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Archive for January, 2010

Mmmm. . .food

So the second most often question I am asked, after the quality of the pubs in Belfast, is about the food in Ireland.  Usually my questioner has already assumed that the food is terrible, I’m barely subsisting on scaly potatoes and leeks and I can’t wait to get back to America where the horn of plenty overflows with our supreme diversity of crops.  And almost always they are surprised, shocked even, to discover that the food, in Belfast at least, is great in terms of both market produce and quality restaurants.

I’ll begin with market produce.  I have an admission to make . . .I am a foodie. What is a foodie you might ask? Well Wikipedia (oh I’m feeling scholarly today) gives the following description.

Foodies= Amateurs who simply love food for consumption, study, preparation, and news. Foodies want to learn everything about food, both the best and the ordinary, and about the science, industry, and personalities surrounding food. For this reason, foodies are sometimes viewed as obsessively interested in all things culinary.

I love and, yes, live for good quality food, carefully and lovingly cultivated and crafted into great meals.  I try to eat as close to the earth as possible, which means I am always searching for the best farmers market I can find. This is also the first year in a long while that I haven’t had my own garden, so I am depending entirely on the market, which, in Belfast, is no loss at all.  Belfast’s St. George’s market provides an abundance of everything from local root crops and fish catches to stalls filled with exotic spices and seaweed.  Though not everything is local and organic, it is all reasonably priced and very fresh.  For less than 20 pounds I can buy and abundance of food (and even drink!) for the week as well as snag a fabulous seafood chowder lunch and desert crepe for the way home.  Some lazy Saturdays I stretch my market visit to a whole half-day, two meal experience.  I start with juice, coffee and waffles, wander through the crafts for a while listening to whatever this week’s live band happens to be, then I grab lunch followed something terrible for me like a snicker milk shake.  And I always buy more groceries for the week than I can carry. My favorite weekly purchase is almost always from the fishmongers that line the stalls along the back of the market.  This week it was fresh mussels, last week was whiting. The vendors, like most Irish, are friendly and helpful with any questions I have about their products and even welcome my probing questions about water quality and harvesting methods.  So no, my market produce shopping is not suffering at all.

But I must admit there are a few things I do miss from the states when I am cooking.  Namely things that I always took advantage of like canned pumpkin, apple butter, a variety of cream cheeses and so on.  There are even things that am SO embarrassed to admit but I miss none-the-less, like peanut butter.  There is a big difference between American peanut butter and peanut butter over here.  Our peanut butter is smooth and creamy but here, even ‘creamy’ peanut butter is grainy, sandy tasting almost.  What’s missing?  High-fructose corn-syrup.  My mother would be so ashamed after all the trouble she has spent keeping me off the gooey stuff but I had to bring back copious amounts of JIF.  King Corn and I have a very complicated relationship, but I’ll give him this one, peanut butter needs him.

As a foodie I take cooking veryMussels and kale from St. George's Market seriously.  I don’t worry too much about getting things perfect, but I do love to play with new produce and flavors. I especially love cooking with and for people.  When I first got to Belfast I started cooking with my English housemate Ben. Sometimes we would cook together and other times one of us would cook and one of us would consume.  But after a few weeks I noticed Ben was a glowing example of everyone at home’s assumptions about food in Ireland.  Ben is perfectly happy with potatoes and tuna and almost never seasons his food.  One day, after a week of fresh, complicated meals, Ben wanted to reciprocate for the cooking I had been doing.  His meal choice, Heinz tomato soup.  My jaw hit the table. For a girl who has been known to spend 4 hours making her own pasta sauce I was a little stunned.  But for Ben it was just as delicious and satisfying as the 2 hour meal I had prepared the night before. This however is not typical of what one would find in Belfast restaurants.

As for restaurants, well just around our neighborhood, off Botanic Avenue, there is a bounty of ethnic cuisine.  Around the corner is Café Renoir, famous for their 5gbp wood-fired pizza special.  Beside it sets the new French Village who serves a great Panini and a decent attempt at pancakes, though I haven’t found a great American pancake place yet.  Adam and I may have to open a Cracker Barrel-like establishment to feed our need for buttermilk pancakes and chicken and dumplings.  On the opposite corner is Boojums, our Chipotle approximation as well as Clements, my favorite coffee house.  The whole of Belfast has a lot to offer to the hungry traveler.  Adam and I should get VIP seating for the amount of time we spend in Nando’s, a Portuguese-Mozambique chain famous for their Peri-Peri chicken, and Ravenous, a great local sandwich shop. Throughout the city you can also find great meal deals where you can get 2 or 3 courses plus a bottle of wine for two people for about 20gbp.  Fabulous.

