The Best Of Ireland Awards

Yesterday marked one year since we arrived in Ireland. ONE YEAR! I can’t believe how fast this year has gone…and yet, at the same time, it feels like we have lived here forever. We have been to more places, seen more things, met more people, tried more food and experienced more in this year than at any other time in our lives.

People often ask me what the best part of Ireland is and, the answer is, there are many “bests”. There is no way I could possibly limit my favorites down to one thing. So I won’t even try. What I will do, however, is offer you a compilation of the best things we’ve actually experienced here in Ireland. I now present to you:

The Best of Ireland Awards (According to me, of course!)

Best Natural Site: The Cliffs of Moher
IMG_2049I can’t think of anything more spectacular than moss-covered cliffs that plunge 400 feet into the ocean. They’re seriously amazing.

Best Museum: Titanic Belfast
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OK, so for starters, the museum is in the actual shipping yard where Titanic was built and the front of the building is a scale replica of the size of the great ship’s hull. The exhibits are fascinating, there is an amusement park-style ride that takes you through the ship building process, and the cafe serves scones on White Star Line china. What’s not to love?

Best Monument/Historical Site: Newgrange
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Probably the oldest building you’ll ever see (it’s 5,000 years old, making it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian Pyramids). Just don’t take your kids with you or you might get kicked out for unruly behavior.

Best Holiday Celebrate In Ireland: St. Patrick’s Day

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If you thought the St.Patrick’s Day parade in your town was fun, then wait until you see how Ireland celebrates! St. Patrick’s Day is definitely the most festive holiday we’ve been a part of here.

Best Time To Visit Ireland: Easter Week
IMG_2496The flowers are blooming, the sun is starting to find its way out of winter hibernation, and the towns are starting to come back to life. Easter falls right at the beginning of the official Irish tourist season, so shops and museums that have been closed for the winter will again welcome you in–plus the crowds won’t arrive for another month or two. There are lots of special activities and festivals throughout the country during Holy Week, making this the perfect time to visit.

Best Castle to Explore: King John’s Castle, Limerick

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I’m a self-professed castle-holic, as you will know if you’ve read this blog for any length of time. We have seen a LOT of castles here in Ireland. It’s hard to chose just one favorite castle, but I’m going to have to give this award out to King John’s for their fabulous renovations and hands-on exhibits. I mean, where else will you get to dress up like a knight in shining armor…in a REAL medieval castle?!

Best Irish Food: Scones
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I’m obsessed with scones, so this is no surprise. They’re just the best thing ever. Period.

Best Irish Drink: Barry’s Tea
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Barry’s Tea will forever be that taste that reminds me of Ireland. On my last trip to the grocery store I bought a giant box of Barry’s Tea with enough tea to last me through the apocalypse (or at least until the next time I make it back to Ireland).

Best Place Off The Beaten Path: Ballycotton Cliff Walk
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This cliffside walk is one of the most beautiful, most peaceful places I’ve ever been. The views are incredible, and every corner you turn takes a bit more of  your breath away. Truly spectacular. Also, for the first time in nearly 180 years, this year they are allowing the public to tour Ballycotton Island and lighthouse (via a guided boat ride and tour). I can only imagine how stunning the views must be looking back at the cliffs from the picturesque island.

Best Chipper: K.C. & Son & Sons, Douglas (Cork)
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There’s a reason why hundreds of people queue up outside K.C.’s each night: it’s dang good food. K.C.’s has the right mix of juicy, greasy, succulent-ness that you expect from a good burger or pile of fish and chips.

Best Farmer’s Market: Mahon Point (Cork)
IMG_1486This weekly farmer’s market is one of the best-run public markets I’ve ever been to. All of the food is fresh and local, sold by the farmers who produce it–and everything is incredible. Fresh cheese, home-baked bread, crisp veggies, straight-from-the-farm meats and fresh-from-the-sea fish–anything you could ever want for your weekly shopping. Plus they have woodfired pizzas and what I lovingly refer to as “crack curry” because it’s just so addictive.  Nom nom nom…

Best Scenic Drive: The Ring of Kerry
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Seeing as The Ring of Kerry is on every tourist’s agenda,  this choice is a bit cliché. But it really is incredible, and every tourist to Ireland should see it at least once. Driving The Ring takes you through mountains and valleys, past lakes and waterfalls, and along sweeping ocean cliffs. There are countless hikes that you can take just off the main road if you want to explore a bit more of the beauty, or you can just stay in your car and take it all in.

Most Unique Irish Experience: Bunratty Castle Medieval Banquet

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This was one of our family’s favorite experiences–my kids still talk about our dinner in the castle and ask when we can go back ther. Picture this: you arrive at a medieval castle and are greeted by people dressed in medieval costumes. These people then serve you bottomless wine, feed you a meal fit for a king, and serenade you with music. Did I mention you’re in a REAL castle?! Did I mention there was wine?!

