Full Irish Breakfast – “a heart attack on a plate”.
Unlike countries such as Italy, Ireland was never famous for its food. Visitors over the years observed that although hearty meals were widely available, Irish cuisine was virtually non-existent, being virtually indistinguishable from the British, and that most of the few good restaurants that did exist tended to serve dishes of French inspiration.
The list of traditional Irish food recipes is quite short, comprising a number of simple potato dishes, stews and soups, some flavoursome pork products, seaweed and several types of bread / cake.
This does not mean that there was no good food in Ireland. However, for over two centuries a high percentage of Irish people lived in such abject poverty that they had to rely for sustenance on growing their own potatoes; anything else was beyond their means, so that even buttermilk came to be regarded as a luxury. When the potato crops failed, thousands starved to death or succumbed to disease, most notoriously in 1740 – 1741, known as blian an áir (“year of the slaughter”), during the Gorta Mór / Great Famine of 1845 – 1849, and the 1879 Gorta Beag (“mini-Famine”).
Although the rich folk in the Big Houses ate well, they tended to follow English gastronomic tradition, and were aped in this as in so much else by the middle classes. The result was an impressive range of what would nowadays be regarded as old fashioned but nonetheless delicious “Sunday lunch” type dishes.
Since the end of the C19th most Irish households have lived on much the same diet as the rest of the British Isles, with only occasional local variations. Irish kitchens long had a reputation for producing bland, overcooked meals. This situation has changed markedly for the better in recent years. Foreign travel and the arrival of immigrants from around the globe have had a huge impact. Ireland now produces a broad range of high quality food, some positively exotic. Sadly, there is still a lot of food in Ireland of indifferent inspiration, but all agree that the general standard has improved considerably in response to increasingly sophisticated demand.
Many of the best Irish recipes are for soups and stews. There are also excellent savoury and sweet pies, puddings and flans, and other wonderful desserts. The best thing about good Irish food has always been the high quality of the ingredients.
Potatoes (pratai -“praties” / “spuds”) still hold pride of place in the national diet, not only for their historical significance, but simply because they are so much appreciated in every form imaginable.
New potatoes are particularly prized; many Irish people would regard a dish of these or even older potatoes, boiled, steamed or baked with or wihout their skins, and served with melting butter, as superior to sex. The “floury” or “soapy” quality of the tubers is much debated.
Peeled potatoes in mashed or roast form are also highly acceptable; they should be boiled or at least parboiled beforehand.
Although chips are as popular in Ireland as anywhere else in the Western world, the homecut versions are regarded as vastly superior to American style “French fries”.
Colcannon (Cál ceannan – “white-headed cabbage”) and Champ/ Rosie / Poundies (Brúitin) are traditional dishes of mashed potato with cabbage / kale / wild garlic / scallions (spring onions), butter / cream / milk and salt and pepper. Colcannon is served on Hallowe’en with coins hidden in it.
Boxty is a type of potato pancake. Potasto farls and potato cakes are also traditional fare in Ulster.
Irish potatoes sell well but have to compete with varieties imported in large quantities from the Netherlands and elsewhere.
Seasonal vegetables include cabbages, cauliflowers, leeks, kale, broccoli, celery, carrots, parsnips and big purple / orange root vegetables known in Ireland as turnips, in Scotland as neeps and elsewhere as swedes (from Swedish turnip), rutabagas or yellow turnips (Brassica napobrassica, originally a cross between a white turnip and a cabbage).
Peas, beans, Brussels sprouts and spinach are also grown, but as in many Western countries, are often bought frozen.
Mushrooms are best picked dew-fresh and wild. Fried in butter, they are food fit for a deity. Only one type, the Agaricus bisporus or button mushroom, is commonly eaten in Ireland, and knowlegeable mycophagists are rare. The farmed variety are of course the most common, and have been blamed for reducing the population of Karsava in Latvia by over a third – not for any poisonous qualities, but because most of the industry workers in Ireland come from there.
Onions and tomatoes grow in Ireland, but demand is so high that they tend to be imported from Spain and other southern countries. Irish scallions (spring onions) are delicious. Tinned tomatoes and tubes of tomato purée often feature in recipes.
Garlic is no longer viewed with suspicion as a continental eccentricity.
Herbs used in Irish cooking commonly include thyme, sage, rosemary, fennel, dill, oregano, basil and
Spices used in Irish cooking include nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, coriander and cardomum.
