Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Ireland Chronicles: Entry 2 – Far Away Hill are not Always Greener, St. Mullins & The Mullichain Cafe in County Carlow

The River Barrow (10 minutes from our house)

Why does everything seem more appealing in retrospect? Have you ever unearthed a photograph of yourself 10 years on, and wished you could look like that again? The funny thing is, at the time this seemingly ideal image of you was captured, you were probably nothing but critical; of your clothes, your hair, you body. We really are an ungrateful bunch!

Kilkenny Castle (20 minutes away)

This is a lesson I relearn every time I go back home to Ireland, which I did this year for the entire Summer. Just driving the familiar road from my house to town had me gasping at the lovely views that dipped in and out through the hedgerows. These are the same roads I trudged to school on my bicycle for years, and I have my doubts that the lovely patchwork of green fields garnered any attention from me, more likely fretting over unfinished homework.

Stroan Fountain built in 1866 by the Kilfane House estate as a water supply for the community (25 minutes away)

Another bad habit I had for years upon returning home was to drop my bags in the house, rest for a few days and then plan day trips up the country, or across the country, to far-flung places I used to go with my family on our holidays, or places I had never had the chance to see, but longed to. Indeed some of my memories from these long excursions are of cramped seating, car sickness, and the countryside whizzing by the side window of the car.

Monastic ruin in St. Mullins, in County Carlow

It took a while, but I finally figured out that I didn’t have to go too far from our house to be somewhere spectacular. This is true of Ireland no matter where you go. There is always somewhere beautiful waiting for you around the next bend or over the ditch through a field, with the result that this time around, I spent more time enjoying, than burning up the roads of Ireland trying my best to pack it all in.

Church at monastic site in village of St. Mullins

That said, the only thing that separates our house from the little village of St Mullins in Country Carlow is a short drive through some of the most fairytale-like countryside and little towns in the south of Ireland. I am embarrassed to admit that I had never taken the time to explore this ecclesiastically historical site until I had left the country altogether! (In my defence it was easily overlooked for the more famous monastic sites like Glendalough and The Rock Of Cashel)

Swans in the River Barrow in St Mullins

I took the opportunity to visit this place a few times on my trip this time around. It wasn’t the only thing that enticed me however…I am very fond of finding great places to hang out and explore, and even more enthusiastic if there is an equally great place to eat to go along with it!

Banks of the River Barrow by Mullichain Cafe

You know you have arrived in St. Mullins when you find yourself flanked by the ominous Blackstairs Mountains on one side and Brandon Hill on the other. And of course this picturesque image is not complete without the River Barrow flowing in the valley between them.

The giant remains of a Motte & Bailey Castle (which the kids had to climb of course)

As you wind your way past the ruins of the monastic settlement of St. Mullins, which incidentally is the oldest settlement in Ireland, dating back to the 7th century, and on past the great mounded hill (part of the Motte & Bailey Castles of old), the road winds down to the bank of the River Barrow, and located right smack in front of it is The Mullichain Cafe.

View of Mullichain Cafe

Talk about location; this old converted 4 story store house is the perfect place to sit for lunch, cup of tea and a scone, or in my case a glass of crisp white wine. I cannot think of a better place to lounge after taking one of the many fabulous walking paths along the river.

Another view of the converted 4-Story Store House

When the River Barrow was one of the key waterways for the transportation of goods from one place to another, the cafe building was the store house for all manner of essential; from lumber to barrels of stout from Guinness. It was restored with care to preserve many of its original features by the cafe owners, Martin and Emer O’ Brien.

Toasted Chicken, sun-dried Tomatoes, & Lettuce served with Chutney

The giant white wall facing the river is lined with tables and big canvas umbrellas (more to keep off the rain than the sun I guarantee), and this is where I generally install myself after our drive or meander through the old graveyard and ruins of the monastery. On this particular day I timed our visit to coincide with hunger pangs, and we ordered up some delicious toasted sandwiches and wine, followed by dessert.

