Exile in the Emerald Isle

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DUBLIN, Ireland—“Before I got here, they told me the weather ranged from 40 to 55 degrees,” says Manhattan chef Patti Jackson. “I didn’t know that meant every day,” she deadpans. “I like to joke that Erin go Bragh,” she grins, “means ‘oh, it’s raining again.’”

Patti, the former head chef of I Trulli Enoteca e Ristorante, the Southern Italian fine dining spot on East 27th Street, is fumbling for the windshield wipers in the tiny car we’ve rented to explore the skinny back roads of the countryside south of Dublin. The area is currently her version of the Hudson Valley: Dublin is accidental home till November, while her fiancé, a Google developer, is on assignment.

She’s only half joking about the rain. The views out our windshield, she’ll admit, are stunning and verdant, seemingly painted in lush greens patterned with strawberry stands and speckled Friesian cows. But until she arrived in the Emerald Isle in March—when overcast skies foreshadowed what would be Ireland’s coolest and wettest summer on record—this cook had spent more than two decades focused on the sun, cooking the heat-seared specialties of southern Italy at a series of famous Manhattan restaurants like Le Madri, Alto, Centovini and I Trulli.

But a break from the buzz of a white-hot industry is what this chilly gray sabbatical is all about. It’s why we’re not booked for a Michelin-starred kitchen in Dublin—“poncey,” in Patti-speak—instead cruising the back roads in search of Ireland’s slowly blossoming locavore scene, barreling past drivers on the wrong side of the road (to us, anyway) and the bays lined with wildflowers and heath and the smell of burning peat. All taken in on a steady diet of sweet roadside strawberries, nubbly brown bread and bright, crumbly shards of clothbound cheddar.

Our meanderings are a world apart from Patti’s previous European stints. Those include late 1990’s visits while working an 11-year stretch for Tuscan-born chef and restaurateur Pino Luongo, the founder of Manhattan’s modern Italian scene and Bourdain’s bad-mouthed boss in Kitchen Confidential, a book in which Patti also appears. There were tours of duty in pursuit of sweet inspiration for the dessert menu at Alto, which Patti helped Scott Conant craft to much acclaim in 2005. (“I flew into northern Italy,” says Patti. “I went to Verona, Salzburg, Vienna, Prague, Krakow and Budapest—and all I did was eat pastry.”) There were the vineyard-hopping blitzes with Nicola Marzovilla, the Puglian born owner of I Trulli and Centovini, for whom Patti perfected saffron dumplings or tonno with fennel and orange for the past seven years.

Unlike Italy, Ireland is not a country with 20 disparate regions celebrating 1,000 shapes of pasta and 100 varietals of grapes. The song of its national cuisine is a simpler tune, one whose classic riffs include the tang of real buttermilk, the silky mash of potatoes with cabbage called “colcannon,” or a just-poured Guinness with a perfect cap of cream. (Some might say the old joke—about the Irish seven-course meal being a six-pack of Guinness and a potato—isn’t too far from the truth.)

But these eight months in Ireland are meant to be less stimulating—to be “therapeutic,” as Patti puts it. Heck, when you include the time she spent cooking at a deli during college in Scranton, Pennsylvania—until she quit to go to culinary school in Baltimore—she’s been cooking almost every day straight for 30 years. So when her fiancé, Sam (Patti, being purposely goofy, calls him Bubble), got his Dublin assignment earlier this year, Patti, feeling bored and a little burned out, decided to take a break from rabbit ragu to figure out what to do next in life.

Funnily enough, as we drive around the countryside, the long empty stretches of green remind Patti of home—meaning not New York but Clark’s Summit, Pennsylvania, population 5,000. As we drive through similarly sparsely populated farmland, we rip off hunks of Ireland’s ubiquitous dark-brown bread. Made with buttermilk and whole-wheat flour, it puts soda bread to shame: each slice sweet, dense, nourishing, heavy; the middle moist; the outside cracked and craggy. We follow suit with the quarter-round of aged Gouda we picked up at a farm stand, made with milk from herds we’ve surely passed en route.