So if you find yourself traveling to Northern Ireland don’t worry about subsisting on potatoes and parsnips, there is a bounty of food options waiting for you!

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Biking in Belfast

Me and my Bike

Hard-core biking Bre

When I first arrived in Belfast, with the help of my dear friend and bike aficionada Christina, I bought a gorgeous creamy silver-blue hybrid bicycle.  It has proved to be the best big purchase I have ever made.  I’ve never been a huge biker.  I had a bike at Elon, but only really rode the mile to and from school, and that was only when the weather was nice and gas was expensive (I know I’m a terrible environmentalist).  But I never explored on my bike- it was just transport, but this beautiful blue bike is my chariot to adventure.  Anytime I feel restless or tired of city sounds I can whizz through the botanic gardens, past the gym, straight for the Stranmillis towards my favorite part of Belfast, the Lagan towpath.

The Towpath is a 9-mile greenway, devoid of cars and city sounds, that runs along the River Lagan between Belfast and Lisburn.  Most of the path clings right up next to the river, but every now and then it cuts through a lovely wooded park or a parking lots and passes some great spots.  One of my favorites is the Lock Keeper’s Inn, a café style restaurant leisurely nestled next to the towpath between the red and gray bridges.  Next to the café is the actual Lock Keepers residence, which you can tour some days, as well as a charming little nature museum.  The café has recently received a lot of press as it is the business development of Iris Robinson’s former teenage lover (Click here to read all about it-it’s big news up here).  But regardless, it is a great place to stop for some tea and a scone on a sunny day.  I prefer the picnic tables outside where I can do a bit of people watching.

Laganpath Bridge

The Lagan Towpath

A few miles from the café the path get very rural.  Grazing cows lazily watch me cycle past and I have to resist the urge to stop at the occasional farm and offer my services just for the chance to examine their amazing topsoil (I’m such a nerd-I know).  Further down is where I always see a shy pair of wild swans.  They never let me get their picture, ducking into the grassy bank when they see my camera.  After 7 or 8 miles I usually turn back, though once in a while I go into the City of Lisburn, but I find it shocks me out of the natural dis-reality of the path.  I like maintaining the green, winding river dream world for as many miles as I can.

I find that I’m not a terrible biker.  In most things I’m pretty uncoordinated, despite all those years of dance lessons, but I can make sharp turns on busy streets, weave past little running children on the path and stop centimeters before squishing yippy dogs that dart into the trail.  I remember the freedom of first learning navigate a training wheel-less bicycle.  My bike was pink and white then, aptly named the “Breezy,” which I loved because it was what my Grandma Nana called me.  I remember learning to keep balance in the driveway of International House with my dad. Our driveway at home was too steep and treacherous with the busy road at the end, but IH was perfect, flat, with only a few potholes.  Dad would hold onto my seat giving me just the momentum I needed to go gliding in front of the flagpole.  Of course with my success I got a fist pump and an “Alright!” Later, I would circle the parking lot attempting daredevil feats such as riding side-saddle, cruising with both legs swung to my left.  Or riding while standing going down the hill to the nursery.  I loved whooshing past the waterfall, hugging the curb, dodging the potholes until I reached the nursery pond where I could watch the baby swans and geese find their own footing.

All that hard work paid off and now look at me!  Christina and I are planning a ride around Northern Ireland, which boasts the most extensive cycling network in the UK.  Up here you can ride for hundreds of miles on greenways, coastal paths, and safe in bike lanes.  I think it will be a great way to get a feel of the countryside.  Who knows, maybe I can show off with some side-saddle riding.

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A New Year- A New Blog

So besides my typical New Years resolutions of practicing more yoga, eating well, and reading more this New Year I promised myself I would make a new resolution to keep a weekly blog in case someone, like you perhaps, wanted to read about my life in Belfast, school and my travels.