Home Made Pavlova

I will say that the food is very basic, but it is inexpensive and good. If you want my recommendation of what to try however, I will say that what the savory food might lack, the desserts (made on the premises), make up for it in abundance. There is always a tart or two to choose from (rhubarb, apple, pear) and sweet coffee cake like Lemon Drizzle or Carrot Cake. We had the Pavlova, and I will admit to wanting to lick the plate after wards. It was filled with all kinds of wild berries, and the meringue had the desirable “chewy” inside oh so important in making the dessert a success.

Enjoying sitting on the banks of the River Barrow

I have said this plenty of times, but a warm and friendly restaurant atmosphere can go a long way, even making up for so-so food in some cases. Every time I have been to The Mullichain Cafe, Martin O’ Brien has always been there, joking with customers and making everyone feel as at home as possible. He is rough and ready with a laugh that could cajole even an old grouch into good humour.

looking for water creatures after lunch

As I sat around reading at our table after lunch,the kids hung out in the water with nets trying to catch minnow fish and any other kind of creature they managed to unearth from the muddy banks. There were lots of other people around too, some with dogs who were deftly retrieving sticks from the water, some fishing off the banks, and there was even a class of an aquatic nature going, (all I know is that the students were wearing wet suits and jumping into the water when instructed!)

Enjoying the afternoon sun with Suki (the friendliest rottweiler in the world – really!)

There are some beautiful walks into the neighboring towns, and up into the mountains that can begin and end at this little cafe. That is my plan the next time. For now I must be content to sit thousands of miles away with my memories to sustain me.

be back soon

The Ireland Chronicles: Entry 1 – Mummified Cat & Rat, Giant Sand Sculptures, Followed by Lunch at Wagamama’s in Dublin!

When I returned from Ireland, where I spent my entire Summer, my friend Tom posed a very serious question: “Have you stopped writing your blog?”  “Of course not” I snapped defensively, “just couldn’t do all that fun stuff and have time to write about it!’ Now that I am back, it is time to chronicle my adventures. He may be sorry he asked, as seething with envy might be the result of his reading each and every delicious post!

Ha’penny Bridge over the river Liffey in Dublin

And what better place to start than with my trip to Dublin, always an adventure. This city hovers around the top of my list of favorites, and a few of the things I did on this particular day did nothing to change its status, or my opinion on the matter.

Approaching Christ’s Church Cathedral

Myself and the two kids took the 9am train to Dublin and were standing on the quay near the famous St. James’ Gate at the Guinness factory a little over an hour later. We walked up the quay by the river Liffey heading towards our first stop, Christ’s Church Cathedral. I was excited to show them this beautiful 11th century Norman masterpiece.

Christ’s Church Cathedral

As well as marvelling at the various architectural points of interest, such as the Romanesque arch, the medieval stone carvings and the baptistery, we were most excited about seeing something a little less intellectual on one hand, and sensational on the other. One was the tomb of the infamous Cambro-Norman leader, Strongbow (the sensational bit!), and the other was the mummified cat and rat who met their demise (presumably during a terrific chase) in one of the organ pipes in the 1860’s, and now on view in the enormous 12th century medieval crypt.

Unfortunate cat and rat

After a most wonderful visit in the cathedral, I decided to take a walk to St. Stephan’s Green, Dublin’s beautiful city park via Dublin Castle. When we got to the big courtyard we were treated to another feast for the eyes. The whole courtyard was filled with three sand sculptors in process. They were giant and spectacular. I found out that the three men working away with their shovels, chisels, and water were a group of artists called Duthain Dealbh, which means ‘Fleeting Sculpture’ in irish.

Duthain Dealbh at work on ‘Bright Sparks’

The guys  building these sculptures for the past ten years are a trio of artists who have been creating giant free-standing sculptures on location every year for the past ten years.  This year’s theme was ‘Bright Sparks’, inspired by the work of Irish scientists. We were so transfixed that we decided watching these clever manipulators of sand at work would be a better use of our time than taking a tour of the castle, (on this particular day anyway). The castle would always be there, but these “fleeting” sculptures would not.

leaving St. Stephan’s Green through the fusiliers arch at the top of Grafton Street

After a brisk walk through Stephan’s we headed over to the restaurant I was excited to write about: Wagamama’s!

