[by Róisín Curé] Drive through Galway, head south towards the Burren, look around you and breathe it all in. The Burren is one of those World Heritage places that blow you away. It's a karstic limestone pavement and remains sub-horizontal, meaning the ravages of time never threw the bedrock on its side, as is the case with most of Ireland. This means that when you look into the hills, you're hit with the impression of a pile of slumped blue-grey pancakes in the thickening atmosphere. The Irish tourism board wouldn't thank me for that description but hey, I think I'm in credit with them as far as showing the world my beautiful country through my watercolour sketches is concerned...
The Burren is a truly wild place, with lots of wildlife in the form of huge hairy goats, swift little stoats and suchlike, and rare flora, such as the Bee Orchid. I will tell you all about it later on in the spring. But National Parks aren't a hotbed of industry as a rule. You can't eat scenery, as they say, which brings me onto the theme of this post, a real success story.
My friend Lorraine brought me out for lunch the other day. She had a surprise up her sleeve: the restaurant at Hazel Mountain, just inside the Burren National Park. The restaurant is in a tiny, 1950s Irish bungalow, and offers an incredible gluten and dairy free menu. I had no idea this was the case until my second visit, and I have to admit I was surprised - even though I love healthy food, I didn't know it could taste THAT indulgent.
After our gorgeous lunch, Lorraine and I weren't in any particular hurry.
"Let's pop into the chocolate factory," said Lorraine.
Chocolate factory? Huh?
Around the back, in three tiny rooms, was an actual chocolate factory. In an ante-room, behind a large window, a beautiful young woman in white chef's gear melted chocolate in vats and poured it into moulds to make truffles and bars of all description. She is a chocolatier, which is different, I'm told, from a chocolate maker. When we walked into the second room we saw sacks of cocoa beans stacked on the floor. A tall, rangy young man - the chocolate maker himself - told us what went on in there.
"We buy beans directly from the growers in Cuba, Venezuela and Madagsacar," he said, "and turn them directly into bars. We roast them, crack them and then the winnower removes the husks. Then we melt the cocoa and add sugar - and milk for the milk chocolate. And that's it. It is a very different, and much simpler, process than the industrially-produced chocolate you are used to eating."
Yeah, I thought, sales patter, looks nice, whatever.
"Would you like to try a sample?" said the chocolate maker, who turned out to be called Darragh. He passed around a pretty white bowl.
I only took it out of politeness - I had had my fill next door. But what I tried was a whole new taste sensation, to use a hackneyed phrase. The texture - smooth, yet with interest. The bite - an indescribably satisfying break in the mouth. The taste - smoky, warm, rich, sweet but not too sweet...
I didn't buy that day, but returned a week later with family visiting from abroad. I bought a bar or two, which is quite something since I am a bit of a tightwad and it's jolly expensive (about the price of a pint of Guinness or a cheap bottle of wine, neither of which don't come cheap in Ireland either).
"I assume you find it hard to eat any other type of chocolate now," I said to John, who was on the (vintage, gold and heavily-embossed) till that day.
"Yeah," he said, which was a bit vague. I'm sure he fields comments like that all day, every day. There is a steady stream of visitors to the place and the tills constantly ring with people buying chocolate. One nibble from that white bowl of chocolate samples and you're under a spell - one taste and you're theirs. Awards? They've had a few, and they've only been open since 2014.
For Easter I bought two fancy eggs from Hazel Mountain Chocolate. We split one between us on Easter morning to make it last. That went well...although we were only a hair's breadth from resorting to weighing each portion.
I'll be back to draw more beautiful sights in Hazel Mountain. Keep an eye on my blog for more chocolate fabulousness over the coming days.
Update : off to Bray to see my parents.
"Give them the other egg, " said my husband.
"Great idea!" I said.
"Actually, that was hasty," said Marcel. "Let's keep it."
"No, it's perfect," I said, "I'll bring it to them. "
"They might not be here next year!"
"I can't argue with that now!"
I brought it to Bray, secretly hoping I'd get a bit of the egg.
"For the record, I'm not eating it until you lot go back to Galway, " said Dad. "That way I won't have to share it."