On St. Patrick’s Day everyone is Irish, if even just for a day. My grandmother’s maiden name was Cunningham, so I, too, am planting my flag on the auld sod for the occasion.
The welcoming Irish have included us all in this food and drink festival of their culture and heritage. It’s largely celebrated at the table with traditional Irish dishes along with the beer, ale, and whiskey that are so closely identified with Ireland.
Corned beef and cabbage is the usual menu for St. Paddy’s Day. Starting in early March, corned beef is featured in the supermarket ads. Just like turkey for Thanksgiving, it’s the default menu choice. In the heyday of British world domination, Ireland was the principal supplier of brined meat for the far-flung navy. Originally pork was the most often brined or corned meat, packed in barrels with a brine made with kernel sized “corns” of salt. Later beef became more popular for corning. For more on this topic, go to: http://franksfeast.com/from-the-hour-boiled-dinner-a-new-england-traditoin/.
The flagship beverage for St. Patrick’s day is Guinness Stout, a dark, dry, slightly bitter ale known for its rich foamy head. Guinness started brewing in 1759 and began making stout in the 1840s. One of the most successful international brands, it’s brewed around the world and available in more than 160 countries. Smithwick’s Irish Red Ale is another popular brand for St. Patrick’s celebrations. Not as dark as Guinness, with a reddish color and a rich head, it’s only brewed in Ireland.
Pubs are at the heart of Irish social life, gathering places in villages, towns and cities alike. Also called Public Houses, they are where people come together for conversation, sports, music and, of course, food and drink. Pubs are central to my image of Ireland, along with rolling green hillsides, medieval ruins and the Blarney Stone.
There are a few authentic Irish pubs in our area, great for a fun night out in any season, but even more appealing in March when they’re geared up for St. Patrick’s day hullabaloo. Personally, I would avoid going out on March 17th. The pubs, and most other bars too, will be overrun with exuberant and possibly rowdy celebrants getting in on the good times. Better to go some other time in March for a less frantic Irish moment.
The hospitality at O’Neill’s Pub in SoNo (oneillsono.com) is as authentic as the lilting accent of the O’Neill brothers. After training in Dublin and gaining experience in Fairfield County’s most notable Irish pubs, the O’Neills founded their pub in 1999. It has been a South Norwalk anchor as a destination for food, drink and authentic pub culture ever since. Irish holidays, music, dance and culture are all celebrated with enthusiasm year-round at O’Neills.
The menu always includes Irish stalwarts: Shepherd’s Pie, Fish and Chips, Corned Beef and Cabbage, Irish Chicken Curry, and the evocatively named Bangers and Mash. Of course, there are salads, burgers, nachos, and all the other things you’d expect if you’re not looking for a taste of Ireland. But in March, the Irish specialties draw my eye.
On a recent pre-St. Patrick’s visit, we went full-out on the old country menu. A Guinness and Smithwick’s got the evening started and were great with a generous plate of crunchy fried calamari. A basket of warm, currant studded, scones just about wiped out our appetites for dinner.
The Shepherd’s Pie was stunning in a cast iron skillet topped with a swirl of beautifully browned mashed potatoes. The pie, made with ground beef in a well-seasoned sauce speckled with vegetables, was piping hot and delicious. The substantial portion would have been enough for both of us after eating the scones, but I had already ordered the Corned Beef and Cabbage. Tender and flavorful, the corned beef was surrounded by mashed potatoes, cabbage, pureed squash, broccoli, and carrots. Plenty to eat here, too.
One of the O’Neill brothers was active in the dining room, moving from table to table, chatting with regular guests, and greeting new ones. The service staff was friendly, competent, and efficient. We felt like we were in Dublin.
Tigin in Stamford (tiginirishpub.com/stamford) is another authentic Irish Pub. Considerable effort was put into making it look as authentically Irish as possible. The tables, chairs, stools, bar and paneling are all just like they would be in Erin. Even the street facade transports you from Bedford Street in Stamford to Fleet Street in Dublin. The menu includes the Irish favorites Fish and Chips, Shepherd’s Pie, Irish Breakfast (eggs, Irish sausages, rashers, black and white pudding, mushrooms, tomatoes and Guinness & cheddar bread), Corned Beef and Cabbage, and Chicken and Shrimp Boxty – a traditional potato pancake popular in rural Ireland. There’s a full menu of upscale pub food, too.
Both pubs are happy to whip up an Irish Coffee with your favorite Irish whiskey and an ample dollop of whipped cream. I’m not sure if this is really found in Ireland, but it sure is good.
The food and drink of Ireland is just as ethnic as foods from more exotic locales, but it’s so well integrated into our culture that we don’t always think of it that way. Celebrate your genuine or imagined Irish heritage year round at a friendly pub, and meanwhile, Happy St. Patrick’s Day.