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

 

5 things I like to do on a Summer Morning

Given that the next few months are largely devoid of any serious level of commitment or responsibility, I am enjoying waking at my leisure and easing myself into the day ahead gently. Here’s what a “typical” morning is starting to look like.

1. Coffee/Tea and a book.

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I wake pretty early, probably because the renovation budget has yet to stretch to curtains, so once the sun is up, the room is bright. But I am in no hurry to actually leave the cosy confines of the bed, so I generally pad downstairs in my bare feet, make a hot drink and cuddle back under the duvet to read a chapter or two of whatever I am currently enjoying. Of course if someone else is getting up to take the dog out, then I don’t even have to make the barefoot trek to the kitchen…. yes, I know I am spoiled. But don’t worry, coffee in bed comes with a healthy dollop of sarcasm (a small  price to pay!).

2. Some exercise.

If I am going to work out I like to do it pretty soon after getting up. Less time for excuses. Lately I am trying to get back into running, but as I am carrying a tag rugby related injury, I am taking things very slowly. TBH I am probably taking things far slower than necessary but this is in keeping with the leisurely zen persona I am currently channelling. I am using a C25K app on my phone to complete pretty gentle walk/run workouts. I find some fresh air and exercise first thing really clears the cobwebs and energises me for the day ahead.

3. Smoothies

I’ve always been a big fan of breakfast smoothies and lately I have been trying to lighten them up for summer by avoiding adding milk and yogurt. This morning I had banana, mango, kale and lemongrass.

I just added ice, water and a glass of pure apple juice to the fruit mix – it was really refreshing. I love when things actually taste good for you.  Makes me feel all virtuous.

4. Breakfast

More time allows for more effort, so for the most part I am currently avoiding cereal. It feels like the entire year is made up of bowls of porridge (which I tolerate) and bowls of granola (which I love) but at the moment I am trying to change it up a little, depending on what’s in the fridge. This morning I had Blueberry Buttermilk Pancakes with Yogurt and Strawberries. Delicious and so, so simple. Just take the Jamie Oliver approach – 1 cup buttermilk, 1 cup self-raising flour, 1 egg.  Whisk and cook. I tossed in a handful of blueberries that were in the fridge and served with a side of strawberries and vanilla yogurt.

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5. Housework

Now anyone who knows me has now started to laugh and roll their eyes… because to say I am not into housework is a complete understatement. But it’s true, I currently start my day with a quick spot of cleaning. You see now that we live in a teeny house, with one bathroom and very small floor space, I find that giving the place a quick once over every morning is ideal to keep things under control. Then the dread of The Big Clean and the days (or weeks) of Big Clean related procrastination are unnecessary. Now I don’t exactly enjoy this part of the morning. But I do it. Before I even get dressed or put my make-up on!!! And it is strangely satisfying.

In the interest of full disclosure, I feel I should acknowledge just how much the Dyson helps here. Formerly, I judged anyone sad enough to get excited over a hoover. I definitely judged anyone who paid as much for a hoover as they would a weekend in a 5 star hotel. But this cordless wonder will change your life! It is worth every single cent and more. A little bit of magic sent from whoever the real domestic goddess is. And it has already been used 100 times more than any vacuum I previously owned…. so on a cost per wear calculation it is positively cheap!!!!

So that’s a little window into my summer mornings. A little chilled, a little foodie and a little productive xo.

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Book Review: All We Shall Know

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I’m reading again. I had stopped, well almost stopped. And that is a crazy statement from someone like me. I was always one of those types who got in trouble for reading too much…. reading when I should be playing outside, reading when I should be tidying my room, reading when I should be eating dinner. Some of my strongest childhood memories are intrinsically linked with works of Enid Blyton, and I always wonder how the boarding school industry survived without the exquisite marketing of the Malory Towers girls or the twins at St. Claire’s. A world full all ginger beer laden midnight feasts and sneaky adventures… leaving bookworms everywhere begging to be shipped off to school (head teachers the world over could be heard breathing a collective sigh of relief when Harry went to Hogwarts).

But this bookworm stayed at home, learning about life and love from the pages of Judy Blume. Who can remember hiding Forever under mattresses as it was passed around convent school classrooms? Our generation’s answer to Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl or D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Months of my teenage life were spent following the fate of Joan Lingard’s Kevin and Sadie as they aimed to break down sectarian barricades in Northern Ireland or engrossed in the drivel that made up the Sweet Valley High Series.