While some tourists come here to see 14th-century stone towers collecting moss—“there’s a ruin!” Patti shouts, more for comedic purposes than an interest in historic architecture—she is more excited by the cheese. To her, the green-wax-wrapped wedge, pungent ripe, soft and delicious after hours riding along in our backseat, beats touching any Blarney Stone.

So is a bowl of salmon chowder, full of the coast’s famous fish swimming in cream and butter and new potatoes and dill at the Farmgate restaurant near the stone smokestack of what’s now a Jameson distillery in Midleton. We are there by accident, trying to find our way out of the tiny two-pub town of Shanagarry, where we’ve made a last-minute stop at the famous Ballymaloe Cookery School Farm Store. Launched by Darina Allen—Ireland’s version of Alice Waters and James Beard and Mark Bittman all rolled into one—Ballymaloe is stop number one for both reconnecting with Irish foodways and learning the skills of modern DIY. Yet it’s the school’s market store—where you can buy a cookbook, a few grams of Gubbeen smokehouse rashers, or have a bowl of watercress soup and housemade crème fraîche for lunch—that holds her attention the most. Right now, Patti still has no idea what she’ll do when she gets home, but the idea of making some kind of market and restaurant hybrid is appealing. Something simpler, more direct, where what comes out of the kitchen is maybe just one dish, whatever she feels like cooking.

It’s a subject she brings up more than once as we drive, but not nearly as often as Irish wildflowers. She once tried to grow her own borage in the backyard of Centovini, she tells me as we stumble across an Irish field flowering up to our knees, until Nicola ripped it out to grow ornamentals. Here the fuzzy stemmed plant—its bright-blue flowers are stars in salad, literally and figuratively—grows like gangbusters, along with edibles like blackberries (Irish call them bramble) and nettles and tiny wild chives, wood sorrel, pennywort, primrose leaf and fields of clover, the broad-leafed plant the Irish have christened the shamrock. It’s technically Oxalis acetosella, Patti will tell you with help from a stack of wildflower books she’s stacked in the trunk. She’s been ferreting these books out since March, perusing their pages after walks, snapping cell photos of specimens she doesn’t immediately recognize—a patch of purple-tipped fuzz, say, or a thick-stemmed flower with petals of bright orange.

“This is a cress,” she says, happily waving a muddy-booted foot toward a patch of green. “That’s gorse!” she exclaims, pointing out the window as some spiky-leaved yellow blooms scrape past the window. (Literally: Irish roads are about the width of a Smart car, and shoulders are nonexistent.) Gorse, she learns at McCreddin Village, a hilltop resort a little more than an hour south of Dublin in County Wicklow, is still being made into a subtle cordial, pale-yellow, pretty and floral. Carpeted with thick grass and tiny white flowers, McCreddin Village is green in both senses of the word: They bake their own brown bread, keep their own chickens, run the country’s only certified-organic restaurant, brew their own craft beer in their very own pub, and host a tiny artisan food and farm market on Sundays. As chickens putter by, we taste not just gorse but elderflower liqueur and wild fennel mustard, lying in the thick grass to taste Ireland’s incredibly pink, lean pork, roasted and served plain on soft white rolls. For dessert we have just sweet Wexford strawberries, which this time of year are eaten countrywide.

It’s traditions like these that have enchanted Patti over the past few weeks. Sure, she’s become a regular at Dublin’s modern farm-to-table restaurants like the Pig’s Ear, where the smashed potatoes are dotted with pickled mustard seeds and watercress oil, the vanilla ice cream is flecked with crisps of brown bread, and the black pudding—an earthy and coarse sausage, traditionally made with a mix of pig’s blood and barley—isn’t served as a breakfast patty but as a crisped square, as pretty as pâté. But she’s more interested in the never-changing Irish pantry stocked with its plain berry jam and tender beef, with its real buttermilk and heavy whole-wheat flour, the latter of which this expert pastry chef discovered makes for horrible chocolate chip cookies. (“They totally failed,” she laughs.)

