Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Irish Breakfast of Champions

The Full Irish Breakfast: you’ve got to see it to believe it. Before I went to Ireland, I’d heard of the Irish Fry: eggs, meat, with some mushrooms and tomatoes tossed into the frying pan. Oh, but the Irish breakfast is so much more than that…and whether you’re a carnivore, an omnivore, or vegetarian, there’s something for everyone.

My first encounter with the Full Irish Breakfast (FIB) experience was at the Racket Hall Country House in County Kildare. I stumbled into the medieval-looking dining room, asleep on my feet with the time change and not getting a wink the night before on the plane. But I could never have dreamed up the plentitude of chow laid out before me.

For the Racket House’s FIB, I found scrambled or fried eggs, rashers (it’s Irish bacon, only it looks like ham but much saltier, according to my husband John) pork sausage, white and black pudding, grilled mushrooms and halved tomatoes, all generous portions served up by a smiley, hair-netted Irish gal. But just to clarify: Lest you think you’re going to be spooning up some nice vanilla and chocolate dessert with your eggs and meat, the puddings aren’t a sweet.

I’d read about the puddings, an Irish delicacy, so I had a general idea what I was dealing with. For the uninitiated—count me in, because I never did take a bite of either—both puddings consist of a mix of um…animal products, bread crumbs, flour and spices stuffed into a casings…i.e., pig’s intestines. For “white” pudding, the meat is pork belly, plus pig organs. For “black,” there’s no meat at all—you use pig’s blood. If you want to check out a recipe for each pudding, Irish chef Darina Allen’s The Forgotten Skills of Cooking has directions for making both from scratch. Darina’s serving suggestion: cut your pudding into slices and pan fry in butter or bacon fat, and eat with bread and more butter.

If you’re a somewhat persnickety eater (guilty), you may find this dish bizarre. You may even be a bit queasy. But if it makes you feel better, Darina’s recipe calls for a free-range, freshly slaughtered organic pig. Not feeling better? Me neither.

Anyway, that array was just the food coming off the grill. Racket Hall also had a table with a toaster and three kinds of bread—brown bread (wholegrain soda bread) and molasses bread you could cut in whatever size you wanted, and sliced white bread, with loads of butter nearby.

There was a big pot of porridge—steel-cut oats cooked into mush—and an assortment of cold cereal with cartons of non-fat milk. Also available were bowls of prunes, non-fat fruit yogurt, three kinds of juice, and coffee and tea. The meal was all buffet-style—all you can eat. Needless to say, I felt a bit pukey from jet-lag, so I had a cup of tepid tea, a few bites of scrambled eggs, and discovered the super-yumminess of brown bread, which also helped settle my stomach.

As the days went on, and we experienced breakfast in other locations, the meals actually got bigger. Bowls of fruit salad and muesli were added to many of the breakfast boards, and more varieties of yogurt, all non-fat. I’m a full-fat yogurt girl myself, so I didn’t bother. I’d also discovered right away all the Irish yogurt was sweetened with aspartame—yuk! And some places actually sweetened the fruit salad with the stuff! Yet funny enough, the grill selections remained the same: eggs, meat, the puddings, mushrooms, and tomatoes—which to my dismay were never really “grilled” but more like heated. With no seasoning.

Also the same was the non-fat milk, the only kind available. At every breakfast, John searched for whole milk or half-and-half for his coffee, but there was No. Fat. Anywhere.

It did strike me that this meal was super-heavy on the fat and calories—so what was with the non-fat dairy and aspartame? It seemed a lot like binging on potato chips and dip but making sure to have diet soda. I’m just sayin’.

For someone who generally breakfasts on fruit, toast and peanut butter or nuts, I was pretty overwhelmed, and I never got used to these table-groaning buffets. I concluded that these meals had to be designed for a hard-working farmer from days of yore, not for your average 21st century city person or tourist. But one advantage of the FIB for the traveler on a budget: you’re much too full to bother with lunch!