With the holidays firmly upon us, it’s time to experience new things…and remember good things we have experienced in Christmases past. For the long-distance expats who visit family in the summertime—a sensible choice for those in temperate climates like the American Midwest—the holidays are the perfect excuse to travel somewhere warm and exotic. In our first Irish December, our choice of exotic locale? Cork. Maybe not the best pick, but we found a way to have fun and discover a few Irish Christmas traditions.
We arrived in Cork on Christmas Eve, right around lunchtime—which, in Ireland in late December, is nearly dusk. The busy pedestrian shopping district around Patrick Street was packed with last-minute shoppers, tourists, carolers, and families out enjoying a little bit of weak sunshine. We walked through the holiday cheeriness to drop off our bags at our B&B—one of the only guesthouses in Ireland taking visitors over the holiday—and marched right back into the thick of it.
It was recommended that we pay a visit to Cork’s famous English Market, whether we needed food or not. This comfortable indoor bazaar of traditional Irish and fancy-schmancy European gourmet foods was also buzzing with families picking up Christmas treats. We picked up a few recognizable favorites: cured chorizo and salami, cheese and gourmet crackers, breads, chocolate orange candies, and some wine, and checked out a few new Irish favorites, like the mince pie.
This curious pastry is a British Isles holiday favorite, and with ingredients like beef suet and candied fruit, who could resist? At least we had a common language with the Irish in cheeses and potato crisps. We would need all of this food for Christmas Day, as we’d been warned by our very concerned B&B host that nothing—nothing—would be open on the 25th.
It was already getting dark when we left the English Market, and we left the Island of Cork—the hub of the city between the main body of the River Lee and a small diversion—for a recommended local fish and chips shop. This wouldn’t be our first visit to such a chipper, but greasy takeaway seemed like the best choice for a Christmas Eve feast down here in the rough-around-the-edges-and-proud-of-it Rebel City.
It began to sleet as we climbed up a steep hill to the chipper, which had already closed for the holiday. Uh-oh. We wondered if we’d be able to find anything open for dinner. As we had left the Island, the shoppers were quickly disappearing and nearly every shop and restaurant was closing its doors.
Patrick Street—jam-packed with holidaymakers not two hours earlier—was a ghost town. Through the stinging sleet, I thought I saw tumbleweeds blowing across the street, but it was just garbage. Rounding a corner, we finally saw the neon glow of an open restaurant. It was one of the retro 50s Americana greasy spoons that are very popular with the late-night Irish bar crowd. It was fitting that we had come to discover Irish Christmas foods and were forced to dry off and warm up with an overpriced, mediocre burger and fries.
When we stepped out of the otherwise empty burger joint, we stepped out into a different world. The rain had stopped, and the locals were back out in the streets! They, like us, must have just retreated for dinner with their families, and were now ready to ring in the holiday with their friends and neighbors. Corner pubs, closed earlier in the day, were now booming.
Pushing our way into one busy pub, we were struck with a thickly sweet and spicy smell like a Christmas candle factory. We saw a team of bartenders cutting lemons and scooping out hot drinks into handled mugs, trying to keep up with demand. Still tentative, we started with a pint of stout—Murphy’s, not Guinness, in deference to our Cork hosts. Finally overcome with curiosity, I asked the bartender what it was that they were serving. Through a thick Cork accent, he told me, “Hot whiskey an’ hot port, o’ course! Look here. Lemon slice with cloves, sugar, a bit o’ port or whiskey, and some boilin’ water!” Not wanting to hold up the production process with more questions, I picked up a round of hot port.
Sipping the warming, spicy drink, I looked around the pub to watch the neighborhood regulars greet each other with big smiles and Christmas Eve hugs. I made a mental note then and there to make hot port one of my own holiday traditions. Every time I smell the cloves and lemon with the warm fortified wine, I’ll always think back to one cold, soggy, and memorable Christmas Eve in Cork.
Enjoy your own holidays, however you celebrate them, and I hope you have some friends and family with whom to kick it. Celebrate the holidays Irish style with a mug of hot port, my recipe follows:
Hot Port á la the Cork Bartender
Ingredients and method:
- Ruby port—de cheaper de better. Don’t spring for de good stuff if ye’re jest gonna mix in a buncha sugar and spices, boy!
- Lemon slice—cut ’em t’ick, now! Ye gotta leave room for de…
- Cloves—stick four or five o’ dem whole cloves inte de meat of de lemon.
- Sugar—jest a spoonful’ll do it now, boy!
- Hot water—fill a mug with a handle half fulla hot water, mix in de sugar and t’row in de lemon. Top it off wit’ de port, and ye’re singin’!