Nestled in the heart of the Bellarmine University campus this past weekend was Louisville’s second cultural celebration of the month. Irish Fest - a two-day extravaganza of food, music, history, and culture from the Emerald Isle – is the main fundraiser for the Irish Arts Foundation, which is “dedicated to promoting awareness, interest and appreciation of Ireland’s rich cultural heritage.”
As my wife and I approached the festival area, we could hear the sounds of Celtic music drifting out towards the parking lot. Emerging onto the quad, we caught sight of the stage, occupied by Louisville-based folk quartet Guilderoy Byrne. Traditional Irish folk music filled the air as festival-goers loitered around eating, drinking, and shopping.
As usual, my main purpose for attending was the food, but we decided to first take a lap around the area and see what there was to see. What there was to see was long rows of tents selling Irish and Celtic arts and crafts. The image of the Celtic knot was everywhere: on pendants, jewelry, t-shirts, hats, even knives. Yes – there was a tent selling decorative daggers.
A long line led to a balloon artist near the children’s area. Whatever the request, he seemed able to fill it, from the simple dog to the three-foot tall balloon hat. Little kids could be seen running around the grass with balloons and cardboard shields on which they had created a crest.
Further back was a second stage, featuring the band Keltricity (also from Louisville). This was near the beer truck - which was, inexplicably, a Miller Lite truck. To their credit, such swill was not being sold that day. The truck poured forth Ireland’s three most popular exports: Harp, Smithwick’s (pronounced by those in the know as “smitticks”), and Guinness.
Lagers often get a bad rap among beer enthusiasts - largely in part because of the overabundance of bland mass-produced products such as Coors and Budweiser - but Harp is proof that lager does not immediately equal tastelessness. While not an incredibly complex beer, it is smooth and mellow, but satisfyingly malty-sweet. It is a nice, refreshing beer perfectly suited for beginners.
Irish red beers have been imitated here in America, often with poor results (I’m looking at you, Killian’s – incidentally, brewed by Coors). Smithwick’s is the real deal; brownish-red in color, it lets the bitter presence of hops be firmly known, while retaining the sweetness of the malts for a nice balance.
Who doesn’t love Guinness? Black as sin, velvety smooth with a creamy head, this is the world’s most popular stout. In fact, it is even used quite often in cooking: for example, right next to the beer truck stood the O’Shea’s food tent, offering Irish Guinness stew.
Five dollars bought a small bowl of the stew – brown broth containing onions, carrots, and beef. It was delicious; the flavorful broth had cooked through the carrots and onions, softening them pleasantly, and the beef had been cooked to a lovely tenderness. (My wife disagreed with my opinion; she declared the stew to be “bland,” a diagnosis I puzzled over for quite a while.) I did, however, have one serious criticism: there was seemingly no trace of Guinness in the flavor of the stew. “It just tastes like a standard stew,” I remarked to my wife. “A very good standard stew, but standard nonetheless.”
At Molly Malone’s tent, I grabbed a plate of the traditional Irish favorite, shepherd’s pie. Despite the fact that the dish contained beef instead of lamb (essential to the “shepherd’s” part of shepherd’s pie), it was absolutely fantastic. Ground meat contained carrots, onions, and peas, all of which was topped by flavorful and not-too-creamy mashed potatoes. This was served with a generous hunk of soda bread, a common side item with Irish meals (comparable to France and baguettes). While most bread dough is raised with the use of yeast, soda bread uses baking soda and buttermilk. The lactic acid in the buttermilk reacts with the baking soda to make tiny carbon dioxide bubbles, giving the bread a dense, soft texture. My wife described it as being “like a savory cake.”
Along with the annual Irish Fest, the Irish Arts Foundation provides events and information about Irish culture year-round for those who are interested in learning about our neighbors across the ocean. Information about the Irish Arts Foundation can be found here.
Graphic courtesy of Irish Fest's Facebook page.