While Ireland was long known as a country of famine and privation — even as a cautionary tale — this proud and poetic nation has recently turned a new culinary corner. Along with this Celtic culinary renaissance has come a reawakening of interest in historical Irish cuisine and a desire to carry it into the future.
Irish Cuisine: A Background
Ireland is a large island in the northwest corner of Europe. Situated alongside the warming Gulf Stream, it benefits from a temperate climate, heavy rainfall and rich soil which combine to paint the Irish countryside its fabled forty shades of green.
The Irish People
The history of Irish cuisine is to a large extent the history of the Irish people. The first known inhabitants of the Emerald Isle arrived around 8,000 years ago, soon after the retreat of the glaciers. This is the culture that was responsible for the large stone monuments and megaliths that dot the Irish countryside to this day. These stone-age inhabitants took advantage of abundant seafood on the coast and wild game in the oak forests of the interior. They gathered wild lettuces, watercress, berries and hazelnuts and even made culinary use of the seaweed known as Irish moss. A simple form of agriculture seems to have begun around 4500 B.C., when the cultivation of wheat, oats and barley was introduced from Britain and the continent. Domesticated animals such as sheep, goats and cattle supplemented the simple yet nutritious diet with milk, butter, cheese and meat.
The Celts and their druid culture began to arrive around 600 B.C., and over next 1,000 years they came to dominate Irish culture and cuisine. Theirs seems to have been a cattle raising culture. The cattle were used for buttermilk, cheese and butter in the spring and summer months. They were then culled as winter approached, the meat salted and stored. Simple oat and barley breads were baked over peat fires. Most dishes were stewlike and simmered for hours in large iron cauldrons. Meats were roasted on spits. Winged game was sometimes wrapped whole in a covering of clay and baked in hot embers.
Beverages generally consisted of weak ales made from grain as well as mead made from fermented honey. The ruling classes had access to wine which was traded from the Gauls in the south in exchange for pelts. Blood was often drained in unharmful amounts from cattle, mixed with grains and salted to form simple blood puddings, still often part of an Irish breakfast. Salmon and trout were gathered from streams and rivers. Household gardens grew things like carrots, parsnips, kale, onions and cabbage. Honey was used to season meats.
Tradition holds that St. Patrick arrived in Ireland in 432 A.D. to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. While the details are surrounded in myth, Christianity did eventually take hold in Ireland, and the old druid culture collapsed. At around the same time, the old Roman Empire also fell. (Much of the writings and wisdom of the ancients survived only in Irish monasteries). The next few hundred years were a time of wars and Viking invasions.
The next chapter of Irish history and cookery began with the arrival of Anglo-Normans in the mid-12th century. This marked the start of a long, slowly darkening period for the Irish nation. Although new ingredients and methods of cooking were introduced with the coming of the English and Scots, most of the innovation had no effect on the mass of the Irish people. With British domination ensued a clearing of the ancient forests and a pushing of the peasants off the best land and to the south and west. The Irish farmer, who had once owned his land, benefited from a cottage garden and kept one or two cattle, became a tenant farmer or worse, a slave. The Irish diet became simpler, starker and bleaker.
The Great Potato Famine
Given this backdrop, the introduction of the potato from the Americas in the 1600s seemed like a godsend. The potato thrived in the Irish soil and climate. High-yielding and packed with carbohydrates, the tuber came to totally dominate the Irish table, particularly a variety called the "lumper". Periodic crop failures led to short famines over the next 150 years, but it was the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849 that truly changed Ireland forever. A blight attacked the monoculture fields of lumpers and destroyed the entire crop countrywide. An estimated 1 million of Ireland's 8.5 million people died of starvation. Another 2 million emigrated. Many of those left were reduced to begging. Irish culture survived and even spread to America, Australia and other emigree destinations. And all but the northeast counties achieved independence from Britain in the 1920s. But the country did not truly recover from the disaster until the latter half of the 20th century.
Ireland has now pulled itself out of the privation of the past. A full member of the European Union, it has lately experienced a renaissance of interest in Irish cuisine. Old favorites and ingredients are being revisited with a lighter touch and a new approach. The famous cooking school at Ballymaloe is at the forefront of this new cuisine and is spreading its influence across the kelly-colored countryside.
Irish cooking is still centered largely around the potato which is used as an ingredient in stews, such as Irish stew, or made into breads or cakes, like boxty and fadge. Soda bread is the great Irish bread, traditionally baked in a covered iron pot over an open fire. While meat was fairly hard to come by in harder times, lamb, beef and pork often find their way onto the Irish table nowadays. Blood, or black, puddings continue an ancient art. Salmon, trout and lobster are also enjoyed. Dublin Bay prawns are famous. Dairy products figure large at the table. Buttermilk, cheeses are butter are taken alone, with a piece of bread or used as ingredients in dishes.
Commonly used vegetables include carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, cabbage, kale scallions and onions. Oats are used in breads and as a breakfast porridge. Barley often stretches stews, and split peas make for a tasty soup.
Irish beer, particularly Guinness and Harp, are world famous. Irish pubs are now found in most major cities of the world, spreading the cheer. Irish whiskey has a similar far-flung reputation. It is known to be sweeter and clearer than its smoky Scottish cousin.
Irish Meals and Eating Habits
The Irish have historically taken a large, heavy breakfast known as the "full Irish breakfast". Given the modern reduction of heavy physical labor and the concerns of millions of doctors, a lighter breakfast of bread and jam or oatmeal is becoming commoner. Lunchtime is traditionally the largest meal of the day. This is followed by a late afternoon cup of tea and perhaps a scone or piece of barm brack. Dinnertime is usually lighter fare, although city folk make this their main meal. The evening meal might also be taken in a pub along with a pint, the company of friends, a game of darts and an ancient, sad, sad ballad.
Typical Irish Dishes