When you think of Ireland, green fields of clover filled with peacefully grazing fluffy white sheep may come to mind. Or gray clouds and gentle rains and hedgerows as far as you can see. Daydreams might include stone walls and rosy cheeks, pints of Guinness, rowdy pubs and good-natured fun. But you generally don’t think of gourmet food.
Thirty years ago this May, native Mobilian Binky Oswalt took her first trip to Ireland. She was a busy travel agent back then, and wanted to explore for herself some of the new soft adventures she had been hearing so much about. She took a walking tour of Ireland and met guide Conn Moriarty. “He was this young, wild, crazy thing with so much passion and pride for his home country,” she tells me. “And he loved the outdoors.” The two became fast friends, and within the year Binky was back in Ireland for meetings with Conn and his friend Ann Curran to begin plans for their own travel company called Hidden Ireland.
The three friends, whom Binky describes as the three legs of Hidden Ireland’s stool, have been arranging private, custom-designed tours of the magical green island ever since. Flights, cars, drivers, meals, hikes and personally tailored activities — it’s all handled seamlessly with Binky as the U.S. contact from their “world headquarters” in a small office at her midtown Mobile cottage. Meanwhile, Conn and Ann take care of travelers from the moment they land in Ireland to the moment they leave. Everyone who books a Hidden Ireland excursion leaves feeling like these three are family.
Walking tours are their specialty — clients meander down hidden paths that skirt rocky ocean coastlines that they would never have found if they planned the trip on their own. Quaint accommodations await at the end of a day trooping through the mist, and surprisingly, a fantastic meal does as well. Binky says that trip after trip travelers have come back raving about the wonderful food, which far surpassed their expectations. It seems Ireland has more to offer than Guinness and green pastures after all.
With that in mind, last year Binky teamed up with local caterer and foodie Martha Rutledge to plan a food tour of Ireland. Their group spent a week munching their way through County Cork, tasting the delights of family farms, cheese producers, accomplished chefs and cooking schools. Centered around the Ballymaloe Cookery School, Organic Farm and Gardens, the group sampled phenomenal meals while learning from the impassioned producers about their high-quality products. Binky describes Darina Allen, who runs the cooking school, as a “one-woman tornado who swept through Ireland and changed how natives think about food.” She says it shows all over the country. Darina’s cookbook came home in everyone’s suitcases that trip, and each person since has enjoyed making the fresh, modern Irish recipes while remembering their blissful week walking through the Emerald Isle.
Traditional Brown Soda Bread
Recipe adapted from Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery School
2 cups whole-wheat flour (preferably stone-ground), plus more for the work top and baking sheet
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda, sieved
1 ounce butter
1 3/4 cups buttermilk
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Mix dry ingredients together in a large, wide bowl. Rub in the butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Make a well in the center and pour in the buttermilk. Using one hand, stir in a full circle, starting in the center of the bowl and working toward the outside until flour is incorporated. The dough should be soft but not too wet or sticky. When it comes together, turn out onto a well-floured board.
3. Roll dough around gently with floured hands long enough to tidy up the crumbs. Flip over and flatten to about 2 inches. Sprinkle flour onto a baking sheet. Lay loaf on top of flour. Mark the surface with a deep cross and prick each corner to “let the fairies out” of the bread. Bake 45 minutes.
4. Cool on a wire rack, wrapped in a clean tea towel while hot if you prefer a softer crust. Makes 1 loaf.
Brown Soda Scones
1. Make the dough as above.
2. Form it into a round and flatten to approximately 1-1/4 inches. Stamp out scones with a cutter or cut with a knife. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes.
Radishes with Butter and Salt
Butter tones down the peppery bite of fresh radishes, a perfect appetizer in the early spring when you can find them growing locally.
Wash, trim and thinly slice radishes. Top a bite-sized slice of Irish brown soda bread with salted butter (Binky and Martha like Kerrygold – an Irish brand that is easy to find in stores). Sprinkle with sea salt and top with sliced radish.
