Wednesday, October 12, 2011

In which we sample the local cuisine (and other forays into the intercontinental culinary abyss).

"Is this your first time?"

Amanda and I glanced to one another. On any other occasion, I may have offered her a mirthful smirk and she might have returned it with a grin. This time I just grimaced and she answered with a nod.

"Yes," I finally answered. "And we're a little nervous."

Our server smiled. "No worries. This is the best place to try it in all of Scotland. We only buy from the most trusted butchers and it's all done in whisky*."

"You had me at whisky," Amanda said. "Bring it on."

She sounded braver than I felt, that was for sure. We had decided early on while planning our two-week venture to Ireland and Scotland that while there we were going to sample the local cuisine and that, of course, included haggis.

Our guidebook swore that haggis got a bad rap, and that while it was an acquired taste it was nonetheless delicious. I had my doubts. Meat and I had a tumultuous relationship to begin with, and though my brief foray into vegetarianism had ended rather abruptly upon discovering I was borderline anemic and thus prone to dreadful nosebleeds if I didn't get enough iron and protein in my diet, I mostly stuck to chicken and, now and again, cheeseburgers. There were some exceptions to the rule, sure, but for the most part I simply didn't much care for meat.

Naturally, I assumed that, on top of the knowledge that I was trying to swallow sheep stomach, wouldn't do much for my appetite. To be safe, I ordered a very big glass of wine.

On the way to Edinburgh from Dublin, Amanda and I had already pushed the boundaries of our palates. I didn't care for either potatoes or onions, but when the soup of the day in Dublin was potato and chive, I dove right in. I even tried some of Amanda's mash and found I didn't absolutely hate it. In Galway, Amanda ordered the local specialty -- mussels. Then she ordered them the next night as well, and again at lunch a few days later. I had squid for the first time in Belfast. Amanda followed my recommendation and tried banofee pie.

And now we were going to eat haggis.

When it came, I took a big gulp of wine. "I can't believe we're going to eat this."

Amanda took out her camera and snapped a quick photo. "It won't be so bad. Think of it like meatloaf."

She sounded brave, but I noticed when she set down her camera she picked up her beer, not her fork. I was going to have to take the first bite. Which was only fair: I'd set the goal to being with. Then again, I'd suggested we eat blood pudding, which she'd vetoed, and that had left us with haggis. But since there was no use squabbling over the details, I took a bite.

"Oh," I said.

Amanda considered me a moment before she followed suit. She chewed thoughtfully, then set her fork down. "Oh," she agreed.

Our waitress came back. "Ladies, what do you think?"

We answered as one. "It's delicious!"

And it was. It was savory and cooked with scotch whisky and we ate our fill of it without hardly stopping to breathe. I ordered it again the next day for lunch, served on a chicken sandwich (a surprisingly good combo), and when we perused the gift shops in Edinburgh I briefly considered buying "haggis in a can", although after ten seconds of thinking about how gross meat in cans could be I changed my mind. It would have to remain an occasional, when-in-Scotland dish.

We tried a handful of new dishes over the course of the next week and a half, although nothing quite as adventurous as haggis, and it wasn't until we were back in Dublin that we came across a menu item that puzzled us. We had seen it before, but until now we'd never considered eating it.

"Okay," I said, frowning at the menu. "I really think I want the full Irish breakfast today. But I'm not sure what black pudding is. Do you know?"


We considered it for a little while longer before I nodded. "I'm going to get it," I decided. "I'll figure out what it is once I have it in front of me."

Amanda was quiet a moment, then nodded. "Me too," she decided, and went up to the bar to place our order.

It is important to note that while the word "pudding" in the United States typically refers to dessert, Ireland and the United Kingdom have a different use for the word altogether. While they do also use it to refer to desserts (or, if Wikipedia is to be believed, anything sweet served after the main course), it's just as commonly used in reference to savory dishes. Anything from popovers to sausage can be termed a pudding, so when we ordered the black pudding we really weren't sure what to expect.

In the end, our plates came out piled high with eggs, ham, sausage, beans, and toast, and we spent a moment considering the banquet before us.

"This one must be the black pudding," I decided, prodding a round patty with my fork. "Right?"

"It's the only thing I don't recognize," Amanda agreed. Then, after a substantial pause, "You try it first."

I did. All in all, it was different and nothing wholly remarkable, and I told her so. She tried hers and agreed with me, and we ate the rest of our meal. As we were preparing to leave, however, I half-remembered something I'd read a long, long time ago. Rather than bring it up there, however, I decided I would confirm my suspicion the next day, once we were back home, before telling Amanda what I suspected: that we had just eaten the one thing she'd refused to try during our entire sixteen-day excursion overseas. And besides, until I had the internet in front of me, how could I be absolutely sure?