It’s why we search out a community garden down an unmarked country road—the Irish and Brits call each parcel an “allotment,” after the tradition of granting a garden on public land to every citizen who wants one—just outside of Kinsale, a picturesque old port on Ireland’s southeast flank. Here Ireland’s celebrated cabbages grow leafy and massive, and we meet a freckled and frazzled British farmer named Aimee, growing greens and hoop-house tomatoes, struggling to keep one of Ireland’s very few CSAs afloat in its wettest summer on record. “I think I’m the second,” Aimee tells Patti, who is interested less in her crop of cauliflower than the wildflowers she’s planted in between.

It’s why at Hayfield Manor—a stunning Cork house-turned-hotel with two of the country’s better restaurants—we linger long after last call by the working fireplace in the lobby, asking the concierge about the elderflower champagne he bottles every spring. (At his urging, Patti makes tentative plans to return for its unveiling in fall.) And at the English Market—Cork City’s small answer to London’s Borough Market—Patti isn’t interested in the upstairs café but the seafood aisle, where she scopes out still-bloody wild Irish mackerel, caught a few kilometers east on Ballycotton Bay. And despite no plans to prepare pork chops, we spend nearly an hour at John O’Flynn’s & Sons butcher shop, listening to a blue-eyed, silver-haired, third-generation butcher explain why he, like most of his countrymen and women, have potatoes with nearly every meal.

They’re like rice to the Chinese, he explains: Without them, he means, you feel like you haven’t eaten. After 36 hours in Ireland, I tend to agree: Hibernia’s muddy soil renders them minerally, buttery. Over the course of three days, Patti and I see them sold in gas stations, in seafood shops, on the roadside in bags marked “new Queens” or “Orlas.” We have them grated into boxty, smashed with cabbage into colcannon, mashed with scallions into champ, pureed into chowder and, of course, fried into chips at Jim Edwards, a beautiful blue and gold pub just off the port in Kinsale.

Hearing of our plans to drive there, it’s a recommendation from our potato-loving butcher. “Ask anyone,” he says, “they’ll know where it is; the best meal you’ll have for less than 20 euro.” Turns out he’s exactly right: The fish and chips are flawless, as is the brown bread and butter and a silky, creamy, cheesy seafood pie topped with piped ribbons of toasted mashed potatoes. Patti drinks yet another perfectly poured Guinness while we eat every last bite of those incredibly buttery spuds.

To Patti, the simplicity of the place is refreshing. “Back home,” she says, “it’s beyond a Petri dish. Everyone and everything is going 260 miles an hour… . Here,” she says, “I see things with a new kind of clarity.”

Will Patty’s next new thing bring fish and chips to Manhattan? Doubtful. But with any luck, there might be that incredible brown bread—and most definitely borage.


Irish Brown Soda Bread

Adapted by chef Patti Jackson from a Dublin gastropub called the Chophouse.

Found in nearly every restaurant, pub and supermarket in Ireland, this bread is lesser known than plain soda bread, but perhaps more delicious. Craggy, rustic, dense and flavorful.

1 ¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
2 cups stoneground whole wheat flour
2 cups rolled oats (larger flakes, if available)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking soda
2 tablespoons boiling water
1 ¾ cups buttermilk

Preheat oven to 375°. Mix flours, oats and salt in a large bowl.  In another bowl, mix together honey, dark brown sugar, baking soda and boiling water; stir to melt all.  Add baking soda mixture and buttermilk to flours and mix well to form a sticky dough (you may need to use your hands); do not over-work.  Allow to rest 10 minutes, then, using lightly floured hands, form into an 8-inch by 5-inch oblong loaf on a parchment-lined cookie sheet.  Cut a long slash in the top. Bake for 40 minutes.  Remove from oven and cover with a damp towel to prevent too heavy a crust from forming.

Photo credit: Rachel Wharton, Tourism Ireland 

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