Afternoon Tea at Ashford Castle

Situated over two hours away, it was a long drive “for an aul mug of tae and a few sambos“. But Ashford Castle on a rare sunny day rewarded the effort.

The 13th Century castle, situated in Cong, Co. Mayo, is a fairy-tale setting, the stuff American tourists dream of. Surely some part of it must be haunted and elfin figures inhabit the undergrowth in the nearby woods. The castle itself has hosted the wedding receptions of Pierce Brosnan, Shane Filan (the lad out of Westlife) and Rory McIlroy – so you see it’s proper posh!!!!

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Now in the interest of full disclosure, I feel the need to reveal that I bear the little village of Cong “an ancient grudge” of Shakespearean proportions. You see when I was twelve, their GAA team beat mine in a national final. It was one of my first tastes of defeat on a big stage, and the association between this place and that memory is undeniable. I would love to say I was a gracious loser, but while everyone else hears Cong and thinks of “The Quiet Man”, the epic scenery and celebrity sightings, I think of one crushing afternoon in Mosney at the National Community Games Finals. Sorry Cong, my little heart was broken, it is hard to let go!!!!!

But anyway, last week I put my issues aside and embarked on a girlie roadtrip in search of High Tea in a castle…. sure what else would you be at on a Monday morning? We even saw a llama – or was it a goat???

Now you know you are in the realm of elegance, when not one but three men in funny hats have greeted you before you even get in the door. We had to explain our purpose, be ticked off lists and given instructions on how to pass the little extra time we had – this is very much a 5 star location.While waiting to be called in for tea at 1.30pm we admired the period decor and the tranquil lakeside setting, but mostly we worried about whether the poor man at the gate was melting in his emerald green tweed tails and top hat.

Now I admit to being a philistine when it comes to heritage type interiors, favouring more modern and slightly edgy decor, but even I can appreciate the beauty and the attention to detail of this hotel – in particular the room in which you “take tea“. There is an intangible sense of history and if you close your eyes for just a second you can imagine lords and ladies of eras past, sitting exactly where you are, also sipping tea from bone china cups, although possibly less worried about spillages or breakages. That’s the thing about a silver spoon upbringing, breaking the Wedgewood China is just breaking a cup! What luxury!

So seated and settled, with a cherry lemonade, a gift from the kitchen, tea was ready to be served. And the choice of teas was very impressive – from fruity to traditional – there were pages to select from. So of course we wondered where the Barry’s was, two of us queried if we could have coffee and in a particularly classy moment we could be heard snorting with laughter at the mention of a Red Bush tea. You can dress them up!!!!!

Then to the food – in typical afternoon tea fashion – we started with the savoury layer and I have to admit these were good sarnies. No chicken and stuffing here – rather chicken with avocado, tossed it seemed in a light garlic mayo. The most delicious filling but it didn’t stop there. All crusts were removed (to the dismay of the Irish mammy), the bread was cut into circles and the outside of the sandwich was dipped in almonds. This flavour combination alone was worth the trip. It was sublime. So much so we asked for a whole other plate of just that sandwich. After that you had the all traditional combinations of cheddar and tomato, egg and cress, smoked salmon and cream cheese and cucumber and crème fraîche. The quality was really high – particularly the very mature, tangy cheddar that I think is from Hegarty’s Farm in Cork. We were off to a good start.

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The scones came next. As they are served warm from the oven, you order them 10 mins or so before you want them. And it is that type of attention to detail that makes this a special experience. There was the traditional plain and fruit scones, with strawberry jam and clotted cream. But what was new to me (and my extensive afternoon tea experience!!) was a cheese scone, so warm the cheese was all melty and runny in the middle. The lovely server suggested we try this with lemon curd!!!  Now, that might be a familiar combo to some of you – but warm cheese scones with zesty lemon curd – was never a staple with the pot of Lyons Tea when I was growing up in Kerry. And more is the pity – it is delicious.

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My biggest issue with afternoon tea is always that by the time you get to the sweet treats on the top tier you are just a little too full. But don’t worry, we took a little time-out, had a team talk and were ready for the final quarter. Multiple calorific delicacies were shared and discussed, from custards to cupcakes, meringues to macaroons, chocolate tortes to fruit tarts.  What we couldn’t finish was presented to us in individual boxes along with a chocolate box from the pastry chef.

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I expected to find this a lovely experience but a tad on the expensive side – a case of paying for the location. But in all honesty it is quite good value. The staff were so sweet and were really quick to offer seconds (or thirds) of anything we wanted. We had about four rounds of teas and coffees. We left with boxes of scones, pastries and chocolate. And we spent hours in the stunning setting. At €40 per person (which is of course dear), I genuinely felt we got our money’s worth. It was a damn good afternoon tea. But don’t get me started on the “cosht of the fizzy wine” – given that one glass is never enough we just left it out altogether, and the experience didn’t suffer from its omission in any way. Ashford Castle, I may return, despite old wounds felt anew at the sight of the word “Cong” on the signpost.

Taste of Dublin – what keeps me coming back?

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The Iveagh Gardens in the sun are the perfect setting to celebrate Irish food and increasingly Irish booze. And for the fourth year running, the sun shone brightly on the Saturday afternoon session that the girls and I chose to attend, making it yet again my favourite day of the year so far.

So what do I love so much about Taste of Dublin?

