east to west

The day starts soft, and I dodge the showers getting everything out to the car. My belongings seem to have expanded far beyond a single backpack: a shopping bag full of Irish teabags and birthday presents, a holdall with my footwear. The worry of shrinking back to one piece of luggage is a few days away yet, so I kiss my brother and sister-in-law and drive away – auspiciously, in the wrong direction.
Back on track with the satnav, I follow turf trucks, tractors and crazy tradesmen through the country roads of west Kildare towards the heart of the Bog of Allen. Bungalows gleam in the sunshine; gardens and hedgerows are ablaze with colours as the late summer brings out red fuchsia, orange montbretia, purple redshank and mauve hydrangea.


I drive along, close to Kildare’s border with Offaly, passing brown barns and raised bogs and nature reserves and hayfields and canals. 


I stop at Rathangan as the Angelus rings out. The Spencer Bridge at Lock 23 dates from 1784; sadly the lock here is no longer in use because of a nearby culvert collapse, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. I sit and take in the silence for a few minutes before driving on.

Past a busy Monasterevin, I hit the M7 and return to the twenty-first century. I speed past towns and villages whose names used to be milestones on my regular journeys between Dublin and Cork back in the late eighties: Urlingford, where I always stopped at Kavanagh’s petrol station for the best scones in the midlands; Twomileborris and Horse and Jockey; Mitchelstown, where the creamery was, and Fermoy where you knew you were firmly back in Cork. 

At Watergrasshill I get a fit of the nostalgics and come off the motorway early to find the cottage in Glanmire where I lived happily for two years. Up a winding country road in Eastcliff, here it is: Woodbrook, with the steepest driveway in the world, sitting alongside DJ Rockin’ Gerry’s house on the cliffs above the Glashaboy River.


Heading into Cork I get stuck in the wrong lane and end up circumnavigating the famous Bells of Shandon before escaping the city. Motorway soon turns into main road, then into country road as I turn left at Crookstown. I stop to top up my water bottle and find myself at a road sign pointing me to the “Ambush Site”. I’m in Béal na Bláth, where Irish patriot Michael Collins was shot dead in an ambush on 22 August 1922. I detour up a boreen and pay my respects at a high Celtic cross on the spot where he fell. A fitting thing to do on the centenary of the 1916 rebellion.

Béal na Bláth, Co. Cork

Over the Cousane Gap, the scenery gets more and more spectacular. I catch a glimpse of water and a blue “Wild Atlantic Way” signpost, and I know I am almost there. I check into my B&B and stroll downtown to the centre of Bantry town. The weekly market is just finished and Wolfe Tone Square is awash with Hiace vans, packing cases and half-deconstructed awnings. 


Down past the railway cottages at the pier, a Lottery-funded footpath provides spectacular views across Bantry Bay to Whiddy Island. The tide is almost out and the smell of the seaweed brings me back to childhoods in Galway. There’s heat in the evening sun, and I stop to peel off a few layers before turning back.

Bantry Bay
Later, in O’Connor’s restaurant, I feast on seafood chowder and a huge lump of monkfish, all local produce. The place doesn’t seem that busy but as I finish up round nine in the evening, quite a few people start steaming in. I’m tempted to find a friendly bar with some live music but the long drive has finished me off. 
locally caught roasted monkfish and Asian noodles in O’Connor’s of Bantry

Even though it’s close to ten at night it’s still broad daylight as I tuck myself up in my little single bed with a glass of red and a handful of Oatfield Emeralds to watch the best of the Late Late Show.

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the fat duck melbourne

Even our means of entering the restaurant should have hinted that the evening was going to be less of a fine dining experience, and more of a lengthy piece of performance art.

We follow a wooden pathway down a darkened corridor towards a half-scale projected image – a video, or perhaps a live feed? – of the Fat Duck Melbourne’s kitchen. Once we reach the image, the video finishes abruptly with a wooden door slamming, and we are plunged into darkness.

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oistins fish fry

Because of our family connections here in Barbados I’ve always stayed within strolling distance of the small fishing town of Oistins, about 12km east of the capital Bridgetown. By day it’s just a busy little town, with traffic crawling down the main street past the fish market, the supermarket, the post office and a few fast food joints. On Friday nights, however, the place explodes into the best night out in Barbados as the fish market closes down and makes way for the fish fry.

