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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, March 6, 2005

Discovering culinary delights

 •  Walk through history on way to lighthouse

By Bob Dye
Special to The Advertiser

Searching for great food in the land of the Great Famine sounds risky, I know. But the potato famine ended in the mid-19th century. And a decade or so ago, the Irish economy went from scavenging barn cat to plump Celtic Tiger. Any thought of Irish folks eating every meal at a kitchen table is as fanciful today as a Paddy ending a sentence with "begorrah." Gourmet dining in the Republic of Ireland is no longer an oxymoron.

Max's Wine Bar Restaurant on Main Street in Kinsale, County Cork, serves classic cuisine with a French-Irish twist. The wine bar is among a number of restaurants that contribute to the historic town's reputation for glorious eating.

Photos courtesy of Bob Dye •  Special to The Advertiser

A fishing boat bobs peacefully in Kinsale's small harbor where two forts, dating from the 17th century, guard the entrance.
Some of the best food on the emerald island is found in and around the historic town of Kinsale, on the soft-weather southern coast of County Cork. Although it had been hit hard by that terrible famine, it now calls itself "The Gourmet Capital of Ireland." (Check www.kinsalerestaurants .com for specific eateries.) The town's most highly regarded dinner restaurants include the high-end Vintage, with its charmingly rustic dining room, and the moderately priced Max's Wine Bar, both of them on Main Street. Man Friday, and The Spaniard, both with views of the harbor and the latter with traditional music, are off the beaten path in Scilly, a short walk uphill but worth it. Jim Edward's Steak & Seafood on Market Quay serves a bountiful plate of hake, my favorite North Atlantic fish. Noted for Asian food with a French accent is Jean Marc's Chow House on Pearse Street.

The best place for lunch by far is Shanahan's Fishy Fishy Cafˇ. Forgive the hyperbole, but eating there makes the 20-odd hours of sitting in planes and airports from Honolulu to the Old Sod almost worth the jet lag. A line begins to form before noon. By one o'clock, it stretches out the door and up a hill. The lunch crowd knows that the window of opportunity to eat there opens but briefly. Co-owner/chef Martin Shanahan serves lunch from noon to 4 p.m., and that's it. He doesn't take reservations, accepts only cash, and opens on Sunday only during summer months. It may not sound like it, but he's a convivial man.

Land of wine geese

His café is on Guardwell, and there is free parking behind the restaurant. Across the street is St. Multose Church, and its gray church spire is an easily-seen landmark at the center of this medieval town. But if you do need directions, call ahead and Marie, co-owner and wife of Martin, will greet you at the door. If the line is long, she'll offer to bring you a glass of wine. Warning! At one stage of the line, your back is very close to the lobster tank, and the occupants aren't friendly.

A couple of years ago, a softhearted American bought all the crustaceans in the tank, about $900 worth, and freed them in the harbor. He said he was motivated by religious beliefs. Martin shrugs in telling the story. "Somewhere down the line, a fisherman caught them again and they probably ended up in some restaurant's tank, maybe mine."

The restaurant isn't fancy. There is no white linen or silver service on the eight or so polished wood tables. Moreover, you share elbow room with shoppers at a wet fish market in the back of the restaurant. That area is called, somewhat grandly, The Gourmet Store. If you wish, point to the fresh fish you fancy and watch Martin prepare it to your specifications in the open kitchen behind the gleaming glass counter. Seconds after leaving the stove, your lunch is served by a lad or lassie. The one with the sweetest smile is Linda Crowley.

I never point but order from the menu, and am never disappointed. Martin is a brilliant chef. I especially like his pan-fried hake, served on a potato /parsnip mash, and sometimes with a mash of mustard leaves and creamed leaks (about $20). My frequent luncheon companion is overly fond of the warm salad of chili seafood, consisting of prawns, crab, salmon and hake served on a bed of greens topped with sweet chili sauce and garnished with deep-fried parsnip chips (about $18). Wok-fried crab claws with spring onion costs about $25.

The short list of imported wines (Ireland produces virtually none) offers some good choices. I ordered a half-bottle of chilled Aotea sauvignon blanc (New Zealand) for about $20. A glass of wine runs about $7.50. Many of the wines are provided by Kevin Parsons, a guru of the grape and respected wine merchant. Kevin is a founding member of the International Wine Museum, just a block away at Desmond Castle (aka the French Prison, because French were imprisoned there during Napoleonic times). It's worth the short walk along Cork Street to learn about the Wine Geese, those Irish emigrants who established wineries throughout the world. The museum is open from Easter to the end of October.

