With is rolling green landscapes, rocky cliffs and pastoral settings, Ireland is known as one of the most beautiful countries in the world. It is also known for its friendly people, tasty beer and festive atmosphere. When you think of Irish food, corned beef and cabbage and shepherd’s pie spring to mind. While these traditional pub foods are great on St. Patrick’s Day, they’re not exactly cuisine worth traveling across an ocean for. But perhaps Ireland has been underestimated.
For those who follow a gluten-free diet like I do, Ireland offers a surprisingly varied and plentiful array of options. I spent a month there recently to study in a creative writing program as part of my Master of Fine Arts degree.
I left the United States with the expectation that I might struggle to find gluten-free choices both at the University of Cork, where I would be living most of the time, and as I traveled through the country. I packed my suitcase with plenty of Larabars and other gluten-free snacks, but Ireland offered so many gluten-free foods I toted those snacks back across the Atlantic with me.
It didn’t take long to realize my worry about finding gluten-free food was misplaced. Ireland has one of the largest concentrations of people with celiac disease in the world, and its residents are accustomed to catering to gluten-free needs. The university cafeteria where I ate at least one meal a day listed the ingredients used in foods and labeled those that were gluten free. There was even a place with gluten-free bagels steps away from my dorm. Everywhere I went, I found many great restaurants with gluten-free options.
Irish chefs and restaurants are also leaders in the farm-to-table movement so I got to eat farm-fresh, unprocessed ingredients in every meal. I was in gluten-free food heaven.
A Bloomsday celebration
Dublin, the capital and largest city in Ireland, has a rich history. Two competing settlements of Gaelic warriors and Vikings each claim to be the founders. Later Dublin was central in the fight for Irish freedom during the Easter Rising in 1916.
The only part of the old “medieval street plan” that remains is the Temple Bar district, an area popular with tourists that is known for its nightlife offerings. Visitors also usually stop at the Guinness factory, St. Stephen’s Green and Dublin Castle. Although I am gluten free and Guinness is not, I enjoyed the factory tour, which was worth checking out for the view from the sky bar alone.
Being the one-time home of such iconic writers as Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, Dublin was inaugurated into the Creative Cities Alliance in 2010 as a City of Literature by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The city hosts the annual Bloomsday, an event named in honor of Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s held on June 16, the day in which all of Ulysses unfolds. The city of Dublin celebrates the works of Joyce by reenacting the events of his novel. Costumed characters and Joyce look-alikes wander the streets, interacting with passersby. Shops and restaurants feature entertainers performing scenes from the book. It’s like a literary nerd version of Halloween. When our group attended, we felt right at home.
While enjoying the festivities, another gluten-free friend and I plotted our journey around the city armed with our previously researched list of gluten-free choices. We began with gluten-free breakfast crepes at Lemon Crepe and Coffee Co. I ordered a savory bacon and egg crepe made with free-range eggs, bacon and butter. My friend went for a sweet crepe with cinnamon butter, apples and whipped cream. Quite satisfied, we were energized to begin the day.
We headed over to the Dublin Writers Museum, where we learned about the influence of Ireland’s famous writers on the revolutionary history of the country. Afterward, we visited the beautiful campus of Trinity College, where we viewed the sacred Book of Kells, a Bible from Celtic monks dating back to 800 A.D.
Hungry after amassing all of this new knowledge, we wandered over to Cornucopia, an organic restaurant with healthy lunch specials. They specialize in catering to those with celiac disease and other allergies. We both ordered the $10 soup and salad combo, which consisted of heaping plates of delicious food. I had the sweet potato, butter bean and roasted garlic soup, a moist slice of homemade gluten-free bread, and a mixed salad with greens and sprouts. Despite the enormous portions, I still managed to clear my plate, savoring every delicious bite.
Anxious to burn off our heavy lunch, we decided to keep moving for the afternoon. We wandered about the city, shopping and taking in some Ulysses readings along the way.
Our last stop of the day was Damascus Gate, a Lebanese treat. Of all the delicious food we had that day, this was my favorite. Our waiter was friendly and went out of his way to accommodate our needs. We had mouth-watering hummus along with sliced fried potatoes for dipping. For dinner, I had grilled chicken in yogurt sauce topped with fresh pomegranate, and my friend had chicken in a tomato curry sauce. Both were amazing. I felt stuffed from my meals, but when my head hit the pillow, I drifted off to dream of gluten-free delicacies.
