In honor of St. Patrick's Day, a day when everyone's a wee bit Irish, we present a guide to the evolution of Irish cuisine past and present.
For most of the last two centuries, Irish cooking has been dominated by one terrible event: the dreadful famine of the mid-1840s, when the failure of the potato crop — on which the peasant population depended — led to a savage death toll and a global diaspora of Irish people. After this experience, traditional staples came to be regarded as "famine food" — a necessity, and nothing more. The idea of an indigenous fine cuisine seemed ridiculous, and the country's native ingredients were held in low regard.
For thousands of years before the potato famine, however, Ireland's people enjoyed an atmosphere of bounty. According to the folklorist Brid Mahon, the first settlers "hunted and trapped the red deer and wild pig; they fished the rivers for salmon, trout, and eels, and snared pigeon, duck, and grouse." When agriculture began, farmers exploited a benign climate where grass grew year-round. Even when, around 500 BC, temperatures cooled to their current levels, soft rains and the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream created a temperate land where wheat, barley, oats, and rye were easily cultivated and grazing cows, sheep, and goats produced superior dairy products.
Abundance followed by deprivation
Throughout the Middle Ages, Ireland's population exploited this land of plenty. The medieval tale The Vision of MacConglinne is full of rhapsodic descriptions of hearty sausages and blood puddings, crusty bread and sweet butter, fresh milk and strong ale. A tradition of unsurpassed hospitality reflected this abundance: A traveler crossing the country could expect to be welcomed with food and lodging at every farmstead he passed.
But then everything changed. Introduced from the New World in the 17th century, the potato became not just a food but the stuff of life itself. Easily grown, it enabled a population explosion — as Irish food writer Darina Allen writes, "With only an acre or two of land a farmer could grow enough potatoes to support his whole family." There were rumblings of trouble before the famine, but as the scholar Redcliffe Salaman notes, "So completely had the potato woven itself into the web of the life and thought of the people, that no greater attention was given to such warnings than would have been the case had they been told that the rains would cease to fall from heavens on their fields."
The rains did not fail to fall. But the potato did fail, when a fungus called phytophthora infestans destroyed several successive crops, leading to widespread starvation.
In the aftermath, a pall was cast over Irish attitudes toward food. For the lower classes, traditional recipes were eaten — and enjoyed — but never discussed. For the bourgeoisie, "fine dining" meant imitating French cooking, a habit that remained until the latter part of the 20th century.
So what changed? How can we, today, talk about a dynamic, creative contemporary Irish cuisine?
One vital factor was the decision of Myrtle Allen to open her home, Ballymaloe House in eastern County Cork, to diners in 1964. Unlike most chefs at the time, Allen cooked simple — and superb — Irish food. She did not imitate French cooking, and she sourced her ingredients from her immediate locality. Mackerel and scallops came from nearby Ballycotton Bay, beef and lamb from local butchers. Ducks and geese — reared just up the road — were simply roasted. Oysters were served hot and buttered. Soups were of simple things such as watercress, carrot, or cucumber. Crisp apples were made into tarts.
Thus began a new confidence about the foods the Irish could produce and cook themselves. Allen has remained a torchbearer for native Irish cooking, and her imprimatur has been seized on by a subsequent generation of family members. Today, while her restaurant still thrives, her daughter-in-law, Darina, runs a world-renowned cooking school just a few miles away, and her granddaughter, Rachel, has become a homegrown television cooking star.Dining in and out
While Ireland still does not have a food culture comparable to those of Italy or France, home cooks are starting to give greater value to their culinary heritage. It helps that Irish cooking never became as industrialized as in, for instance, England, where some products such as artisanal cheeses nearly disappeared during the 20th century. In Ireland, traditional dishes such as roast leg of lamb still form the centerpiece of weekend family dinners. Cooks still combine simple ingredients such as mashed carrots and parsnips and rich, golden butter to produce wholesome, delicious dishes free of elaborate sauces or exotic spices. And now, more and more people are concentrating on those simple ingredients, shopping at farmers' markets for top-notch dairy products and rediscovering forgotten native specialties such as venison.
At the same time, as the Irish economy has exploded over the past decade, 30 years worth of financial and social change have been squeezed into just 10. This has opened up the country to global influences, for better and worse. Living in modern Ireland is a helter-skelter experience, and everything can be adapted and adopted, from Thai green curry to Spanish tortillas. There is much more processed and "fast" food, but there are also dynamic chefs with well-heeled patrons happy to pay high prices for their cooking.
Many of these restaurateurs borrow techniques from around the globe, bringing them back home to bear upon superb local ingredients. At Michelin-starred Chapter One in Dublin, chef Ross Lewis serves such fare as pheasant soup with chestnuts, pig's trotter boudin, and Crozier sheep's milk blue cheese from County Tipperary. At Roscoff Brasserie in Belfast, Paul Rankin is equally creative.
Today, if you choose carefully, you can eat superbly well in Ireland, both at home and in restaurants.