Best Bike and Foot Trail System: Cork Bay Railway Walk

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This is a rails-to-trails system that follows the bay from Cork city out to a town called Passage West. There is an entrance to the trail right down the hill from our house, so we have spent many, many hours exploring these waterfront miles. The trail even goes directly to Jon’s office, allowing him to walk home from work on a peaceful trail when he wants a break from the usual commute. One section of the trail also leads to Blackrock Castle and cafe, the perfect place to stop in for some lunch or tea while you’re out exploring

Best Stone to Kiss: The Blarney Stone

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Some say that the Blarney Stone will give you the “gift of gab”. I think it may just give you canker sores and a strained neck, but it’s still worth giving a little smooch.

Best Big City to Explore: Dublin
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Everyone from Cork has just stopped reading this blog as I have pronounced heresy. Sorry, Rebels, but Dublin IS bigger and it’s my pick for city explorations. Take your pick of museums, cathedrals, pubs and parks–as well as trendy restaurants and upscale shopping. If you’re looking for a big city in Ireland, this is it!

Best Festival: Youghal Medieval Festival
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A medieval festival in an actual walled medieval city. Need I say more?

Best Island: The Great Blasket Islands
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This was one of my favorite day trips that we took in Ireland. A somewhat crazy boat ride takes you out to an ancient island that was finally abandoned half a century ago. We spent our day on the island exploring ruins, climbing grassy hills, and frolicking on sandy beaches with hundreds of basking seals. I would go back there in a heartbeat.

I could go on and on about all of my favorite things in Ireland, but I’ll show a wee bit of restraint and stop myself there. Ireland is an amazing place–an amazing place that I have been fortunate enough to experience for one whole year.  You will always be near and dear to my heart, Ireland!

 

 

 

 

An Irish Country Fair

There are so many reasons why I love summer: the sunshine, the days that never end, going for walks outside after dinner…in the daylight…while wearing a t-shirt. And there is no better place to enjoy the long, warm days of summer than at a good old fashioned country fair.

When I found out that one of the largest fairs in Ireland was taking place this weekend in West Cork, I just knew I had to go. I mean, how could we not see a country fair in a country that is known for their country-ness? Jon is travelling in Korea for work this week, so it was just me and the boys. We skipped out of town on Sunday morning and headed out to the Charleville Agricultural Show, located an hour west of our home in Cork.

We got to the fair at 10:00, about an hour after the gates had formally opened for the day. As is commonly the case here in Ireland, we were one of the first ones to arrive for the festivities. Our first stop was at the horse jumping centre where the riders were doing some practice runs. Jacob was obsessed with the horses and kept screeching (much to the annoyance of the horses): “That one! So fast! Horsey running!”

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After getting our fill of so-fast-horseys we made our way through the maze of vendor stalls. The brightly-colored toys and balloons caught the boys’ attention. And, since I want to coerce them into enjoying the fair as much as I do, I indulged them each with a new ball. The boys thought they’d won the lottery.

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I decided to take advantage of some momentary peace while the boys sat contentedly in the stroller admiring their new balls. We continued browsing the vendor stalls, where they were selling everything from clothing to ancient-looking farm tools to homemade jams to high-tech cow milking stations. True story. I even bought myself a little souvenir from one of the antiques stands, a metal sign that I will hang outside our house. It reads Cead Mile Failte, which translates to “a hundred thousand welcomes”. Reflecting upon our time here in Ireland, I can not think of a more fitting phrase to display in our home.

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After shopping time was over, we moved on to the vintage car and tractor show. Here’s David “driving” a restored 1915 tractor:

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Then it was on to the amusement park rides. Most of the rides were a bit too big for my little guys, so we spent our time on a huge inflatable slide. It was a hit.IMG_6493

One of my favorite sections at the fair was the old time crafts exhibit. They had people there demonstrating how to make felt from wool, weave wicker baskets, and chisel letters into stone. David even got to help a woman spin yarn on an old-fashioned spinning wheel. They started by “brushing” the wool (which came from the sheep shearing demo at the fair earlier in the day) with these huge roller brushes. Then they fed the smooth wool into the spinning wheel and wove two bobbins of string together to make the yarn. Grammy Pete would have been impressed!IMG_6511

David also tried his hand at metal-working. A very brave craftsman (with very tough looking hands) allowed my three-year old to bang a hammer on a metal rod that he was holding.IMG_6519

The end result was a copper leaf, which was then hung from a string and worn with pride for the rest of the day:IMG_6523

After our busy morning, we needed some nourishment (nevermind that we’d already eaten cotton candy and ice cream before 11:00). We noshed on some burgers and fries…because what else would you eat at the fair?IMG_6530 After lunch we wandered around some more and found some cookery demos. At one table they were churning butter by hand–and giving out free samples. It was the most creamy smooth butter I’ve ever tasted. We liked the butter so much that I bought a big tub of it to bring home. After all, who knows when the next time is that I’ll have access to hand-churned butter.IMG_6532 Before calling it a day we made one last stop in the arts and crafts tent to check out the local talent. There was kids’ artwork, handmade Limerick lace, poetry, and lots of home baking. I, of course, wanted to sneak a taste of every cake I walked past, but I managed to restrain myself:IMG_6533At this point Jacob had fallen asleep in the stroller and David was on the verge of three-year old meltdown, so I read the signs and made my way back to the car (which was parked conveniently close to the exit, due to our “early” arrival that morning). When I asked the boys later that evening what their favorite part of the fair was they both said, “EVERYTHING!”.

