Irish Breakfasts: Hold The Eggs, Bacon, and Sausages, Please
by Melissa Clark
To be perfectly candid, I must admit that I did not plan my one week trip to Ireland as a culinary excursion. It's not that I doubted the Emerald Isle's capacity for laying a lavish, Lucullen-like table. I know all about the new generation of Irish chefs who spurn the overcooked-joint-and-two-vegetable dinners that so typified British-style meals of old. And, yes, yes, Ireland is a country rich with stellar ingredients: briny Galway oysters, free-range lamb, fresh-caught wild salmon, farmhouse cheeses, and a bounty of produce. I didn't eschew the gourmet aspect of the trip because I thought it would be lacking. But I knew tracking down the best of Irish cuisine would require research, planning, and a lot of driving around the country on the wrong side of the road (for an American, that is). Plus, I was to come to Ireland after ten days in France. I figured the trip would be a good antidote for the days of croissants, chocolate, and camembert. I planned to subsist simply, on Irish soda bread, pints of Guinness, and hearty Irish breakfasts.
Ah, the breakfasts. To eat well in Scotland, the curmudgeonly Dr. Johnson once said, is to eat breakfast three times a day. I believed the same quip could be applied to Ireland, which shares a similar history of culinary influence from the English. And after reading vivid, mouth-watering descriptions of the traditional, farmhouse breakfasts served in B&Bs all over the country, I had very high hopes for my morning repast. Begin your morning, one brochure read, with our award winning breakfast including fresh ripe fruit, yogurt, home-baked soda bread, hand made preserves, newly churned butter, farm-fresh eggs, bacon, sausage, puddings, and grilled tomatoes. How could I refuse farm fresh eggs and hand-made preserves? And of course I would surely get to taste an authentic bowl of Irish oatmeal, the kind that costs $6.00 a tin in fancy gourmet stores in the States. I made it a point to book B&Bs that emphasized the breakfast part of the deal in their listing in the Irish Tourist Office's Guide.
On our first morning in Dublin, we were ecstatic to be greeted with a savory, filling meal that exactly matched the one described in the brochure (although that brochure was for another B&B that we didn't end up booking). My partner Paul and I fell in love with black and white puddings (black pudding is blood sausage, and white pudding is another type of pork sausage), and nubby Irish brown bread spread with good butter and marmalade. We also learned that Irish bacon more closely resembles American ham than it does what we call bacon; it was lean, very meaty, and fried until crisp. We cleaned our plates and smiled at our luck to have booked a B&B with such traditional offerings for our first Irish breakfast experience, although I did vaguely lament the lack of oatmeal.
Day number two's menu was a repeat of the day before, but we were still in Dublin. Once we leave Dublin, we reasoned as we scooped up the eggs, bacon, and sausages, we will experience some creative interpretations of this very classic menu, and of course some Irish oatmeal. But day three, though it dawned for us in the Wicklowe Mountains outside of Dublin, proved to be an exact replica of the days before, with the addition of some excellent homemade black currant preserves. I ate the preserves with the brown bread and tasted the rest of the food on my plate to make sure it wasn't any different from the previous meals. It wasn't. When our congenial hostess came to clear our not-quite-empty plates, I asked if she, by chance, happened to serve oatmeal. She shook her head with her apology, making me feel hugely ungrateful for the fine Irish breakfast I was served but didn't finish. I tried to make up for my rudeness by furiously complimenting her wonderful preserves, but she remained unfazed as she wrote out the recipe.
We spent the next night in Kilkenny, which should have been far enough away from Dublin to feature a regional variation on the breakfast menu. Nothing doing. We ate eggs etc. in the company of six Australian farmers who were in Ireland to compete in an international ploughing competition. And ploughers of course need a full, hearty breakfast to fortify them through the days round of soil breaking. Our hosts, we figured, must be holding off on the breakfast variations to satisfy the ploughers. Surely, by the time we reach Shannon we will break the fast with something other than eggs, bacon, and three kinds of sausage. Since the west coast of Ireland is famous for shellfish and salmon, we fantasized about oyster or smoked salmon omelets, or maybe kippers or oat cakes or scones. And some Irish oatmeal. But alas, the next several mornings came and went without so much as a wrinkle in the fabric of what is obviously a national ideal.
On our last night in Ireland, out of a combination of desperation and curiosity, I told the host when we checked in that I was a vegetarian who didn't eat eggs. "So for breakfast," I said craftily, "I can just eat oatmeal of whatever you have." I went to bed certain of waking up to a farewell meal of yogurt, fruit, and a steaming bowl of nutty Irish oats. A perfect way to end an otherwise delightful trip.
The next morning I rushed into the breakfast parlor with great expectations. We began as usual with yogurt, juice, fruit, and bread. Then steaming plates were brought forth from the kitchen. Paul's plate was filled with the standard version of you-know-what. My plate was carefully arranged like his, with a boarder of usual garnish of grilled tomatoes, but with a gaping void in the center where the eggs, bacon, and sausages were supposed to be. It didn't matter; I wasn't that hungry anyway.
On the way out the door, I tried as politely as possible to ask our hosts whether they ever changed the breakfast menu, or served, say, something like oatmeal. They responded with a look of surprise and an emphatic no, laced with undertones of "why would anyone want to eat anything but a full Irish Breakfast?" I recalled Dr. Johnson's words, and wondered if Scots furnished more choices in the morning, or if the good Doctor could really be happy eating bacon, eggs, and sausage three times a day. I couldn't even do it seven times in a week.