Oistins Gardens hosts dozens of family run stalls, selling the freshest fish cooked to perfection. Locals jostle with hundreds of tourists who come by the busload from far-away Speightstown and the other posh west coast resorts, queuing at their favourite spot to pick up a huge plate of marlin, mahi mahi (known locally as dolphin fish), tuna, flying fish and more, all served with your choice of rice and peas, macaroni pie (a local speciality which is essentially macaroni cheese but served in a much more solid state like lasagne), fried plantain or breadfruit chips, salads and more. A plate of food will cost you B$25-30 depending on the fish you choose – around US$12-15.

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A strong rum punch will cost around B$5, but you will see most locals sticking with soft drinks and tourists will pick up a few Barbados beers to wash down the feast.

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Many of the families who own fishing boats also run the fish fry stalls, and they all have their secret recipes. Pat’s Place right on the main road always has queues waiting for their amazingly well marinated fish and huge portions. You pay at the counter and get your takeaway container with your sides, then stand patiently beside the barbecues until the fish fryer dumps an enormous lump of freshly grilled fish on top. Always ask for a takeaway container – you’ll get much bigger portions than if you order a plate.

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Angel’s, further into the market, also does great fish but their macaroni pie is one of the best in the market. In years gone by you used to be able to wander around buying your fish from one place, your macaroni pie from another and so on. You still can do this in theory, but the queues will mean a long wait for your dinner.

Entertainment, apart from people-watching, is laid on too. A huge stage hosts a procession of local talent, all dancing to their favourite tunes and maybe passing the hat around later for the crowd to show their appreciation. Every Friday night for years a local guy has donned a black fedora and red sequinned shirt to do a mean Michael Jackson impersonation, right down to a perfect moonwalk across the stage. He is followed by other amazing dancers – mostly men – and the occasional over-enthusiastic sunburnt tourist who can’t resist the urge to join in. Just remember if you are tempted: they are laughing at you, not with you.

Round the back at another bar, people are dancing to old-time music for proper dancers to enjoy. Local couples dress to impress and show off their salsa, waltzing, jive and other Strictly Come Dancing moves: the women in spangly dresses and silver shows, the men with smartly pressed trousers and old-fashioned manners. It’s a joy to watch and tempting to join in, the standard is high.

There are a few market stalls now, too. Jewellery, Barbados towels, hand-made dolls, summer dresses and polished conch shells line the edge of the fish fry, right down at the water’s edge. Groups of men sit at another stall playing a competitively fought game of dominoes whilst their mates watch on and shout encouragement.

Friday nights are not the only night to enjoy Oistins – in fact, Saturdays have a lot to offer without the hordes of tourists. The same fish fry stalls are open but tonight it’s karaoke night, with a small group always lined up along the huge stage to tell the DJ their song and belt it out for the crowd. One chap comes along every Saturday night and sings “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner. He has every nuance of the ballad, and more passion than you can shake a stick at. Thing is, he’s tone-deaf, but his heartfelt rendition gets a standing ovation every week. This week we had a couple of great Luther Vandrosses and even a pretty decent Bette Midler doing “Wind Beneath My Wings”.

Actually, if you head down to Oistins any night of the week, quite a few of the fish fry shops will be open to accommodate the local crowd, so even if weekend nights are out it’s worth a trip down. Round off your evening’s entertainment by getting a ZR there and back. It might just be the ride of your life.

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claypots

Claypots Seafood and Wine
213 Barkly St., St Kilda, 3182

The prospects of an extra-long wait at Cicciolina’s on a Saturday evening saw seven of us walking the streets of St. Kilda last night looking for a place to eat. Passing Claypots, we saw an empty table in the window, already set for seven. Amazingly, the booker had cancelled and we could take over immediately. Marvellous.

We were shown to the table and left with a couple of wine lists. After a few minutes a waitress came and explained the ordering system to us: a large blackboard in the corner had a long list of dishes, usually ordered to share we were told, and another smaller one by the door had a shorter list of claypots. Unfortunately most of us could see neither of them and we were hemmed in on a bench seat, so it was hard to get a real sense of what was on offer.