So to start off I’m going to back track a little with an entry I wrote for my Mitchell blog about my first few months in Ireland.  Included are some pictures of my travels so far. Enjoy!

November 2009: You know you are acclimating to Belfast culture when you find yourself in Primark trying to decide which shade of “denim” leggings go best with your new plaid shirt. This is the beginning of a love affair. I often tell people my roots are in the mountains of Virginia and my soul is in the dust of Ghana, and now I think Belfast has stolen my heart. I love this city. I love turning a street corner at night and catching the lit profile of a spire. I am enamored with the scenic Lagan towpath for long runs and bike rides with its wild swans and meandering couples. I race to St. Georges Market on Saturdays, gorging myself on fajitas, milkshakes and all the fresh fruit I can carry home. Every Monday I am seated with a local brew at the John Hewitt, tapping my foot to every good (ex. my friend Ben) and bad (ex. the guy who screams a lot) open mic act. I could spend all afternoon sitting in the cool gray CS Lewis reading room overlooking the knobby tree that guards the entrance of the Botanic Gardens. And I could spend every evening studying at Clements at 10pm, with the brightly lit rainbow panels and blaring Canadian rock cheering me through my regression analysis. Have I said enough? I love Belfast.

It is somewhat strange that I find myself loving this city so much when I often find myself feeling so uncomfortable in it. My program in Environmental Management is wonderful, but being the only American in a sustainable planning course discussing international environmental legislation is nothing if not awkward. Often I feel that I am expected to apologize for our current environmental policy or lack thereof, but examining EU policy has given me new perspective; I am finding myself defending my complicated federal system and the theory of private land ownership in the US, which is new for me.

My most obvious source of discomfort is my brownness. First, I should explain brownness. I say brown because as a multiracial child I feel awkward saying black or African American, that doesn’t adequately describe my heritage. I feel even stranger saying “mixed,” the preferred check box on employment forms, which makes me feel like a cocktail or something. So I go with brown, because I am. Being brown has never been particularly hard for me. In fact, through most of my childhood and adolescence I never really thought about it. I grew up in a loving home in a nurturing community that never evaluated me based on my skin tone. My skin color really only appeared on standardized tests and when I started buying foundation. I have always had mostly white friends and usually have difficulty identifying with aspects of young black culture. But in Belfast I am constantly reminded of my brownness. It’s subtle, like a look at a bar or an unnecessarily awkward exchange. Occasionally I get a strange comment, as in the case of one classmate who asked if I was “a gypsy.” I am by no means saying that people are rude, in fact, most people I interface with are perfectly lovely. I just feel a little culturally lost at times, and find that I am listening to more Jay-Z and Dead Prez than ever before.

There are some serious benefits to being brown in Belfast. Kebab. One night, upon my 2am entrance into our favorite late night kebab shop, the man behind the counter exclaimed I was brown like him, holding my arm to his. He has now proclaimed me his “Brown Queen,” a comment I am totally comfortable with as it usually accompanies a discount off my amazing kebab.

Despite the occasional discomforts, Belfast has been nothing but welcoming and each day I feel more and more at home here. I find myself returning from travel grateful to be in such a nice, familiar place. This is usually a feeling I reminded of every weekend with the massive amount of traveling I have been doing. Almost as soon as we arrived Adam, Rebekah and I ferried over to Scotland for a day of cliff hiking and castle exploration. This was followed by a very lovely Mitchell orientation in Dublin where the 12 of us were able to begin our mutual infatuation that has extended to a theatrical weekend in Belfast, a jazz festival in Cork, a spooky Halloween in Derry, and a massive amount of group e-mails filled with boy band videos and punching jokes. I’ve just returned from a chilly weekend in Poland where I ate a massive amount of perogies and potato cakes. In the coming weeks I’m off to London, Scotland (Again! I can’t get enough of it!) and then home for Christmas. My flatmates were shocked when I was seen walking about the house last weekend since I am rarely in town Friday through Sunday.

My mom and grandma say they are living through me this year as I travel and study abroad, something they have always wanted to do. I am happy to be their ambassador and I am so very grateful to everyone at the US Ireland Alliance for this amazing opportunity.

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