Saturday, December 22, 2007

Uncharted Terrine: Christmas in Ireland

Dear Mouse,

Nollaig Shona Dhuit! and Happy New Year from Ireland, where as you know I've just spent my first Christmas ever in our lives away from our family, the States, and our mom's kitchen. ie, it has been my first Christmas I feel the way I imagine some people might if they missed Church. The Boyfriends' parents seem slightly bemused at what must seem a crazed obsession with food on my part, which is really withdrawal. At the moment am setting up Baked Challah French Toast for the morning, using a loaf of challah that I found sitting incongruously in their bread box next to the regular "Family Pan" and biscuits. I think maybe it was an attempt to welcome me. Twice now whenever the word "jew" has come up in conversation, someone has rushed to point out the loaf on the counter with almost spastic eagerness. I digress.

The lack of food prep for me this Christmas, however, has left me with a lot more time to, well, eat... and to observe, and learn a bit about The Boyfriend's culture on the most important level of all: gastronomic.

To your right you will see a picture of the food I have come to understand as the essence of Christmas in Ireland: the Mince Pie.

OK. See if you can stay with me. "Mince" in Ireland usually refers to ground meat, ie., hamburger. This is certainly a part of the world where they make meat pies. However, a Mince Pie contains dried fruit, nuts, dark sugars, meat at all. Despite this, the term for Mince Pie filling is "Mincemeat". What the hell.

Maybe once in history it took the form of a pie as we know it, a large round crusted thing from the oven, meant for an entire party. I haven't seen them that way here at all. The role of the Big Family Christmas Dessert is ably played here by the 'Christmas Cake', which comes from the same family of flavors: dark as molasses, spicy, rich, with a heavy moist character and usually a trace of alcohol, as in the Brandy Butter that is often the accompaniment. We had such a pudding on Christmas, from Marks & Spencer's: dark, cut into slices and steamed over a pan of water on the stove, generously doused with the drunken buttery topping. God Bless Us, Every One!

The Mince Pie is EVERYWHERE during this season.It's not really a pie. It's a snack. Perhaps it's the size, but it seems no one regards it as dessert per se.. more something you can eat AFTER dessert. Or anytime. The Boyfriend has a tray in his pantry, as does the B's Brother. The shops sell them in the "Christmas" section alongside pates and stilton. Best of all, when we alighted from the train in Cork (3 hours from Dublin) there was a smiling, apple-cheeked, santa's elf beneath a glittering tree, welcoming travelers home with a tray of mince pies. Not selling them. Just giving them out... because it was Christmas. (And no one was like "are you kidding, they're probably dosed"... because it's Ireland.)

On December 20, I got a ride home to Dublin from a show in Waterford with another band. When I was climbing into the backseat the guitarist pointed to the seat and said "help yourself". There they were, in a lovely white box, snowy from confectioner's sugar and slightly frozen on the black upholstery of the back seat. I had one. Rock & roll? Maybe not, but lovely manners.

(There was also a ham & cheese sandwich, which I declined. By the way, what the hell is up with the Ham & Cheese Sandwiches? How is it possible for an entire country to subsist on basically this one kind of meat, in this one form? Is it just The Boyfriend's Family? I can't believe how many of these things I've eaten over the last three weeks.)

In closing, I would like to say that I also cannot believe how much bacon this country eats. Ireland is changing, for sure, at a remarkable pace... there are gourmet shops and restaurants and martini bars and fancy coffee chains and an "Italian Quarter" in Dublin with some great food. It's not the bacon, cabbage and stout situation of yesteryear. With immigration and the Celtic Tiger came globalization and the hunger for new, more, and better. I for one am thrilled for them that the FoodScape is changing.... But it does warm my heart to see some things remain SO IRISH. The country's relationship with bacon, to me, is the prime example of this.

Last week in Waterford, I ate a plate of rigatoni dressed in tomato sauce with chorizo, red chilies, and bacon. (Leave alone the "mexican sausage in the italian food" issue for the moment; Ireland is freakin' crazy for the stuff and it is in everything). Bacon. Not pancetta. Not, mind you, chopped into the sauce or flavoring the meal. Five or Six healthy strips of honest to goodness meaty, crispy bacon, PILED on TOP of my pasta as if it were a plate of scrambled eggs.

I have also -- swear to the gods of trayf and innovative cuisine - seen bacon on the menu in Dublin's most popular JAPANESE restaurant, YAMAMORI. In the sushi section. I think it was wrapped around shrimp or something.

OK. Gotta go. I have a tray of french toast batter to prepare for the morning. I am also going to prep the ingredients for the loaf of "Spotted Dog" I will be making to give to the Boyfriend's Fam, who aren't going to eat it as it heretically replaces the raisins in the traditional "railway cake" with chocolate chips. But it IS a recipe from the Darina Allen book, which they gave me, and Ballymaloe is right here in Cork. Maybe there's hope.

HAPPY NEW YEAR! How was your holiday?

The Boo

P.S. I forgot to say that for Xmas Dinner we had turkey and ham slices sandwiched together with stuffing (sliced from a tube), potatoes roasted and mashed, carrot/parsnip mash, brussels sprouts and red pickled cabbage just like at home! For a first course we had shrimps and locally smoked salmon from right here in Cobh, and a fish terrine (which was the whole reason for the title for this blog in the first place).

Hungry For More?
Lodgings Suggestion: Harrison's Gastropub in London (bacon sandwiches brought up to your room in the AM. Near King's Cross Station)

1 comment:

maxopaxo said...

Well, I wrote a long and absolutely delicious commentary that was gobbled up by the google ...I loved this - I learned something I knew nothing about, it made me laugh, and it has left me longing for one of those snowy little mince pies sitting on the back seat offering a promise of an exciting and new experience (gastronomically speaking). Champagne all around Hart Sisters Both... you spontaneous, unpredictable, exciting, creative, talented and delicious ladies...will there be a Mouse or a new moniker in the Moose soon?