After that, it took almost half an hour to get somebody’s attention to order some wine, which was disappointing. It took even longer to order food. We eventually ordered the meze platter and a (huge) garlic prawn each for starters, which in fairness arrived fairly promptly. The small platters were beautiful: kingfish tossed with capsicum, figs sprinkled with coriander, a delicious lump of stingray which looked like it had been slow-roasted for hours, a tasty but not spicy Mexican-type onion salsa, and a small dish of green-lipped mussels. However, the sizes were not conducive to sharing amongst seven: we got the equivalent of a few teaspoonfuls each. I would have much preferred a smaller selection but larger portions to suit the number at table.

The huge prawns came out in a skillet, with plenty of Turkish bread to dip into the impossibly-garlicky oil. The waitress had impressed upon us that their prawns had been voted the best in Melbourne. One or two of our party thought them a little over-cooked, but they were fine. Not award-winning though.

When it came to ordering mains, I found the waitress quite condescending. When we attempted to order individually, she looked disapprovingly at us, and reminded us – yet again – that they prefer their customers to share dishes. “It’s all part of the experience.” Now, she may have been right, but I didn’t like the attitude much. Nor, indeed, am I a huge fan of sharing, and certainly not with such a large table. In my experience, sharing dishes amongst large groups means I get a spoonful or so of what I really want, and numerous small portions of dishes I’m not all that interested in.

In the end, we ordered three claypots: a Malay one, a Cajun one and an Anatolian (vegetarian) one for the vegie amongst us. A dish of kingfish cutlets and a whole flathead finished the ensemble.

It was all perfectly fine, with the possible exception of the Cajun claypot which was tasty enough but really not very Cajun at all. The Anatolian one had some sort of granular texture through it, that Nicola could only compare to the sand you sometimes get in mussels. Not pleasant. The Malay one got my vote, and I would perhaps come back for this dish alone (but, again, I’d like more than a couple of spoonfuls).

The flathead was lovely but, as with most of the fish served here, it was a full fish and the lighting was simply not good enough to de-bone at the table.

The kingfish cutlets, with just a few bones around the edges, were really lovely and fresh, and probably my other favourite of the evening. Again, I got to taste less than a quarter of one cutlet.

My verdict: at $50 a head, I came away feeling simultaneously full and unsatisfied. This is because I only got a tiny taste of everything that was on offer, rather than one or two decent dishes I could savour. The service was pretty poor, there was an overall feeling of pretentiousness about the place, and I couldn’t help but feel the staff didn’t think we were sufficiently in awe of them and their radical sharing system. Which we weren’t, really. I suppose we could have insisted on not sharing, but as often happens in a large group most people were being easy-going and we all just went with the flow.

The food is perfectly fine but there are better seafood restaurants in Melbourne with better service and where you don’t feel under pressure to share when it’s clearly impractical to do so. I won’t be hurrying back.

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new year’s resolution

You know my theory: never make a resolution you won’t want to keep.

In years gone past I have come up with:

  • no more walking or cycling uphill
  • have a spa day every month
  • eat food from a new country at least once a month

You get the idea.

I have no idea what my new year’s resolution was for 2008, so I decided I would record my 2009 resolution here on these pages:

  • Eat more seafood.

It is an easy one to achieve – we love shellfish, and fresh seafood, but we don’t get around to going to the market often enough. For New Year’s Eve I hopped on the moped, went down to Footscray Market and bought up some rockling fillets, some fresh de-shelled prawns and a handful of scallops out of the shell. A trip to the vegetable stall for some fresh herbs and the makings of a Greek salad, and I was all set.

The prawns were marinated in chilli, garlic, coriander and some Punjabi Kitchen King masala from the local Indian supermarket, then panfried in their own juices. I served them with the Greek salad on New Year’s Eve for supper and realised I had seriously over-catered. The rest we left until this evening when we had the rockling fillets steamed in foil parcels in the oven with garlic, green chilli, spring onion, coriander and Chinese five spice. The scallops I tossed in chilli and garlic and threw them on the barbie. Divine.

Happy New Year everybody! What are your resolutions?