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Delights of the Irish Table
by Fred Ferretti

"You say it's best to use old potatoes in champ, but why?" I asked Annie Fenton as I mashed boiled potatoes with milk in the oven-warm kitchen of Ardtara, the big gray stucco country house hotel Annie keeps with her daughter in the Irish village of Upperlands, near Ballymoney.

"I do not mean old, as in old, you goose. I mean just a few months a bit old," she answered. "Why? Because when potatoes are old, they are mature. Now, enough questioning. Keep to your mixing: I expect those potatoes to be like cream. And you'll not forget the spring onions, will you now?"

No ma'am.

It was just past noon in Upperlands. En route to this village of trees and gardens, I had ingested a series of exquisite hors d'oeuvres — a cold and salty oyster pulled from the beds of Dundrum Bay; a wedge of grilled eel from a market basket at Lough Neagh; and half a boiled lobster and a strip of pickled herring in a backyard in Ardglass. Each and together they were a perfect preliminary lunch in Annie's kitchen.

Annie Fenton, it should be set down, is a modest legend in her village, where it is said she bakes a fadge better than most, whips up what is perhaps the best champ in all of Ireland, and bakes tarts and wheaten bread that must be tasted before one departs this mortal earth. Reason enough for my pilgrimage to Upperlands.

When I arrived at Ardtara, Annie, wrapped to the neck in a starched apron, was waiting for me. "You'll want to work a bit, I expect, before you eat?" she asked, though it was less a question and more than a suggestion. "The fadge is about done. It needs only some time on the griddle. You'll mash the champ."

Fadge and champ are perhaps the most universal of Ireland's potato preparations. "Annie's Fadge," as it is referred to in Upperlands, is made from a dough of boiled potatoes, flour, salt, and butter, which is kneaded, rolled into a flat circular cake, and cut into wedges that are cooked atop a buttered griddle. Annie's champ consists of potatoes mashed with milk to which spring onions, sweated in hot milk, are added. This creamy mass is mounded onto a plate, and a well is formed in its center and filled with melted butter. The proper way to eat champ is to take a forkful of potatoes, dip it in the butter, then bring it to the mouth. Heaven!

To add to our feast, Annie and her daughter Maebeth had stocked the kitchen with other tastes that Annie deems necessary for a decent lunch, including homemade sausages of beef with Guinness; pork with honey; pork with mixed herbs; and beef with chopped leeks and parsley, as well as a half-wheel of sharp Coleraine Cheddar and a jar of County Derry strawberry jam. Earlier that morning, Annie had baked apple and rhubarb tarts "with my short crust," she said, and loaves of soda bread, "not so fine as my grandmother's soda 'farl,' which she baked over a peat fire, but good." She had also found time to bake some of her coarse-textured wheaten bread. "We'll warm it," she said, "with a bit of butter."

Annie's kitchen was scented with the aromas of these foods, making it surely the grandest place, I decided, in which to mash potatoes. I mashed. And mashed. Added milk. Mashed. Added the spring onions. And mashed until Annie pronounced the potatoes satisfactory. Then I spooned them onto a platter, leaving a well in the middle, into which Annie poured the melted butter. "You taste," she said.

I did. It was marvelous, utterly marvelous, and so I said.

The late night conversation had come round, as often it does in Ireland, to food and drink, but in no particular order. Nigel, a gatherer of slang and other linguistic oddments, Jack the ageless resident poet of Glen Wherry, and I were convened by the fire at the Londonderry Arms in the north over glasses of what was rumored to be poteen (pronounced po-cheen), though it could not have been, because "poteen, though beloved, is an illegal liquid," said Jack.

"You are aware, are you not, that poteen, carried across the cresting waters to Scotland, was the foundation, the very base, of all Scottish whisky?" Jack asked.

I hadn't known that, I replied.

"'Tis true," said Jack. "Do they not teach you things of importance in America?"

"Is it not also true," suggested Nigel, "that those who distill this beloved though illicit liquid are not necessarily looked upon as breakers of the law?"

"True," said Jack. "And seldom are such artisans remanded to cells, for kingly craftsmen should not languish among common criminals."

I agreed. "Pour."

Other contentious issues arose. Is the wheaten bread at Trinity College truly the best in God's universe, maybe better than Annie's? Which gray mullet is better, that from the waters of Dungarvan or that from Killybegs' harbor? Salmon from Glenarm or from over in Donegal's waters? And why on earth would anyone wish to eat jelly cooked with carrageen, also known as Irish moss?

Important considerations all, discussed before the fire that evening, deliberations that were interrupted sporadically with penny-whistle reels and local songs that Jack hummed, such as "Gem of the Row" and "The Rangy Rick I Bought from Mickey Doo."

"It is time for a quatrain," announced Nigel toward the evening's close.

"Good," said Jack.

Nigel recited:

On Galway sands they kiss your hands They kiss your lips at Carney. But by the lee they drink strong tea And kiss the stone at Blarney.

"Fine though derivative poesy," said Jack. "But pray tell us what it has to do with food or drink."

"Everything," said Nigel. "It's the rhyme with which I always precede my recipe for Guinness cake." And then he gave it to us, spiced with his own blend of blarney. It was a poteen-inspired evening.

