Irish Cuisine Beyond Corned Beef, Potato and Guinness

Oct 26, 2014 by

[This post was originally published on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2014]

[Many thanks to Matthew O’Neill for inspiration and for sharing his great love of Irish food]

As is typical of many regional cuisines around the world, that of the Irish has been influenced by their country’s climate, geography, and history, with many factors melding together to create the culinary sensibilities of the “Emerald Isle”.

ireland_county_mapIt is sometimes jokingly said that Ireland does not have a climate, it has weather. Changes from sunshine to rain can happen within minutes. While Ireland has more rainy days a year than most other parts of Europe, rainfall is not excessive: about 55 inches in the south and west and less than 27 inches in the southeast. Similar crops are grown all over the fertile land of Ireland, yet coastal areas are more reliant of fish and shellfish, while the best cattle comes from the grasslands in the counties of Kildare and Meath. The mountains of Connemara and Wicklow produce the best lamb, and the counties of Wexford and Dublin are famous for high-quality soft fruits. Ireland’s climate is not appropriate for growing vines, and although wine has been imported to the country for centuries, the Irish became expert brewers of distinctive beers and ciders.

The Irish cuisine incorporates ingredients, cooking methods, and dishes developed by consecutive waves of peoples settling the land. Ireland’s earliest human inhabitants arrived some time after the end of the last Ice Age, around 9,000 years ago. They found the island to be thickly forested by hazel, pine, and other tree species. Archeological evidence reveals that the first settlers consumed a variety of edible plants, nuts, berries, and roots. They also fished the waters and hunted smaller game. From archeological remains, it also appears that the first inhabitants did not roam aimlessly over the island but moved between three or four campsites in a yearly pattern governed by seasonal migrations of fish, birds, and animals, and the seasonal availability of plants. In the early spring the settlers camped on the coast near the estuaries of rivers where they harvested shellfish, such as oysters, mussels, clams, and cockles, as well as seaweed. On the incoming tides they caught cod, pollack, and an occasional seabird; they also fished the first-run salmon. In summer, people followed the salmon upstream, harvesting fruit and berries as well. The fall was the time to follow eel downstream and harvest wild hazelnuts, while in winter game and wildfowl could be caught, wild boar being the most prized source of meat. Since no cooking vessels have been discovered in those ancient archeological sites, it appears likely that much of the food was consumed raw or cooked over open fires. It has also been suggested that the Mesolithic inhabitants of Ireland preserved meat and fish by smoking—a technique that is still popular today. The humid climate made it difficult to air-dry fish and all but impossible to do so with meat, but timber for smoking was abundant. Salt, another natural preservative, was produced in pre-Norman times by burning seaweed and boiling the resulting ash with water. The Brehon Laws, ancient Irish law texts written down around 600 CE but passed down orally long before that, refer to the use of murláith (sea ash) for salt. As the kind of salt that we know today is first mentioned in the twelfth century as salann Saxanach (English salt), it probably was introduced by the Normans. As need turned into culinary passion, the Irish have salt-cured and smoked almost anything: mackerel, eel, kippers and other kinds of fish; bacon, ham, and sausages; cheese and even mushrooms. Corned beef, once the traditional favorite for Easter and now a St. Patrick’s Day fixture, is another cured product. Customarily made from lightly salted brisket, slowly cooked with herbs and stout or cider, corned beef is typically eaten with potatoes and cabbage.

Now seemingly the most traditional Irish crops, both potato and cabbage are relatively late arrivals to the island. The first farmers, who arrived in Ireland some 6,000 years ago, cultivated grains, grew sorrel, nettles, and other potherbs, and raised livestock, especially cattle, sheep, and goats. They turned the earth with polished stone axes mounted on long handles. Such primitive implements led to shallow cultivation, which quickly exhausted the soil, so the farmers had to move on, clearing more woodland, leaving their old sites to lie fallow and regenerate. Improved agricultural techniques were brought to Ireland by the next wave of settlers around 2,600 years ago, during the Bronze Age. While we know little about the language of early farmers in Ireland, it is almost certain that this new group spoke a Celtic language, the ancestor of Modern Irish. While many earlier scholars were tempted to depict the Celts as a heavily militarized gang with swords, shields, and wheeled carts that plundered the island and brought about the collapse of the earlier society, the actual picture is more complicated. Sophisticated pollen-analysis techniques suggest that “the dark age for Irish farming” was caused more by soil exhaustion than military invasion. The arrival of the Celts brought the iron plow and allowed the re-establishment of tillage farming, which had all but disappeared over most of the island.