There has been a big increase in the range of vegetables commonly used (peppers, courgettes, aubergines etc.). Salads ingredients have also become more varied and interesting. Vegetarians are no longer regarded as cranks.
Irish Fish & Seafood
For an island, surprisingly little seafood is consumed in towns other than fishing ports (apart from, and maybe due to, the old Roman Catholic tradition of eating fish on Fridays).
The range is excellent, from inexpensive fresh pilchards or herring to turbot, cod, plaice, sole, bream, bass, hake, halibut, angler / monkfish, whiting, haddock, and ray, and other delights such as lobster, crayfish, prawns, crabs, scallops, oysters, mussels and squid.
Irish salmon and trout are very good. Irish smoked salmon is famous, and other smoked fish are also tasty.
Sea anglers like to consume at least part of their freshly-caught sharks, while coarse river fishermen can also eat bream,pike or perch.
Irish oysters are delicious with Guinness – try this combination at the annual Clarenbridge Oyster Festival!
Even “take-away” fish’n’chips can be delicious, especially in fishing ports.
Cockles, whelks and periwinkles are an old-fashioned seaside treat.
Ireland’s piscaculture industry is growing rapidly, mainly for export trade. Farmed seafood is never as good as the wild variety, but produce from Ireland’s west coast is nonetheless tasty.
Irish Cattle: Beef & Veal
Roast beef served pink with horseradish sauce and baked / roast potatoes with butter and Brussels sprouts is my idea of heaven; blood gravy is an optional extra delight, even better with Yorkshire pudding (regarded in some circles as un-Irish).
Beef & Guiness Stew / Pie, incorporating lots of mushrooms, onions and carrots, is a dish fit for a monarch of either gender, while a good Steak & Kidney Pie would be meet for a feast in Valhalla.
A good grilled or fried Irish steak with chips / sautéed potatoes and onions and/or mushrooms is hard to improve on!
Contrary to a widespread American myth, corned beef is not popular in Ireland, but we do enjoy hamburgers!
Irish Pigs: Pork, Ham, Bacon & other pork products.
Roast pork is delicious, especially when roast to a turn so it has lots of crackling. This is traditionally served with apple sauce, roast potatoes and seasonal vegetables.
Pork chops are grilled or fried.
Joints of ham or bacon are also often boiled or roasted, sometimes glazed with honey. This is traditionally served with parsley sauce, cabbage and boiled potatoes.
Cold sliced Irish ham is not as strongly flavoured as Continental cured ham, but makes an excellent sandwich with butter and mustard, and goes well in a salad.
Processed Irish ham is sad, rubbery and irredeemable.
Irish rashers of bacon are very flavoursome, and superior to most I have tasted elsewhere. The best are bought in butchers’ shops or at least at the meat counter rather than the packaged food compartment in the supermarket.
The same is true of most Irish pork sausages, although the range is admittedly limited. Local butchers often make their own; failing this, the best brands commonly available in the Dublin area are probably Byrne’s and Denny’s.
Coddle is a tasty traditional Dublin stew made with boiled pork sausages. Sausage & Potato Pie is also very good.
Gammon steak is not as popular in Ireland as in England; the pathetic subterfuge of serving it with pineapple does not disguise the fact that it is cheap meat. However, Gammon steakwith sautéed apples and whiskey sauce is an excellent recipe.
Both black (blood) pudding and white pudding are delicious. The latter is supposedly peculiar to Ireland, but is remarkably similar to Scottish oatmeal pudding. Clonakilty in West Cork is one of several rural towns with a reputation for producing particularly fine black and white puddings, but the most popular household brand is undoubtedly Galtee.
I am not a fan of crubín (pig’s trotters).
Irish Sheep: Mutton & Lamb
Irish spring lamb is particularly excellent.
Roast rack of lamb with rosemary, served in either case with mint sauce, fresh peas and boiled new potatoes with butter, is my favourite meal in the world. A restaurateur friend serves a vaguely Spanish version with lots of tomato called Rack of Lamb Torquemada.
Lamb chops, grilled or barbecued and served as above.
Irish Stew is traditionally made with mutton, potatoes, celery, carrots, parsnips and leeks, with a little kidney.
Drisheen is a Cork speciality, akin to black pudding but made from sheep’s blood and herbs.
Poultry & Game
Free-range poultry – chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese are much tastier than their unfortunate battery-farmed counterparts; the same is true of eggs.
