Start your day the Irish way

When I call my friend in Dublin and ask him for a 7 a.m. airport pick-up, I get an odd response. "A good time for Del Rio, you know."

Translation: my early arrival is the perfect excuse to indulge in "Ireland's best meal" - breakfast. And Cafe Del Rio, across from the Abbey Theatre, - despite its ironic name - is one of the best places to make a first acquaintance with Irish cuisine.

"I rarely eat like this anymore," Paul fibs over the welcome feast - fried eggs, sausages, white and black pudding, Irish bacon, grilled tomatoes, and four slices of soda bread.

"And I don't really like breakfast," I answer.

"So where shall we eat tomorrow morning?" we laugh.

From simple bake shops to regal hotel dining rooms, Dublin boasts hundreds of places to get a good "morning fry-up." I'd read that these huge breakfasts are typically prepared on weekends, but in the city, breakfast fans and I (oh, the luxury of a vacationer's schedule!) dine seven days a week, anywhere from 6 a.m. to late afternoon. According to Paul, "People will find time for their eggs."

Breakfast here is so hearty you're not likely to want to eat again until dinner. Which is precisely the point. Traditionally workers ate a large meal at daybreak, in hopes they'd remain satisfied throughout the day.

Health-conscious cooks now often grill their breakfast. But truth be told, frying is a faster and much tastier method. But most breakfast cooks do agree that bacon must be the first ingredient in this one-skillet dish.

Bacon "rashers", which give breakfast its special, smoky flavor, have more meat than the bacon we get in the United States. Irish sausages, or bangers, are different as well, containing less gristle and fat than the "breakfast links" served in the States. And black and white "puddings" aren't really pudding at all, but two-inch pieces of link sausage. White pudding, light brown in color, is made from ground pork and rolled with bread crumbs, allspice, nutmeg, and thyme. The black version is similar, though colored dark brown with pig's blood.

After the rashers blacken around the edges and the sausages and puddings crisp up, slices of juicy tomato join the lot - in the same pan, of course.

"The liquid from the tomatoes gives the eggs a nice flavor to cook in," explains another Irish friend who invites me to her house for my fourth Irish breakfast. Her brown soda bread is delightful, almost crumbly with a subtle sour tang. I slather pieces with raspberry jam but later learn that butter is best; it acts as a lubricant to help swallow the coarse, stoneground bread. Soda breads are so dense you can feel the weight in your hand. And in your stomach for hours afterward.

That's one reason why I don't take part in the frenzy of Dublin's current food revolution. I'm too full - and busy reveling in breakfast - to enjoy any 'ne' old Irish dishes.

But I do have room to wonder: Where does all this attention to a new-fangled Dublin cuisine leave the traditional Irish breakfast?

"Still the same," opines a diner I meet at the airport cafe on my last morning in Ireland. "Why fix something that's not broken?"

*Authentic Irish products may be purchased from a specialty butcher or call Galtee Meats Ltd. at: 800-386-7577.

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