Fishin’ wars and being 50

I suffer from occasional bouts of homesickness – that longing for people, places, and things that are uniquely Irish. It doesn’t happen very often though as I tend to live in head space rather than in physical space. But wherever I’ve lived, it’s always looked like home: I hang up my pictures before I unpack my clothes.

That said, there are some things that no one can do as well as the Irish – the main one being fish and chips. The UK comes a close second but even its offering isn’t quite up to par.

Howth on a bank holiday Monday – sun shining, seagulls squawking, sea-air salting. The fishing village in North Dublin is buzzing. Car space is at a premium but the gods are on our side. A pint or two on the rooftop terrace of a pub looking out over the harbour. Then a walk along the pier. And then the decision – where to go for fish and chips?

H4 (800x600)Unbeknownst to me, two of Dublin’s oldest fish families are about to wage war – or so the Independent had it yesterday. For years, Beshoff’s has been the lead chipper in the village. They’ve had competition from the more traditional Caffe Caira (the queue was out the door but a local volunteered that if it was fish we were after, we should go to Beshoff’s) and the newer Crabby Joes, owned by the legendary fish family, Wrights. But life has been good for Beshoffs. They run a tight ship.

H2 (800x600)H1As you queue outside, someone marks your order on an order sheet that you then hand in, pay for, and collect your drinks. You get a number that shows on the screen as ‘Now Frying’. When it’s ready, the number turns green and you collect. All very civilised. I was impressed. The fish – Cod, Haddock, Hake – are all from sustainable catches and fried to within an inch of perfection. But the portions were huge. So much food goes to waste. I know I was hungry and yet I couldn’t finish my chips. And that rarely happens.

The undisputed chipper king in Howth now has competition from the Burdock family who have been in the business since 1913. Leo Burdock is famous for his chipper over near Christchurch. His guest list of old includes the likes of Tom Cruise and Bruce Springsteen, Sandra Bullock and Russell Crowe. Even Mick Jagger has partaken in the mushy peas.  And now he’s taken a pitch opposite the Dart station. John Beshoff reckons, though, that they still have the advantage – they cook in rapeseed oil so their food has 45% less saturated fat… mmmm… it did taste good. Why can’t we get a chip van into Budapest? It would make a killing.

H6 (800x600)H7 (800x600)I don’t think that I’ll ever tire of Howth. There’s something really lovely about the place, with its lighthouse, its yacht club, and its marina. The boat that goes between Howth and Dun Laoghaire wasn’t running that day because of high winds so that’s something I can still look forward to doing. That, and maybe trying my luck with the mackerel off the pier. Watching yer man fishing brought back all sorts of memories of my Alaska days, of friends who had visited and wanted to go fishing, and of friends long gone who had taken me fishing. Yep – there’s a lot to be said for head space, memories, and the places they can take you.

H5 (600x800)Ye olde birthday week is progressing nicely, thank you very much. My dad tells me that it hardly seems like 50 years since I screaming my way into the world with a massive big questions on my lungs: whhhhhhhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?  I tell him that it can’t seem like 50 years, because it hasn’t been 50 years. That’s next year. Honestly! Men and how they might age you.

Back in the Balkans

Get the phone call – revise the route – hop on a train – and enjoy the best of Serbian hospitality. Just another Sunday in my world. I’d planned to go to Belgrade anyway, so this diversion wasn’t too much out of my way.

12.35 arrive in Subotica 12.50. Find my pick-up – friends of a friend whom I’ve never met before.13.10 stop at the goat lady to buy some cheese.

The sprightly 63-year-old retired locksmith has about 40 goats and lives in a house she built herself. Her account of a run-in with the local authorities over the rights to the grass at the airport was so animated that I didn’t need to understand Serbian to get her drift and be suitably amazed and entertained. I can only home that I’m in as fine a fettle when I get to her age. 14.00 arrive at  Palić to the No. 36 to meet my friend and the rest of the crew and to sample some grapefruit beer (a first for me). 15:15 depart for Paprika čarda, a restaurant on the shore of Palić lake.

At some stage, we passed the Olympic tower. I’ve been to Palić before but hadn’t realised the story behind it.  In the late nineteenth century,  before Pierre de Coubertin’s modern Olympic Games took full flight, local entrepreneur Lajos Vermes organised sports competitions in Palić, gathering the best athletes from Central Europe. Who’d have thought it, eh?

Lunch had been ordered ahead of time as our party had now grown to nine. The most fluent in non-native speaker of English by far was 12-year-old Makarije, who wowed me with his plans to enter the world of stem cell research as soon as he turned university age. When I asked where he had learned his English – he shrugged nonchalantly and said:  Television. Perhaps it’s time I invest in one!

Our menu was simple: fish and chips to start with, followed by fish soup. A little arse-about-face, I thought… but when in Serbia do as the Serbs do. And I was starving. Mention fish and chips and I am transported to an Irish chipper  and greasy chips with cod in batter or perhaps to the more refined Cajun-style offer now available in Budapest, so I wasn’t expecting the communal platter of breaded whitebait. As we picked our way through the mouthfuls of fish, conversation flitted from Hungarian and Serbian politics to the joys (or lack thereof) of school inspection systems, from what we could expect later on the Tisza to the neutrality of the Press. We covered sailing in Montenegro, the cyclical nature of life, nationalism, citizen engagement and the sublime joy of food, wine, and travel. The patience of those present with my lack of Serbian and their willingness to involve me in the conversation was lovely. My Balkan affair was renewed and I found myself wondering what it would be like to live by a lake.

The fish soup was sweet and tasty and served with noodles. Not a bone in sight.  Chunks of fresh, fleshy fish floated in good company with balls of fish eggs. I had not one, but two helpings, and had I had more time and notches in my belt, I could willingly have gone back for more. Another first for me as fish soup isn’t high on my list of culinary delights.

The view from the table was calm and serene. The weather was a little hot but the crisp local white wine mixed with gentle splashings of soda water made it easier to assimilate. It was a gorgeous afternoon. As we readied ourselves for the evening and our visit  to the Tisza River to watch the mayflies mating, I was reminded once again of how travel has broadened my horizons and how casual conversations and serendipitous introductions can herald the beginning of lasting friendships. Thanks, MM.