When I was a student in Ireland, I fell deeply in love—with a hot Irishman and dairy. Eventually, the gent turned into a great friend, but the passion for dairy has never abated; it’s still a hot affair.
I’ve documented my adoration of ice cream. I’m pretty convinced that I’d eat an old shoe if it were covered in enough Brillat Savarin. I love taking a Sunday stroll to the market at Tompkins Square Park for weekly rations of Ronnybrook yogurt and cinnamon-infused butter. I can kill hours “tasting” at Murray’s, not to mention ensconced at a table near the cheese cave at Artisanal. I crave mascarpone, crème fraiche, sweet cream butter, cottage cheese, sour cream, soft ricotta, burata, chocolate mousse, milkshakes and more! As a category, dairy has to be my favorite food group, and yet, once I was veiled to its true wonders, having eaten only dull, insipid (processed) ghosts of these foods.
Sexual awakening. Dairy discoveries. Thank God for Study Abroad!
I, like many, was brought up drinking a glass of Borden’s milk as my standard dinnertime beverage. Skim milk, of course—for nutrition, we were taught. I certainly ate my fair share of cheese during my Texas rearing: American, Longhorn Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Colby Jack, Pepper Jack. Velveeta. Ice cream (in Texas, we eat Blue Bell) was always a favorite though, as a pre-teen, I made the switch to frozen yogurt in an attempt to limit calories. So, when I was in college, if you’d told me I’d never really eaten dairy before, I would have thought you were crazy. And if you’d told me I’d learn anything at all about eating in Ireland, I would have thought you were crazy. Potatoes and carrots and soda bread, no? But the taste and texture and general deliciousness of (mostly full fat, mostly grass-fed cows’ milk) dairy in Ireland was a revelation to my palette and my discovery of it sparked my understanding of how eating local and “close to the earth” makes a difference on the tongue.
Ironically (or not) my Irish gent was a chef. He’d trained at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, which has been increasingly, publically esteemed recently. In fact, the school got a gracious profile in The Times last month. Now he’s branded himself The Healthy Irishman and has a popular blog and a catering business in L.A. He became, I suppose, one of the far-flung Ballymaloe “disciples” who have gone on to cook with the kind of Irish values taught at the school. His own take is pretty cool, since he’s utilizing the bounty of Southern California to promote Irish tradition-inspired, healthful cuisine that attempts to combine the best of both cultures. Philosophies and thoughtful training fly under-the-radar when you’re just enjoying a great meal, but Ballymaloe chefs and cooks are, according to the article, amongst those who have helped “to break the stranglehold of French haute cuisine in the English-speaking world; to cook seasonal food, grown sustainably; to cook with respect for traditional home cooks and simple, excellent dishes.” Irish food in general continues to gain esteem as locavore sensibilities, organic preferences and the reevaluation of processed foods become ever more mainstream.
Visiting Ireland with my Texan sister last summer, I was reminded that even a simple, rural carvery lunch at a pub in the mountains of Wicklow, for example, might feature astonishingly fresh fish, delicious homemade baked bread and rustic, seasonal veg. Eaten next to a cozy fireplace, in the late afternoon, and washed down with a rich pint of Guinness, these are truly wonderful, restorative meals. For native Irish dairy, I introduced her to rich Kerry Gold butter; we spread creamy, mild Cashel Blue cheese on crackers and drank our daily cups of tea with luscious whole milk. She was shocked at the goodness. Better, even, than Blue Bell ice cream! I suppose moderation is important with all creamy indulgences, but then the Irish aren’t really known for moderating and neither am I.
For me, the lesson of Irish dairy is simple: value quality; respect origin. Actually, it’s the same lesson learned about men during my time on the Emerald Isle. I guess a lot of good ideas were forged in that Celtic fire!