Monday, August 30, 2010

For us or a Guinness

It just doesn't seem right to leave Ireland without a nod to the national brew, Guinness. This ruby-colored beverage has been around since the mid-18th century, and is the best-selling alcoholic drink in Ireland, where alcoholic drinks aren't an unusual sight.

For the record, in this region, Guinness (or any beer) is always served in a glass etched with the name of the brew. This probably means that bars must devote half of their indoor space to storing glasses from each one of their suppliers.

Guinness is known for the foamy, indestructible head that inspires drinkers to liken it to a milk shake. This sounds very romantic until you discover that it's the presence of nitrogen (yum) that gives the head its tiny bubbles. Furthermore, part of the process involves the introduction of isinglass taken from fish bladders (double yum), which might or might not be present in the final beverage. This prompts objections from vegetarians, who no doubt would otherwise rally 'round this "meal in a glass."

In its favor, Guinness contains antioxidents and provides the same heart benefits as a low-dose aspirin. But that's not the reason to drink it. It's just a party in a glass.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Thanks, Manx

The Isle of Man is a hub of kipper production, producing thousands in the village of Peel. The Manx word for the dish is skeddan jiarg, which translates to "red herring" (of course, that's irrelevant, isn't it?) Kippers are generally eaten in the morning, or at tea, though you could make a meal out of them, and I did, as shown below.

They're served with bread, and when they make up a whole meal, potatoes are often served alongside, to make a dish called "spuds and herrin."

The kippering process isn't complicated; they're soaked in a brine for a while, and then they're hung on racks over a smoking pile of wood chips. They're grilled before you eat them. And the oil oozing out of them is part of the fun.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Slow food fast in Belfast

Here's a great idea for cities that want to promote their restaurants. Belfast held its second Taste and Music Fest, a smorgasbord of food and sounds. Here's how it worked. The festival went on for five days in a city park, just a large field, really, with a soundstage set up at one end and plastic tables and chairs covering the grass. Along one side were more than a dozen booths from local restaurants.

You pay to get in, and then you buy bags of tokens, which you can exchange for food. Each dish cost a handful of tokens, in the £3-4 range, or hovering just under $5. The restaurants and caterers at the booths provided a small menu, maybe one starter, one main, and one sweet (notice that we are separated by a common language again). This gave the restaurants the opportunity to innovate with dishes like:

  • Salt 'n' chilli squid with spicy mayo and napa sauce from the Mourne Seafood Bar
  • Kettyle Irish beef and Guinness from Deli on the Green
  • Roast belly of pork, smoked apple, watercress and shallot salad from James Street South
  • Kangaroo burger with a grain mustard mayo and dressed salad leaves from Australian restaurant Uluru
  • Pavlova with summer berries, raspberry coulis and vanilla cream from Mango Catering and Events

The bands that played all afternoon were similarly diverse: jazz, rock, and swing, and a tent alongside was converted into a kitchen, complete with overhead mirrors, for chefs from Belfast's finest eateries to demonstrate what they do best. I watched a demonstration by Dean Coppard of Uluru, which culminated in tastes of both dishes -- kangaroo (which tastes like venison to me), and crocodile (tasted like chicken, of course, albeit a surly one.)

Chef Coppard gave advice to us that works well for travel. He said, "Don't be put off by fine restaurants. Sometimes they aren't that much more money than the place you normally go. Look for specials and fixed menus, and you can have a great meal for not much more than you'd pay for an ordinary one."

A bounty of wee drams

I don't drink much. Because of that, it isn't hard to get me tipsy. And I don't know all that much about booze, or wine, or beer.

But I'm sure that for many foodies, it's important to explore not only the cuisine, but the accompanying beverages that the culture has on offer. For one thing, we're sometimes on vacation when we travel, and drinking adds to the festivities. When we're traveling on business, drinking adds a celebration to a normally onerous workweek.

A person can't really visit Scotland's Highlands without noticing the many small distilleries of single-malt Scotch. Though spirits are no doubt less popular now than decades ago, these whiskies still hold an exalted stature with most of us, even me.

In some ways, the small, local distilleries are like the micro-breweries that multiply as fast as yeast. But note that these distilleries are often the only business in tiny towns against a backdrop of sheep-dotted moors, in wet, chilly summers and colder, darker winters. So I wonder if it's less like fashionable micro-brew and more like moonshine, a tough-life survival strategy.

If you were so inclined, you could design a whole vacation around touring various distilleries, and many people do. Some of the tours charge about what you'd pay for the dram they give you at the end of the tour. Some tours are free, as they're sure to sell some souvenirs -- a bottle or two of the premium aged stuff, or drunken truffles or cake, or a tee shirt or keychain.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

I didn't know squat

One of the adventures available to the self-catering traveler is to buy seafood right from the fisherman. We were in Jura, and happened upon a fishing boat as he was unloading his catch. I'd thought that he'd caught langoustines, but he told me that they were actually a crustacean called squat lobsters.

The fisherman was yanking them in half, tossing the recognizable head and claws back into the sea, and keeping the rolled-up tails in a large bucket. Like all things British (think "tatties and neeps"), they're often called squatties by the locals, although I generally don't like to get too friendly with my food.

We tossed the tails in a pot of boiling water (much more fun than listening to live lobsters click and scream), and waited for the water to boil again. Peeling and deveining them was an easy operation, because you can tug on the tail gently and the vein comes out as well.

Squat lobsters are often passed off as langoustines, but they're actually more closely related to hermit crabs.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Rushing through a cuisine? Opt for a two-fer

It's always fun to see a regional dish interpreted by a local chef. So I enjoyed seeing "bubble and squeak" (a stew traditionally made of Sunday roast leftovers) in Shetland, made with lamb instead of beef, and fish and chips made with haggis instead of haddock.

International foods are widely interpreted into Scottish Gaelic as well. In Oban, we visited an Italian restaurant with an all-seafood menu, and more fish in the kitchen than live in the entire Adriatic Sea. And my starter (don't call it an appetizer) at a waterfront bistro nearby was Indian pakora, made with haggis.

Truth to tell, pakora is mostly spices and fried batter, so the haggis taste was relegated to the background. But all of this chef experimentation makes for lots of variety on menus. Though I've been in this same area for about five or six weeks, the cuisine continues to surprise and enchant me.