The setting:

Taste of Dublin is a classy day out and the location totally befits the vibe it is striving for. Once inside the gates, the city feels a world away, as the gardens are very much an urban oasis. They are big enough to take the crowd but not so big they dilute the atmosphere; they are shaded but don’t block out the sun and they are stunning without being so precious that you can’t lounge on the grass sipping a cocktail.  It really is an ideal site for this type of event.

Florins:

Florins are the currency of Taste and they are a little piece of marketing magic. For many they will be a negative but I love the way they promote a suspension of reality. Taste is an expensive day out (I will get to that in a minute) but the Florin system allows you to pretend it isn’t happening. It is Monopoly money and the connection between it and the ESB bill pinned magnetically to the fridge is completely non-existent. It subtly but effectively banishes any feelings of guilt about what can easily become a very extravagant afternoon.

The Entertainment:

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Taste is about the food. Unlike Bloom where the gardens seem to be almost peripheral, Taste keeps its focus firmly fixed on the consumption of all things edible. But that is not to suggest that it is light on musical entertainment or that this lacks quality. In fact the diversity and calibre of the live performances is something that has remained a consistent feature of the event over the years. And it really helps create a chilled out, summer party atmosphere.

Bubbles:

Now there is absolute no need to be drinking alcohol to enjoy Taste of Dublin and I am sure hundreds of visitors don’t. However, it has always been part of my Taste experience. I go with friends – some friends from my childhood and some friends of these friends. Friends I only know from Taste, only meet at Taste, but really enjoy catching up with. The group can vary in size but a love of food and a penchant for a fizzy flute of Prosecco makes for a very easy day out, always full of laughter. We pool our Florins, swap foodie anecdotes, right the wrongs of the world and generally laugh a lot. Whether it is a gentle ribbing of the IT professional who can’t use internet banking, anecdotes about my best mate’s “schoolboy” office humour or a lively debate about the pros and cons of internet dating it is always a slightly tipsy day full of laughter. And don’t worry if after too many bubbles you feel a little worse for wear – I have it on good authority that a splash of water on your forearms is entirely sobering!! Not convinced? Me neither!

The Food:

Well obviously.

Now, if I were to be critical I would have to acknowledge that there has been a decrease in the really high end food available at Taste in recent years. No more do we seem to see L’Ecrivan, Chapter One or Thornton’s. And where oh where have the lobster rolls gone? But on the flip side, the food is great. And there is an oyster bar.

The thing about Taste is that even if something is not what I expected, I never remember getting food that I felt was sub-standard or poorly executed. While we may wish for more crab in our croquette, or softer rhubarb after the stewing, it all still tastes like good food. It is all still prepared skilfully. The ingredients always appear to be high quality. And that’s why we go.

Where else do you get to move from restaurant to restaurant picking and choosing from their signature dishes? The aforementioned crab croquette with avocado mayonnaise from Suesey St, pan seared scallops in the shell from Matt the Thresher or gambas and chilli risotto from The Old Spot gave seafood lovers something to whet their appetite with. For committed carnivores an Irish pork belly lettuce wrap from Urchin, The Porterhouse’s grilled lamb chop or goat on toast from Pickle were just some of the options we sampled. A spicy Singara – Bengali Samosa with lentils and puffed rice was pronounced the dish of the festival and its creator, Jaipur, was the favoured restaurant by the judges. But from my observations the punters’ pick was St. Lorenzo’s calamari with chilli and lime, served in paper cones with a garlic mayo dip. There were tons of desserts and loads of veggie offerings, illustrating why one session is never enough and why Taste of Dublin has such enduring foodie appeal.

So roll on next June when we can do it all again. Maybe for an evening session, just to break with tradition. Or maybe not. After all if it’s not broken…

If you have never been, then I can’t really recommend Taste of Dublin enough but be prepared, this is an expensive day out that is definitely not getting any more affordable as the years go by. Yes, the ticket is cheap but really the ticket buys you nothing but a foot in the door (or the garden in this case). You will spend a lot and still you will be hungry again a few hours later but you will have a great day. xo

 

Galway: A Hungry Girl’s Guide

If you’ve never been to Galway (or you’ve been 1000 times) the spaces and places pictured above will be more than sufficient to while away a lazy afternoon. Wander down Shop St and Quay St listening to the buskers, stop for a pint of black in Ua Neachtáin’s or Tig Cóilí, grab a bite in Ard Bia or An Cupán Tae and have a browse of the gifts, textiles and ceramics in Judy Greene or Twice as Nice. It is the Galway of guidebooks and rightly so.  More hippy than hipster, more Celtic than modern European. But full to the brim with music, wit and charm and so laid back you wonder how anyone gets a day’s work done. But just as Galway trades under several titles – City of the Tribes, Gaillimh, City of the Festivals – so too does it smile out of several faces.

And so I spent the day yesterday looking at a more 21st Century Galway and visited places that have captured the essence of the city they are fortunate enough to trade in, but moulded it into something more modern and innovative than what came before.

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I started my voyage of discovery in Coffeewerk and Press, for a caffeine hit to fuel a long day of eating, drinking and shopping. The space is beautiful, full to the brim with exquisite homewares and works of art from all over the world. It’s more concept store or small gallery than cafe (although I assume the money is in the coffee sales) but the fact that you can get great coffee, while listening to vinyl in a quiet window seat shows where the two businesses collide. The staff were friendly, the baked goods looked great and they know their caffeine. Not a place to linger for the afternoon working on your laptop or finishing a novel but for browsing two floors of beautiful “stuff ” while sipping an Americano in a super cute take-away cup it definitely works. Coffeewerk and Press is achingly cool; I assume it to be a  place hipsters hang out discussing the merits of Guatemalan blends over Ethiopian. But have you noticed the problem with the hipster of today? Yes, they have started to shave their beards so we can’t spot them (avoid them!!) as easily. Next they will start wearing socks and only be identifiable when you hear the discussion on the latest gin micro-distillery they discovered on a visit to North Leitrim!!! All this while looking at the craft beer drinker and thinking, “that poor guy is so 2016″.

