By Georgeanne Brennan
I come by my Irish associations through marriage, not blood, so I was surprised during a recent visit to discover a deep affinity for the Irish landscape, history and food.
I’d read a lot about Ireland, and heard the stories handed down through generations of the potato famines, the differences of social class between the lace-curtain Irish and the peasant Irish, tales of the Troubles, the Catholics versus the Protestants, not to mention fairy tales, elves and shamrock lore. But, once there, as is so often the case with travel, it all came to life in a different way.
An early visit to the Cliffs of Moher, whose sheer ascent, 700 feet at their highest point, stretch for nearly 5 miles along Ireland’s Atlantic coast, was a dramatic launch. Signs warned me to stay on the path, away from the cliff’s edge, which was surprisingly close.
The guide pointed out several spots where accidents had occurred, the bodies never found. She indicated a point farther on that sheltered a sweep of water, Aillens, where big-wave surfers from all over the world come to be pulled out by jet ski to surf the 30- to 35-foot waves.
“And, just up there,” the guide continued, pointing at a rock jutting up from the ocean, is where Dumbledore and Harry found Voldemort’s horcrux. And just there, is O’Brian’s Tower, built in 1835. The cliffs themselves, which were formed 320 million years ago, got their name from the ruined promontory fort that was demolished during the Napoleonic Wars. The casual blend of fiction with human drama, geology, and history seemed appropriate to the setting.
After walking the cliffs, I went to the visitors’ center, which was topped with sod and built deep and discreetly into a hill, looking like a very large Hobbit house. Windows peered out across the cliffs’ edge to the sea. Almost immediately, I encountered an exhibit that invited me to tap on my surname to see how many of us by that name were on the census for County Clare, where the Cliffs of Moher are located. I went to the B’s and typed in Brennan. Not too many of us. Then I typed in O’Leary and then Tormey. About the same. I was beginning to feel a little Irish.
After winding eastward, back into the hills beyond the Cliffs, we pulled into Gregans Castle Hotel, a manor home tucked off the road, where we were going to have lunch. Green lawns framed by roses and perennials looked across and down to the Bay of Galway, and to what, I was soon to learn, was the Burren.
When we arrived, a bearded man, a little larger than life, was sitting in a chair on the lawn. I was introduced to him and soon discovered he headed the Tolkien Society, which was putting on a weeklong Tolkien event the next week. He was also the publican/owner of the roadside Tavern and Burren Brewery in nearby Lisdoonvarna and his Swedish wife was the owner and head smoker of the Burren Smokehouse (organic Irish salmon) and active in the Irish and International Slow Food movement.
As a lover of all things food, drink and Tolkien, and active myself in Slow Food, I was finding my own links to Ireland in this singular place.
And, even more astonishingly, I also learned that J.R.R. Tolkien had stayed often at Gregans Castle Hotel and that the Burren, a moonscape land stretching just beyond Gregans, is said to have been his inspiration for the Misty Mountains. Now I knew why the landscape felt familiar — I had been immersed in it dozens of times in my reading and re-reading of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. I was in heaven.
In the snug bar, paneled in dark wood, the feeling continued with the lunch we were served. First came the Burren Smokehouse’s smoked organic Irish salmon with perfect brioche toasts and micro greens from a farmer up the road, along with Potato and Green Garlic Soup and a crisp white wine from France. This was followed by a plump, succulent chicken with perfectly crisped skin, accompanied by saffron potatoes and house-pickled carrots that were served warm and slightly caramelized. Dessert was a series of bite-size chocolate confections.
The publican joined me for lunch and I listened raptly to his stories of food along the Moher-Burren food trail, to tales of Tolkien and what the society was doing. When he learned what a Tolkien fan I was, he even invited me to come and speak at next year’s Tolkien conference. His wife, who appeared just as we were leaving, offered to send me some of her smoked salmon (which she did!) and, she said, should I return, she would be happy to show me around and take me seaweed foraging, one of the local Slow Food activities.
My mind was still whirling with all I had seen and done that day as we drove into the Burren. It is a beautiful yet desolate limestone land dotted with remains of civilizations going back as far as 6,000 years, a barren place where it’s hard to imagine any farming occurring. In the Burren, I learned, were some of the most massive failures of potatoes, leading to the immigration of more than 1.5 million Irish to the United States between 1845 and 1855. I began to think about the trip they made and how I was connected to it all.
Some of those Irish immigrants found their way west to try their hand at finding gold or ranching, to settle in San Francisco, the Sacramento Valley, the hills of the Sierra and the lush land of West Marin and Napa. One generation of Brennans came to Modesto, and the second generation moved on to San Francisco, where a third, fourth and now fifth generation, my grandchildren, continue.
O’Leary’s early story remains a blur, but the Tormeys made their start in the Gold Rush, and bought ranches in Napa County from Mariano Vallejo and in Contra Costa County from the Berryessas. There is even a little town near Rodeo called Tormey.
My initial Irish connection was by marriage, but now I have my own connection as well, related to food.
This recipe was given to me by Adrian Mooney, director of sales and marketing at the K Club outside of Dublin. As we were dining on a tasting menu that included Roasted Squab, Wild Sea Bass, and Glazed Loin of Suckling Pig, Adrian told me how he loved the simple fare of his childhood and that his favorite was Coddle, a potato and sausage dish. I asked for the recipe and he said he’d call his Mam. Sure enough, a few days after I returned from my trip, he sent me an email with the recipe. His mother had made the Coddle for him, just to check the ingredients and he wrote, “I hadn’t had it in years and it was great!”
4 slices of thick bacon
4 pork sausages
3 or 4 potaotes, cut into pieces
3 sprigs of parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Putting it together:
Place the sausages and bacon in boiling water and boil for 5 minutes. Drain, but keep the stock.
Slice the onions, potatoes, carrots and chop the parsley.
Heat up your stock.
Put the bacon & sausage into a large saucepan with the onions, potatoes, and parsley. Add enough of the stock but don’t cover all of the contents.
Cover the pot and simmer gently for about one hour. Make sure all of the ingredients are cooked but the vegetables are not mushy.
Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot with the vegetables on top, garnished with a little parsley.
For more information:
Cliffs of Moher: www.cliffsofmoher.ie
Gregans Castle Hotel: www.gregans.ie
Burren Food Trail (includes information about the Burren, Burren Smokehouse, food events, and lots more: www.burrenecotourism.com
K Club: www.kclub.ie
— Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan are coauthors of the award-winning “Davis Farmers Market Cookbook, Tasting California’s Small Farms,” (2012.) They have a food and agricultural consultancy, Evans & Brennan, LLC.