As you can see I wasn’t always the most refined reader – but I was always a reader. Lately however, I found myself lacking not so much the time but the energy to read. Life was busy, the pull of social media strong and my physical surroundings far from comfortable. But now that things are calmer, cleaner and prettier, I am both reading and writing once more – the 3 month holiday helps I admit!!

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And so to the point of this post – I have finished my first read of summer and here are my thoughts on Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know.

Honestly, I turned every page hating what I was reading, wanting to put it down but unable to look away. It sounds trite to say I was gripped from the opening lines but in this case it’s true:

“Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He’s seventeen, I’m thirty-three. I was his teacher.”

I was hooked.

Interestingly, the novel that follows is not really plot driven, and Martin Toppy has at best a small, supporting role. This is not his story. It is the story of Melody Shee, the pregnant teacher who narrates this tale, and she is a woman for whom it is hard to muster any sympathy. This would not normally appeal to me, as I like to feel I have a protagonist to root for. But there is a grit and a reality to Ryan’s beautifully controlled prose that makes you invest emotionally even in characters you fundamentally dislike. His ability to write from the perspective of a pregnant woman, whose story defies stereotypes, is the strength of this book. I always worry when a male author tries to assume the narrative voice of a woman, especially one who is pregnant and confused, but I felt Ryan’s refusal to sugar-coat either the marriage of Melody and her husband Pat, or the moment of conception with Martin Toppy, made me believe in the voice of Melody. From here the book was on to a winner.

During her pregnancy Melody’s story becomes entwined with that of a young Traveller girl, Mary Crothery. A review I read a while back, I think it was in The Guardian, was critical of this element of the novel, feeling the portrayal of the Travelling community to be a tad lazy and stereotypical. I wholeheartedly disagree. Although I wasn’t blown away by the characterisation of Mary, I thought the depiction of the the modern Irish Travelling community was truthful, balanced and emotionally strong. Marginalisation, ongoing prejudice, a quest for education (or at least literacy), the treatment of women, infertility, the grudge culture and the prevalence of violence were all aspects of this life that were explored. I think all these issues are still real and present in the life of many Irish Travellers. I think the mutual suspicion with which the Travelling and Settled communities regard each other also remains today  – a reality Ryan observed without feeling the need to moralise too much. Pretending things to be different would be being led by the politically correct agenda – a road Ryan never allows himself to be diverted down.

Like his stunning debut novel The Spinning Heart, this unflinching realism is where Ryan excels. He creates an Ireland we might wish did not exist, and a type of society that we may wish we had moved beyond. But we can identify. And that’s uncomfortable. And it makes us ask hard questions of ourselves and our world. And that is exceptional writing. This is not a work to make you smile, but a piece to make you think. Give it a try and don’t worry, because for all the grit there is also a place for sympathy, redemption and powerful friendship. Pick up a copy, grab a coffee and allow yourself to become immersed.

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did, 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

Goodbye Village, Hello Town

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Having spent a decade living in one of the best (and definitely the craziest) villages in Ireland, there will always be a nostalgia attached to our recent house move (even though we didn’t go far). However, a downsize from a rural to a more urban setting was the right move for us – at least for right now!!!! This was a lifestyle move, and so far it is very much suiting my lifestyle. Here’s what I mean….

This morning, pretty much directly after breakfast, I started to think about lunch. That’s pretty typical for me. There was a delicious pesto open and in need of using up, so I thought a bruschetta type ensemble might work. So far, so simple.

Problem? I LOVE melted mozzarella, with all that oozy, stringy yumminess. But I know, from bitter experience, that the supermarket offering tastes of NOTHING. And I know it needs decent sourdough or ciabatta to hold its “meltiness”. And I know that in rural areas quality cheeses and “fancy” breads are at the very least a car drive away.

But I live in town now. And this means that when mozzarella issues arise, I can tackle them with a certain urban smugness. And here’s how….

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I just popped on my coat and trotted the five minutes to the Fine Wine & Food Co. around the corner, where I picked up a fantastic artisan cheese product from Toons Bridge Dairy. As it was far too early for wine, I also got a quality Americano and threw in some firm and salty halloumi for a weekend salad. There was a casual chat about interiors with the ever hospitable Claire, the proprietor of this fabulous little independent store and cafe, before I toddled off with my paper bag fully of dairy goodness. I didn’t move house to be nearer good mozzarella, that would be a little extreme, but being able to access wonderful ingredients from quality conscious local businesses, without parking disks or travel times, is a huge part of the draw.

