It is only recently that Ireland has become noticed as a destination of food-lovers, in spite of the country’s great agricultural fertility and especially its extremely rich pastures. In many minds, Ireland is still associated with the Great Potato Famine, the catastrophe that befell it in the mid-19th century (see History of Ireland) and that produces a lasting but misleading image of scarcity.
Hospitality has in fact played a role central to Irish culture from a very early point: the surviving Celtic Irish mythology includes a strong emphasis on the duties hosts and guests have to one another, and more specifically on feasting. As today, the dishes prominently mentioned in those early records tend to be meat, dairy, fish and bread. It is generally accepted that the Gaelic court culture which lasted into the late Middle Ages comprised its own cuisine, now mostly lost. During the British domination of Ireland, socio-economic circumstances, impoverishing the farming classes, encouraging the replacement of mixed crops by few (especially the potato) and compelling the upper levels of society to follow the Anglo-Irish ascendancy’s habits, prevented the preservation and the creative development of an Irish cuisine.
That is, however, in the past. Throughout Ireland, a new food culture has developed in recent decades, drawing from local traditions and even more from excellent local produce – while freely accepting and adapting influences from all over. The result is not just surprising, but immensely impressive: the quality and originality of food available in Ireland today is remarkable.
The most important factor in this context are the unusually fine resources available in Ireland. Due to the notably temperate climate, Irish pastures grow grass for about ten months a year: ideal conditions to raise cattle, sheep or pigs. It is not a coincidence that gourmet restaurants in Europe use those products: Irish beef and lamb are among the best available. Irish bacon, smoked over oak, hickory, or many other woods, is to be tasted to be believed.
Irish dairy has been known and appreciated for many centuries; the stock feeding on the green fields of the “Emerald Isle” have been producing wonderfully rich milk, butter and cream to great acclaim. In the last two generations, Ireland has developed a dazzling new tradition of cheese-making, using cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s milk, modelled mostly on French precedents and producing superb results.
Ireland is not rich in fruit, but grows very fine apples (good for pies and cider) and many types of berries. Of course, Ireland does, as one might expect, produce wonderful potatoes of many varieties, flavours and textures.
The greatest culinary wealth of Ireland, in our opinion, comes from its shores and rivers. Salmon, trout, crab, lobster, oysters, mussels and more are copious and of superb quality. A seafood chowder or a crab sandwich in a village pub on the Atlantic Coast can be a first-class gastronomic experience…
For the traveller in Ireland, the day tends to start with breakfast, not a casual affair. The “Full Irish Breakfast” is a cousin to its British counterparts, consisting as a minimum of eggs and (excellent) bacon, but in the proper version accompanied with black pudding (there are many local versions: the one produced in Clonakilty, Co. Cork, has European speciality status), white pudding (delicious, but don’t ask), and often beans or mushrooms. Toasted bread and jam also make their appearance, as might porridge (which played an enormous role in ancient Ireland) or even kippers (smoked herring). The richest version of Irish breakfast is the Ulster Fry, served in the northern part of the country and including remarkably delicious fried bread. More generally, bread plays a major role in Ireland’s culinary identity: Soda Bread and Brown Bread are farmhouse standards, but versions using potatoes, tomatoes and various herbs are now also common.
Lunch on the road can vary widely, from a bowl of soup (Ireland does good soup, usually of the creamy vegetable variety), or a simple but freshly made sandwich (BLT with Irish bacon!) to a full “carvery” lunch, as served in many restaurants or pubs, consisting of succulent slices of slow-cooked meat and gravy, usually accompanied by mashed potato and some other vegetables – it is based on what used to be the principal meal for farming communities: in rural contexts, the mid-day meal was the main one of the day, and was thus often called “dinner”.
The evening meal, dinner (or “supper”, or “tea”) is now the most substantial for many Irish people, as it is the time when families are at home. For the traveller, it is also likely to be the most significant meal of the day, and there are many options. In homes, it is commonly like the lunch described above, but in more formal settings, it is most often a three-course meal of starter, mains and dessert. A fine restaurant dinner can of course be deliberately exotic, as in Indian, Chinese, Italian or French, but it can also now be Irish: gourmet cuisine based on Irish tradition and Irish ingredients is firmly established and highly recognised these days.
