I was strolling down the high street in Drogheda, Ireland, and suddenly my friend Trish Rogers, internationally known wine and food expert and author of the Zing!thing yelled “Hughie will ya look a that!,” and went over to embrace an elderly gent who was sitting on a bench playing the spoons. “Aye and howerya goin’,’?” she said then the two launched into Irish, the language of hte land.
It turns out that Trish and Hughie played music together in a traditional Irish music group. What were the odds that they’d meet today? None, it was just part of the Ancient East magic, according to Trish. I shook Hughie’s hand and he gave me what I was beginning to understand was the Irish twinkle, where the smile hides the eyes just for a moment, before they emerge bright, warm, and shining. We said our goodbyes and Hughie went back to his spoons and his song, whiling away his time charming the world.
We were on our way to meet Terry Butterly, the king of smoked salmon in these parts. Trish led me down a rutted lane near the port in nearby Annagassan, to a wood door set in a thick stone wall. Tap! Tap! elicited a hearty “Aye!” from somewhere beyond and we opened the door to enter a lush wonderland of herbs, flowers, vegetables and a state-of-the art smokehouse and seafood workroom tucked in the corner. There was Terry, filling the doorway as he wiped his hands so he could shake ours. We’d interrupted him in the job of separating monkfish cheeks from a vat of just-fished heads.
Terry, also a seafood wholesaler, is renowned for his silken smoked salmon, supplying fish shops and the finer restaurants of nearby Dublin and beyond. His specialty is salmon but he smokes local hake, cod, ling, and mussels, the occasional sausage and the odd chicken breast, brining them first then smoking them over beechwood shavings. Smoke was curling from the smoker as Terry explained his system to us, talking brine – he doesn’t use sugar – and time, experience and good flavor. He uses salmon from the Faroe Islands, preferring its tensile strength to more locally farmed fish. “It’s all in the texture,” he said.
We sat outside on a hot day, sheltered in the cool of the garden which Terry’s wife, Martina, curates. It’s a separate and beautiful world in there, beyond the wall and right on the river Glyde. Terry was a commercial fisherman for forty years, before becoming the king of smoke. “Ah, but I could see where it was goin’,” he said before launching into the tale of fisheries, a common story that seems almost universal. “Ah, yeh, we just want too much and everyone’s an idjit about it,” he said soberly. Then he brightened and asked if he’d see us in the pub that night. “Sure’n we will,” Trish replied as we got our salmon and waved goodbye, ducking through the door that separates Terry’s universe from the real world.
We were then off to lunch in nearby Carlingford at PJ O’Hare’s, one of the area’s oldest pub that honestly feels as though it hasn’t changed since St. Patrick drove out the snakes. We were there for local oysters, which came to the table roasted and succulent, and a glass (not a pint) of Guinness. “You don’t get more traditional than this,” Trish said.
That night, we went for a pint (if you ask simply for a pint it’s the lingua franca of East Ireland for a Guinness) at Connor’s pub in nearby Dunleer, where we sat in one of the many tiny, wood paneled rooms off the central bar. There was a little window in the wall nearest the bar, and the bartender poked his head through to take our order. As I’d begun to understand it would be awhile before our Guinness’ would be served because there is a strict protocol for the pour, and Connors has a reputation as the best.
Here is what happens. A clean glass is held at a 45 degree angle under the tap (I never saw a bartender measure – it’s a “feel” thing). The glass is filled three-fourths full, then set on the bar and forgotten, as Guinness works its own magic. It looks like molasses as bubbles go down, around then up to create a thick froth at the top. Once the beer and froth are distinguished, the glass is filled again (at the perfect angle) until the edge of the froth is just over the rim of the glass. If the pull is perfect every bubble in that froth will be the same size; if there’s a bigger bubble or two, fie on the bartender, because word gets around.
As I left that pub which, after several rounds of Guinness still had its reputation intact, my life was richer than when I went in. Certainly, when it comes to Guinness and just about everything else in the Ancient East, God is in the details. And we all know that it’s the deails in life that make it more rich!
We sauntered through the empty town, and I turned to look at the light still shining behind the curtains of the bar. It would be shining for several hours yet; the rugby match was on, many a pint yet to be poured. It was cozy, if a little noisy, at that bar, and it was cozy outside too, the sky navy blue, the stars out in numbers. As Trish might say “Ach, it’s the Ancient East, lass.”
If you’re in Ireland, look for Terry Butterly’s salmon (Coastguard Seafoods). If you’re home, find the very best cold-smoked salmon you can, and think of the Ancient East, spoons, pints and all. Serve this as an appetizer, with a glass of Guinness…or a fine Sauvignon Blanc.