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St. Declan and the Cliff Walk

Jan in her wellies. Photo by David Lansing.

Before we head out on the Cliff Walk, Honor suggests that we put on a pair of wellies provided by the hotel. “It’ll be a bit slippery out there,” she says.

I might put on some wellies but just glancing at the stacks of green boots in the wet room, it’s clear nothing will fit my rather large feet. Just as well. They’d probably make me look like a potato farmer. Jan’s wellies, however, make her look quite stylish.

It’s gray out. And drizzling. (When is it not gray and wet in Ireland?) Honor leads us down a gravel path lined with wild garlic. The scent is overpowering. A few minutes later we’re standing beside some old stone ruins. St. Declan’s oratory—a little church originally built around the 8th century on the site of Declan’s monastery.

St. Declan, Honor tells us, was one of the first Irish saints. “He came before St. Patrick.” What they say about Declan is that he established a firm toe-hold for Christianity in the southern parts of Ireland back in the 5th century but it was Patrick that sowed the seeds across the land.

Near the oratory are more stone ruins. The site of a sacred well. The well is far older than Christianity in Ireland, going back to the days of the pagan goddesses who guarded and oversaw the proper use of things like water and food. Then Declan and the Christians came along and co-opted the well and its pagan ceremonies, replacing them with what’s called a “Pattern.”

A Pattern is a series of ritualistic events (like how we celebrate Christmas). The Pattern in Ardmore is held on St. Declan’s feast day, July 24, when thousands of people gather to circle this well while reciting a specific sequence and number of prayers before being allowed to take water from the well. Which is then either drank to cure what ails you or taken home where you might dip your fingers in it every morning before saying your prayers. Or anoint a sick child.

It’s all a little crazy, of course, but then so are most of the strange little rituals of all religions. That, however, doesn’t stop some in our group from reverently dipping a hand in to the well and drinking the mossy green water. Including me. Just in case.

The ruins of an oratory built on the site of St. Declan’s monastery on the clifftops of Ardmore (Ard Mor means Great Height). Photo by David Lansing.

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Starters at the Cliff House restaurant in Ardmore included beet macaroons and salmon marshmallows. Photo by David Lansing.

Here’s what it says on the menu at the Cliff House restaurant in Ardmore, called The House: “Martijn Kajuiter, our Executive Chef, has sourced as many of our supplies as possible from as local an area as possible, even going so far as to grow our own vegetable garden…From Tadgh O’Foghlu’s honey in nearby Ring, David Brown’s fresh fish from Helvick and Ardmore Bay, to Sean Twomey and Michael McGrath, our butchers in Youghal and Lismore, the quality of the produce has given Martijn the inspiration to cook dishes that can rely on the seasonality of the ingredients.”

Well, you have to love that. I mean at home, my own cooking revolves around whatever I’m currently harvesting in my garden, whether it be peaches or heirloom tomatoes, arugula or Italian Roma beans. But I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of the Ferran Adrià-style of molecular gastronomy. So I was a little taken-aback when the starters arrived at the table.

A box of beet macaroons. Photo by David Lansing

First off, we got a plank of alder with a salmon marshmallow on it, a big gooey square of orange with overtones of fishiness. That was followed by a square rock garden topped with Easter egg-colored beet macaroons.

Really? This is what we do with the gorgeous salmon caught by David Brown in Helvick and Ardmore Bay? We turn it in to marshmallows? And the lovely beets Martijn grows in Youghal are transformed into puffy macaroons?

This may be great fun for chefs who have perfected the art of perfectly-poached Irish salmon and want to do something out-of-the-box to show their skills, but I think the only people at the table who professed a love of Kajuiter’s fishy marshmallows were infected with a bit of “emperor’s new clothes syndrome.”

That said, once Kajuiter was done showing off, the rest of the dishes were outstanding, from the plump West Cork scallops that were lightly seared, just for a minute or two, and served in a puddle of green peas, bacon, and garden herbs, to the moist Helvick cod, baked with its skin on, and seated on a light sauce of brown crab and saffron sauce.

Now if only Kajuiter (and other chefs) would get back to truly bringing out the essence of all the ingredients they work with and get over proving that they can make marshmallows that taste like salmon.

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We’ve moved on from Cork to Ardmore, a little seaside town about 60 klicks to the southeast. We’re staying at the Cliff House Hotel, so named because…well, because it’s literally perched on the cliff here.