Food capital of Ireland
Although Dublin is fun for a long weekend, I was extremely happy to be based in Cork City. Cork is beautiful and is a manageable size while still having plenty to do. Winding roads and cul-de-sacs create lots of routes for exploration.
The city is built on the River Lee, which divides into two channels at the western end. The city center is located on the island created by the two channels. Bridges cross over the river and channels connecting the divided sections. Cork is easily walkable. I was so comfortable and felt so safe, I was even bold enough to try shortcuts and go off exploring on my own by the end of my stay.
Luckily for me, Cork is known as the food capital of Ireland. From large-scale farmer’s markets that include food tastings to the English Market in center city, the city offers an abundance of fresh ingredients and food choices. Numerous festivals go on throughout the year, often several simultaneously. The biggest include the mid-summer festival in June, the film festival in November and the world book festival in April.
The English Market is a must-visit spot. The Alternative Bread Co. is at the market every day and offers a variety of gluten-free loaves that have the best texture and taste of any gluten-free bread I’ve ever tried. Among the many, many amazing vendors, my favorite was the cheese monger. He had such an overwhelming selection I never knew what to try. My favorite was a brie/blue cheese combo. I melted it on my gluten-free bread and had a glass of red wine — delish.
Cork also spoiled me with a multitude of fabulous restaurants with gluten-free offerings. My first night in Ireland I ate at the Electric Fish Bar. Since it is located right alongside the River Lee, we were able to watch boats dock at the restaurant and unload fresh fish for that evening’s entrees.
We ordered fish pâté and homemade bread for an appetizer. The restaurant gave me my own personal plate of gluten-free bread, and my friends all preferred my gluten-free bread to their regular loaf. I also had the most amazing salmon, scallop and prawn burger with a cilantro mayo. Of all the delicious meals I had during my visit, this one was by far the best.
The Quay Co-op Vegetarian Restaurant, housed in an adorable little wooden house overlooking the river, was another great find and became my favorite writing spot. Each day the restaurant offers a full case of gluten-free, vegetarian items ranging from stuffed peppers to sweet potato casseroles. There are also some killer gluten-free desserts, including a delicious chocolate fudge cake and almond bars.
Uncle Pete’s is a local pizza place that has a gluten-free option. The vegetarian pizza is delicious, and the Knickerbocker is a must-have dessert. It’s a triad of strawberry, vanilla and chocolate ice cream with homemade whipped cream and a cherry. Bodega has an eclectic menu inspired by the diversity of the English Market with some great dinner specials. You’ll find two- and three-course tasting menus for 20 to 25 euros, or about $30, and buy-one, get-one specials mid-week. The food is fantastic, and it’s a great value. It’s easy to see how Cork has emerged as a prime eating spot in Ireland, and it’s true if you are gluten-free, too.
Titanic’s last stop
A half hour away from Cork is the seaport town of Cobh (pronounced Cove). Known from 1850 to 1920 as Queenstown, Cobh is famous for being the last departure port for passengers boarding Titanic before its fateful voyage. The town has changed little since that day in 1912. Winding roads, building facades and piers look largely the same. A preserved sense of history makes this sleepy village feel like a charming step back in time.
One of the main tourist attractions is the Titanic Experience. The original White Star Line office was transformed into a museum in 2012. It incorporates audiovisual technology to make informative exhibits come to life. Each visitor is given a ticket with a Titanic passenger’s name, the price of both a first-class and third-class ticket in 1912, and what it would cost today. The cost of a third-class ticket is equivalent to $640 one way today, while a first class ticket would be nearly $70,000. I learned a lot at the museum but I was disappointed at the end to find that the girl whose name was noted on my ticket was one of the fatalities of the shipwreck.
After the solemness of the museum, my friends and I needed a pick-me-up, so we hit the Cobh Farmer’s Market. The first thing that caught my eye was The Crepe Man stall. The owner told us that all of his savory and sweet options could be made on a buckwheat, gluten-free crepe. The only problem then was deciding on only one of the many options. I chose a Mediterranean crepe and swooned in feta and olive goodness.