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Now as mozzarella without tomato is like pie without cream, I had to make another pitstop before lunch could be assembled and this time it was to my local greengrocer for ripe and juicy vine tomatoes. And this is it, this is the life I want. I want to shop less in supermarkets. I want to buy local. I want to reduce the packaging we have to dispose of. And I want to grin as a man delivering local carrots tries to sell me a kid goat!!! Simple but hugely satisfying. Now I just had to pop a ciabatta under my arm and actually make some food.

Toast the ciabatta, rub with a garlic clove, spoon on the pesto, layer up the sliced tomato and mozzarella, sprinkle with black pepper, melt under the grill. A drizzle of balsamic optional.

 

A recipe that is not a recipe at all. Simple and seasonal . The perfect lunch after a perfect morning.  It couldn’t be easier. Why not give it a go? 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.

Moonlight: In Review

Moonlight was the winner of the Best Picture Academy Award 2016 but will it be remembered for its cinematic prowess or its starring role in one of the Oscars’ biggest ever gaffes? Because let’s be honest – it was a clanger.

To answer my own question, it is a film that should be remembered for all the right reasons – as a melancholic, beautifully shot drama worthy of the highest accolades.

Apparently, this was a low budget creation and it is definitely not replete with Hollywood A-Listers, but financial constraints did not translate into artistic ones, at least not to my untrained eye.

Moonlight tells a story. It tells it subtly. It tells it slowly. It tells it poignantly. If none of this appeals then you are at the wrong movie, and I would imagine lots of people felt they may have taken a wrong turn somewhere on their way to their seat. Because unusually, this is a tale of drug dealing in “the hood” with minimal violence and zero gun shots. My husband seemed both shocked and a little disappointed by this, but I think the lack of gratuitous violence was part of the magic.

Moonlight is a story of addiction, prostitution, drug-dealing, bullying and homophobia, and yet it is not moralistic in tone. It portrays a cycle of poverty and ignorance and in so many ways each and every character is a victim. Due to  a lightness of touch and a genuine sensitivity, this becomes a story not of heroes and villains but of human beings. Humans who are often deeply flawed but who have lived lives without hope, privilege or advantage. Bad starts leading to bleak futures!

Mostly, Moonlight is a coming-of-age narrative. It tells the story of Chiron, first as a nine year old with more battles than any child should have to face, essentially raising himself in a community ravaged by crack-cocaine. Chiron is a child who stands out when all he wants to do is fit in. He is a miserable child trapped in a miserable world that seems actively trying to reject him.

Chiron’s teens, perhaps predictably, are a battle. A high-school battle against bullies, as the awkward young man struggles with his sexuality, and a personal battle with his mother who had long since abdicated her maternal role.  This was a movie that could so easily have become a cliché  – Chiron could have made defence a form of attack by fighting back both literally and metaphorically. Or he could have received some fairy tale passage out of the world of his birth and on to pastures greener. But Chiron is not a cliché and he does not try to conform or even seem to aspire to his society’s one-dimensional view of masculinity. Nor, however, has he the courage or self-belief to be proud of his individuality and to step away from his social world. He is quiet, awkward and perpetually unsure of who he is or what he wants to be, and it is the depiction of this non-stereotypical boy (and later man) that is where the movie shines brightest.

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Chiron is the central protagonist, who doesn’t say much. His uncertainty, his pain and even his joy, is communicated in other ways. Facial expression and body language are central to the creation of his character and three different actors combine seamlessly to portray one credible person. From Chiron the boy to Chiron the man, their performances combine to create something moving, nuanced and at times heartbreaking. But this is not a sad story either and there are wonderful, wonderful glimpses of humanity, compassion and love. Moonlight is just a very real story and one that deserved to be told.

If you haven’t guessed by now- I loved it, although I imagine not everybody will. Some may think it too slow, too silent or too ambiguous. Others will see it as both breathtaking and believable. If you missed it in theatres, Amazon Prime will be airing it soon so if haven’t already seen it, do yourself a favour and give it a chance. Make up your own mind on this one xo