Caffeine levels stabilised it was then time for some food.

Now despite my younger brother often labelling me pretentious (as he slurps a protein shake from the Nutribullet and listens to wireless headphones – all while googling the term irony!) I really am not quite there yet. And, let’s be honest, to a 23 year old DJ still enjoying the festival circuit and drinking cans of Galahad while sporting a head to toe charity shop ensemble, most things are pretentious!!! But it must be remembered  I am married to a man who judges restaurants on the quality of their “pandy” (that’s mash) and how generous they are with the gravy. He only yesterday accused who ever first put breadcrumbs on chicken breast of all sorts – “wasn’t it fine the way it was?” and as for replacing his beloved gravy with pepper sauce – now that is “just looking for notice”. So you see there is a gravitational pull at work to keep my feet firmly on the ground. And this is why the growing “brunch” circuit with Bloody Marys or Prosecco makes me cringe a little. It’s just breakfast people!!! Unless you actually eat it in the afternoon and it is going to keep you full until dinner…. then maybe it constitutes brunch. But if it is a bowl of granola or a fry up on a Tuesday morning at 11, it is breakfast!!!!! And you eat it, you don’t do it!!!!

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So long story long….. I went for BREAKFAST to Dela. And the homefries alone were enough to make me long to return. The vibe was laid back and airy, the menu has clear Scandinavian influences (what doesn’t at the moment) and, to be honest, anywhere that can make fried cauliflower taste that good deserves its success. I rate this place highly however, not for the Scandi vibe, but for the fact that, like neighbouring Kai, it takes ingredients seriously. They were local and clearly carefully selected, produced in a kitchen with a passion for food. Everything had a flavour. This was a breakfast where the mushrooms tasted almost like field mushrooms (although I think we are a little too early), and where you stop and realise that you shouldn’t be pleasantly surprised about how mushroomy the mushrooms are. That should be normal. But, in a world where people who own restaurants think frozen chips are ok, it isn’t. So yes, I like to do a little research to seek out places that are getting good press and making positive waves, not cause I need a Mimosa with my breakfast, but because if I am going to pay for it, I like to think some effort went in to the purchasing and the preparation. Does that make me pretentious? (The question is rhetorical little brother!!!)

It was a pretty day in Galway, so, after a the leisurely breakfast, I wandered by the Corrib, read my book and did a little interior shopping while waiting for my appetite to rebuild. I find the issue of not getting hungry fast enough to try all the places I would like to a real hindrance when I am away. Now that’s a first world problem!

But lo and behold, time passed and if not starving I was definitely able to take on a little more sustenance. And I knew exactly where I wanted to go. The Dough Bros on Middle St. for pizza.

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Now this is laid back eating at its finest, inspired by not just the pizza but the culture of Naples, it is not a place that stands on ceremony. You pay at the counter and eat with your fingers. And the queue is out the door.

Why? Because it’s delicious. And I lived in Italy so I speak about pizza from the perspective of the perpetually disappointed. Good pizza is not so filling you need to share it, or take the remainder home in a box. The dough is light, the edges are burnt, the toppings are kept to a minimum. This was REALLY, REALLY good pizza. I devoured it…. great base, simple tomato sauce and high quality mozzarella. The basics all in place… you are onto a winner whatever toppings you choose. It was the perfect end to my day out!!!

So there you go – a day in Galway without an Irish pub, trad music or handmade pottery. Lots of you know that this is a city that has it all, the rest of us can enjoy finding that out. Galway, I look forward to our next encounter xo

Buying Bits and Bobs at Bloom 2017.

IMG_2824Bloom has been on my “to-visit” list for a number of years, mostly because Taste of Dublin has become an annual foodie pilgrimage for me and the two are so often compared. But having finally got to Bloom this Sunday, I really don’t see the two events as being in any way comparable. Taste is like a super fancy food court, where Bloom is more of a giant farmer’s market.

Bloom, ostensibly a gardening event, has evolved to become largely about the food. It is a space where Irish producers showcase their wares by way of free samples and discounted deals. And given that it is a Bord Bia sponsored event, you may argue that the gardening element is being somewhat overshadowed. But that’s just my opinion.

Anyway I went, I ate, I caught up with a good friend and I made a few purchases… here’s what I got.

Firstly I hit up the craft section, probably my favourite part of Bloom, and I had to show lots of restraint from the candle and ceramic temptation. I could not however resist a couple of Lainey K prints for my newly painted kitchen walls. I can see myself buying more from this quirky and fun designer; her products really suit my urban cottage(ish) aesthetic. I just popped them into simple, black frames from Søstrene Grene and watched them liven up my soft grey walls.

Continuing my search for some subtle pops of yellow, to enliven my grey and white kitchen, I bought some cute ceramics from Big Leap Designs, a Mayo company who hand decorate their tableware, and a delicious lemongrass candle from Emma’s All Natural Soy collection. I LOVE the scent and am so relieved that these are made so close to where I live, therefore repurchasing will be a doddle. People live in a world without fancy candles or pretty cushions, but can they really be happy there???