Next I stumbled on an entirely gluten-free bakery. Mary’s Country Kitchen felt like a gluten-free version of paradise with its icing-topped delicacies and that wonderful bakery smell, only this time, I really could follow my nose.
While there I was introduced to a classic Irish dessert, Banoffee pie, which is made from bananas, cream and toffee layered on crumbled biscuits and butter. The pie is so rich it even feels heavy when you pick it up on a plate. Little did I know that in finding a gluten-free version at Mary’s, I was setting myself up for future torture. This dessert was so incredibly delicious I licked the bottom of the container when I finished, but I never again found a gluten-free Banoffee pie during my trip.
The gift of gab
One of the oldest legends of Ireland says that if you go to Blarney Castle and kiss the Blarney Stone, you will be blessed with the gift of eloquent speech for the rest of your life. The story began when the builder of Blarney Castle was involved in a lawsuit. He was on his way to the courthouse and prayed to the goddess Cliodhna, who was queen of the banshees.
In response she told him to kiss the first stone he saw. He did and ended up offering an articulate defense in court and winning his case. To pay his respect he included the stone in the construction of the castle, and a legend was born. People from far and wide came to kiss this stone when they needed help finding words.
To a group of traveling writers, Blarney Castle was an obvious stop on our itinerary. Only 15 minutes from Cork, it’s an easy day trip. We piled out of the bus bragging about how we were going to kiss this stone despite the fact you have to hang over the side of the castle to do so. But our bravado started to fade us as we made our way closer.
We had to climb a steep medieval staircase that was a true test for the claustrophobic. Then we had to bend backward over the edge of the castle wall while a man held our ankles to kiss the stone while dangling upside down. I got as far as the bending backward part, but ended up just blowing the stone a kiss instead of making lip contact. I guess we were meant to just be friends. My husband later assuaged my bruised ego by telling me I really didn’t need any more gift of gab, I do just fine already.
Honestly, the highlight of the Blarney visit for me was finding great gluten-free baked goods at the nearby concession stand. I bought a decadent fudge brownie and a flat white coffee (the Irish version of a latte) and took a tour of the Poison Garden. Almost every poisonous plant in the world grows in the garden. I learned that many of the plants we now know to be toxic were once used as herbal remedies to cure ailments. It was amazing to see how just the slightest change in dosage could either mean recovery or death for the patient.
Stepping into a gothic novel
No trip to Ireland is complete without a stop to see one of the most beautiful natural sights in the world, the Cliffs of Moher on the Atlantic Coast of County Clare in the west of Ireland. The Irish tourist bureau lists the cliffs as the most-visited spot in all of Ireland. The weather was miserable on the day we went, and when we first arrived the view was completely obscured by fog.
But the fog added a Gothic touch to the experience. I felt like I had stepped into the novel Wuthering Heights.
Then the rain cleared, and it began to warm up a bit, allowing the fog to lift. This gave us a spectacular view, with the waves crashing on the rocks and the fog wisping around the towering cliffs. We snapped picture after picture and walked along the coastal trail, sneaking up to the edge of the cliffs in moments of bravery to peek over the sides.
By the time we left the view was unobstructed. It was exhilarating to stand on the edge of the opposite side of the Atlantic from home and see the wild, thrashing waves against these natural beacons of the Irish landscape. We headed back to the visitor center, where we found several amazing gluten-free soup options to warm us up after our rainy walk along the trail. I give the potato leek two thumbs up.
The end of the rainbow
Sadly, my journey did have to come to an end. I left Ireland with new friends, a wealth of new knowledge and an appreciation for this hospitable country where people were so willing to go out of their way to accommodate my dietary needs.
I was pleasantly surprised with the abundance and quality of gluten-free options available during my stay in Ireland. The gluten-free food I found and was served was very fresh and tasted like “normal” food. I might have stepped off the plane back in the United States to greet my husband with a heavier suitcase and an expanded waistline, but my experience was worth all the extra pounds. GF
Joyana Peters is a low-residency graduate student at the University of New Orleans studying creative writing. She writes gluten-free articles for the online magazine DCFüd (dcfud.com) and has a blog, Gluten free NOVA girl (glutenfreenova.com). She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband.