Is This The Silver Age Of Irish Food?

Amanda M. Rye


More often than I care to be, I am asked by a) people who are thinking of going to Ireland and b) people who have never been to Ireland and c) people who worry about what to expect from the food, the teeth-grinding question, “Is there really anything to eat in Ireland besides fish and chips and corned beef and cabbage?”

Such ignorance persists among those same people who think all Indian food is a form of curry, all Thai food is searingly hot and all German food is heavy. (Actually, that last one is pretty close to the truth.) The fact that corned beef and cabbage is more of an Irish-American favorite than it is in the Old Country shows just how myopic the question is. And even if one were to factor in a well-deserved reputation for rather bland cooking even twenty years ago in Ireland, the answer to the question is that Irish food now can be among the best in Europe simply because of the exceptional quality of its ingredients—including seafood ranging from wonderful crabs and lobsters to sea fish, trout and salmon; superb lamb and chickens with real flavor; and dairy products unmatched by any but the French. And the fact that Ireland has enjoyed an entire generation of young chefs who have trained in much heralded kitchens on the Continent and adapted their techniques to Irish provender has resulted in a widespread, imaginative cuisine all its own, from Dublin to Belfast. Let’s call it the Gaelic Gastro Revolution.

By far the most comprehensive assessment of Irish food culture is the book The Country Cooking of Ireland (2009) by Colman Andrews, who writes, “There is a sense in which all Irish cooking – at least the good stuff, the real thing – is country cooking. It is almost inevitably straightforward, homey fair, based on first-rate raw material whose identity shines through. Even in sophisticated urban restaurants, it tends to have an underlying earthiness and solidity that suggest honest and respect for rural traditions.” That was written a dozen years ago and it’s truer than ever, particularly of Irish cheeses, which are artisanal homestead creations with no registered or traditional names behind them, like Camembert, Gorgonzola or Stilton. Only a handful of names have become well known, like Gubeen and Castel Blue. These small producers are making cheeses according to their own learning curve, using the local milk and winging it with little to draw on in the past. Thus, rare is the Irish cheese available outside of Ireland itself, though a good store like Dublin-based Sheridan’s, with branches in Galway, Meath, Cork, Limerick, Kerry, Kildare and Waterford, proudly stock man small farms’ cheeses. For that reason a particular cheese will be available only until its current production runs out. In the years to come this may change, owing to the enormous success of the Irish brand Kerrygold, which is now, after Land O’ Lakes, the best-selling branded butter in the U.S. Kerrygold also now sells cheddar-style cheese. Ten years ago you would be hard put to find a restaurant in Ireland with an interesting cheese plate; now, many proudly serve an array.

When it comes to vegetables, it’s no surprise that the Irish have mastered a tuber that originally came from South America and whose first plantings in Ireland were by Sir Walter Raleigh. The white potato grew prolifically in the colder climates of Europe, ideal for Germans, Poles and Irish, both as fodder and people food. Though highly nutritious, the potato needs to be consumed in large quantities to get its vitamins and minerals, which was not a problem for the Irish poor until the Potato Famine of 1845 led to what was called the Great Hunger, when millions of Irish starved to death—the population decreased as much as 25% — while others escaped to America and Australia. With the potato’s recovery, the Irish diversified their crops but returned to the humble spud for sustenance and, given potatoes’ appearance at just about every lunch and dinner table even now, it is the potato is as requisite as bread and butter.

Irish breads, by the way, while nothing like French or Italian loaves, are delicious and have marvelous textures from rye, barley and oats, not least in Irish soda bread.

When it comes to meats and poultry, Irish quality easily ranks with the best in the UK, France and Italy. The lamb, pork and chicken all have exceptional flavor, absorbed from the local terroir, and I’ve never purchased any eggs in the United States, not even at a farm stand, to match the richness and color of Irish eggs. With a side of streaky bacon and grain toast, breakfast is a feast.

When it comes to beef, however, as in all of Europe, the cattle are fed exclusively on grass and never acquire the sweet fat marbleization that corn-fed American beef does at its best. Irish beef is juicy, tender and lovely to look at but it pales in flavor by comparison to USDA Prime.

When it comes to great seafood Ireland is blessed not only by a ragged coastline—3,500 miles of it—ideal for crustaceans and mollusks but it also has the North Atlantic, the Irish Sea and the North Sea to supply a wide range of fish. Wild Irish salmon is certainly as good as Scottish, and the crabs and lobsters take offshore are superb. Oddly enough, the Irish did not take full advantage of their own piscine bounty until recently, relying more on cured, smoked and canned seafood from other counties. Now, however, one of the signal improvements in Irish gastronomy is in the gathering and utilization of its seafood, especially by well-trained chefs who know just how fine their hake, haddock, skate, eel, Arctic char, cod, oysters, prawns, salmon and mussels truly are.

I have written often about the distinctive qualities of Irish whiskey, which has become a major force in the spirits market, going from only four distilleries twenty years ago to more than 40 today. A good pub or restaurant will carry a dozen or more, which makes an evening’s crawl an education.

And then there is that unique contribution to worldly pleasures called Guinness Stout, which originated in the Dublin brewery of Arthur Guinness in 1759. Made from malted barley and roasted unmalted barley, its thick, creamy head—achieved by a careful draft pull—is immediately identifiable, and its richness and bitterness are as far from ale as heavy cream is from milk. The conventional wisdom has long been that, despite Guinness now being brewed in 50 countries and the refinement of the product into a can, only in Ireland does it have the quintessential flavor every Irishman and woman swears by.

I can certainly swear to that (just as I can that the Nutella made in Italy is superior to that made under license in other countries license), even factoring in the atmosphere of a good pub. Perfecting the pour is key to Guinness on tap in Ireland, and if the bartender is a pretty Irish redhead who calls you “darlin’” and draws the elixir into a perfectly sized Guinness glass, so much the better.

If the title of this article refers to a Silver rather than a Golden Age in Irish food and drink, it’s because my faith in the future of the country’s gastronomy makes me certain that it’s only going to get finer still in the next decade.


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