Ireland is not traditionally known as a culinary hotspot — and the food gets an even worse rap due to modern St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, with green beer and drunken 20-somethings wearing ridiculous “Irish” gear. But consider the authentic Irish pub as a taste of the old country. Other than Guinness, Jameson’s, and corned beef hash, which isn’t really a classic in Ireland, the foods of the Emerald Isle are often overlooked.
To find out what Irish people eat, and the typical foods served, I sat down with two Irish expats: Cathal Armstrong, acclaimed Irish chef, cookbook author (My Irish Table), and owner of Restaurant Eve in Old Alexandria, Virginia; and Dale Crammond, the counselor for agriculture and food at the Irish Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Cathal Armstrong has his own memories and ways of celebrating holidays like St. Patrick’s Day that include some traditional fare but also stray a bit from the foods most Irish would consider typical. Armstrong grew up in a bit of a bohemian family because his father owned a tour company and the entire family (including six kids) traveled the world and explored the food of other cultures. In the Armstrong house, food was talked about at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The family’s biggest meals were on Sundays, when breakfast was a big affair with bangers and eggs and other Irish specialties. But for supper, Armstrong’s dad tended to cook international food of the sort they ate when traveling, while Armstrong’s mother, Angela, specialized in beautifully cooked traditional Irish food.
Armstrong remembers longing for his mother’s baked porter cake, biscuit cake, and apple pie, and for his family, like other Irish families back then, St. Patrick’s Day was a big feast for large extended families that included big cuts of meat like a leg of pork and spring leg of lamb. He remembers:
“The pubs were closed, and people went to church and then home for the big meal, like Thanksgiving here. Corned beef wasn’t a tradition because for decades the best quality beef was exported. A traditional leg of lamb at St. Patrick’s was classic, and a real celebration would have two or three preparations of potatoes, a large cut of meat, and desserts like pies, Pavlova, and trifle with soda bread.
“[My] aunts were both good bakers, and my Aunt Joan made Pavlova with fresh fruit, and if you didn’t have fresh, you used canned. Dad made great trifle, and Aunt Joan also made wonderful cakes; she had a deft touch for cakes. But mother’s apple pie was always the big one, with a top and bottom crust. That was always her thing, was pastry. She was good friends with Monica Sheridan, who was the Julia Child of Ireland, and Monica’s husband, Niall Sheridan, who was a close personal friend of James Joyce and a Joycean scholar.
“After Monica died, my parents had Niall over for lunch one Sunday and cooked a lavish meal, and my mom served her apple pie. Niall was raving how great it was, and my dad replied, ‘Well, those are my apples picked right from my apple trees; they’re brambly apples.’ Niall immediately turned to my mother and said, Angela, you tell him that pastry like that doesn’t grow on trees.”
So when Armstrong wants to spend time in the Washington area with his Irish friends, where does he go? If he’s in the mood to go to an Irish pub, he heads to his friend’s Irish pub, the Four Provinces in Falls Church, Virginia, or to Daniel O’Connell’s in Old Town Alexandria.
The Irish Embassy in Washington is one of the busiest in the city; we spoke with Dale Crammond, the embassy’s counselor for agriculture and food, to ask him about St. Patrick’s Day and the foods he misses from home. He shared a few tips and memories with us. Originally from Wicklow, Crammond grew up in the countryside and has lived in the District since August 2015.
"My family is third-generation wheat and grain farmers in Wicklow, and growing up I have fond memories of my mum’s cooking. She is a fantastic cook and baker. St. Patrick’s Day in our house is a family affair, and for St. Patrick’s Day dinner my mum often cooks a delicious leg of spring lamb, beef stew, or a roast beef for the main course served with local fresh vegetables, always two, from our garden or one of the farmer's markets. Naturally, potatoes or cabbage are part of the meal with a perfectly baked apple pie or a trifle layered with fruit and custard followed by a cheese board featuring fantastic local artisanal cheeses.
“Sometimes, I get homesick for certain foods that are unique to Ireland, like Cadbury’s Chocolate, bacon and cabbage, Irish bangers, digestive biscuits, Barry’s Tea, my mum's Irish stew, and desserts. I miss the cheese, especially some of the newer artisanal cheeses, made with the pristine milk that Ireland is famous for around the world. Luckily, Kerry Gold Cheddar and their sweet, creamy butter are available now, and for other Irish foods, we can buy many we miss online from Food Ireland here in the U.S.”
For Crammond and other Irish expats, St. Patrick’s Day isn’t just about beer. “On St. Patrick's Day in Ireland we also watch the marching bands and Irish dancing during the parade and then head to a pub for a pint of Murphy's or Guinness. Some of the things I miss most from Ireland is time with family. St. Patrick's Day is traditionally a time for family dinners and some of the classic dishes. This year my sister and my brother-in-law are visiting from Ireland, with their four kids, so we will probably stay in and have a family meal together. Myself and my brother-in-law may sneak out for a pint later in the day!”