Duncan; one of the managers at Wagamama’s

As I was trying to think of exactly the perfect explanation of why Wagamama’s stood out to me, after all it is one of a chain of restaurants all over the world, so how could it be singular and unique? I was reminded of the fairy tale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and of the golden-haired girl’s famous remark after tasting the Baby Bear’s porridge, and I loosely quote, “that porridge was too cold, and that porridge too hot, but this porridge is, just right”, and, as far as my memory serves me, she ate it all up!

Yes Chef!

Well, that’s how I feel about this restaurant – it is just right.

I was in Ireland for seven weeks, visited Dublin four times, and choose to eat at Wagamama’s three of those times. Something must have made an impression on me?

Slurping brothy Ramen

The easiest way to describe my feelings is by analyzing their motto since the first restaurant opened in London 20 years ago: “to combine great, fresh and nutritious food in a sleek yet simple setting with helpful, friendly service and value for money”

Sleek kitchen

The first thing that was obvious to me was the reference to sleek and simple. The initial thing one notices upon entered a restaurant is the “vibe”. It can make or break your mood, and in this case, as I descended the long stairs to the restaurant floor I felt like I needed to saunter and slowly catwalk to my table. You were on display, in a good way, and if you felt like it, you could strut your stuff.

my son’s favorite dish of Yaki Udon (he ordered this every time!)

The kitchen flanked one side of the restaurant with the patrons and help being separated by a high stainless steel counter, where food was dished out with cafeteria-style efficiency. The dining tables were long simple wooden boards with a mod feel, where you could find yourself sitting next to complete strangers (another cafeteria similarity come to think of it?). It didn’t feel awkward as the whole room was filled with a pleasant din and general bustle, like being on the subway or underground with lots of people in close proximity, but still comfortable about ignoring each other.

Duck dumplings

On to “helpful friendly service”: yes indeed. The staff was all that and more, and eating there 3 times gives me the confidence to say that this is normal at Wagamama’s, not just a one time lucky thing. I am invariably more annoyed by rude staff than I am about mediocre food. There is nothing worse than being treated badly by wait staff when you have treated yourself to dinner out.

Chirpy one and two

From the charming manager Duncan, who was accommodating at every turn, to the chirpy floor staff, I felt well taken care of, and catered to. I could analyse and say that this is their job, and my happiness is just part of their job description, but I don’t think that is important. I don’t care if I am someone they have to be nice to, I appreciate the gesture, plain and simple. I don’t need anything else, and am not bothered that when I leave, the memory of my being there merges with the images of every other customer they happen to serve that evening or lunch time.

The kitchen’s creation just for me

It’s time for the “fresh and nutritious” food bit, that is also “value for money: I can’t argue on both points. The food has an Asian feel with lots of quick cooked vegetables, meat or fish, served with rice or noodles. I watched them cook orders as they came in with my own eyes; the smoke spewing from the woks and the sizzle of the chicken or beef on the hot plates. There was nothing extraordinary about the dishes. They were typically seasoned with soy, chili and peppers, but the combination of the atmosphere, the friendly open kitchen and zing of fresh food made for complete satisfaction.

Chicken Ramen

I will say that I was one of those picky diners when I placed my order. I wanted greens and tofu, but none of the dishes totally pleased me. I asked if they would pair the appetizer simmered greens with some fried tofu as a main course, and they made it for me without a modicum of complaint or polite rolling of the eyes. After I had finished my very satisfying meal, the manager specifically asked if I was happy with their impromptu creation, and made mention that they might now put it on the menu, (totally cool with me, and many other tofu lovers!)