Pub grub at the fort

Longing for a taste of Honolulu, one day I went to the fish counter at the end of the restaurant and told Martin I was hungry for sashimi. He expertly sliced the firm, succulent flesh of a monkfish with a long, thin knife, explaining he would have sliced scallops as well if they were available. "I eat them right off the fishing boat at the harbor," he assured me, "sweet." He has relishes, jellies and condiments for sale at the register, but no soy sauce or wasabi.

James Fort, built in 1607, is one of two unrestored but safe historic forts guarding Kinsale, Ireland. St. Multose Church in Kinsale was built in 1190 and retains many of its original features. Oliver Cromwell once worshipped there.

The Vintage Restaurant & Snug Bar, housed in a historic building in the heart of Kinsale, specializes in traditional Irish food. St. Multose Church in Kinsale was built in 1190 and retains many of its original features. Oliver Cromwell once worshipped there.
I found those items, plus pickled ginger, a block or so away at The Quay Food Co., the cheese shop on narrow Market Quay. Irish farmhouse cheeses win blue ribbons in European competitions, and this shop specializes in the best of them. Proprietor David Peare, who also leads walking tours of the town, offers slivers and bits to taste. I sampled carrigaline, a soft Gouda-type cheese that's flavored with garlic, but bought a wedge of Cashel blue, that delicious blue-veined creamy cheese from County Tipperary. I cover it with honey and a sprinkle of chopped walnuts. My youngest son, Kekapala, added a wedge of Cahill's Porter to our order. It's a white cheddar that has Guinness added to it during the "cheddaring" process, giving it the look of marble which is pretty on the cheeseboard.

For a sandwich on the run, from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., order corn bread or crusty whole-meal rolls filled with an Irish farmhouse cheese, a meat or vegetable, and relish. A crusty roll filled with Ardrahan (a semi-soft, washed-rind cheese), cornichons and onion marmalade is ono. The Serrano ham with shavings of Fermoy natural cheese and semi-dried tomatoes is also tasty. Or create your own. David will pack picnic baskets for trips to scenic places, like the grassy grounds of James Fort (aka the Old Fort). Its construction was completed in October 1604. Eroded away by generations of hard winter rains, the earthen bastions of the five-sided fort are now softly rounded. Girls once gathered May dew there for their complexion, as did old men to cure their gout.

James Fort has not been restored, but it has been made safe. Standing on the battlements, you see the town to the north, the impressive Charles Fort across the harbor to the east, and the Bandon River winding its way west. Sir William Penn, father of the founder of Pennsylvania, was once the fort's governor. If you forgot lunch, below the fort is the Dock, a watering hole with good pub grub.

Across the pond

If you like the taste of hops, there's the old malt house (circa 1703), on The Glen (close by the Old Courthouse). The building was restored a few years ago. Today's modern brewery draws water from the nearby Bandon River, and uses malted barley from a malting company in Cork City. But the yeast is from its own "secret recipe." Tours are available (470-2124). There is a handsome bar on the upper floor, and in good weather, a patio with sturdy wooden tables and chairs. The brewery boasts that when in August 1617 Sir Walter Raleigh sailed from the harbor, there were kegs of "Kinsale brewed beer" in the hold of his ship. The beer was for the crew, I'm guessing, because the gentleman pirate noted that he also took aboard " ... a 32-gallon cask of the Earl of Cork's home distilled Uisce Beatha," (meaning Water of Life, and after too many shots pronounced whiskey.)

Kinsale is renowned for its annual Gourmet Festival, held for three days of gluttony in the first part of October. Sponsored by the Good Food Circle, an association established in 1975 by local restaurateurs, the festival attracts folks from around the world. One year that I attended, members of the Fitzgerald/Kennedy clan from Massachusetts were there.

If you can't make it to the festival in the fall, head to Rhode Island in the spring. For the past five years Kinsale chefs, including Martin Shanahan, have joined their Newport counterparts to stage a Kinsale Festival of Fine Food in that city. In March 2004 one of the best dishes, I read in a review, was panache of roasted scallops on a bed of cauliflower puree with white vinaigrette.