Which reminds me: Amanda, we (accidentally) ate blood pudding. Surprise!

 * Not a typo! This is how they spell it in Scotland.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

How I was almost eaten by the Loch Ness Monster

So how was the vacation?  I think I've heard that question a hundred times since my plane back from Dublin touched down.  Catherine and I spent two and a half glorious weeks in Ireland and Scotland, and the break from my daily life couldn't have come at a better time.  There is something wonderfully freeing about knowing you will be gone for a substantial amount of time at your office and all the stressing and all the preparation is finally done.  Letting go felt wonderful - letting go of work stress, relationship stress, responsibilities and more.  To paraphrase Amanda in my favorite chick-flick, The Holiday, a vacation means you're supposed to vacate your life, right?  Do things that are unexpected. 

Two years ago, I never would have dreamt I'd have the opportunity to take such a trip.  I'm a stressed-out person on a normal basis, so the overwhelming planning for a long vacation started to take a toll.  Add in the additional considerations of traveling overseas (for me, this was the first time I'd gone overseas aside from a family trip when I was 10), plus the fact that I had one week to train a new temporary worker at our company to cover for me, and I thought I'd have a breakdown before even getting on the plane.  Somehow I managed to keep it together, even with a delayed flight, a taxi ride to Philadelphia to make our connection in time, massive traffic, and running through the Philly airport to make our flight.  And then my very worst fear about traveling happened - they lost my luggage.  My precious, brand-new suitcase, so eager to see the world, had decided that Tel Aviv would be way more fun than Dublin.  Walking away from the lost luggage desk with my forms and contact info, all I could do was breathe.  A great calm washed over me - it was all out of my hands.  I did nothing wrong, I was not being punished, I had not been the one to make a mistake.  Stressing or crying or screaming wouldn't help my bag get to me any sooner, so I decided to just enjoy the trip as is.

Ireland and Scotland were far more beautiful than I had ever imagined.  There was just so much to see and do, it was hard to figure out just where to go first.  Catherine and I had done some preliminary planning and set up our itinerary, but other than that, we hadn't nailed down day to day activities, which suited both of us just fine.  My favorite day of the trip came while we were on the West Coast in the area of County Galway.  We drove through some of the greenest, most beautiful places in the world.  And even though the rain and gale-force winds started to blow, it took on a surreal sort of beauty.  At long last we arrived at the Cliffs of Moher, where I've always wanted to go.  It was the end of a lifelong dream to be standing there overlooking such timeless majesty.  I know I'm waxing poetic here, but there just aren't any words to explain how, for the first time since June, I felt totally, completely happy.  So happy in fact, that I braved the weather to climb the wet iron spiral staircase onto the top of O'Brien's tower.  Catherine and the guy selling tickets were in the tower at the base of the stairs telling me I was crazy.  But truth be told, I've never felt more calm or more at peace with everything than I did in those raging gale-force winds (clocked at 51 mph) and  stinging rain.  I braced myself on the ancient stone turret and just let myself enjoy it.         

View from the top!

It was around this point of our trip when I seriously considered never returning home.  Getting away from daily stresses put a lot of things in perspective.  Better still, Catherine and I also hunkered down in a sweet little B&B outside of Edinburgh, which forced us to walk more and also blocked us from using phone, Internet and television for a glorious weekend.  We even wrote a postcard to my boss back home saying I had "disappeared" somewhere near Loch Ness (which we didn't actually visit) and that I wouldn't be returning to work.  Although I wished we could stay forever, Catherine and I did return back to work and our normal lives.  But something had changed.  I had seen a life without stress.  A life where the hardest decision I had to make was which beer to have with dinner.  Plus my absence had brought about positive changes (for me at least) at the office and I am enjoying my job more than ever.  I promised my father I'd keep the "vacation attitude" for at least a week after getting back, and I'm trying to hold that promise still.  There's more I could write, but I'll have to save it for another post.  Before I go, here's a rundown of goals completed since my last post:
  •  #1: Travel - Ireland and Scotland!!
  •  #2: Road Trip - We've booked the hotels and ironed out the details of a New Years' road-trip!
  •  #3: I finished my 10th book on the plane back from Ireland
  •  #10: Bed and Breakfast - in Edinburgh
More adventures are to come!  Stay tuned for Catherine's new update on some of the fun (and slightly scary) stuff we ate on vacation :)