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Having sampled many, many variations of granola and more than a dozen jams and chutneys, I did also make a few food purchases. The first of these may yet frustrate me endlessly. I use a lot of stock when I am cooking, and always struggle with the absence of a quality, ready to use version (so common in other countries). This has left me crumbling my stock cube or dissolving a stock pot, head bowed in foodie shame. When suddenly, there it was…. the product of dreams…. Organic Chicken Broth from Sadie’s Kitchen. And then I cooked with it last night!!! Is it weird to fall in love with chicken stock??? Not with this one… it is UNREAL!!!!! And not available in Athlone (yep that’s where I live!!!). Trauma. But some research has taken place in the meantime and

IMG_2808I am hoping stockpiling (cringe at the pun) can happen in Horan’s Health Food Store, Tralee, when next I visit the family. Because I can no longer live without this product in my life… so much flavour, nothing nasty, a dream to use!!!! (Nope they are not paying me.) Yes it is possible to get this excited about stock!

And finally I picked up some fancy pesto and hummus. The samples tasted yum with crackers but when the pesto was heated with a little chicken, double cream, fresh tagliatelle and ground black pepper, the product really started to shine. The walnuts really add to the texture and it is a really delicious staple for a quick supper. And for the best bit…. they stock it in my local SuperValu.

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Now some of you may justifiably be thinking, is she ever going to mention the gardens. And to be honest, it might be better if I didn’t due to my lack of green fingers…or indeed a garden. But I did take a look (it felt rude not to) and overall I would say I was bemused. I know there is fashion in clothing – gingham, ruffles and asymmetric hemlines for example. And in food – avocado on toast, beetroot flavoured everything and added bloody protein (just eat a piece of cheese peeps!). I am even au fait with the current trends in interiors – chalk paint and filament exposed bulbs. But until Bloom I was completely unaware of how trend driven gardening clearly is. Flowers in fashion are wild and purple – lavender, elderflower, foxgloves… you get the idea. Stuff that grows on hedgerows. And it left all the gardens, to the completely untrained (and almost ignorant I admit) eye, looking exceptionally similar. Manicured lawns and perfect flower beds are clearly out; a controlled wilderness vibe is clearly in. It was fun to see but I expected so much more diversity. And please…. a piano in a garden….now that would never catch on in South Roscommon!!!!!!

So the verdict: I enjoyed Bloom. My new purchases are making me very happy. I would return. But the Chelsea Flower Show it ain’t.

 

Retreat from the Renovations

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And so we bought…. and moved… and are “all happy”.  But as I have previously mentioned, and as the estate agent clearly never would, buying a century old house and living in it while the renovation work is ongoing is no walk in the park.

Some days, chemical paint stripper perfumes the air like a Yankee Candle scented by someone with a weird sense of humour – and trust me, 100 years of gloss paint on woodwork and banisters requires quite a lot of the stuff! Suffice to say that no amount of scented candles can neutralise a chemical odour of this magnitude.

Other days, dust from an industrial sander creates a thin veneer on every conceivable surface, as a century’s worth of wear and grime is stripped away (I would like to say “lovingly” but frequent audible expletives from the man – hopefully still a friend – attached to the machine may attest to the contrary).

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And then we have the worst  – the mortar and dust that were remnants of the wall skimming. The walls look great now – but Oh My God that dust would stress the Dalai Lama!  It teases and taunts you, and then invariably has the last laugh as you wash it away for the 1000th time, only to leave and return to that lovely film of grey still all over the floor. You swore it was gone, you watched it dissolve in the boiling water but, like those annoying birthday candles that keep relighting, there it is again as soon as the moisture dries. However, as one of my wisest friends keeps reassuring me, progress is being made, and soon the worst will be behind us and our little bijou terrace will be suitable for occasional visitors.

But we are not there yet and so, in the short term, I decided to take a much needed trip home to recharge and escape the grime…..

And what a lovely trip it has been so far….

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People who have never been to Kerry really need to sort that one out because long walks on deserted beaches are the best cure I know for stress. I can assure you that there is no expensive therapy that will so physically and metaphorically blow away all traces of dust!! Some days I go to Banna Beach, well deserving its recent Trip Advisor accolade (No. 1 Irish Beach), and other days to the slightly more local and generally deserted Derrymore Strand. Here’s a few shots from the last two days.

And when fresh air and exercise have done their thing, there is family and friends to chat with and laugh with. Lots of home cooking and lazy afternoons, peppered with an occasional treat meal. Like, for example, a girlie dinner in Cellar 1, the restaurant of The Ross Hotel, was a perfect treat for the weary DIYer.

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I have featured The Ross on the blog before and it is one of those places with which I have never been disappointed. It is funky and modern without trying too hard. The restaurant has an ambitious yet compact menu that comes accompanied by the inoffensive and atmospheric background noise of a resident pianist. The bar is bustling, serving cocktails in fancy glasses to the well heeled. The vibe throughout is contemporary and youthful. It struck just the right chord for four female friends, who share amongst us decades of memories and a love of good food. We were not disappointed.

Starters sampled included a spicy Arancini, mussels in a red curry sauce, scallops and monkfish skewers. The menu is seafood heavy but there is a twist to every dish and there were no complaints about any of the offerings on this occasion.