Of the various grains, oats and barley proved to be the best suited for the damp climate of Ireland. Over the centuries, oaten bread became the common staple of the people, while barley bread was later associated with the deliberately Spartan diet of early Christian monks—such as St. Patrick himself—who placed a greater emphasis on grains and vegetables than on meat and dairy. As wheat is difficult to grow in Ireland, wheaten bread became regarded as a delicacy—a treat for feast days and the staple of chieftains and kings. All in all, however, relatively little bread was eaten outside monasteries and the homes of the elite. The main way to consume grain was in porridge, which is still a traditional breakfast food today. Historically, porridge has been made from a variety of grains and flavored with sheep’s or cow’s milk, butter, cream, salt, or honey. Besides porridge St. Patrick probably feasted on cabbage, onions, and leeks. The latter two are native to Ireland, but the cabbage was a novelty in St. Patrick’s days, as it arrived in Ireland in the early Christian period, together with various root crops, peas, and beans. Potato would not come to Ireland for almost another millennium longer, so no champ (mashed potatoes flavored with green onion and herbs) or colcannon (a dish of boiled potatoes mixed with cabbage or kale) for St. Patrick.

Irish cheeseBesides improved plowing techniques, the Celts brought with them a cattle culture. Great herds of cattle roamed the green hills of Ireland, and protecting them from animal and human predators was a full-time occupation. A person’s social standing and wealth was reckoned in units of cattle. The cattle culture—and the passion for bánbhianna (dairy)—survived the coming of Christianity, the Normans, and Cromwell. The Irish sagas and the Brehon Laws are full of references to bánbhianna. A fascinated visitor from England wrote in 1690: “The people generally are the greatest lovers of milk I ever saw which they eat and drink about twenty several sorts of ways and what is strangest love it best when sourest”. Among the “twenty several sorts of ways” to consume milk in Ireland are buttermilk (bláthach), the liquid left after butter making;  treabhantar, a mixture of fresh milk and buttermilk; bainne clabair, thick milk soured naturally or by mixing fresh milk with sour milk; and imúr (fresh butter), which was also salted and sometimes flavored with garlic or leeks, and then stored in wicker baskets buried in a peat bog. (Archeologists discovered baskets of “bog-butter” buried in ancient times—but not in an edible condition.) Milk was also curdled to produce many varieties of cheese, from grús, soft curd (farmer’s cheese) to the many hard cheeses.

According to Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, the dairy-based diet, together with the potato, provided a complete nutritional package for the Irish. Perhaps for that reason, both the dairy culture and the potato incurred the wrath of the English, who sought to dominate Ireland. Numerous historical records bear witness to campaigns of successive English generals against the Irish cattle aimed to starve the Irish people into submission. In 1580 “great preys of cattle were taken from the Irish and so has brought them to the verge of famine”. Twenty years later the Lord Deputy “forced all the cows from the plans into the woods so that for the want of grass they would starve and O’Neill’s people would starve for the want of milk”.

Ireland_populationDespite the common association of modern Ireland with the potato, this tuber—a native of South America—was not established as a crop until the late seventeenth century. It is not known for sure when the potato reached Ireland. One story has it that Sir Walter Raleigh, who had Irish estates near Youghal, introduced the potato to Ireland; solid evidence, however, is lacking. By the early eighteenth century the potato had proven useful in alleviating famines caused by the failure of the oat crop, the most commonly consumed grain, but during winter any potatoes stored above grounds would be vulnerable to freezing. Only in 1770s was a cultivar found that could be stored in damp conditions, making it a perfect staple for Ireland’s poor. Other historical factors also played a role: as much of the best land was placed by the new English “planters” under pasture or to tillage to produce sheep, cattle, and grain for export, the potato became vital for the “mere Irish”, reduced to smallholdings on poor land. As Pollan discusses in detail, the English considered the potato to be a lowly food, particularly as compared to wheat, which requires many more processing steps after harvesting. The potato, in contrast, can be dug out of the dirt, boiled, and eaten. But while the English continued to sneer at the Irish as “the potato eaters”, in Ireland’s climate the humble potato yielded on average nine tons an acre, enough to feed six adult men for a year. With the addition of even small quantities of dairy, vegetables (especially onions, garlic, and leeks), and some occasional meat or fish, the potato provided a relatively healthy diet, which some historians believe contributed to improved health and fertility, increasing the country’s population from three to eight million people in a century (1741-1841).

