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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Celebrating Ireland

A culinary tour

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It is our nostalgic claim to Irishness that finds us in a smoky corner bar on St. Patrick’s Day, teetering, green beer in hand, before an aluminum serving tray piled high with lukewarm corned beef and soggy cabbage. While it is with good intent and a celebratory spirit that we serve and indulge in these stereotypical Irish dishes, we really aren’t doing the cuisine of eire the justice it deserves. The Irish acquired a resourceful and pragmatic ethos from their history of hardship, which along with deep living roots in agricultural production and rural living shaped Ireland’s culinary culture.

The manner and style in which the Irish prepare their food, like any culture, is shaped by the region’s geography, particularly its soil and climate, which in large part determines the native raw materials available for consumption. Other factors include economic conditions (which regulate the importation of certain foods) and religious laws, under which certain foods are required or prohibited.

Overall, Ireland has frequent rainfall and a mild climate with few extremes, giving the island lush vegetation—ideal for grazing livestock and the cultivation of produce. Although it is an island, seafood isn’t central to the Irish diet; of these dishes, Galway oysters, mussels, Dublin Bay prawns, crab, salmon, mackerel and cod are the most popular.

A discussion about Irish cuisine wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the ubiquitous potato. According to the British Potato Council, the potato has a single origin in the area of southern Peru. It was introduced to Europe in the mid-16th century and over time became a major food staple. The peasantry of Ireland all but abandoned grain and dairy products for the starchy root vegetable, to the point that a third of the population was entirely dependent on the potato for food. When a fungus-like plant disease struck the genetically uniform potato crops of Ireland in 1845, it caused the Great Irish Famine, a nightmarish period of starvation, disease and mass emigration.

Yet today, the potato—fried, mashed, boiled and baked—remains the core of Irish cooking. A popular Irish potato dish is colcannon, which consists of mashed potatoes mixed with butter and cabbage and seasoned with salt and pepper (this dish also makes frequent use of all sorts of leftovers, including vegetables, boiled ham and bacon). Other starchfest mainstays include champ (mashed spuds, chopped onion and milk), boxty (a fried pancake made from grated raw potato), potato pie and potato soup.

The structure of daily working life in rural Ireland led to the one-pot cooking style, particularly stewing and boiling root vegetables like potato, turnip, carrot, parsnip and beet with mutton, pork and beef. Farmers could assemble their ingredients in a pot, top it with water or stock, and put it over a low-burning fire for two or three hours while finishing up the evening’s chores. They would have a hot, family-sized meal with tender beef and vegetables waiting for them when they came in from the rain-drenched fields. A stew synonymous with the nation’s capital is Dublin coddle, a pungent medley of pork sausage, rashers (sliced bacon), potato, onion and carrot boiled together, sometimes with a splash of Irish stout.

In Ireland, a meal is typically served with some form of soda bread, a quick bread made with baking soda rather than yeast, which reacts to the buttermilk in the dough and causes the loaf to rise. It’s common to spread lavish amounts of butter on the soda bread, a perk of having a prolific and enduring dairy industry. Another upshot is the extensive selection of Irish cheese, like Coolea (an Irish version of Gouda), Cashel Blue (a creamy, blue-veined, raw, cows’ milk cheese), Gubbeen (an earthy, cows’ milk cheese with a punch) and, of course, Irish cheddar.

Along with a vibrant pub culture, Ireland is famous for producing some of the finest stouts and whiskeys in the world. Come March 17, names like Guinness, Beamish, Murphy’s, Jameson, Bushmills and Baileys will be on revelers’ lips.

Like most Western countries, Ireland hasn’t escaped the homogenization of its food culture by traveling takeaway stands and corporate fast food. In some Irish eyes, Americans’ proud claim of Irish ancestry can seem convenient and superficial on St. Patrick’s Day, what with the green beer and all. But sometimes it takes an outsider’s appreciation of the culture to inspire its countrymen to preserve it.

Traditional dishes at Brocach Irish Pub | Photos by Dave Zylstra

On the cover: Colleen Creed | Photo by Kate Engbring