Green tea and Mango ice-cream

This review of Wagamama’s is bordering on sycophantic, I know, but they happen to be the restaurant in Dublin located in the right place at the right time for my visits. The right place meaning that they were right off St Stephan’s Green after my afternoon walk with my children, and right across the street before I went to the performance of Riverdance at the Gaiety Theatre. I think these things deserve some kind of merit, and being that I am rarely content when leaving a restaurant, I feel like tooting Wagamama’s horn; why not.

Our table at Wagamama’s (remembering Fiesole)

We left Dublin in what had begun to be a pattern; running hot-footed for the train!

Gigot Chop Lamb Stew (serves 6)

Gigot Chop Lamb Stew

The picture of this dish says it all. Just looking at it makes me want to run to the butcher shop for some luscious Irish lamb chops! I may be bias, but at this moment I have to announce that there is absolutely no better lamb in the world.

I took a train trip yesterday and while gazing out the window I passed fields and fields of grazing sheep and lambs. They can be seen everywhere munching down on the famous green grass in Ireland.

I grew up eating the best lamb stew in the world and only realized that fact when I moved away and could not find lamb that equalled it anywhere.

The cut of lamb that I prefer for lamb stew is the gigot chop, and if you can find them, you are on your way to making something fabulous.

What is a Gigot Chop?: It is a chop cut from the leg of an animal (I usually think of lamb but gigot pork is also a common cut). This chop has a small bone in the center helping provide a wonderful sweet flavor to a dish like a stew or any type of slow braise.

Lamb Gigot Chops

If you cannot find gigot chops, a good alternative is a cut from the shoulder.

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You will need:

3 tbs extra-virgin or regular olive oil

4 to 6 lamb Gigot chops (if they are large, use 4. If you cannot find gigot chops, use a cut from the shoulder)

coarse sea-salt or kosher salt to season chops (about 2 tsp)

Several grinds of black pepper (optional)

10 small onions, halved

4 medium carrots, cut into thick diagonal slices

4 medium potatoes, washed & quartered

2 parsnips, peeled & thickly sliced

3 or 4 small/medium potatoes, cut into 4 wedges each (I used golden or yellow potatoes as they have a nice creamy sweetness and hold up well to long cooking)

3 sprigs fresh rosemary

2 tbs all-purpose flour

2 tsps coarse sea-salt (I use Maldon sea-salt flakes)

several grinds black pepper (optional)

1 cup white wine

4 cups veggie or chicken broth (or 1 good quality bouillon cube & water)

Method:

Preheat oven 450*

1 – Season the chops with salt (and freshly ground pepper if you like), and sear in large saute pan on high heat in olive oil. Make sure to cook in one layer at a time, adding olive oil as you need it. Transfer to plate as you go and set aside.

sear chops

2 – Turn heat down to medium and add the onions and rosemary and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

saute onions and rosemary

3 – Add carrots and parsnips and continue to saute for another 5 or so minutes, letting them take on a little brown color. Add the flour and stir into veggies. Cook for about 1 minute, stirring constantly.

add carrots and parsnips

4 – Add the wine and stir to a thick paste, then add the broth (or water & bouillon). Turn heat up to high and stir everything together. Let the liquid come to a boil. When it bubbles, turn heat off. Taste the broth and add salt and pepper if it needs it (until you are satisfied)

add liquids, then meat

5 – Add the chops in an even layer (meat will certainly overlap slightly). Next scatter the quartered potatoes on top of the lamb. Cover with a lid.

top with potatoes and cook in hot oven

6 – Place in preheated oven and cook undisturbed for 1 1/4 hours. Remove from oven and leave to cool down and settle for 10 minutes.

serve

Divide chops between six plates or shallow bowls and top with lots of vegetables and broth. You can also serve with other things such as rice, pasta noodles, bread or some greens (either cooked such as wilted spinach or a salad of field greens)

Another Great Picnic on Another Great Rock: The Rock of Dunamase, County Laois, Ireland.

This Summer, which I am spending at home in Ireland, has been amazing so far. I literally have 2 months to hang out with my family, cook, and travel wherever the wind takes me. This wind has often been accompanied by driving rain, but it hasn’t dampened our spirit of adventure.