For mains, we all toyed with the idea of surf and turf but only one of us went for it in the end – and I for one was guilty of a little food envy. The other carnivorous selection was an extremely attractive looking pork belly, while the two of us remaining opted for a prawn dish in an agave and tequila sauce. All four dishes were deemed successful… what more can you ask for?

Only half of the group had the stamina for dessert, the other half opting for a strong espresso to aid digestion, although we did all put a fork or two through the chosen sticky toffee puddings. A nice slow Hendricks with Elderflower tonic in the bar before the journey home rounded off the evening, reinforcing the notion that most loads can be lightened by a good natter, delicious food and great friends.

I am still on retreat in The Kingdom but the new smell in the old house is apparently fresh paint (surely a sign of progress). And although I am aware that when I return next week it is likely that there will be no operating kitchen sink or cooking facilities, and a whole other range of debris that will need to be disposed of, I will face it refreshed and re-energised. And, given that the aroma of a rack of lamb with stuffing is currently wafting from my mother’s oven, and over the next few days an afternoon playing with my adorable goddaughter and lots of walks and coffees still await, I am happy to be distracted for now.

Dingle in a Day

One of my favourite things to do is travel and, of late, my ventures have been somewhat scarce, so when opportunity does knock, I like to be ready with my toothbrush packed. This post features a very local trip but when there is a suitcase to be packed, a hotel check-in and meals in new spaces, I still think it constitutes travel blogging.  And if you have never been, you may learn enough about West Kerry to contemplate a little trip of your own.

Dingle was the destination for this short but sweet overnight stay-cation.  If you have never had the pleasure of visiting, it is a town with a distinctly bohemian vibe. Almost all businesses are independent, lots are artisan, and it has a paradoxical sense of being a bustling yet laid back town. Artists come for the peace to create and the landscape to inspire. Chefs appear to want to allow the fruits of land and sea to take centre stage, making restaurants feel more about the food than the business model (not unfortunately the case everywhere). Musicians know they can just drop into a local licensed premise and simply start to play, soon to be accompanied by some collective foot-tapping, while writers can find both solitude and inspiration in this bi-lingual hamlet that has a lyrical soul.

Dingle is a small town, with 38 pubs, that doesn’t take itself too seriously  (potentially related observations!). But it is clear that this is a town that is making the most of its assets. As a tourist town, it extends a welcome filled with genuine warmth.  The art of conversation is celebrated in many languages, but mostly with dry local wit and buckets of sarcasm. Despite its remoteness, there are ways in which Dingle is contemporary and multicultural. In other ways it is a slice of an Ireland of yore, where tradition is valued and heritage preserved.

I know this part of the world quite well so if tour guides and museums are your thing, this will be the wrong type of travel article for you. But if you like slow drives through stunning landscape, great food, local products and understated luxury then I just might have some tips for you.

I started my day in Tralee, in perfect driving weather. There was a chill in the air but pretty clear skies. I popped some music on the radio and followed the twists and turns of the road, high up over the ever-stunning Conor Pass. The narrow roads with steep drops may see hearts occasionally leaping into mouths but the views are a very worthy reward. Have a look…..

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Eventually, the road descends towards the sea, and before you know it you will be looking for parking and nourishment in the town. On a Monday lunchtime, I was lucky to find both with ease. Usually I research where I will eat in advance but this was a trip without a plan and so I just worked on instinct. It was a good move. I had one of the best lunches in a long time in the very welcoming Goat Street Social. It is a small space, channelling an industrial chic look. The menu is a compact mixture of some salads, a variety of hot dishes and a couple of sandwiches. There were a couple of specials on a chalkboard and I ordered one of these – haddock in a sesame and garlic tempura with sweet chilli and coriander mayo. This was served on a bed of wilted spinach with a side of skinny fries. It was exceptional!!!!!

Happily sated, I took a little stroll, shopped for some locally produced candles and a new book, before grabbing a coffee from Bean in Dingle. This very cool cafe has some great cakes to accompany some quality coffee, and the vibe is as much Williamsburg or Shoreditch as it is Dingle. And then it was back on the road….

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I have been lucky in life to have seen a lot of the world…. not as much as I would like…. but quite a lot nonetheless. I am not sure where I have been or could dream to go that would rival Slea Head when the skies are blue. The landscape is both welcoming and threatening. The sea sparkling and foreboding. The locals warm and weathered. The charm is in the contradictions. Again I will let the pictures do the talking….

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By late afternoon it was time to return to town and check into our lodgings for the night, the highly rated Castlewood House. It is an antique-filled, small hotel with a big heart. The rooms are spacious and each one is individually styled (this wasn’t my first visit).  It is full of little touches that make a stay feel special – a buck’s fizz on arrival, Lily O’Brien’s chocolate treats in the room, complimentary tea and scones served during the afternoon from vintage china and a takeaway coffee for the long drive home. The justifiably award winning breakfast has more choices than most dinner menus and the accompanying buffet stands out from the norm. For example, my fruit bowl had plums poached in a honey syrup and apples stewed with cinnamon. There was desiccated coconut, almonds, banana chips and chia seeds to sprinkle on top. All this was before a made to order Eggs Benedict for me and fluffy pancakes with berries and maple syrup for my slightly ginger travel companion. It’s easy to see why Castlewood House is continuously winning awards.

Based on several recommendations we dined at the Global Village, where food is presented with a nod to fine dining. The early bird is great value, but after that this place is definitely at the upper end of affordable. We were early birds!! The confidence and competence of the kitchen shone through, the staff were friendly and efficient and there was an impressive drinks selection. The menu had a good balance of land and sea, not always the case in this maritime town, and the food was definitely Instagram worthy. Having read and heard so much about this place over the last number of years, my slightly anti-climactic sensation was perhaps inevitable, but it was still a lovely meal. Definitely worth a try in Dingle.

