Book Review: The Ard Bia Cookbook

Posted by Jenna Van Schoor on 30 January 2013

Before I spent any time in Ireland, I was guilty of what I feel are common misconceptions about the country’s culinary landscape. Guinness, Guinness pies, stews and potatoes. Lots of potatoes. And while these may not necessarily be false, or a bad thing, it only took two days to prove, as with any limited perspective, that these preconceptions were only a tiny percentage of what was really on offer.

From freshly-baked street corner café scones with a crapload of butter (more cakey, light and moist than our round, drier ones) to the ubiquitous wrap and Dublin burrito, Ireland was a surprising culinary inspiration. And that was even before I went to Ard Bia in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. Recommended by a close friend, I spent a morning inside its old stone walls on a grey, windy “summer” Tuesday, looking through the four-leafed clover metal windows. The fact that it was in an old customs building, next to an historic archway, right on the edge of Galway Bay didn’t make it less of an enjoyable experience.

Simple, with an easy friendliness, eggy/spinachy breakfast and tea, the horrors of having to sleep in a nearby four-bed hostel dormitory with one of the bunkmates stuck in the toilet the whole night were momentarily forgotten. I ended up going there the next day too, to compensate for another night in a 12-sleeper dormitory, where the awkwardness of strangers felt painfully obvious on waking, made worse by the combined silence and regular click-clicking of an American permaculture voluntourist’s nail clippers by the dustbin in the corner of the room.

That morning, buttermilk/poppy-seed rhubarb compote pancakes eased the awkwardness, at one of the seats at the table by the door that you can see in a photograph in The Ard Bia Cookbook, which I didn’t buy at the time because of it’s heaviness, but which I quickly ordered from Loot after getting back home.

I’ve tried to recreate those pancakes, with limited success, and have now even tried to perfect my still wayward and ropey poached eggs, one of the yolks separating itself from the whites in the pot only this morning (more vinegar needed I think). The layout of the book makes it more of an absorbing, visual story than a cookbook too, and the fact that a travel writer wrote it makes this book even closer to my heart, with a sense of place enhanced by the additions of local flowers and herbs in the recipes, which have bizarrely inspired me to make my own cordial, even though I’ve never even seen an elder tree.

I’ve obviously spent a fair amount of time pouring through the book, rereading the introductions to each chapter and many of the recipes (soda bread, scones, salted ling with sea vegetables)- most of which I know I’ll probably not be able to produce even vaguely correctly. But that’s the best part of the book for me, because not only is this large, beautifully illustrated book a souvenir, and reminder of what I think is a very special place, it’s also inspired me to experiment and mess up, which I don’t think many cookbooks, regardless of their supposed use value, often manage to really do.

And for anyone who’s still wondering, Ard Bia is Irish for “high food”.

The Ard Bia Cookbook is available to order from Loot, a very efficient delivery option in my experience. And if you ever do make it to Galway, be sure to stop by the restaurant, Ard Bia at Nimmo’s, after you walk through the Spanish Arch- an unmistakeable landmark in the tourist centre of the city.






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