And that, my friends, is what we call a success.

A Week In The Life of An Irish Summer

This was a significant week in Ireland: Summer finally made her appearance. For the past 10 days we have had nothing but blue skies and sunshine–quite the welcome change from the typical Irish summer, which is only differentiated from winter by the fact that the rain is warmer.

Like most people who have lived their whole lives in cold, rainy places I go a bit manic when the sun actually comes out. I feel like I have to spend every waking moment outside soaking in enough Vitamin-D to get make up for months of deprivation. I can not, will not let a single sunny moment go to waste (especially since the rain is predicted to return tomorrow). It’s difficult to squeeze a whole season’s worth of activities into a single week, but we gave it our best effort. Here is a little snapshot of how we spent our week of Irish summer.

Monday:
We started our sunshine week with a little hike. There is a wonderful trail, which we have dubbed “Blackberry Trail”, that starts right behind our house. The trail winds for miles and miles through the woods, along a stream, and up into the hills where you can explore the ruins of an old manor. As always, the boys’ favorite activity was throwing rocks into the stream. They will literally spend hours there just picking up stones and chucking them in the water:

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After all of our hard work hiking and throwing stones, we needed a little refreshment. Popscicles (called “ice lollies” here) were the perfect reward. Many, many Popscicles were consumed this week!

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Tuesday:
On Tuesday we stayed home and made use of our fantastic back yard. Inspired by the World Cup that started this week, David practiced his soccer skills:IMG_6108We also spent a good portion of the day splashing and playing in our new blow-up kiddie pool:

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Wednesday:
What is summer without a day at the beach? On Wednesday afternoon we met up with some friends at a wonderful beach called Garrettstown Beach, just past Kinsale in East Cork. Garrettstown Beach is a Blue Flag beach, a distinction given to the loveliest beaches in Europe. We had a relaxing afternoon visiting with our friends, digging in the sand and splashing in the waves:
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On our drive home after the beach we made a slight detour to view Old Head, perhaps the most scenic and exclusive golf course in Ireland (it’s a favorite of Tiger Woods, I hear). You have to be a registered guest to enter the grounds at Old Head, but the viewpoint overlooking the area was still stunning:

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That night as I was folding clothes on the picnic table in the back yard (why not?) the sky caught my attention. As the sun began to set, light was bouncing off the clouds–it felt like a slice of heaven (minus the clothes-folding):

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Thursday:
While David was at preschool, Jacob and I went on our usual Thursday morning jaunt to the Farmer’s Market. The market was full of local delights that are just coming into season: berries, rhubarb, peas, gelato, and bunches of beautiful flowers:

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After the Farmer’s Market Jacob helped me hang our laundry out to dry. He actually is a very good helper, and his favorite “game” is handing me clothespins (and then scattering the bag of pins all over the yard). He also loves running through the lines and playing peek-a-boo behind the clothes:

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On Thursday night I went out for a fun evening road race at our local pub. Yep, that’s right, a legit pub run. I was expecting a small neighborhood gathering, maybe 100 people, to be at the race. I was quite surprised then to see not dozens, but thousands of runners all turned out for the race. The race started at the Mount Oval Bar (next door to David’s preschool) and wound it’s way for 6 miles through the surrounding neighborhoods and farms. It was a beautiful course, I finished in my goal time, and there were beer and free burgers at the finish line. It was the perfect race, really:

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Friday:
We spent Friday at our local zoo, Fota Wildlife Park. Fota is one of our favorite places to visit–there are fun playgrounds, beautiful landscapes and, of course, plenty of animals to spy on! The park is laid out so that you feel like you are actually entering the animals’ turf. There are very few fences or barriers to the animals so you can get up close to them and see how they behave in a more natural environment. Our favorite animals are always the cheetahs, the monkeys, and the giraffes (including the babies that we’ve been watching grow up this year):

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We also got to view Dourga, one of the new tigers that just arrived at Fota a few weeks ago (thankfully for us, she is inside a proper enclosure–I don’t think any of us would want an up close and personal experience with a jungle cat!):
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On Friday night, I went out on a date with this handsome man:

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For our date we went into Cork City and saw Pulses of Tradition, a traditional Irish music and dance show. It was a wonderful performance with highly entertaining musicians who had us laughing and clapping and singing the whole night (we also picked up a few interesting tidbits about the history of dance and music in Ireland). After the show we stopped by our Local for some drinks before heading home. The pub was hosting a “craft beer festival”, which piqued Jon’s interest as he’s been on the lookout for a proper IPA ever since leaving Seattle. Unfortunately, the beers were not quite up to our (snobbish?) Seattleite standards–but we did enjoy a good bit of craic.