St. Multose Church in Kinsale was built in 1190 and retains many of its original features. Oliver Cromwell once worshipped there.
If you stay at one of Kinsale's many self-catering accommodations, you'll have fun shopping each day. Remember to pack shopping bags, because stores charge for a tissue thin version of those ubiquitous plastic ones that litter our roads. There's a greengrocer a few doors down from the White House hotel, and a bakery that caters to folks with wheat allergies. For meat, fowl and the freshest eggs, I shop at John Barrett's on Main St., across from the Bank of Ireland. John is a third-generation world-class butcher. No cellophane wrapped pre-cut roasts on plastic trays found here. John cuts meat from a carcass before your very eyes. He'll also advise you on ways to cook it. He delivers (477-2204).

Wasabi mash

In Cork City, take time to visit the English Market, a covered food emporium with dozens of stalls, one of which sells sourdough bread. The market is open Mondays through Saturdays. My favorite stall is Toby Simmond's The Real Olive Co. He has other olive stalls around the country, but this one is his best, according to John and Sally McKenna, authors of Bridgestone's "Irish Food Guide." (You can pick up a copy at the Kinsale Bookshop.) If what you see and smell makes you hungry, on the second floor of the market is the Farm Gate Cafˇ. It's pretty good.

Cork City also boasts one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the civilized world. Denis Cotters Cafˇ Paradiso, open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, is at 16 Lancaster Quay, across from Jury's Hotel. The wasabi mash is splendid and easy to make at home by adding wasabi paste to a little milk and stirring it into mashed spuds. Another dish that tastes of Honolulu is the mushroom, pak choy and egg roll stir-fry. Or order the tofu-cashew fritters.

A 20-minute drive from Ballymaloe gets you to Midleton for a visit to the Jameson Heritage Center at the Old Distillery. Standing by the reception hall is the world's largest pot still — 40,000 gallons. Visitors tour the old distillery and are told the history of Irish whiskey. Most importantly, they learn it is to be served neat (no ice) in a glass with enough space for a few manly drops of water or even a wimp's dollop. The water is presented in a jar and you, not the bartender, dribble it in. Locals warn you that a man doesn't steal another man's wife or pour water in his whiskey, the latter being more heinous.

I volunteered to take part at the bar in a comparative tasting of bourbon, Scotch and Irish whiskeys. I tossed them down, and the Irish won by more than a nose. My enthusiasm was rewarded with a glass of paddy, the intoxicating product of the old place. I warmed it between my palms, to show I knew what I was doing. Like most of us who drink it, paddy is simple, not at all complex.

Caribbean Kinsale

If your soul still needs refreshment, spend some time meditating in the 12th-century Church of St. Multose, a place of continuous worship for more than 1,000 years. Although in fairness I should say that Oliver Cromwell worshiped there in December 1649 and it did his soul not one bit of good. Called by some "God's Englishman," he ordered local Irish children to be shipped as slaves to English plantation owners in Barbados. To this day there is a small town on the Caribbean island of Montserrat named Kinsale, and some of its residents are named Burns, Farrell, Griffin, Lynch, and Sweeney — familiar names here, too.

To protest Cromwell's atrocious behavior, I eschewed St. Multose, and on my last visit to Kinsale went to St. John's Church on Friars Street. Built by the calloused hands of devout Catholics in the parish, it's interior has been refurbished recently and redecorated in soft, restful colors that promote contemplation. Around the corner is the Friary Church.

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, preached in and around Kinsale in 1875. After one sermon, he noted in his journal: "The poor in Ireland, in general, are well-behaved; all of the ill breeding is among the well-dressed people." The town's Methodist Church is found beside Boland's news agency at the corner of Long Quay and Cramer Place. Appropriately, its near neighbor is the Temperance Hall. It was opened in 1885 with a rendition of "I'm off to Philadelphia in the morning." The encore was "Jerusalem." This being Ireland, drinking was allowed at the performances, if moderately done. The town now boasts more seats in its 30 pubs than spaces in pews. Teetotalers have given up the good fight as a lost cause, and the hall today serves as an exhibition space. A short upper floor was added to the building in 1989, giving it the look of a squat prude on tiptoe.

St. Patrick's Day, on which the sun shone this past year, marks the start of the Irish tourism season. So popular has the holy day become around the world that there aren't enough Irish bagpipers to lead all of the parades. Believe it or not, in 2004 tens of thousands marched in more than a hundred major parades in North America alone, some even in Asia — Seoul, Tokyo, Kyoto and Yokohama.

