No Chips in the Bar

October 6, 2010

Last weekend I got away with my sisters to beautiful Donegal. We stayed in a small seaside village, in a guesthouse that I first visited as a six year old. In the last few years it has had a makeover and is now styled as a ‘luxury beachhouse’. The décor is tasteful, understated and chic; white walls and bed linen, white painted floorboards, navy blinds and pale blue cushions. It is situated next to one of the most spectacular beaches in Donegal. The entire front of the ground floor is glass, to take in the stunning view of the beach and the small island just offshore.

Preparing to tackle the Donegal waves

 Arlene, a pastry chef, runs the guesthouse and does all the cooking. Her mission in life is to make every guest feel as welcome as possible. Croissants were put in the oven as we set off for a quick walk on the beach before breakfast, we were welcome to traipse through the house in damp, sandy wetsuits, tea and coffee was made on demand.

Best of all was the restaurant. We had a memorable dinner there on the second night and all the food was beautifully prepared and presented. The place was packed – it’s open to non-residents – so much so they even had two sittings. All this in a remote village that all-but shuts down at the end of August (I won’t even mention the ‘R’ word here). Two nights B&B with one dinner cost a princely €120 per person.

After a late breakfast of eggs Benedict on the second morning we reluctantly departed, but not before two of us had booked to return with our families.

On our way home we stopped off for food at the Slieve Russell. This hulking monster of a hotel is plonked incongruously outside the village of Ballyconnell in Cavan. With its ‘big-is-beautiful’ ethos it looks like it was designed by a committee of Tiger-era developers. It probably was, it’s owned by Sean Quinn after all. Inside, you could be in any bland hotel anywhere in the country with the usual vomit-inducing patterned carpets, marble pillars and overstuffed striped velvet sofas.

It was about five o’clock. We had not eaten since our late breakfast and were after a quick dinner in the bar, of the fish and chips or bowl of pasta variety. Alas, this proved impossible. The bar menu was limited to sandwiches and soup. If we wanted anything more substantial we were told our only option was to take a seat in the formal restaurant. A quick glance at the menu soon ruled this out. All main courses were around the €20 mark and if we wanted chips with our beer-battered fish that would be an extra €3.50 thanks.

Undaunted, we decided to order sandwiches in the bar with a couple of side orders of chips. Sometimes you just really, really want to have chips, and this was one of those occasions. Imagine our disappointment when we were emphatically informed by the bar staff that they operate a firm ‘No Chips in the Bar’ policy at the Slieve Russell. This rule proved non-negotiable. Chips in the bar was an absolute no-no, a no-can-do, a more-than-my-job’s-worth request. We ordered the sandwiches and quietly fumed at the thought of other people’s chips being prepared in the same kitchen as our sandwiches.

What a contrast with Carnaween House, our wonderful Donegal bolt-hole. We weren’t expecting the same nothing-is-too-much-trouble, personal service from the Slieve Russell, but a bit more flexibility wouldn’t have killed them.

Ireland is overrun with big, characterless hotels with golf courses and spas attached. If we want to attract tourists back here we need more stylish, genuinely welcoming, value for money destinations with great food, run with care and a spark of imagination.


My Secret Shame

August 3, 2010

  • I have a secret. My secret is this.

About once a month, when nobody else is around, I get into my car and drive to a fairly grim retail park on the northside of Dublin. When I spot what I’m after, I pull up the car, roll down the window and speak to a teenager wearing a baseball cap. I hand over my money and am given a package. I drive off again, to a quiet spot in the car park. Only then do I open the package and get my hands on……a Big Mac Meal.

I love Big Macs. I love the cheap white bread of the soft sesame seed buns. I love the ‘secret sauce’. I love the melted plastic cheese. I even love the pickles.

But my McDonalds habit fills me with shame. I never discuss it with friends or family. I always use a drive-through (sorry, ‘thru’) rather than queue up at the counter with my tracksuit-wearing fellow customers. I park well away from other cars while eating the food, and always dispose of the packaging before I get home.

This shame has got nothing to do with problems around food or eating or an obsession with weight loss. Up to the age of about thirty, I was a skinny person. Since then, a combination of motherhood, encroaching middle age and reduced mobility (I need a hip replacement) has changed that. I have a definite muffin top and could do with losing about a stone, but that’s probably never going to happen. Diets are alien territory to me, I have limited will power and frankly, I just don’t care that much. Being quite tall, I tell myself I can carry a bit of extra weight.

Cooking is a pleasure, I love to eat well and can cook a mean Thai green curry from scratch. My weekly bag of organic, locally grown produce is delivered to the door, there are very few foods I don’t enjoy and I love visiting the occasional fine dining restaurant. But pizza, fish and chips and Chinese takeaways also form part of my diet and I have a weakness for tortilla chips and Mr Kipling’s French Fancies. However, I never feel guilty about eating any of it. Basically, I pretty much eat what I like.

So, how to explain the unique shame of the furtive McDonalds trips?

Could it be because I associate it with the most miserable experience of my working life, when I worked as a ‘crew member’ as a teenager? I still remember it vividly; the hyperactive, bossy managers, the smell of vinegar on my hands from the huge plastic buckets of pickles, the beeping of the machines instructing the drones when to flip the burgers. Most of all I remember the catchphrase ‘Time to lean, time to clean!’ (© McDonalds Corporation) being bellowed at me several times during every shift – I wasn’t the most motivated of crew members.

We were given free food if we worked a sufficiently long shift. The rumour among the crew members was that they put some addictive ingredient in the food. Did this get me hooked? I doubt it, except in the sense that the human body craves fat, salt and sugar.

I have read ‘Fast Food Nation’ by Eric Schlosser. I have seen Morgan Spurlock’s documentary ‘Supersize Me’. But my mortification predates these exposés of McDonalds and other fast food companies. I was embarrassed before I even learned the truth, but it wasn’t enough to put me off. My cloak and dagger trips even continued during the BSE scare.

If I have to pick a reason for my shame, it must come down to snobbery. Your stereotypical McDonalds customer is a young, working class mother giving her kids a treat, someone popping in for a milkshake on the way back from the methadone clinic, or a hoodie-wearing teenager attracted by the sheer cheapness of the food (€6.50 for the Big Mac meal!). In other words, not me.

My visits will no doubt continue, though now that I have posted to this blog, they are no longer a secret. I have finally outed myself. I’m lovin’ it.