Saturday:
We lounged around for quite awhile on Saturday morning while Jon and I took turns catching up on our sleep. We did manage to squeeze in a little play time at the playground in Passage West before it was Jacob’s turn for a nap:

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While Jacob was sleeping, Jon snuck out to get a massage (his Father’s Day gift). After nap time we walked up to Mount Oval Bar (for the third time in 3 days) for a family fun fair they were hosting. The boys loved jumping in the bouncy house (and, judging by this photo, they also enjoyed bouncing on other children):

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There was also a see-and-touch animal show, face painting, a guy making balloon animals, BBQ…and the creepiest ice cream truck I’ve ever seen:IMG_6304

Since Saturday was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, we celebrated in style. The kids were driving us crazy so we put them to bed at 7:30, then we shared a bottle of wine, and went to bed before the sun even set. Hey, nobody ever said parenthood was glamorous.

Sunday:
The last day of our sun week, Sunday, had arrived. Before church we went out in the field across the street from our house to practice our golf swings. Perhaps the boys were inspired by the Irish Open (the largest golf tournament in Ireland) that was happening right here in Cork this weekend:IMG_6311Before we went back inside, David wanted to pick some flowers to make a “centerpiece”. He found quite a lovely collection right in our driveway, and proudly displayed his pickings:

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After church we came home, ate lunch, and got ready for our afternoon. Our plans were set aside, however, when the boys fell asleep while watching Engineering lectures with Jon (not sure how they could possibly fall asleep during such a thrilling activity…). I spent my surprise afternoon “off” curled up with a new book–the perfect luxury to end our season-week of summer.

We had a memorable week exploring the treasures that are right here in Cork. And, I have to say, summer in Ireland is pretty amazing–even if it does only last for a week!

Foods of Ireland

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you’ve probably realized a few things about me: I can’t wait for my next adventure, my kids are pretty rad, and I love food. I love eating food, I love cooking food (when my rad kids aren’t getting in the way), I love reading about food. I even love just looking at food. This is not a new thing. In fact, my mom has always joked with me that all of my memories in life are somehow tied to food–what we were eating at a certain pivotal point in my life, the restaurant we visited on a vacation, the food that was served at an event. It is no wonder, then, that the food of Ireland has enthralled me.

Much of the food in Ireland is similar to food available in America. There are a few culinary delights that stand out to me, though, and I’d like to share them with you. Some of these unique-to-Ireland foods are common throughout the country, and others are more indigenous to my “native” County Cork (which, by the way, produces the best food in the country. It’s a foodie’s dream, really). Now, here are some of my favorite Irish foods:

Potatoes: In the case of the Irish, the stereotype is true: they love potatoes. At the grocery store there are at least a dozen varieties of potatoes to choose from (and none of them are the basic Russet baking potato that is prevalent in America). Every meal is served with some form of potato: mashed, fried, baked, roasted, boiled, stewed. The humble potato still reigns supreme.

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Tayto Crisps: And, while we’re on the topic of potatoes, let’s not forget about Tayto crisps (a brand of potato chips). The traditional flavor is cheese and onion, although many varieties are available. These chips are so popular that one of the largest amusement parks in the country, Tayto Park, is named after them.

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Cottage Pie: This is also known as shepherd’s pie (although cottage pie is typically made with beef  and shepherd’s pie uses lamb). Meat, veg, and gravy topped with–you guessed it–potatoes. It’s easy to make, delicious, and one of my favorite ways to use up leftover mashed potatoes. Win, win, win.

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Lamb: I can not get my 3-year old to eat any meat, with one exception: Irish lamb. My son will quite literally eat a whole leg of Irish lamb if it is offered to him. It’s both interesting and completely disturbing. I don’t blame him, though. The lamb here is fresh and succulent (probably because the sheep here are so dang happy. They spend their days contentedly roaming the lush green rolling hills out in the countryside without a care in the world. Except perhaps the butcher. But I doubt they even notice he’s coming for their intent efforts at grazing all day. When one of their sheep friends go missing they probably just assume he’s wandered off to some other lusher greener pasture on the other side of the hill).

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Offal: Pig’s hooves. Yep. Pig feet. I see them every week in the butcher but I can not, will not bring myself to eat them. Offal actually refers to any bits of the animal that you would not find in your typical Michelin-Star restaurant: ears, eyes, internal organs and such. Scrumptious. Much of traditional Irish food originated in peasant cooking where it was not only practical, but absolutely necessary to eat “everything but the snout” (which, I understand, can be quite rubbery).

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Clonakilty Black Pudding: Don’t let the name deceive you. This “pudding” is not referring to a smooth and creamy dark chocolate dessert. No, this is blood sausage, generally made from pork blood and oatmeal (yummmmm….). It is a key component to the Full Irish Breakfast (see next entry):

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The Full Irish Breakfast: Mom always said that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. The Irish have taken this sentiment to heart, and the traditional Irish breakfast is enough food to put you in a coma (or gear you up for a day of hard labor on your farm). The “Full Irish” consists of black pudding, sausage, rashers (bacon), eggs, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, potatoes, baked beans, toast, and tea. You can go to any restaurant in the country and order a “Full Irish”–just bring your appetite!

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Fresh Seafood: Ireland is an island. Which means the country is literally surrounded by oceans teeming with seafood. There is not a single day that goes by and I don’t see a truck or a stand on the side of the road selling fresh Atlantic fish that was caught that morning. I’m a bit of a seafood-phobic so I don’t take advantage of the abundant offerings. But if I were a lover rather than a hater, I’d be spoiled for choice. Pollock, Cod, Hake, Plaice, Monkfish, Prawns, Mussels–all just sitting there in the water waiting for some hungry person to come eat them.