The original hotel, called Kelly’s, after the owner, a Mr. Kelly from Connemara, was built in the 30s. Mr. Kelly ran the hotel until his death in 1983. After that, they tell me, the hotel fell into disrepair. Until the O’Callaghan family, who’d been coming to Ardmore on holidays forever, purchased the rather decrepit ol’ gal in 2005. They pretty much gutted the place and then spent three years rebuilding, re-opening five years ago this month.

When we checked in we were met by a lovely woman with sad eyes but a lovely smile who introduced herself as Honor. I just couldn’t resist: “I’m Justice,” I told her. She looked at the reservation and seemed a bit confused until I informed her of my poor joke. “Yes, I see,” she said, her pale blue eyes lighting up, “Honor and Justice. Just so.”

Honor escorted us down several floors (the lobby is actually on the ground floor and the rooms are terraced on the cliff below) to our room which was resplendent in pink—pink bedspread, pink armchairs, pink curtains. Above the pink couch was a bookcase with a book I’d heard about but never actually seen: Let’s Go Disco. It’s not what you think. It’s a very stylish cookbook. By Martijn Kajuites, the hotel’s Michelin star chef. Evidently “Let’s go disco!” is what Martijn shouts at his kitchen brigade when things get a little tense in the kitchen. We’re eating there tonight. With Honor, of course. I can hardly wait.

Let’s Go Disco above the pink couch in our room at the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore. Photo by David Lansing.

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Derk and the spa ladies

Derk Richardson

Derk getting a manicure after high tea at Cork’s Hayfield Manor. Photo by David Lansing.

So I mentioned yesterday that while we were having high tea at Hayfield Manor in Cork, Lisa Leahy, our host, also offered up the services of two of her spa manicurists (I’m not sure that’s a word—manicurist—but let’s go with it). No manicures for me. I bite my nails (yes, I know, disgusting). But I was curious about how this would work. Who, I wondered, was going to be the first lady to quickly down her tea and run over to the spa ladies to get her nails done?

Actually, it wasn’t a woman; it was Derk Richardson, an editor from AFAR magazine in San Francisco. I like Derk and I’ve been trying to get something in AFAR since they first came out a few years ago, so I did what any ambitious writer would do: I grabbed my camera, ran to the spa table, and snapped several pics of Derk getting his nails done. Not by one manicurist, mind you, but by two!

But Derk wasn’t cooperating; he was scowling at me. “Listen, Derk,” I said as I continued shooting, “I’m going to use these photos for blackmail. Either you give me an assignment or I publish these babies.”

That made him laugh. But he still hasn’t given me an assignment. So I have no choice but to publish…and probably perish.

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High tea at Hayfield Manor, Cork

Hayfield Manor in Cork, Ireland.

Lisa, who works at Hayfield Manor in Cork, has invited us to tea. Not like a cup of tea or something but the full on high tea with a three-tiered silver serving dish full of little triangle sandwiches and smoked salmon on rye bread and an assortment of little tarts and cakes and such. Oh, and some tea…after the champagne.

Lisa has strawberry blond hair and blue eyes and is gorgeous but that’s not why I love her. I love her because when we first met at Ballymaloe and I asked her where in Cork I should go to get the famous Cork clove rock candy that I’m addicted to she went and found some and gave me four jars of the stuff. That alone is enough to make me be in her debt forever.

So she invites us all to tea at Hayfield and tells us she has a little treat for us. I’m secretly hoping it’s more clove rock candy but instead she’s had a couple of manicurists come down from the spa and tells us that if anyone wants to get a manicure when they’re done with their tea, they’re more than welcome.

Wow. Smoked salmon, champagne, tea, and a manicure. This is why I love Lisa. And want to do something for her but I can’t think of what. Until she starts talking about her daughter, Belle, who is crazy about all things related to Disney’s Toy Story. “She’s got just about all of the dolls,” Lisa says. “Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Jessie. About the only one we haven’t been able to find is that silly horse, Bullseye.”

So that’s it. When I get home I must see if I can find a Bullseye doll. And then ship it off to Belle in Cork. Clove candy for a Bullseye. A good trade, I think.

High tea at Hayfield Manor in Cork. Photo by David Lansing.

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