slieve gullion

slieve gullionI’ve hiked and driven these quiet lanes so many times over the years that I sometimes take it for granted how much this part of Northern Ireland is soaked in history and mythology. Slieve Gullion – literally, mountain of the steep slope in Irish – is the eroded remains of a Paleocene volcano. It lies at the heart of the Ring of Gullion, which is itself a topographical curiosity only recently understood: an ancient ring dyke. (With the collapse of an active volcano’s caldera, a concentric ring of fault lines radiate outwards. Magma is extruded through these fractures to create mountains which are a geologically helter-skelter composite at their surface. Here the mix is molten granite with igneous rock from the Silurian period some 400 million years ago.) It’s the highest point in County Armagh, and on that rare clear day offers views as far away as Dublin Bay and Wicklow. At the top of the mountain are two cairns on either side of a small lake. The southern one is the highest surviving passage grave in Ireland – radiocarbon dating suggests it was built circa 3000 BC – and its entrance is aligned to the setting sun of the winter solstice. According to legend, however, Slieve Gullion is named after Culann, the metalsmith. And it is here that the legendary warrior Sétanta spent his childhood and received the name Cúchulainn. Culann invited Conchobhar mac Neasa, King of Ulster, to a feast at his house on the slopes of Slieve Gullion. On his way, Conchobhar stopped at the hurling field and was so impressed by Sétanta’s playing that he asked him to later join him at the feast. Conchobhar went ahead, but he forgot about Sétanta, and Culann let loose his ferocious hound to guard the house. When Sétanta arrived the hound attacked him, but he killed it by driving a hurling ball down its throat with his hurley. Culann was devastated by the loss, so Sétanta promised to rear him a replacement, and until it was old enough to do the job, he would guard Culann’s house. Henceforth he was known as Cúchulainn, or Culann’s Hound. But that’s just the beginning for young Cúchulainn, who will later single-handedly defend Ulster against the invading Connacht armies of Queen Medh at the nearby Gap of the North and take his place as Irish literature’s greatest mythic hero. All in a day’s hike, as they say.

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look ma, no gluten

Over the last two years or so, the humble pizza pie has morphed from an object of cult-like devotion inside a small group of New York City obsessives into a sacred cow at the center of a full-fledged crust war among a clique of self-appointed pizza promise-keepers: Totonno’s, Roll-n-Roaster, Keste, Co, Roberta’s, Rizzo’s, Otto, Nick’s, L&B Spumoni, Denino’s, Artichoke Basille’s, Di Fara, Pulino’s and don’t forget 99¢ Fresh Pizza. Each new arrival – and they lately seem to arrive with alarming alacrity – slaps against the old guard claiming esoteric layers of heretofore unheard of authenticity.  It all sounds vaguely Sharks versus Jets until you remember that the man behind Carroll Gardens’ nationally ranked Lucali pie, Mark Iacono, was stabbed in the face during an argument over sauce last year. (Or maybe it was a mob shakedown – the facts remains sketchy) Still, the cupcakeification of what many folks fondly recall as the ultimate in after-hours stoner food is enough to make a reasonable individual shake their head. I have a sneaking suspicion I could get shot for this, but what is the big deal about pizza anyway? I don’t understand the extremism. (And why can’t we all just get along?) Maybe it’s me. Maybe now that I am relatively gluten-free the dough-sauce-cheese combo doesn’t, for all practical purposes, enter my brain as a viable option. When Don Antonio by Starita‘s wood-fired oven opened a block away from my office I couldn’t have cared less, though among the pizzerati it was monumental event: Keste’s Roberto Caporuscio teaming up with his Naples mentor, Antonio Starita. A menu dropped at my desk weeks later boasted of filled pizza, white pizza, stuffed pizza, fried pizza, Pope’s pizza and lo and behold, senza glutine pizza. If third generation pizza royalty could pull off a gluten-free pie, perhaps I was ready to finally give pizza its due. And so one afternoon I hesitantly did, visiting Don Antonio for lunch and settling in with a co-worker over a glass of Montepulciano, shaved fennel salad, and Prosciutto e Arugula, a gluten-free pie topped with homemade mozzarella, prosciutto di parma, arugula and extra virgin olive oil. As expected the pizza arrived perfectly composed, like a Renaissance art work. The crust was heavier than its genetic forebear, the Neapolitan thin crust, and denser, too. It didn’t hold up to the slice test but worked beautifully with a knife and fork. Good sauce, mild cheese, a nice balance of salty pork playing off peppery greens. And mamma mia, was it filling! To my chagrin I could barely finish half. Which made things very convenient for the second part of any proper pizza test: leftovers. Let me state for the record, I do not recommend taking gluten-free pizza home. Something texturally odd happens once the magma cools. It develops the unpleasant rubber-meets-air consistency of a whoopie cushion or a pancake made of polenta, simultaneously pillowy and heavy. It went down like a lead balloon, reminding me how often certain foods are at their best when eaten on a craven whim – a piping hot whim. And that’s my problem:  I’m too much of a conscious eater as of late. Pizza warriors, duke it out amongst yourselves. But count me ready to take up arms once it comes to defending the one true quinoa.

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