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Scotch Eggs: A hard-boiled egg, wrapped in sausage or black pudding, breaded, and fried. What’s not to love?

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Pies and Pasties: When someone refers to “pie” in Ireland, they are usually talking about a savory meat or vegetable pie rather than granny’s caramel apple pie. And when they refer to “pasties”, they are usually talking about hand-pies (think of a gourmet Hot Pocket), not the–ahem–little patches that women might wear in place of a brassiere.

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Rocket: It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…ROCKET! This leafy salad green (called Arugula back home) is the hip health food of the moment in Ireland. Restaurants and grocery stores advertise rocket as if it’s actually a rock star, not a piece of glorified lettuce. There’s even a guy at my farmer’s market called “The Rocket Man” who makes gourmet salads and juices with rocket. But The Rocket Man may actually be a rock star (I mean, check out that ‘stache!):

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Fresh Dairy Products: You do not have to go far in Ireland to find a farm. In fact, the majority of the land in Ireland is farm land. As a result, you do not have to go far to find good, fresh dairy. Big chain grocery stores stock dairy products from the local dairies, which is pretty awesome. Fresh-from-the-cow milk, country butter, natural yogurt, cream cheese, panna cotta, clotted cream–enough lactose to fuel a nation.

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Gubbeen Cheese: Made on a family farm in West Cork, this cheese is a local delicacy. It has a smooth, rich, savory taste, similar to white cheddar, and it is buttery soft. Gubbeen cheese is made from milk that comes from the family’s cows that graze in their seaside pastures on the farm. And it makes a darn good grilled cheese sandwich.

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Banoffee Pie: A dessert made from bananas, toffee (banana-toffee = banoffee) and cream piled high in a pastry crust. You can find this pie in any coffee shop, tea cafe, restaurant, or supermarket in Ireland. They even have banoffee-flavored yogurt and pudding.

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Scones: Perhaps the single most-consumed food in Ireland (after potatoes, of course), scones are an integral part of daily Irish cuisine. Every time you visit a friend or go to a cafe for a “cuppa” (tea, that is) it is expected that you will be offered freshly-baked scones. Some are plain, some are “fruited” (with raisins or sultanas), all are delicious. They are typically round, about 3 inches across, and about 2 inches high. Scones are typically served with butter, homemade jam (which you can buy in the supermarkets here) and, if you’re lucky, cream (whipped cream or clotted cream…yummmmmm):

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Barry’s Tea: Tea is the lifeblood of Irish culture. If you took tea away from the Irish, the Irish would simply cease to exist. True story. But not just any tea will do. No, you must drink “Gold Tea”, a black tea blend and, more specifically, you must drink Barry’s Gold Tea. None of that hoity-toity herbal stuff. I mean, sure, between cups of Barry’s you might try some Jasmine tea or some orange-spice Chai just to say you’ve done it once in your life, but the purists stick with the real tea. Barry’s tea.

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Elderflower: I think I had heard of Elderflower before we moved to Ireland, but I certainly had never heard of eating it. Turns out, Elderflower is downright delicious. In Ireland you can find Elderflower cordial (concentrate that you add to water to make juice), Elderflower syrup, Elderflower liqueur, and Elderflower tea. Elderflower is made from the flower of the elderberry (which grows plentifully in Ireland) and it has a sweet, aromatic flavor similar to lychee. It is the perfect refreshing summer drink.

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So, there you have it. Now you all know why my pants fit a bit more snugly now that I’ve been living here for a year–Ireland really is a food-lover’s dream come true. The whole idea of “eat local” was born here and, really, it’s the only way people have ever eaten here. With an abundance of fresh ingredients and regional treats, Irish food offers the perfect mix between comfort food and gourmet offerings. All I have to say is, if you’re coming to Ireland, come hungry!

Ballymaloe House and the Ballycotton Cliff Walk

“To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.”
-Mark Twain

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I have an amazing husband. He is kind and dedicated and handsome and talented. He makes me laugh (a lot). He pushes me to stretch my limits and try new things. He is the source of much of my joy, and he is who I choose to divide my joy with. In a couple of weeks we will be celebrating our ninth (what?!) wedding anniversary. I love him. And, even after all this time, I like him (a lot). It was our joy, then, to sneak away for a special date this weekend to remember just how much we really do like each other. After we dropped the boys off at our favorite babysitter’s house for a day of jumping on trampolines and splashing in the kiddie pool (THANK YOU, KELSEY!!!) we drove 30 minutes out to the Irish countryside in East Cork. Our destination: Ballymaloe House. IMG_5291 Ballymaloe House (pronounced Bally-ma-loo) is the site of  a world-famous cooking school, a boutique hotel, a crafts and cooking shop, a cafe, an award-winning fine dining restaurant, farms and gardens. The property stretches over 400 acres so, as you can imagine, there is plenty to see and do there. Parts of the estate have been around since the original Norman castle rested on this site in 1450, although the “modern” house was completed in 1820. The grounds are gorgeous. As you come up the drive toward the house you pass a self-maintained golf course, towering rhododendrons and arching trees forming arboreal tunnels. You know when the driveway is that good that you’re in for a real treat.

