What Is Irish Cuisine — and What Should It Be?

Ireland's 'Druid Chef' discusses the past, and future, of his country's cooking
Staff Writer

Celtic Cuisine

Modern Irish cuisine has no real platform and has very little connection with our past. We have adapted many different modern culinary trends together into one big melting pot, leaving very little room for originality and the true promotion of Irish cuisine in its contemporary form.

Irish cuisine is a style of cooking developed by the Irish people. It evolved through centuries of social and political change. The cuisine takes its influences from the crops grown and animals farmed in Ireland’s climate. The introduction of the potato in the second half of the 16th century heavily influenced Ireland's cuisine thereafter. Representative Irish dishes are Irish stew, bacon and cabbage, boxty, coddle, colcannon, and (mainly in Ulster) fadge.

There are many references to food and drink in early Irish literature. Honey seems to have been widely eaten and used in the making of mead. The old stories also contain many references to banquets, although these may well be greatly exaggerated and provide little insight into everyday diets. There are also many references to fulacht fiadh, which may have been sites for cooking deer, consisting of holes in the ground which were filled with water. The meat was placed in the water and cooked by the introduction of hot stones. Many fulacht fiadh sites have been identified across the island of Ireland, and some of them appear to have been in use up to the 17th century.

Excavations at the Viking settlement in the Wood Quay area of Dublin have produced a significant amount of information on the diet of the inhabitants of the town. The main meats eaten were beef, mutton, and pork. Domestic poultry and geese as well as fish and shellfish were also common, as was a wide range of native berries and nuts, especially hazel. The seeds of knotgrass and goosefoot were widely present and may have been used to make porridge.

From the middle ages, until the arrival of the potato, the dominant feature of the rural economy was the herding of cattle. The meat produced was mostly the preserve of the gentry and nobility. The poor generally made do with milk, butter, cheese, and offal, supplemented with oats and barley. The practice of bleeding cattle and mixing the blood with milk and butter (similar to the practice of the Maasai) was not uncommon. Black pudding is made from blood, grain (usually barley), and seasoning, and remains a breakfast staple food in Ireland.

Potatoes form the basis for many traditional Irish dishes. The potato was introduced into Ireland initially as a garden crop, and it eventually came to be the main food crop of the poor. As a food source, the potato is extremely valuable in terms of the amount of energy produced per unit area of crop. The potato is also a good source of many vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin C, when fresh.

Potatoes were widely cultivated, but in particular by those at a subsistence level; the diet of this group during this period consisted mainly of potatoes supplemented with buttermilk. Potatoes were also fed to pigs, to fatten them prior to their slaughter at the approach of the cold winter months. Much of the slaughtered pork would have been cured to provide ham and bacon that could be stored over the winter.

Fresh meat was generally considered a luxury except for the most affluent until the late 19th century, and chickens were not raised on a large scale until the emergence of town grocers in the 1880s allowed people to exchange surplus goods, like eggs, and, for the first time, purchase a variety food items to diversify their diet.

The adoption of the potato as the core of Irish cuisine should not be seen as a voluntary choice. As a result of the Penal Laws, the large Irish Catholic majority were denied the right to buy land or to pass it on as they wished to their descendants. Consequently, farms became smaller and smaller as the population of Ireland ballooned in the early 19th century (8 million in 1840 compared to 20 million for England, Scotland, and Wales combined at the time). Many "farms" were less than a quarter of an acre, which had to provide food for a family of as many as eight people in a year. The only way to avoid starvation was to intensively cultivate a single crop, the potato, as this provided much of the basic nutrition requirements, and so became the only "choice" available to the rural Catholic poor, who formed the vast bulk of the population.

The reliance on potatoes as a staple crop meant that the people of Ireland were vulnerable to poor potato harvests. Consequently, several famines occurred throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The first Great Famine of 1739 was the result of extreme cold weather, but the famine of 1845 to 1849 was caused by potato blight that spread throughout the Irish crop, which consisted largely of a single variety, the Lumper. During the famine approximately 1 million people died and 1 million more emigrated from Ireland.

In the 21st century the usual modern selection of foods common to Western culture has been adopted in Ireland. Common meals include pizza, curry, Chinese food, and lately, some West African dishes and Eastern European (especially Polish) dishes, as ingredients for these and other cuisines have become more widely available.

In tandem with these developments, the last quarter of the 20th century saw the emergence of a new Irish cuisine based on traditional ingredients handled in new ways. This cuisine is based on fresh vegetables, fish (especially salmon and trout), oysters, mussels and other shellfish, traditional soda bread, the wide range of cheeses that are now being made across the country, and, of course, the potato. Traditional dishes, such as Irish stew, coddle, the Irish breakfast, and potato bread have enjoyed resurgence in popularity. Schools like the Ballymaloe Cookery School have emerged to cater for the associated increased interest in cooking.

Click here to see the Irish Baileys Mussels Recipe from the Druid Chef

Fish and chips (known in Ulster as a "fish supper") from takeaways are popular. The first fish and chips were sold in Dublin in the 1880s by an Italian immigrant from San Donato Val di Comino, Giuseppe Cervi. His wife Palma would ask customers "Uno di questa, uno di quella?" This phrase (meaning "one of this, one of the other") entered the vernacular in Dublin as "one and one," which is still a common way of referring to fish and chips in the city.

The proliferation of fast food has led to increasing public health problems, including obesity, and one of the highest rates of heart disease in the world. Government efforts to combat this have included television advertising campaigns and education programmes in school.

Click here to see a Cabbage and Bacon Recipe from the Druid Chef

While seafood has always been eaten by Irish people, shellfish dishes have increased in popularity in recent times; common examples include Dublin Bay prawns and oysters (many oyster festivals are held yearly around the coast where oysters are often served with Guinness, the most notable being held in Galway every September). An example of an Irish shellfish dish is Dublin Lawyer, lobster cooked in whiskey and cream. Salmon and cod are perhaps the two most common types of fish used. Carrageen moss and dulse (both types of red algae) are commonly used in Irish seafood dishes.

We still don’t have a true definition of what Irish cuisine is. Most of our influences are copied from somewhere else and don’t belong to this land. We have failed to create new food innovation that represents Ireland in its full culinary glory. We as Irish culinary cooks must look deeper into our own tradition and heritage and create flavors that represent the true essence of this land. We must be true to our indigenous ingredients and service our home and tourism market for those who are looking for the full Irish hospitality with full Irish flavors.

Read more about Rory Morahan, the Druid Chef, on his website 

Rate this Story