Irish Food History

Being that today is St. Patrick’s day (who, if I recall, was the patron saint of Quality footwear), I’d figured I’d delve into what comprises Irish cuisine.

It would be easy to lump Irish Cuisine in with English, and there is some crossover. But there are also some major differences. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It might be a tad cliche to bring up the potato when talking about Ireland, but the truth is that the introduction of the tuber upon the Isle had drastic ramifications in a relatively short period of time. Consider this: the potato wasn’t even known in Europe until 1570, and didn’t hit the shores of England until 1590. But by 1770, a mere 180 years, it was considered a staple of Ireland. I could go into the details as to why…easy to grow, provided quick food for the poor, provided economic sustanence with as little as 10 acres of land…all of that you can read about elsewhere…the important thing to know is that Irish cuisine has a distinct point in its gastronomic history that should be acknowldged.

Prior to the potato, the cuisine has been best described by Denis Leary as food you slurp.”Irish Cuisine?! What are we famous for cuisine-wise? We put everything in a pot and we boil it for seventeen and a half hours straight, until you can eat it with a straw. SLUUURP! Thanks, Ma. Where’s dessert? Okay, there it is. SLUUURP. Thanks, Ma. It’s not a cuisine, folks. That’s penance.”

There’s much truth to that as the primary means of cooking was done with the use of a cauldron. Ovens have yet to be found by archaeologists looking into Ireland’s past. If your using a cauldron, chances are better than good that your making things such as pottage and soups. What you would put into the pot would determine the soups you made. This was determined (as is everything when it comes to food) on where you lived. This meant fish and mollusks on the coasts, game and domesticated animals inland.

Meat-wise they ate cattle and pigs, while eating goats and sheep less often. With fish, salmon was popular as well as trout, pike, perch, and other river fish. Cod, hake, whiting, mackerel and skate as well as shellfish were pulled from the sea. Being an island, Ireland has a strong seafood community, something often overlooked when thinking about typical Irish foods.

As cattle was prevelent , this means they had the cows for milk, which means cheeses and butter. Mmm.. pork fat and butter were staples of Irish cuisine. I think this explains a fair amount.

For grains, oats and barley were the most popular. Although one can mill flour from both of these grains, they don’t handle as well as say, rice or wheat flour. This might explain the lack of breads that you see elsewhere so prevelant elsewhere in Europe. The Irish had bread, just not as much of a tradition as other nations.

Vegetables? Mostly onions, celery, carrots and parsnips were found on the island, while peas and beans, kale and cabbage were introduced by others.

Once the potato was added to the diet however, things changed drastically. Soups were thickened with the potato, and it became the vegetable of choice. There are many Irish dishes involving potatoes. Colcannon is a dish made of potato and either wild garlic, cabbage or curly kale. Champ is a combination of mashed potato and egg, into which chopped scallions are mixed.

One also cannot discuss food in Ireland without touching upon class. After the introduction of the potato, the greatest increase to the population came from the poorest segment of the people. A poor family would rent between 1 and 10 acres of land for a season to grow potatoes. This enabled then to pay their rent, build a cottage and to feed themselves. While the middle and upper class could feed themselves with soda bread, apple tarts and Irish stews, the poor often would eat simply potatoes supplemented by salted herrings in winter and cabbage in summer. That’s why the Potato Famine ended up being so devastating. The dependence by 3/5ths of the counties in Ireland on one crop allowed Ireland to be set up for tragedy.

This was just a brief overview of Irish food. I didn’t even touch upon sausages and puddings, which are just about my favorite aspects of Irish foods.

Typical Irish dishes include:

  • - Bacon and cabbage: a stew made of (not surprisingly) bacon and cabbage
  • - Barm brack: a cake-like bread
  • - Dublin coddle: a think stew made from sausages, bacon, onions, and potatoes
  • - Guinness cake: a fruitcake made with Guinness beer
  • - Irish stew: basic Irish dish, made from mutton, potatoes, and onions and flavored with parsley and thyme
  • - Irish scones: A type of slightly sweet roll
  • - Irish potato pie: a layer casserole made from potatoes, bacon, and cheese
  • - Soda bread: a type of bread made with baking soda and buttermilk
  • - Potato cakes: fried mashed potato patties

Many Thanks to John Linnane’s site, from which much of this information was pulled from. Read the whole site if your big into food history.


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