We were at Ballymaloe to take advantage of their posh lunch in the restaurant. And when I say posh, I mean uber-fancy. Fancy enough that the restaurant’s website provides geo-coordinates for you to use if you want to, you know, land your private helicopter on the property. Even though we arrived in our humble car instead of a helicopter, we were still treated royally.

When we arrived we were first led to a large sitting room where our drink order was taken. While we awaited libation we could recline on plush sofas or sun-bathed window-seats to contemplate our idyllic surroundings:

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With wine in hand we were then led to the formal dining room. There were more pieces of cutlery at each place setting than I had fingers to count them. It was at this point that I sighed a heavy sigh of relief that we had *correctly* chosen to leave our rambunctious boys at home. Although I know they would have had fun playing swords with the pickle forks and picking their noses with the mustard spoons, I’m not so sure the other patrons at the restaurant would have enjoyed the entertainment.

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The food was absolutely heavenly. Ballymaloe revolutionized the farm-to-table movement in the 1960’s, and they are known the world over for their fresh take on modern Irish cuisine. To this day all of the ingredients on their menu are sourced right here on their own property. In fact, the day’s menu is not finalized until after the garden has been cultivated and the fishermen dock with the day’s catch. This means that the menu is unique from day to day and meal to meal, and every morsel you eat is the definition of “fresh”. The meat, eggs, vegetables, milk, and herbs come from the farms on Ballymaloe’s 400-acre property. The fish are reeled in from the Atlantic Ocean–the same Atlantic that provides the gentle sea breeze you feel as you wander the gardens of Ballymaloe. The baker starts her ovens at 6:30 each morning to bake the day’s bread. All of the foodie-things that I wish I could do at home but know that I would never in a million years actually do.

For lunch I had “Roast free range chicken with fresh herb stuffing, roast butternut squash, summer cabbage & redcurrant sauce” and Jon had the “Glazed loin of bacon (what we Americans would call ham) with crushed swede turnip, summer cabbage & Irish whiskey sauce” (see, even the names of the food are beautiful!). The food was gorgeous and we unabashedly took photo after photo of our dishes. Perhaps the best part of the meal was that after we finished eating, we were offered more meat and veg. Now, I’ve been to places where they refill the bread basket, but never anywhere that will give you more of whatever you like.  We also split a serving of “Goujons of plaice” which were basically posh fish fingers that I actually enjoyed. And if you know me, then you know what an achievement that is. I usually hide in another room if there is seafood being served, but I happily ate not just one, not two, but three fish goujons. I was quite proud of myself.

Then, the crowning glory: dessert. They rolled out a dessert trolly laden with cakes and pies and berries and a giant ice bowl full of freshly-churned ice cream for me to oggle. When it came time to make a selection I could hardly bear it. What to choose? I wanted it ALL. We finally settled on two plates of desserts to share: rhubarb tartlets with caramel ice cream and French chocolate cake with Irish strawberries. We ate ourselves silly, but wouldn’t you, too?

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When we got the bill at the end of our meal we both vowed to not eat for the next month so our stomachs and our bank account could recover. Perhaps we’ll return some day in our private helicopter but, until then, we will fondly remember this once in a lifetime meal.

After Jon rolled me out of the dining room we browsed the Ballymaloe shop, a cross between country store and gourmet cooking shop. We bought the Ballymaloe bread-baking cookbook (which, by the way, has a whole chapter on scones!!!) and a small measuring cup (because this week Jacob wanted to see what would happen if he threw my glass measuring cup onto our tiled kitchen floor. Spoiler alert: the glass shattered). IMG_5299
Then we wandered around the Ballymaloe House gardens where we found a plant with the world’s largest leaves:

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We could have spent all day at Ballymaloe (or, more likely, several days), but we had one more destination on our whirlwind date. We got back in our car and drove 10 minutes down the road to Ballycotton, a historic seaside fishing village. We parked our car at the far end of town at the entrance to the Ballycotton Cliff Walk, perhaps the most beautiful seaside walk in Ireland (at least, according to us): IMG_5341
The trail winds along the edge of the cliffs that drop off straight into the Atlantic. It was a well-maintained trail that, had we chosen, we could have followed all the way to Roches Point (about a 5-hour walk in one direction). The views were stunning (made all the more sensational with the addition of the bright summer sun) and we felt peace wash over us with each step we took. At one point, the walk actually caused Jon to remark, “I think this is the most fun we’ve had in Ireland.” IMG_5316
After walking about 3 miles down the trail we decided to end our walk at a rocky beach before doubling back to our car. We stayed at the beach for a few minutes watching the waves crash over the rocks jutting out into the ocean and collecting smooth skipping stones to bring home to the boys as souvenirs. IMG_5338
Our day in Ballymaloe was more than just a date, it was magical. It was a day full of joy, divided between me and my love. Well, and  maybe I had a little joy left over to divide with the French chocolate cake. I’m all for equality here.