Finally, even those who are teetotal are unlikely to leave Dingle without checking out some local watering holes and here is where humour, charm and local colour are most abundant. There was the cheeky local barman in Foxy Johns, who allowed the German tourist to sample two beers before choosing, but warned him that was his lot “because it’s not a feckin icecream parlour we’re running“.  Dick Macs had a man handcrafting products out of leather behind the bar, beside the barman who smugly informed the French couple that there was wine “both red and white”. And finally, in my new favourite pub (which feels like a farmhouse living room) Kennedy’s, we encountered a charming local girl who regaled us with the impassioned tale of how her very conservative parents sent her to an all girls convent, a boarding school in another part of the country, in an effort to get her to change her mind about her sexuality. Scary thing was this was since the year 2000!!!! It was also a bit like sending sand to the desert!!! But all ended well, she clearly emerged no less gay but her parents adjusted to this reality with time. Although it sounds like granny needs a little more time.

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So all in all, the verdict is that you should definitely find a place for Dingle on your travel itinerary. And maybe try and stay a little longer than me.

What I ate on my Birthday

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While this week has been mainly about all things healthy, a couple of days ago it was my birthday, and so there was some pretty major deviation from that plan. However, as I will explain, it could have been worse!!

My birthday surprise was essentially a whole day of foodie treats… and I mean the whole day from dawn to dusk. So for those of you sensitive about gluttony, it may be time to click to a different post, or even a different blogger, because I amazed myself with my ability to keep eating. WP_20160319_12_59_05_Pro

The first stop on this culinary expedition was in my home town of Tralee in Co. Kerry, in a bustling town centre cafe and restaurant called The Roast House. Now this is not my first brunch here by any stretch, it is a place where I regularly catch up with some of my closest girlfriends, but I do think it was my favourite breakfast to date. Given that this place does a really great pancake dish, with fruit and cream, that is quite a statement. I ordered a Vegetarian Breakfast Bake (see healthyish) and I expected that it would be like a baked full Irish just without the meat. Turns out I had pictured it completely wrong and what a happy surprise that ended up being. What appeared was actually a type of potato hash; with summer vine tomatoes, fresh thyme, mushrooms & spinach all mixed through the delicious little potato cubes. The dish was topped with a free range egg with a runny yolk, a sprinkle of grated Parmesan and a little french toast. It was so so tasty, the perfect savory (meat free and gluten free  – if like me you don’t eat the toast) breakfast dish. The Roast House take their coffee seriously, so as is the norm, the accompanying Americano was also an excellent blend – black, strong and just bitter enough – a great caffeine kick to start a long day.

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Allowing breakfast to digest there was time for a short walk and a longer drive, as we snaked west over the mountain to the coastal town of Dingle. Now if you are not familiar with Dingle, look it up and if you have never been to Dingle, go! I have been many times, although to be honest more often for booze and nightlife than lunch and shopping but I am starting to think that it is the latter that the town does best. Unfortunately, the day was miserable, otherwise this post would be full of some of the most beautiful scenery this planet has to offer, but I promise that will follow some day soon. This was a day that was all about the food. First we shopped for it and then we ate it. The shopping centered on two local gems – The Little Cheese Shop and Crinkle Stores. Both are stunning little artisan stores, showcasing local and other carefully sourced products. I could have bought so, so much more and I am sure over time I will.

I started with The Little Cheese Shop and it is exactly as it looks in your head – cozy, smelly, chockablock with Irish and European cheeses and all the culinary delights you would want to go with them. They are quick to offer a taste, the cheese is cut to your specification and expert advice is on hand. Good luck nipping in for cheddar and coming out with one wax paper parcel when you see the array of fresh bread, pesto, hummus, hand made chocolate and chutneys that sit side by side with more cheese than you can dream of finding time to taste. If it is not clear, this place is a gem on the West Kerry food scene. I left with some fresh buffalo mozzarella,  some soft goat’s cheese, some seaweed speckled cheddar (I think), delicious basil pesto and a generous portion of chunky hummus. I have been working them into my meals since.

Then to Crinkle Stores, when I got over my complete obsession with the fabulous tiles in this shop, it was time to browse the products. There is an exceptional salad bar and some quality coffee on offer, not to mention an exquisite cake display. The shelves are lined with artisan skincare products, Irish vinegar made with foraged ingredients like thyme, gorse and blackberry. Jams, chutneys, fancy cordials, herbal teas and numerous other delights. I added some Mountain Thyme Vinegar, a bar of Dark Chocolate with Apricot and Almond and a rhubarb and apple pop to my foodie haul and regretted that the day wasn’t better for a salad box by the sea. Again that will come another day.

And then, it was time for lunch. And yes we did at least keep it light(ish). We sheltered from the rain in a welcoming little cafe called Chowder, and ate predictably and sensibly, bowls of chowder. Well I did, my shellfish averse husband had an equally comforting steaming bowl of carrot and ginger soup. What appeared was a really satisfying bowl of steaming chowder, thickened with local potato and containing the widest array of fish I have ever encountered in this very common Irish dish. There was the usual white and smoked fish, but how often do you get squid rings in your seafood chowder and the garnishing mussels were a great touch. I didn’t eat the bread (healthy!) but it was wholemeal and  homemade, served with real Irish butter.