Ireland_population_change_1841_1851The situation changed dramatically with the arrival from the continent of the potato blight, a fungal parasite that destroyed Ireland’s potato crop in 1845-1849. It is difficult to image today the devastation caused by the blight, particularly in inland areas, where what we would call today “mismanagement of resources” multiplied the effects of the infestation. Coastal communities fared much better, as they could eat fish, shellfish, and seaweed. Although inland lakes also teemed with fish, the poor lacked the means to build boats. They were also prosecuted by landowners enforcing savage game laws: a poacher of hares or rabbits, if caught, faced seven years in overseas penal colonies. The potato famine drove many of the Irish to emigrate, creating a widespread Irish diaspora. But those who remained in Ireland never abandoned their love for the potato, developing distinctive Irish potato dishes, such as the abovementioned champ and colcannon, as well as warm potato salad with bacon and potato soup. A hundred years after the famines, when the population of Ireland was reduced to less than four million, Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh describe the potato fields of his native County Monaghan as a thing of beauty.

distillery map irelandIt is impossible to talk about Irish cuisine without mentioning its brewing and distilling traditions. Irish beers were typically brewed from barley and flavored with hops. Ale, porter, and stout were all “top fermented”. Today Ireland’s large breweries—Guinness, Murphy’s, Beamish, and Smithwicks—are supplemented by a number of microbreweries that produce both traditional and contemporary brews. But grain-based beer and stout are not the only drink of choice for the Irish. At least since the Middle Ages, apples have been used to make the fermented drink called nenadmin; in the sixteenth century apple orchards were expanded and cider grew in popularity. Mead, a fermented honey-based drink, was popular in earlier times but had fallen from fashion by the early nineteenth century. Today it is sometimes served to tourists at “medieval banquets”, but it is nowhere as widely enjoyed as beer and cider, which are not only consumed as a drink but also used to cook such dishes as beef-and-Guinness casserole or haddock in cider sauce.

Distilling was first used to make perfumes and medicines; its use to make hard alcohol is first documented in 1403 in The Annals of the Four Masters, which mocked a man for whom a surfeit of uisce beatha (“water of life”) became uisce marbtha (“water of death”). It is not clear whether uisce beatha refers to distilled wine or to grain whiskey, but it is known that the latter type of drink was common by the middle of the sixteenth century. A tax of four pence a gallon imposed on whiskey drove the production underground. As a result, by the eighteenth century some 2,000 stills were in operation in Ireland. Irish whiskey differs from its cousins produced elsewhere in that it is made only from kiln-dried barley (malted or unmalted), yeast, and pure water; it is distilled three times and matured in oak barrels for up to 21 years. There are about 100 Irish whiskey brands, some of which are not exported. Others, like Jameson, are designed to have wide appeal; this particular brand accounts for about 75% of all Irish whiskey sold worldwide. The Irish often have a lifelong attachment to a particular brand. It is also notable that they never ice their whiskey; “breaking it” with water is optional and drinking it neat is common. Irish coffee, invented in 1943, is a combination of a full measure of whiskey, black coffee and sugar, with lightly whipped cream on top.

A St. Patrick’s Day tradition calls for drinking a significant amount of alcohol, “to drown the shamrock”. Worn as a symbol of the Trinity, the shamrock was placed in the last of many of the pota Pádraig (Paddy’s pots). After a toast, the shamrock plucked from the glass and thrown over the left shoulder for luck.


Happy St. Patrick’s Day!


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