By now, you’ve undoubtedly heard that Irish citizens recently made history as the first nation to approve same-sex marriage by a popular vote. It’s less likely that you’ve heard about their cattle. Please excuse the awkward segue, but Ireland also intends to be in the vanguard when it comes to the sustainability of their food and drinks industry. That’s good news for the planet and for those of us who appreciate excellent beef and butter, which the Irish produce aplenty.
With more cattle than its five million residents, this little island off the western coast of Europe — roughly the size of Indiana — produces enough food for 35 million people, which explains why they export 90 percent of what they skillfully process. That is an enormous turnaround for a country where famine once destroyed millions of lives. And it’s representative of the renaissance underway led by artisan food companies and culinary entrepreneurs. Irish whiskey is at its peak of popularity, and Kerrygold is the dominant imported butter brand in America. And as of February, Irish beef is being sold in America, too.
It all starts with the grass. Some regions are best suited to grow certain crops, fruits, or vegetables. Conditions in France consistently turn out wonderful grapes. Italy cultivates extraordinary olives. Citrus thrives in Florida, as does garlic in Gilroy. Ireland does grass. The temperate climate and abundant rainfall collaborate to create the longest grass-growing season on the continent. The limestone-rich soil and clover-covered grass contribute to ideal, nutrient-rich grazing pasturelands.
If you were to look at a photo of Ireland from space, you’d see exactly why it earned its sobriquet as the “Emerald Isle.” I toured the country at the invitation of the Irish Food Board, visiting farms, abattoirs, and meat processing facilities. We drove a lot across the scenic, pastoral island, 80 percent of which is covered in grass. And on that grass you’ll find about 125,000 mostly family farms, many run by the third and fourth generation on that soil. On those farms, millions of cattle happily graze all day long. And from those cattle come world class beef and butter.
Ireland takes its cattle raising and grass growth very seriously. You’ve heard the expression “watching grass grow”? They literally do. So important a resource it is that the government actually measures grass growth. They also tag every animal from birth, literally giving it a “passport,” to ensure traceability, transparency, and quality control. The processing facilities I visited were immaculate and ultra-modern. And a savvy government ensures that they’re conducting all of this in the most environmentally responsible and innovative way in order to reduce environmental impact and carbon foot-printing.
So where’s the beef? And how does it taste? Damn good. I’m not here to advocate that theirs is the best, or even better than ours. Those types of arguments are generally specious and inane. There are too many variables involved — breed of cattle, cut of meat, method of preparation — to make a legitimate comparison. I would describe the taste of Irish steak to be a “pure” or “clean” beefiness. Leaner than what we’re accustomed to here, and thereby less rich, perhaps, yet it maintains both tenderness and juiciness. Irish beef was chosen as a key ingredient in the 2013 Bocuse d’Or International Chef’s Competition, where the world’s top chefs use only the best food products. But judge for yourself, especially if you’re fond of leaner cuts like filet mignon.
Nature gifted Ireland with a mild, rain-washed, clean, and green country whose verdant land is being deployed in the most sensible and responsible way. Farm-to-table dining isn’t all the rage; it’s what has been practiced here for centuries. And it’s where generous, joyful, and hospitable people proudly and literally invite guests in with the words, “you’re welcome.”
If you go, here is a key list of places to visit, places to stay, things to do, and how to get around.
Soulful Irish cooking served in a charming, rustic dining room. Seasonal, local, and exquisite — Georgina O’Sullivan can cook for me any time! Try the sirloin, scallops, luscious salads, potatoes prepared three ways, even pizza. And don’t miss those desserts.
An award-winning, Michelin-starred, extraordinary Dublin dining experience. Ross Lewis and team deliver fine food with superlative service in the basement of the Dublin Writers Museum. Don’t miss the killer Irish coffee, made tableside.
From the outside it’s a butcher shop. Yet behind the scenes it’s a farm, slaughterhouse, and kitchen. In operation since 1886, it’s run with great passion by the fourth generation of the family. Just this past February, it was voted best butcher in the U.K. Try the black pudding.
They’re everywhere, and you’ll find a few you like. In Dublin, I enjoyed Judge Roy Bean’s, located at the bottom of Grafton Street, for the wide assortment of beers on tap, excellent freshly shucked oysters, perfectly crispy “chips” (fries), and terrific live music.
After a visit to the Jameson Distillery, you can head right over to this sweet restaurant café, whose mission is, “Culinary expression of great produce sourced from within 12 miles of our front door.” One of those menus where everything looks good, and is.
Striking boutique hotel built into the side of a cliff in a seaside village overlooking the sea. Sensational food served in a Michelin-starred restaurant by gifted chef Martijn Kajuiter.
Stunning five-star resort hotel in County Cork. I repeat: stunning.
Luxurious. Sumptuous. The kind of place where one would be happy just unplugging, chilling and reading books. But go for divine, well-prepared local fare if you’re anywhere near Wexford.
Fancy, elegant, pricey, and very well located in Dublin.
Things to Do and How to Get Around:
Superb literary-based event run by the estimable Darina Allen, featuring an impressive roster of renowned international speakers (e.g., Alice Waters, April Bloomfield, Jancis Robinson, David Lebovitz) and an outstanding array of delectable artisanal foods. Entering its fourth year on the 20 to 22 of May 2016.
I can’t imagine a better way to navigate a city like Dublin than by hopping aboard a bicycle and touring the side streets while getting a history lesson from a knowledgeable and entertaining guide. Behave and you’ll even get to stop at a pub for an adult beverage along the route.
How great would it be to take a vocational cooking classes at a top rate culinary school in the splendid Irish countryside? Very.
If you’d like someone to take you around, Gerry Kelly is your man. Smart, nice, trustworthy, safe, professional. Email email@example.com.
See how Irish whiskey is made, then taste how it tastes. Why not?
If you’ve ever thought of going to Ireland, you should. If you haven’t, then consider it. For more about Irish cuisine, read the authoritative guide on the subject, The Country Cooking of Ireland, by our own Editorial Director, Colman Andrews. And to see a few of the dishes I ate, view this slideshow.