In spite of the vagaries of history, Ireland has managed to maintain many speciality foods and it has recently made very credible efforts to increase their range, by adopting and adapting a wide range of foreign influences.
Irish aged beef is a big thing now: the best European steaks you can find include Irish offers, and the type of cattle is usually specified, as might be the duration of ageing. Irish bacon, streaky or meagre, plain or smoked on wood, is top-quality and can compete globally. Wicklow Lamb, based on the 12-months-a-year-pastures of the Wicklow Mountains, is tasty beyond words. So is Clonakilty Black Pudding, so are Dublin Bay Prawns, Mayo Crab or Lobster, or any Irish Wild Salmon, smoked or fresh, not to mention Galway Bay Oysters or Mussels.
Given the wonderfully creative use of external influences, a field where the open-minded creativity of Irish cuisine matches that of Irish music or literature, there is also a range of properly Irish recipes and they are worth investigating. Irish stew? Sure, everyone knows that one and it’s more than fine when well done: a succulent mixture of meat (usually beef or mutton) and as many different vegetables as available – but is rarely served in Ireland, as it’s a navy dish. What about Colcannon? Buttery potato mash with kale stirred in – rooted in Irish soil and absolutely fantastic! Boxty? A fluffy potato flatbread that can be used like pita bread but is much tastier. Coddle? An urban dish: a rich stew of sausages, potatoes, carrots, bacon and whatever else, served with panache. These are all based on traditional farmers’ or fishermen’s treats and that’s where the wealth of the Irish tradition lies: simple dishes based on superb ingredients and careful cooking, perfectly sufficient, but with potential for a clever chef to twist a little and take them to another level.
Ireland and the Irish are, by way of cliché, associated with the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Let that be as it may, the country produces some superb and distinctive speciality drinks. Soft drinks include mineral water from so many springs in a country richer in water than any other. Lacking much fruit. Ireland has a limited tradition in flavoured soft drinks, the most distinctive being “red lemonade”, essentially conventional lemonade coloured with cochineal.
The most famous Irish drink is stout, a black and somewhat bitter beer, produced using roasted malts, hops and yeast and most commonly known through the famous Dublin brand, Guinness. This is the top end – in terms of visibility – of a rich tradition, including stouts, porters, lagers, “red beers” and more, recently expanded by the development of many micro-breweries scattered throughout the country. The quintessentially Irish experience that is an evening at a pub (ideally a Dublin, Belfast or other city pub, or a rural or village pub, distinguished by décor and local scene) does include enjoying Irish beer.
There is no Irish wine to speak of, although there is a very old tradition of importing claret Sherry or Port from France or Spain.
For stronger spirits, Ireland offers superb choices. Irish Whiskey (note the e) was the world’s most popular spirit until the late 19th century, when it went into a steep decline that was eventually halted and reversed in the last few decades. Irish Whiskey is usually double- or triple-distilled and achieves wonderful smoothness, as it rarely uses peat for roasting the malt. In recent years, there are also Irish Single Malts and Irish “Peated Whiskies”, many produce by newly-founded small distilleries. They are all worth trying. Rural regions have a still-living tradition of illegitimately-distilled potato- or grain-based spirits called poitín, ideally very potent and very illegal. Poitín is not openly or regularly available: if you can find it, give it go, but be careful…
Special mention needs to be made here of tea. At 3.22kg (114oz) per person per year, Ireland has the highest consumption of tea in Europe and the third highest in the world (well ahead of the UK’s 2.79kg/98oz). Tea is consumed at virtually all occasions, at home, at work, when going out, alone, with friends, with a meal, and so on. It is also an important part of Irish notions of home and identity: no matter how versatile the Irish have been as immigrants all over the planet, they will bring Irish teas with them if at all possible. Tea does not, of course, grow in Ireland: Irish producers blend imported tea leaves, most commonly black teas of the Assam variety. Many such blends are available: they tend to be strong and are traditionally enjoyed with a generous swig of fresh milk and sugar to taste. An English-style “afternoon tea”, accompanied with biscuits or cake, is now quite common, but in rural communities “tea” used to be the early evening meal.