Friday, February 11, 2005

Dreams, the Beer Hunter, and the Galway Bay Oyster

Keep true to the dreams of thy youth – Schiller.

When I was a child, persistent and grand notions of world travel filled my mind. During long hours spent gazing at encyclopedias, collecting postage stamps and watching 3-D View Master slides, my imagination ran wild, freely roaming an unexplored, mysterious planet.

Very early on, certain geographical entities became consciously fixed in my dreams, prime among them the Acropolis, Red Square and the Great Pyramids. There were other places and other times, but these were the “Big Three” that I resolved to visit when grown.

35 years have passed, and of the three, only Egypt has eluded me. The remains of ancient Athens were subjected to intense scrutiny in 1985, and Soviet-era Moscow welcomed me two years later (also in 1989 and 1999). In both cases, the endlessly fascinating tapestry of real life bolstered and abetted those lingering fantasies from long ago.

Because dreams are not the exclusive province of youth, fidelity to them is balanced by the inevitability of adjustment to fresher hopes and visions fostered by personal growth and experience.

Geography, history and travel remained educational priorities for me throughout high school and college. Early in the 1980’s, beer began to be a topic of conscious reflection for me, something to be studied and absorbed academically as well as consumed religiously.

Previously, considerations of beer were limited to determining which of us had enough gas to drive to Louisville’s West End on Sunday afternoon and buy a cold suitcase or two of Old Milwaukee. Now, this wasn’t enough.

Over time, there had developed within me an urgent desire to know more about beer. Where does it come from? How is it made? Why are some beers more interesting than others? Where do I look for answers? I was in desperate need of guidance.

Unbeknownst to me, a literary guru was about to appear on my horizon, one capable of connecting the dots between beer, human culture, history and geography, and doing so with considerable style and unimpeachable erudition.

The father of us all.

As with so many others, my personal tutor for understanding beer was the pioneering British beer writer, Michael Jackson. His “World Guide to Beer” was to me in 1982 what Nirvana was to a generation of garage bands a decade later.

Today, the Internet boasts dozens of beer-related web sites, including one ( devoted to Jackson’s own works, and the notion of writing about beer, while regrettably still not universal, at least isn’t regarded as indicative of mental illness as it was in the past. In those dark days, the only beer road map was his, and I pored over it hundreds of times in search of direction.

Jackson’s nom de plume, “The Beer Hunter,” derives from his career as tireless worldwide pub crawler, and from his far-flung chronicles arose my own fresh new dreams of beer and travel. Jackson wrote of drinking smoked lager in Bamberg, cask-conditioned bitter in London, and funky lambic in rural Belgium. He described the pursuit of stout in rural Sri Lanka, a hop harvest in Washington state, and the principles of floor malting in Central Europe.

Soon it became abundantly clear that beer dreams borne of reading and sampling in adulthood were running concurrently with travel dreams formulated as a wide-eyed child.

Almost overnight, I became a wide-eyed beer tourist.

It became imperative that I experience not just Red Square, but also the Soviet cafeteria-style beer hall a short distance away on Kalinin Prospekt (I found it). The sweaty uphill walk to visit the Acropolis was meaningless to me without the subsequent downhill prowling of adjacent neighborhood tavernas in search of local brands of Greek lager (there were none).

Someday, I hope it will be the same in Cairo, and I am not dissuaded by the rumors of formaldehyde in Egyptian beer.

In December 2003, it was the same in Ireland.

See what one or toucan do.

Specifically, my holiday time on the Emerald Isle provided the opportunity to eat fresh local oysters and to wash them down with Irish dry stout. Having done so will not impress every reader, but for an idea of what the experience meant to me, I refer again to Jackson’s road map.

He wrote early and often about the joys of pairing stout with oysters, noting that the dry roastiness of the former serves as perfect complement to the subtle, elusive flavor of the latter. To be sure, I’d taken Jackson’s advice several times previously in other locales, including once at the London branch of Dublin’s excellent Porter House restaurant and brewpub. But the Irish geographical imperative had been missing, and I intended to rectify this gustatory oversight while making plans for the journey.

The prelude is worth noting. My partner Diana and I spent seven leisurely days sans rainfall roaming the venerable hills, freshwater lakes and craggy shoreline along Ireland’s western coast, savoring the island’s striking natural beauty – the majestic Cliffs of Moher, the rocky Burren badlands and the primeval tableau of Connemara.

Of course, there were occasional pauses for pints of Guinness and Smithwick’s (a low-gravity Irish red ale), in pubs both traditional and modern, and much rumination as to the changing state of the Irish people and nation.

For a travel book, I had chosen Robert Kee’s “The Green Flag,” an account of Irish nationalism that struck numerous chords, some inspiring and others profoundly melancholy. The fortuitous purchase of a recently released Dubliners CD provided soundtrack music. Altogether, the trip was joyous, but the best was yet to come.

“Go to the Weir.”

The oyster dreams had been back-loaded into our itinerary. With travel days dwindling, our path led southward from the soulful vistas of Connemara. A shopping morning in Galway City proved enjoyable, and by mid-afternoon we were checked into a comfortable bed & breakfast outside the village of Kilcolgan, near the slightly larger town of Clarinbridge.

The choice of accommodation was no accident, for the confluence of waters in the estuary bordering the green fields of Clarinbridge, where fresh river water meets the sea brine, is home to a particularly succulent variety of Galway Bay oyster. In fact, Clarinbridge hosts an annual September festival dedicated to exalting the very same bi-valve mollusk that I intended to unashamedly devour for dinner.