Weekend “Staycation”

Lately we’ve been spending most of our weekends out exploring Ireland, so we decided that this weekend  it was time for us to regroup and spend a few days here in our own home. Even though we were staying home, we still wanted to plan something fun. So the idea of the “staycation” was born. Jon cooked up a plan for a little father-son back yard camp-out, and I planned a little getaway to the spa. It was the best weekend ever.

On Saturday morning Jon and the boys prepared the campground (i.e. our back yard) for the boys’ camp-out. We’d brought our little 2-man backpacking tent with us from America and we haven’t used it once. There is no way I’m going to bring something half-way around the world to not use it, even once. This being Memorial Day Weekend–one of the busiest camping weekend of the year in America–we thought it would be the perfect excuse to dust of the little tent and let it breathe the fresh Irish air. The boys had fun scouting out our yard for the perfect location to pitch their tent (I believe the criteria consisted of flat ground, soft grass, not too mushy, and not on top of dog poop). David and Jacob watched on as Daddy expertly raised the tent and, most importantly, covered the whole thing with a rain shield. Then they piled blankets and pillows and stuffed animals and Buzz Lightyear action figures inside. The tent was complete.

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After the tent set-up was finished I sneaked out of the house (er…campground…) for a little mommy TLC time. My Mother’s Day gift this year was a massage at a local spa, and I’ve been dreaming about it ever since I opened the gift certificate. Now it was finally time for my dream to materialize.

The Maryborough Spa was–how do I put this?–heaven on earth. Seriously, the most luxurious pampering I’ve ever experienced. Upon my arrival I was greeted and then given a brief tour of the spa. I had an hour until my scheduled massage so I was able to take advantage of the Thermal Suite. This was an area that included saunas, steam rooms, heated lounge chairs, a multi-jet shower and the most incredible hot tub I’ve ever seen. The hot tub was huge–big enough to swim laps in–and it had all of these water fountains and jets you could turn on and loungers to sit on and lighting that made it look as if you were swimming under the stars. It was incredible, and I would have been happy if the whole spa day just ended right there. But I’m so glad it didn’t, because there was much more incredible-ness to come.

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After I was nice and serene from my hour in the Thermal Suite I was guided to my treatment room where I received a relaxing massage. I have had many massages over the years, but this was the single most relaxing massage I’ve ever had. I got to choose my own mix of calming body oils, the mood lighting for the room, and the precise adjustment of my contouring massage table so that everything was perfectly suited to me (and isn’t this all about me anyway?). During the massage I drifted off to sleep and I’m pretty sure I drooled, but they must expect that when they go to all the trouble of making everything so darn perfect.

When my massage was over I was led to the “relaxation suite”–a peaceful window-lined room overlooking a waterfall in a courtyard. After I was settled in my plush lounge chair and covered with a warm blanket they brought me a refreshment tray with juice, smoothies, and a bowl of fresh fruit to munch on while I read a magazine or finished my nap. Note: at this point it had been nearly 3 hours since I’d changed a diaper or winced at a whining child. It was truly surreal.

But, wait! There’s more! After I was good and relaxed I was led to my next room-of-paradise: the tea lounge. Here I was served afternoon tea, which is just another way of saying “towers of cakes”. This exquisite stack of scrumptiousness spoke to my very soul.

I took my time nibbling each little delicacy set before me: warm ham and cheese pastry, almond cake, chocolate chip cookies, scones, raspberry napoleons, fruit tarts, scones with jam and cream. I didn’t really intend to eat the whole tower of food, but it happened. And I relished every single calorie I consumed.

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After my tea/gorge-fest I returned to the relaxation room to sleep off a bit of the tryptophan from my dainty turkey and brie sandwich. When one of the spa staff members came to check on me I told her I was moving in to the spa forever. She must have thought I was joking, because she laughed and walked away. While I was scouting out the relaxation room for the best after-hours hiding spot I was awakened by a sense of duty to my family. I decided to go back home after all. Besides, I really didn’t want to miss out on the camp-out dinner (sheesh, I’m starting to sound really gluttonous here…).

When I got back home Jon had already started the “camp fire”, a disposable charcoal BBQ set that he found at the grocery store. Despite having to use it in the rain, our little BBQ worked perfectly for roasting sausages:

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And marshmallows for s’mores:

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We had to improvise a bit with the s’mores based on the availability of ingredients in Ireland–you can really only find pink marshmallows here and we had to use tea biscuits in place of graham crackers. In the end, though, they were every bit as good as the s’mores you eat in the dirt at any American campground.

After dinner we had a family movie night (the feature presentation was “Toy Story”) and then it was off to bed. Since the tent is only big enough for two (and *maybe* because I didn’t want to sleep outside in the rain) I sacrificed my place in the tent so that Jon could sleep out there with David. Jacob slept in his crib inside the house because nobody wants a toddler who wakes up at 5 AM sleeping right outside their bedroom window when 5 AM rolls around.

