Given my family's pride in its heritage, you'd think that I'd have grown up stuffed with Irish food. But except for the corned beef and cabbage trotted out for Saint Paddy's Day, our domestic bill of fare was basically Main Street U.S.A.
When I made my first trip to Ireland 17 years ago, I found out why there wasn't much in the way of Irish food at my family's table: there wasn't much in the way of Irish food in Ireland. Sure, Ireland had the basics--good things like smoked salmon, lovely butter and nutty brown soda bread--yet the cooking had no spark, no inspiration.
Today, Ireland is a changed place. Nicknamed the Celtic Tiger, it has one of Europe's strongest economies (growing at a rate of more than 6 percent a year) and a serious food scene. There's lots of buzz about Dublin, with its hip hotels and hopping nightlife, but the real culinary news is in the rural southwest, which until now has been known less for its food than for the Blarney Stone and the Ring of Kerry, a beautiful (albeit tourist trampled) route with ooh-aah vistas. Perhaps the region has become a gastronomic center because it's blessed with ideal growing conditions, thanks to the gentle Gulf Stream-tempered climate and the merciful rain that seems to fall briefly every day. Or perhaps it's because, as a local pundit told me, "Ah, what do you expect? There's the County Cork influence down there, and those Cork people are a clever, driven lot."