When we asked our hostess for her choice of best local venue for oysters, she was decisive and effusive: Moran’s Oyster Cottage, located “on the Weir” and just a short hop down the highway from her rooming establishment. Noting that there was barely an hour of sunlight remaining in a short Irish winter’s day, she urged us to leave immediately and enjoy a stroll behind Moran’s along the waterfront bluffs overlooking the 700-acre oyster bed.

Moran’s is housed in a neat, clean building that seems the very essence of nondescript, at least at first glance. A few other houses are clustered next to it, and all are within yards of the inlet that leads west toward the estuary, then the bay, and eventually, the open sea. The “weir” locator refers to an old wall built across the river for the purpose of catching salmon. It has become local patois for the vicinity.

As we arrived, there was a fiery red sunset accenting the blue waters and green fields. Nearby, a collection of apathetic cattle shuffled heavily between salt blocks. Ruins of an old castle could be seen to the south. It was a clear, brilliant ending to the daylight hours, and an aperitif to the meal soon to be enjoyed.

Entering the restaurant through the old pub front requires squeezing through a tiny set of wooden doors surely intended to remind Americans that we’re terminally overfed. The entryway leads to a warren of barroom snugs, beyond which a vast rear seating area of more recent vintage is revealed. You begin to sense that there’s more going on at Moran’s than at the usual Irish pub … but apparently, it wasn’t always that way.

Humble origins.

Moran’s currently is operated by the sixth generation of its founding family in a line that goes back more than two centuries. For much of the pub’s long working life, it was a typical Irish country pub, sharing the dock with three other watering holes.

All of them thrived for so long as their bayside locale remained a trading spot for seaweed (used as fertilizer) from the Aran Islands and turf, the peaty stuff of Irish fireplaces, which the farmers brought in on carts and transferred to waiting boats.

By the 1960’s, highways and trucking firms had put an end to the weir’s two-way trade by boat, and Moran’s very nearly joined its erstwhile competitors in bankruptcy. Little more than a sense of familial honor kept the doors open, but eventually the decision was made to carry on by concentrating on two things to the exclusion of all else: Oysters and stout.

Subsequently, a fiscal corner was turned when a visiting Guinness official decided to use Moran’s as the site of the brewery’s VIP party during the Clarinbridge oyster festival, and soon word of mouth led to a dramatic and lasting transformation of the pub’s clientele.

People began driving from Galway City and Limerick to sample the wares, then from Dublin and Cork, and Moran’s prospered. Almost miraculously, a worthy tradition was preserved, but in an unapologetic, modern fashion. The list of diners now includes the Emperor and Empress of Japan, Woody Allen, Naomi Campbell, Roger Moore, Bono, the Edge, and a veritable who’s who of Irish politics and entertainment.

Steady expansion, menu diversification and the predictable gentrifying effect haven’t compromised the core values at the oyster cottage, and we’re all lucky for it. Here’s to another two hundred years for Moran’s. Slainte!

And now for the Nitty Gritty.

It was time to eat. For openers, I opted to go straight for the jugular with a dozen oysters on the half shell and a pint of Murphy’s Stout, while Diana opted for twelve garlic-fried mussels.

Her choice was delicious, and may well have been the highlight of a hundred other meals, but on this occasion the oysters lived up to their reputation in a stunning fashion far more rarified than I’d ever guessed. The oysters were silver-dollar sized, crazily plump and mouthwateringly redolent of the estuary from whence they’d come so short a time before.

The first six were consumed straight up, with the back half-dozen treated to a squirt of lemon. A basket of rich brown bread with butter was an added indulgence.

While I’m happy that we have jet planes and sophisticated shipping methods that make it possible for seafood to be brought to places where in former times canned tuna would have sufficed, there can be no comparison between the oysters at Moran’s and the otherwise spindly, humble creatures I’ve eaten near home.

To wash down these gems of the nearby bay, Murphy’s proved to be a perfect complement. Ireland’s “second” stout is softer and fruitier than the more widely known Guinness, but still maintains the dignified dryness demanded by the oyster’s texture and flavor.

As Michael Jackson suggested, the oyster and stout combination was an olfactory winner, and aptly fulfilled my dream in every way.

Understandably, the appetizers were fated to “make” the meal, but the main courses weren’t shabby: Tempura prawns, smoked wild salmon, boiled potatoes and salad, joined often by more Murphy’s. For dessert, taken in the solitude of the bar in the oldest part of the building, my choice was a final pint of Ireland’s second stout and a surprisingly fresh H. Upmann Robusto, Havana-style.

A final day in Ireland remained to us, and it was spent as guests in an opulent castle-turned-hotel that once belonged to the family of an Irish rebel, yet my high point was dinner at Moran’s.

The remarkable eatery sates both the hunger and the imagination of the visitor, but more than that, it symbolizes a transformation of the Irish Republic from subsistence to affluence without the loss of those qualities of hospitality and generosity that have always marked the Irish people as distinctive.

It may seem a bit much to draw such far-reaching inferences from a plate of mollusks and a jar of ale, but not for those of us raised on the magnificent writing of Michael Jackson and the dreams thus engendered.

Irish proverbs:

The thing that often occurs is never much appreciated.

It’s the first drop that destroyed me; there’s no harm at all in the last.

He is like a bagpipe; he never makes a noise till his belly’s full.

(Originally published in 2004)

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