Picnic on a breathtaking rock

While my sisters have been at work (poor them!) I have been taking my kids on day trips to places I love as well as to places I have always wanted to go but never taken the time to do so. This trip always includes the essential component to making these excursions a success, and that is, a robust picnic. There is nothing more annoying than being in a gorgeous place, only to leave because someone’s tummy is rumbling.

The Rock of Dunamase, Ireland

The place I choose to take them on this particular day was The Rock of Dunamase, which sits on a hill just outside the town of Stradbally in county Laois Ireland. This is the county where I am from, and when I say “I” it includes all of my ancestors on both sides of my family for literally centuries. Growing up, as my parents did, in the 1940’s and 50’s, pretty much guaranteed that most marriages occurred between individuals who lived within miles of each other. My mother and father were no different, their family homes being only 12 miles apart.

Part of the ruins at Dunamase

This however was my mother’s part of the country and this historical site was a place she often visited as a young girl. She could stand at the top of the castle outcrop, and with a turn of her head, name every family who lived in each house and which bit of land was theirs’ We would sit around on giant bits of crumbling walls that had fallen, that were now over-grown with soft tufted grass, and listen to her stories prompted by being back in a familiar place.

more ruins

Now here I was with my children, talking to them about the history of The Rock and trying to give them a sense of what it must have been like when it was a thriving community, and what the various battles to take control of it by one important family or another must have been like. We tried to make out what each building could have been used for and walked the parts of the curtain walls that were still partly in tact.

Lower Ward of Rock of Dunamase

There is much less known about the Rock of Dunamase than other historical landmarks in Ireland. The first official reference to Dunamace castle was in 843 AD when it was said to be invaded, and significantly damaged by the Vikings. It was inhabited,  invaded, and added to, by the various important rulers and families of the province of Leinster over the following centuries, until it was abandoned and slowly declined to the state of ruin it is today in the middle of the 17th century.

Upper ward and Great Hall

When we got there, we walked through the still-in-tact Barbican gate and walked the vertical slope to the main gate and the lower ward of the castle grounds. This castle was cleverly built on a peak of land giving the illusion that everything, including the castle itself, draped dangerously downward: magnificent.

Barbican Gate

We looked ahead of us in search of a good place to spread out our picnic. We were all starving, and thought the best plan was to eat, then explore. My son spotted a rock that slanted upward, but was wide enough for us all to fit comfortably. When we sat down I was overcome by my breathtaking 360* view of the countryside surrounding me. I can’t begin to describe how spectacular the patchwork of fields in every color of green, imagined and unimagined, spread itself like a vision of heaven below my feet.

a peak at the view

The thought of food, and eating it in this setting made me even hungrier, so I hurriedly laid what I had prepared on a grassy bit of rock between us. The most important thing about a picnic is to pack a really good sandwich, which I have become an expert at. This day it was a fresh cheddar roll with strong mustard, greens, olives, field greens, chicken and smoky bacon. The other essential component is lots of tasty snack foods, like grapes, berries, peanuts, raw carrot sticks and perhaps potato chips or popcorn. Of course a little bottle of wine along with a glass didn’t go astray either!

picnic essentials

After lunch it was time to wander through every crack and crevice of Dunamase, and that we did. We walked the perimeter, scaled walls for better views, gingerly climbed into a huge grassy hollow, hopped onto window frames, and all the while marveling at how a place like this could have been built well over a thousand years ago. I loved how primitive and yet oddly modern it all was. The people who lived on this lonely rock had my utmost respect.

A view

We stayed so much longer than I would have thought possible, given a child’s attention span, and as we left, we seriously discussed returning for a picnic the very next day, even picking out another good spot to lay our blanket on our way down the winding path to the car.

We will most definitely be back

Of course that did not happen. There are so many other place I am determined to take my children before we leave that are dear to my heart, and I can’t wait.

Holy Trinity Church at the base of The rock of Dunamase