In the cold mid-winter

(Published in the Spectator Scoff, 2010)

Ireland displays a curious relationship with food. The fecund landscape offers a wide variety of wild foods; river fish, fowl, shell fish, and seaweed all abound, while cattle farming has long made Ireland one of Europe’s leading beef and dairy producers. Yet, in general, people here display an indifference to food, or at least an unwillingness to discuss it.

This impression was affirmed by a trip to Birr, County Offaly, for a New Year’s party themed on Russian fairy tale that I attended in the spectacular setting of Birr castle, a portion of which Earl Rosse had generously put at the disposal of revellers to celebrate the occasion in spectacular fashion.

Accompanied by a loyal Sancho Panza, we set out on the already icy roads from Dublin in mid-afternoon in order to avoid the expected big freeze. Stopping off first in our B&B we changed into Russian costume. I donned a suitably warm fur hat, piled on the layers and admired my Leon Trotsky-inspired goatee which gave me the look of an itinerant commissar. Meanwhile, my partner decided after some soul-searching to wear his tight-fitting, paper-thin, Argentine tuxedo, and, oddly, a beret; his pedigree looked confused, to say the least. A confused Russian émigré lost in a Parisian brothel perhaps.

Temperatures were dropping rapidly as we made our way into the town, so we gravitated to a local hostelry for a warming aperitif before what we hoped would be a fortifying meal. We were greeted by a wonderfully authentic Irish pub, containing pictures of the ancient sport of hurling covering most of the walls, and a rogues’ gallery suitable for such a joint.

Immediately conversation was struck up. I decided to play devil’s advocate by asking them whether the current all-conquering Kilkenny team, a neighbouring county, were the greatest of all time. One character grew particularly animated, becoming red-faced as he struggled to contain the words that burst forth, recalling Offaly teams from bygone eras who had fought so bravely with their scant resources. When conversation turned to great players of the past, hushed tones descended as the celestial performances of the Corkman Christy Ring were remembered.

Conversation was flying at this stage, and remarkably the publican gave us our next whiskey on the house, an almost unheard of generosity in Irish pubs. By now, the hour had reached seven and my thoughts were turning to the evening meal. Polite inquiry as to where one might find a decent bite to eat was greeted with bewilderment and slight mirth. I asked one fellow patron what he had done for his evening meal, and he replied that he had eaten at five o’clock. A celebratory New Year’s meal was certainly not on the agenda; eating appeared to be one more daily chore to be completed with little enthusiasm. Anyway, I was told that there was the chipper next door, and two Chinese restaurants in the town, but obviously no cuisine of any local provenance.

We trudged out of the pub, still unsure of where we would dine, past a shop containing pictures of the local hero, Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowan, alongside the chipper that emitted a poisonous smell of grease which suggested that to eat there would have been akin to self-harm. Meanwhile, my companion, owing to the cold, had borrowed my fur hat, and unfortunately, this new combination with the tight-fitting trousers and scarlet cummerbund was drawing the unwelcome attention of the local corner boys who began, to his intense irritation, to assail him with wolf whistles.

At last we found the sanctuary of the Chinese restaurant, and were given a pleasant window seat. Owing to the usual book-length menus found in Chinese restaurants I followed my habitual policy of ordering whatever set menu is on offer. Bitter experience has taught that these contain dishes more fresh-tasting than the a la carte alternative.

Having no expectations is a good idea before dining out, and so we were surprised by the quality of the corn and chicken soup which had a pleasing taste of thick chicken stock, and restorative warmth. What followed was a more or less standard Chinese meal that one finds in most parts of Europe, though never, one suspects, in China itself, except perhaps Hong Kong, of delicately fried meats and sweet sauces.

I couldn’t help noticing that some of our fellow diners, had eschewed the usual choices, and were making their way through the local favourites of curried chips and doughy chicken balls with sweet and sour sauce.

Suitably revived, we departed from the restaurant and made our way to the dark gates of the castle renowned for containing what was for almost a century the largest telescope in the world. We entered high-ceilinged rooms lit by candlelight and warmed by great fires, hundreds had made it from around the country to appear in their Russian-inspired regalia, but for a fuller account of the goings on there the social pages should be consulted.

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