On another evening we attended the Castelward Opera Festival, Ireland's version of England's Glyndebourne. It is an annual celebration of opera, grand and light, held at an eighteenth-century National Trust House called Castel Ward, a massive, granite Georgian Gothic house that sits on the mown shore of Strangford Lough in County Down. The surrounding grounds harbor precisely tended terraced flower beds enclosed by purple-red Rose rugosa hedges and bordered by holly bushes, yews redwoods, and cedars of Lebanon. That season, the festival's eighth, consisted of performances of Verdi's La Traviata alternating with lighter concert selections entitled "Gems from the Irish Ring." The gems constituted the program the evening we were invited to go.

After cocktails in the gardens and in the house's exquisitely restored and gilded reception hall, we filed down a flight of steps, through the restored kitchens, out into the courtyard, and into what had been a stone barn. Today it is a whitewashed, 200-seat theater, and it was there we listened to solos and duets from The Lily of Killarney and The Bohemian Girl. In the intermission that followed, we were seated beneath one of three crystal chandeliers illuminating a vast white tent set up on the lawn. On our linen-draped table stood a silver candelabrum holding three lighted tapers and a vase of red and white roses. Our butler, James, in white gloves, wing collar, and tailcoat, was tipping Champagne into flutes so that we might enjoy it with the marinated wild Irish salmon, chilled prawns, chive flowers, and cucumbers that he had set out on Wedgwood bone china.

James, the butler at Glassdrumman Lodge in nearby Annalong, was ours for the evening, and with him had come his employer, Joan Hall, the proprietor of the small and quite luxurious country hotel. It was to be Champagne with our opera supper, which pleased James.

Around us at tables small and large sat other people, other parties — clad in varying degrees of formality — drinking, eating, and chattering earnestly about the limited range of that evening's tenor, a circumstance that, though irksome, did not cause any lessening in the enjoyment of their picnics.

"Is the Champagne's temperature correct?" James asked.

It could not, I said, have been otherwise.

"The fish soup, sir, is of Mediterranean origin. Our chef makes it with fish, prawns, squid, clams, octopus, mussels, tomatoes, garlic, and black olives. He perfected it initially in Malaga. I'm certain you will find it to your liking."

Indeed.

Also to our liking was a platter of cold meats, from which James served ribs of roasted beef from Glassdrumman's own herd of Aberdeen Angus; slices of baked ham basted sweetly with honey; crisp-edged loins of pork; and "Spanish salamis our chef brought with him from his sojourn in Spain." With the meats, we ate new potatoes boiled with mint; both the small round potatoes and the mint had come from Glassdrumman's fields in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains.

For dessert we enjoyed deans trifle, composed of sponge cake, almonds, raspberry and strawberry jams, Sherry, and a good deal of brandy. "A special trifle it is," James told us. "It seems that in 1847 the dean of Trinity College was conversing with his chef, and, as they talked, the chef's assistant added an entire bottle of brandy to the trifle bowl. The dean liked it — to excess, we are told. This is our tribute to that trifle. It is a Glassdrumman favorite."

Soon to be mine, too, I decided.

Glasses of Cognac followed, with coffee. As we drank, a bell was rung and an announcement was made that arias and duets from Maritana would conclude that evening's "Gems from the Irish Ring."

"I believe," I told James, "I'll remain here — with the Cognac."

Table for Two

These days there seems not to be even a pause as we move breathlessly from our current food of the moment to the next. If it is not fresh blood oranges squeezed for juice at brunch; if not blue cornmeal pancakes, then string beans dipped in bagna cauda, four-onion spaghetti, chayote with calamari escabeche, grass-baked partridge, the emergence of still another body of culinary fusion, nueva cocina Costarricense, or any of the many other stilted foods to today.

Which brings us to quinoa — pronounced kee-nowah.

Quinoa cookies, cereals, and puddings are made from it. It isn't a grain, though it somewhat resembles millet or sesame seed. Actually quinoa is the tiny seed of a fruit that grows in clumps on stalks — quite like its close relative the lamb's quarters weed — but behaves like a grain and even yields oil. Grown for thousands of years in the Andes, it has been called the mother grain of the Incas, and its seeds can be prepared and eaten like rice or made into flour for baking. Its leaves can be eaten as a vegetable, its stalks burned as a fuel, its saponin coating made into shampoo. Well, I found the revelations concerning quinoa so exciting that I could scarcely wait to share them with my wife.

"Have you heard about quinoa?" I asked her.

"Sounds like a Plains Indian tribal chief in a Clint Eastwood movie," she replied.

"No, silly," I said. "It's a grain. Like rice."

"Like rice?" my wife asked, perking up for she is partial to rice.

"Well, not quite."

"Is it better than rice?"

"I'm not sure."

"Then what makes it so wonderful?"

"You can cook it like rice, make flour out of it."

"So?"

"So, it's from the Andes," I said. "The Incas, the Aymaras, the Quechuas. Think of it!"

"Give me Texas long-grain," my wife said. "Even basmati. Fluffy."

"But — "

"Can you make noodles from this quinoa? Steamed cakes?"

"I don't know."

"You can make noodles from rice. Hah!" said my wife.

You just can't talk gastronomic progress with some people.

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