance we could almost feel the downdraft of Maighréad’s bow as she sawed away. She sang an ancient song of seafaring strangers and fishermen’s widows, in the flickering light of candles stuck in old Jameson bottles. An Teach Beag’s bartender worked the crowd with nary a whisper, reading lips, pulling drinks, pricing with his fingers, making change. In an instant we had our whiskeys, but the taste-off seemed suddenly pointless. Smoky, peaty, peppery—who cared?What mattered was that it was the perfect drink for the perfect night in the perfect Irish town.

Go to Ireland, and quick—before the pubs disappear, friends from New York to Chicago to Toronto told us. The ban on smoking indoors and the crackdown on drunk driving is killing the classic watering holes; the old codgers who’d sputtered down to the taproom in rattletrap Austins, dropping 200 quid a week on pints and fags, are homebound now. And while the publicans are losing clientele, their taxes are going through the roof. The decade-long economic boom that inspired Ireland’s nickname, the Celtic Tiger, has made the very land on which their establishments stand worth much more than they’d ever earn as barkeeps.

We went to Ireland to experience the soul of the pub scene before its embers were extinguished, and we chose West Cork for its culinary fire. In the past 10 years, the region has become the epicenter of the Slow Food movement in Ireland—perhaps not surprising, since this sea-swept, southern part of the country comprises a series of peninsulas that stretch like fingers into the Atlantic, the ideal spawning ground for shrimp, oysters, scallops, crabs, and langoustines. Day boats from the small port towns of Union Hall and Castletownbere reel in sole, pike, haddock, monkfish, John Dory, plaice, and skate. And the cold sea represents only one aspect of West Cork’s food bounty. Fields of wild vetch and heather nourish vast herds of cows and sheep (County Cork is prime cheese country), and free-ranging pigs and poultry munch happily in the thickets.

We were eager to see how the recent years of prosperity might have changed Cork’s dining scene. The area’s long been a destination for international food adventurers, in large part due to the work of Myrtle Allen, who in 1964 opened Ballymaloe House restaurant with her husband, Ivan, proving that Irish farmhouse cooking could garner worldwide critical acclaim. Since then, Allen and her family have expanded their enterprise with a cooking school, restaurants in Cork City, television shows, and many, many books. But Myrtle Allen remains an activist for artisanal producers, having recently written the essential Local Producers of Good Food in Cork, a no-frills compendium of the best food stops in the county.

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