Then to dessert – it was my birthday remember – and Dingle is home to Murphy’s Ice Cream – handmade here in the town. It comes in cones and cups, served with a smile by staff sporting farmers’ caps and happy to let you taste before you choose. I had a special called Dreamy Creamy Caramel that was full of the flavours of caramel, butterscotch, chocolate and whipped cream. Better than cake, definitely better than cake!! This product is not cheap but it is quality. Worth every penny, I promise.

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After lunch we again took a break from eating, visited my parents and my adorable godchild. Then we shopped a little more, completing my birthday present buying with a divine scented candle for the kitchen and a book called “Happy People Read and Drink Coffee”. Seriously, how could I not!!!!!

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And then I am embarrassed to admit (almost) that we went out to dinner. But it was not a dinner I would want to have missed. We went to Allo’s Bistro in the little market town of Listowel, where John B. Keane once observed local life with the eye of a poet and the wit of a rural publican. His smiling statue now welcomes you to a town that has retained its soul better than almost any small town I know. It houses a range of excellent independent boutiques, some interior shops that are perfect for the lazy browser and Woulfes, one of the best independent bookshops in the country. There are also more pubs than people and a delightful old-style hotel in the middle of town. Come for Writer’s Week to see Irish culture at its very best but there is also a food festival and a race week in this town’s packed social calendar.

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Now that I have done my bit for the Listowel Tourist Board, on to the food. Allo’s Bistro is as bistros should be, homely and welcoming, with cosy small tables and larger communal ones, wine served by the glass and specials on daily changing chalkboards. For obvious reasons we skipped straight to main courses and I opted for a smaller size portion (see healthy choice! – although it was still extremely generous) of prawn and coconut curry served with jasmine rice. The other dish for the table was a salmon fillet with Bearnaise (unusual I thought) that was well cooked and tasty, accompanied with al dente veg and buttery mashed potato. The curry was delicately spiced with a very generous amount of prawns and a mixture of spring onion, courgette and peppers adding a welcome crunch. Despite the day that had gone before, plates were left completely clear, the message to the chef not in any way encrypted.

I presume you are now imaging that we called for the bill, opened the top button on our jeans and shuffled for the car. Alas, I have something of an affliction to admit to. I cannot resist creme brulee and although I don’t see the need to pepper it with various fruit purees, I still cannot leave it unordered – EVER.  And so I devoured every morsel of a perfect passion-fruit creme brulee with a hazelnut biscuit. Had the jeans button popped before I got it open, it would have been worth every added inch to the waistline. It was yum!!!!!

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So home we went….to my in laws, who were putting us up for the night, and you won’t believe it but my very sweet mother-in-law had bought a cake!!!!! Now  of course I was full but what’s a girl to do, if some one buys you a fluffy sponge cake, filled with fresh cream and strawberry jam and sprinkled with icing sugar, and there’s a candle in it…there really are no options. You eat the cake. Don’t you?? Well of course I did.

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Now before there is an intervention, I promise I have eaten like a gourmet loving rabbit since. But more of that in the next post, where we will celebrate the humble salad. There is a good reason birthdays only come once a year….the world could not sacrifice any more jeans’ buttons. Have a great weekend. Til next time xoxo

 

Eating Out and Staying Healthy(ish)

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Two fine days in a row – that almost constitutes a great summer in Ireland. With so few such days, it is important not to let them go to waste. As today was my parents 44th wedding anniversary we were taking a scenic road trip for a lunch on the water, but I still didn’t want to blow several days of good work on the healthy living front.

In order to minimise damage and still allow for a little indulgence, I got up pretty early and breakfasted on fresh fruit and black coffee. Then I took the dog on a pretty long walk and drank lots of chilled water before we took to the road.

The destination was The Boathouse, a Nantucket inspired seafood bistro, set right on the water, on the grounds of Dromquinna Manor, Kenmare. The estate which also has a glamping site and a hotel in the old manor house is incredibly picturesque. The decor in the bistro itself is bright, fun and nautical. Think lots of blue and white, with sail boats for decoration and little lighthouses on the table. The menu, as you would expect for the location, is predominantly seafood, but there is a chicken dish, steak and a burger, enough to keep the most committed carnivore happy. Although, when you can smell the sea and the menu guarantees local produce, seafood really is your best option.

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Arriving early and looking for just a light lunch, two of our group of four opted for the pier landed fish and chips main course. It came served on a kind of wooden tray and contained a generous potion of beer battered white fish. This was accompanied by chunky chips, a lightly dressed salad (with some delicious beetroot) and a little ramekin of mushy peas. The other two of us stuck to a combination of sides and starters (combined to make mains). There was a scallop and black pudding dish, which was unusual in presentation and possibly a little small for the price point. Although I didn’t taste it, it did seem to go down very well though, adding to the range of well executed dishes. Finally, I had tiger prawn pil pil. This consisted of prawns in a garlic, chilli and chorizo oil, served in a little pot accompanied by very tempting (although I did resist it) crusty white bread. It was delicious, although without the heat that you sometimes get in this dish, and I loved it. The prawns were fresh, pretty generous in quantity and perfectly cooked. The oil they were cooked in was extremely flavoursome despite the mildness of the chilli. I had this with a very generous portion of crispy sweet potato fries – a healthy(ish) indulgence (or so I like to tell myself) and a side salad. Prawns, salad and sweet potatoes – a decent attempt at staying on track on a special occasion.