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David was so excited for his camp-out (and so confused by the daylight that lingered until nearly 10:00) that he didn’t fall asleep for a good long while after he and Daddy went out to the tent. Jon told him stories and they snuggled and eventually the sky darkened and they slept until 7:00 the next morning. Jacob woke up at his usual 5:00 but, since I was the only other person in the house, I decided to let him whine in his bed for a good long while before I dragged myself out of bed to get him. I decided to bring him back to bed with me and as soon as we were lying down he fell back asleep until 8:00. I’m not gonna lie, I kind of loved it.

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If I could change anything about this weekend, I would make it longer. Longer to have my family together, longer to roast marshmallows in the rain, longer to watch my son and my husband bond in a tent, longer to relish in pampering at the spa. But I know that all good things must come to an end, and so did our weekend. I’ll tell you one thing, though. If I’m having a rough time this week I’m just going to close my eyes and go to my happy place–that magical place where the only thing interrupting my sleep is a tower of cakes.

Home Alone

 

 

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Today marks the end of the longest two weeks. Ever. Jon has been in Seattle on a business trip (ironic, I know, since we moved half-way around the world from Seattle only to have him make regular trips back there). So, that meant that I was home alone. Well, not exactly alone alone–I mean, I had my kids here with me. But it was…different. The day after I got back from my own trip to Phoenix, Jon left for Seattle. I was exhausted and a bit overwhelmed (this is the longest business trip Jon’s taken since we’ve had kids), but I was determined to make the best of our situation. Without family nearby to offer a helping hand, or even a babysitter to call on for relief (they were all away on their own vacations, lucky ducks!), it was all up to me. So, I set about planning little day-ventures for us close to home (because, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t muster up the courage to take two young children trekking across the country by myself for a full-on adventure). We managed to squeeze in quite a bit of fun to help pass the time while Daddy was away. Here’s a photo journal of what we’ve been up to these past couple of weeks:

We started our week at the grocery store. The boys helped me pick up some fuel for all of our upcoming adventures:

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While we were at the grocery store (which is inside a shopping mall) we took a little break to ride a train around the mall:

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We had a hot cocoa date at Costa Coffee:

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We went to the zoo where we saw magnificent animals, played on the playgrounds, pet baby kangaroos, and ate ice cream:

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We visited Rumley’s Open Farm to spend an afternoon playing…

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…greeting animal friends…

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…and even dining with a rogue mama pig and her six little piglets who wandered in from the farm:

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We had brother snuggle time in David’s huge bed:IMG_4083

And went to the indoor playground with our friends:IMG_4097

We ate popcorn for breakfast. Twice:IMG_4120

We visited a new town. Monkstown is just up the road from us, about 10 minutes from our house, and I’d never been there before. It’s an adorable little seaside town with a marina, beautiful old churches, and a fantastic playground for the kiddies:IMG_4183

We went for a run by the sea and enjoyed a castle tea:IMG_4209

We visited Charles Fort, a 400-year old army fort that helped carry Ireland through the Spanish War and the war of Irish Independence:IMG_4233

After exploring the fort, we had a picnic overlooking the harbor:IMG_4260

Then we went into the town of Kinsale for ice cream and a stroll:IMG_4272

After I tucked the boys into bed each night, I worked on projects (I made 3 photo books, Mother’s Day gifts, and finished a couple of sewing projects). I may have also watched Downton Abbey. All three seasons of it:
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We walked up the road to the farm that we can see from our back yard. I asked the (very tiny) woman who answered the door if we could meet her cows because we watch them every day and we’d like to get to know them. She told me (in a very thick Irish country accent) that ‘Sure ye can meet the calves, alright.’ When we asked her if the cows (‘No, they’s calves, those ‘uns’) had names she just shook her head and replied ‘They haven’t names, these calves. They’re being fattened now, alright.’:IMG_4282

After a disappointing encounter with cows (er…calves) who will never live to see their next birthday, we walked back down the road to our favorite walking trail so we could go throw rocks in the river:IMG_4298

On Thursday we went to the Farmer’s Market for Mommy’s weekly multi-sensory indulgence:

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On May Day we went to a park to pick flowers. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see May 1st arrive. Ireland as a country shuts down during the “winter” which just so happens to be half of the year (November-April). May 1st signaled the beginning of the official tourist season and shops, museums, restaurants–heck, whole towns–that had been closed all winter reopened their dusty doors for business. No more driving for hours trying to find an open restaurant or going to the mall on every rainy day to pass the time. Ireland is back open, and I am thrilled. Flowers seemed like a fitting celebration:
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I watched Toy Story 3 for the first time with David. He sat on the couch next to me with his Woody and Buzz Lightyear toys and we watched the little boy in the movie, Andy, grow up and move out for college. I bawled my eyes out. I have now confirmed David’s suspicions that his mother truly is crazy:IMG_4328

We had a balloon sword fight at McDonalds:IMG_4335

And we baked the most delicious carrot cake sandwich cookies to share with our friends at church:

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And, finally, we decorated a welcome home sign for Daddy. We all missed you like crazy, Jon!

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Well, there you have it: two weeks come and gone. Even though it wasn’t easy having Daddy gone, we all survived and we even managed to have fun making memories together. It was a special time that I got to spend with just my handsome boys–boys who will grow up some day and leave me for college just like Andy in Toy Story. So in the end, if I’m going to be home “alone”, there’s nobody else I’d rather be here with.