To cope with the enormity of this global problem, parades are scheduled the weekend before, the one after, and all the days in between. My friend Michael Heaney, who lives on Courtmacsherry Bay, flew to London to play the pipes in its parade on March 14th, and then rushed back to play in parades nearer home. Despite his and other pipers' heroic efforts, there were troubling shortages. Ireland had exported so many pipers that a Celtic band was imported from Spain to fill a spot at the Dublin parade.

Patrick's Day at Kinsale was quiet last year. Some pious folks walked from St. Multose Church to the holy wells in an area called Scilly, and on to Charles Fort for mass. A boisterous parade took place on the following Sunday.

Over the years, I've celebrated every holiday —Źmajor or minor, global or local — somewhere in Ireland, and not always in a pub. In my own defense, they are often the only places open on days of rest. As they should, shopkeepers and public workers alike take holidays off to be at home with their families.

My five kids and three grandkids celebrated the 2003 Christmas holidays with me at our family house in Kinsale. We all fit because it was once a B & B. When 18 years ago I phoned Tessa, my late wife, to tell her I'd bought a B & B, she ordered me to take down the sign immediately: "I hate Irish breakfasts! And I won't make somebody else's bed!" Herself with a smidgen of Irish blood, she grew to like its famous breakfast, even the black (blood) pudding. For the rest of her life, she escaped back to Ireland for four weeks of solitude each February, away from pesky husband and kids demanding to have their beds made up.

Alone, in tandem, or with the whole family catastrophe, Ireland is grand in any and all seasons.

Bob Dye is a Kailua writer who often visits his home in Ireland.

• • •

Walk through history on way to lighthouse

The Old Head of Kinsale Golf Course is the place to work off any extra pounds you've put on tasting and feasting in Kinsale. That is, unless you order lobster in the De Courcy Room of the handsome glass and stone clubhouse.

The luxurious restaurant (named after the family who once held the Old Head) and the adjacent Lusitania Bar (named after the Cunard liner sunk in World War I) overlook the eighteenth green to the Atlantic Ocean just beyond. The rusting steel hulk of the Lusitania rests on its starboard side at a depth of 49 fathoms (295 feet) in those cold blue-gray waters about 11.2 miles south and two degrees west of the new lighthouse. The sinking of the ship by a German U-boat and the horrible loss of more than a thousand innocent lives was popularly referred to as The Outrage, and propelled isolationist America into the war then raging across Europe.

Long before the golf course was opened in 1997, I hiked out to the Old Head of Kinsale with my son Steve. We drove the seven miles from Kinsale, parked outside a five-barred gate, saluted the no trespassing sign, and climbed over it. The long peninsula of about 2,200 treeless acres juts two miles into the Atlantic. Along the way we passed tumbled relics, one of them a cottage lighthouse from the fifth or sixth century. In those days, a fire blazed from a brazier on its roof to warn mariners. There is also a signal tower, one of 84 such towers built along the south and west shores of Ireland to warn of invasion by Napoleon. After his defeat in 1814, it was abandoned. The rough stone walls are two feet thick.

There were long stretches of our walk when we could see only a yard ahead; certainly no more than that, the fog that blew in was so thick. A lonely and spooky place, we carefully kept to a narrow macadam road that led over pastureland and curved gently to what is called the New Lighthouse. It was completed in 1853. The light is 236 feet above high water and can be seen 21 miles away. From the road's edges, skutch grass stretched to cliff's edge. Three hundred feet down was cold, churning water. A foghorn warned ships from the rocky cliffs, and we took warning, too.

The golf course developers, brothers John and Pat O'Connor, have kept the peninsula's wild character, preserved the antiquities and uncovered other archaeological sites. The 18-hole course is said to be "the most spectacular golf course on Earth." I'm not a golfer and can't appreciate the challenges of the course. But those who love the game describe the par 72, 7,300-yard layout as simple with minimal bunkering and uncomplicated greens. It's not the design but the gusting winds, sometimes up to 30 mph, that present the challenge. Owner John O'Connor drove me around the course. His two favorite holes are the 407-yard, par-4 fourth and par-5 twelfth that runs along a spectacular north cliff, teeming with sea birds.

— Bob Dye