After lunch and a stunning drive over Moll’s Gap and through Killarney National Park, I took another walk, this time on the local beach. It was great fun although paddling turned to splashing and rolled up jeans got soaked. And not long after it was time for a supermarket haul and thoughts of supper. After toying with the idea of creamy goat’s cheese, I reluctantly left it aside, favouring instead the warm saltiness of pan-fried halloumi laid on top of a crunchy bowl of baby spinach, rocket, watercress, red pepper and spring onion. All of this was drizzled with a homemade honey and wholegrain mustard dressing and accompanied by an organic rice cake with a little hummus.  Crunchy, salty, tangy, sweet and above all nutritious. So that’s me for today….pretty healthy and pretty happy xoxo

 

Shopping and Spruced up Scrambled Eggs

Having not been through this airport for a couple of years, this week was my first time in the new look Stansted Airport duty free area. The shopping was great, the walk back from the cafe to find MAC and Urban Decay not so good. But I managed to retrace a path and purchased a few bits and bobs that I am excited about.

Firstly a new mascara. I have been wearing Benefit’s “They’re Real” for a year or so now but I get annoyed by how difficult it is to remove so it was definitely time for a change. After a little deliberation I chose this Mac bestseller ….. in extreme black.

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One of my favourite things to do, which has to make me very unpopular with hotel housekeeping staff, is to soak a clean white facecloth in very hot water and almost steam the make-up from my face. Of course this is less practical at home – where I am the housekeeping staff – and already a very reluctant employee. The solution? My second purchase, the Liz Earle Cleanse & Polish Hot Cloth Cleanser. The cleanser comes with a muslin cloth that can be used in the shower for a deep cleanse. I bought the starter pack which contains a 100ml bottle of cleanser and two cloths. I am very excited about this product.

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For quite a while now I have been looking for a bag that would carry my rather large laptop, but I didn’t want something that looked too like a traditional laptop bag. Perfect in terms of size and very affordable, a navy shopper from Accessorize caught my eye. I am hoping it will prove to be both stylish and practical for a normal work day.

And then for some reading material, I picked up Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. Not a book I knew anything about but it caught my eye and I am hoping for an easy and inspirational summer read. I will post an update when I finish reading.

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So now that we are settled in back home, it is time to get back to some healthier ways and so I started by making a light lunch of Huevos Rancheros Scrambled Eggs from Donal Skehan’s, “Fresh”.

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The recipe involved making a simple cherry tomato and red onion salsa and some homemade Guacamole but was really simple to accomplish and made for a pretty delicious healthy lunch.

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That’s all for now…I have a dinner date with the girls to get ready for. Have a great weekend wherever you are and whatever you do, xoxo.

The Final London Travel Post

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So we are home by now from our week in London and although it was one of our shortest summer trips in years, it was a great week in one of our favourite cities. Since last I posted we spent a couple of hours on the Kings Road in Chelsea; wandering around, eating lunch and drinking coffee. The jewel in the crown of the whole street is the stunning Anthropologie store, which is just so beautifully designed and packed with wonderful fashion and home wares.

Burgers seem HUGE in London at the moment and even though I am not a huge fan of the meat patty, we were starving when we stumbled upon the welcoming BRGR.CO in Chelsea. I opted for one of their signature burgers, “The Hanger Steak Brgr”, cooked medium with added bacon and cheddar. My husband had a chicken fillet burger and we split an order of fries. It totally hit the spot for us and we left refuelled for a little more wandering around the area. Decent meat, good prices and friendly service – not a bad combination.

Having wandered around the Saatchi gallery, currently completely taken over by the Rolling Stones exhibition and chased down my Mac foundation from the other day, it was time for a little caffeine.

We just stumbled upon Gail’s Bakery – the most darling little café of the trip. It was like a coffee house straight out of Soho NYC, full of artisan breads and mouthwatering baked goods. They also sell really cute shoppers and cookbooks on site. It’s the perfect spot for coffee and a muffin.

The foodie was now happy so it was time to indulge the football fan a little and so there was a walk around Stamford Bridge before leaving the area for Westminster.

Real tourist London was something we had mostly avoided up to now but could we really go home without seeing Big Ben? We strolled around Westminster for a bit, took a few snaps, and visited another of London’s oldest pubs, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. I was particularly amused by the make-over some pedestrian lights had received for Pride 2016 – no longer is the little green man the only symbol on offer, a lovely simple celebration of diversity.

Then it was back to Camden to meet my husband’s fabulous cousin and her equally charming boyfriend. It was such an enjoyable few hours, sitting by the canal chatting about literally everything and anything. It was one of those evenings where conversation flows easily and you feel inspired by the passion of others, in this case two young students who have the kind of passion and idealism that most of us lose sight of over time. This was one of those chats that makes you want to be a better person, as we listened to them discuss their trips to Calais (entirely self-funded) to help out at the refugee camp there and her mentoring work in London with young children forced to seek asylum in the UK. These are people with the heart and intelligence to really make the world a better place, one small step at a time, and who put MAC cosmetics and fancy meals into a perspective that really they should always remain in.

And then, as though the evening hadn’t given us enough, they put the icing on the cake when  they shared with us their favourite kebab spot in North London – Woody Grill on the Camden Road. Slightly tipsy, we devoured delicious kebabs in this really friendly fast food spot before taking the train home to pack our bags for our flight home.

And that was pretty much the end of an epic week in London  – time remaining only for some airport shopping which I will fill you in on later xoxo