Game includes venison, pheasant, partridge, quail, snipe, woodcock, pigeon and hare.
Rabbit has not been eaten in Ireland since the 1960s myxamatosis epidemic. There are no wild boars. Continental “sportsmen” who shoot anything that moves, even sparrows and robins, are frowned upon.
Foxes are hunted as vermin, not for human consumption.
Irish fruit can be very good. Farmers sometimes put up signs inviting you to “pick your own” (strawberries, raspberries, apples, pears, plums etc); blackberries, blueberries, loganberries etc. also grow wild. These must be washed, and are delicious by themselves, or with cream. Cooked in a tart and served with cream or custard, they are divine, as are gooseberries or rhubarb.
While imported citrus fruit, bananas, melons, pineapples, coconuts, kiwis etc. have long been popular, recent years have seen an increased presence of exotic items such mangoes, papayas and passion fruit etc.
Pies are just as popular in Ireland as in other English-speaking countries. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, made with several different kinds of pastry, and contain either savoury or sweet filling.
Pot Pies are basically casseroles with a pastry topping. Here is an Irish recipe for Beef, Beer & Blue Cheese Pot Pie.
Some pies used a mashed potato topping instead of pastry. Of these, the most popular are Shepherd’s Pie (made with mutton) and Cottage Pie (made with beef).
Irish Fish & Leek Pie – view recipe here.
Irish bread / cakes
Irish homemade bread / cakes are great, especially soda bread, tea bread, wheaten bread, farls, blaa (a Waterford roll), scones, crumpets and barm brack.
Sandwiches are usually made with ordinary white bread and butter, with ingredients ranging from thinly sliced cucumber, hard boiled egg or fish paste to cheese, roast chicken, ham or roast beef with English mustard (even better served hot in a warm roll on a cold winter’s day). “Sandwich Spread”, a popular Heinz concoction of “salad cream” and diced vegetables, looks remarkably like vomit but is surprisingly tasty. America’s perfidious influence has made the use of peanut butter widespread, but Ireland has not yet sunk to the (admittedly flavoursome) depths of adding mashed banana or grape jelly. Jam and marmalade sandwiches are not as common as in the past Most foreigners will be relieved to learn that Marmite is not widely liked in Ireland.
Irish Butter & Cheese
Ireland’s butter is delicious. The best known brand internationally is Kerrygold.
Irish cheeses, made from cows’, sheep’s and goats’ milk according to a variety of methods, have taken off since hippies, grungies and “back to nature” types from France and the Netherlands settled in areas such as West Cork and started using ancestral skills to become successful entrepreneurs The Irish cheese industry before their arrival had little to offer beyond a couple of rather good varieties of cheddar, nowadays marketed under a variety of guises ranging from the always reliable Galtee‘s “easy slices” to Cahill Farm Cheddar – flavoured with Guinness or whiskey.
Nowadays there is a huge range of flavoursome Irish farmhouse cheeses, all well worth trying. These include Durrus, Carrigaline, Ardrahan, Blarney Castle, Cashel Blue, Gubbeen, Coolea, Milleens, Baylough, Killeen, Glebe Brethan, Carrigbyrne, Knockanore, Cooleeney, Mount Callan, Derreenaclaurig, Knockalara, Corleggy, and many more.
Imported cheeses include superb English Stilton, Double Gloucester etc., French Brie, Roquefort, Camembert etc., Italian Gorgonzola, Parmesano etc., Swiss Gruyère, boring Dutch Edam and Gouda, Greek Feta, plus Danish Blue, and various smoked varieties from Germany, but sadly no Spanish cheeses.
Irish people, like their immediate neighbours, like to eat cheese with savoury biscuits. While Carr’s water biscuits have more social cachet, many insist on the chunkier and tastier Jacob’s Cream Crackers, sadly no longer produced in Ireland. Other cheese biscuits are available in gourmet shops at gourmet prices. The English custom of eating cheese with cake is regarded as decadent, not to say depraved.
Irish savoury snacks are much the same as those in Britain, minus the weird stuff like hedgehog flavoured products. By far the most popular Irish brand of potato crisps is Tayto, indubitably a superior manifestation of deep fried tubercular root shavings, available in Cheese ‘n’ Onion and Salt ‘n’ Vinegar flavours.
The old-fashioned salad cream (an inferior mayonnaise) has also given way to more sophisticated dressings.
Sauces, another former weak point, have improved generally.