Irish Pink Gin Cocktail
3 ounces pink Irish gin, or gin of choice
2 dashes elderflower liqueur (such as St. Germain)
sliced red grapefruit, for garnish
1. Fill a highball glass with ice. Add gin and elderflower liqueur. Top with tonic and garnish with grapefruit. Makes 1.
Martha Rutledge’s Lamb Chops
2 racks lamb chops, frenched
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh garlic, minced
2 tablespoons dried rosemary
1 tablespoon sea salt
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
1. Combine all ingredients in a large zip-top bag and marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
2. Preheat grill to medium heat. Remove lamb from zip-top bag. Sprinkle with additional salt and pepper to taste. Wrap aluminum foil around the bones to prevent burning.
3. Grill until internal temperature reaches 135 – 140 degrees. Slice into chops and serve immediately. Serves 8 – 10.
Darina Allen’s Buttered Cabbage
No Irish meal would be complete without a little cabbage on the side, and this simple recipe comes together quickly.
3 tablespoons butter
sea salt and fresh cracked pepper, to taste
1 1/2 heads green cabbage, julienned
1. Put 3 tablespoons water in a wide saucepan with 2 tablespoons butter and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, add the cabbage and toss over high heat. Cover the saucepan and cook for a few minutes. Toss again and add salt, pepper and remaining butter. Serve immediately. Serves 8 – 10.
Beara Coast Hotel Seafood Chowder
This boutique hotel on the “Wild Atlantic Way” serves caught-that-day fish to its guests and visitors. Martha Rutledge adapted the recipe from the hotel’s chef, Mark Johnston. It is warm and comforting and best served with a hunk of Irish soda bread slathered in butter.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 head of fennel, diced
14 ounces carrots, diced
14 ounces celery, diced
4 cups white wine
4 cups fresh fish stock
3 lemons, halved
4 cups cream
1 3/4 cups butter, softened
1 1/4 cups gluten-free flour
1/2 pound salmon, diced
1/2 pound grouper, diced
1/2 pound scallops, diced
salt and pepper, to taste
dash of lemon juice
1/2 cup green peas, blanched
1/2 cup green onion, chopped
1. Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add vegetables and saute until tender. Add wine, fish stock and lemon halves, and simmer until reduced by half. Remove lemons, add cream and begin to bring to a boil.
2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix butter and gluten-free flour to form a paste. When the cream is near boiling, slowly add the flour paste a small bit at a time. Reduce heat, add seafood to the pan and slowly simmer for about 10 minutes until the fish is cooked. Do not let it boil.
3. Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice, and garnish with peas and green onion. Serves 10 – 12 as entree, or 20 as a starter
Irish Coffee Meringue Roulade
Martha Rutledge adapted the recipe from Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery School to create a show-stopping rolled confection.
4 egg whites
2 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons instant coffee powder (not granules)
1/2 pint cream, whipped
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons Irish whiskey
chocolate-covered espresso beans, for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a 12 inch-by-8 inch Swiss roll pan with silicone paper or aluminum foil and brush lightly with a flavorless oil such as sunflower oil.
2. Put egg whites into a spotlessly clean and dry bowl. Add all but 2 tablespoons powdered sugar. Whisk with a stand mixer until egg whites stand in firm, dry peaks, 10 – 15 minutes. Sieve coffee and remaining powdered sugar together and fold in carefully.
3. Spread meringue carefully with a palette knife onto pan. Bake 15 – 20 minutes.
4. Lay a large sheet of aluminum foil on a work surface. Invert meringue onto foil. Remove pan and peel back silicone or foil. Allow meringue to cool.
5. Fold whiskey into whipped cream in a medium-sized bowl. Spread whiskey cream over meringue, reserving a small amount for decoration, and roll up from the long side. Carefully ease the roulade onto a serving platter. Put leftover whiskey cream into a baker’s piping bag and pipe 6 – 8 rosettes along the top of the roulade. Decorate with chocolate espresso beans. Keep chilled. Cut into 1-inch slices for serving. Serves 12.