When most Americans think of Irish food, it’s only for one day and one dish. Paddy’s Day and corned beef is a sacred tradition that takes pride of place in our holiday pantheon along with the Super Bowl and guacamole.
Of course, being a certified food person, on my first trip to Ireland I was convinced I knew better. After teaching with Darina Allen from Ballymalloe and reading my colleague Colman Andrews’ terrific book Irish Country Cooking Throughout, I knew for sure that the average Irish dinner was made up of things like wild salmon, farmhouse cheeses and vegetables grown on tiny allotments.
I was so sure that when we first came I was shocked to find that most of the traditional restaurant menus I saw seemed to consist largely of burgers, kebabs and curries. My romantic take on how Ireland eats was almost as far removed from reality as that of any of the green beer-drinking yahoos I had sneered at at home.
I still remember my first serving of bacon ribs, stacked on a mound of colcannon, with a tangy parsley sauce ladled. Paradise on a plate
Granted, these foods I had fantasized about exist, it just took a bit of research. I still remember my first serving of bacon ribs, stacked on a mound of colcannon, with a tangy parsley sauce ladled. Heaven on a plate.
My point is not to lament the state of Irish food, but to remind myself that for any visitor, whether a short-term tourist or a longer-term instigator, it is important to remember to learn to love things as they are rather than how we imagined them.
Food is an intrinsic part of culture, and culture has a way of insisting on moving forward, whatever our notions. I remember years ago a friend issued an invitation to visit an old Sicilian hinterland shepherd who still made ricotta in the traditional way, among his sheep above a outdoor fire. It was a magical experience, he said, but it was shocking that the shepherd’s granddaughters who were helping him were dressed in the very latest Prada.
I thought it was funny at the time, but it turned out I was guilty of the same when I arrived in Ireland – the culinary equivalent of expecting every pub to have a céilí non-stop with Séamus Begley in the corner singing Raglan Road.
We’ve been living in Ireland for a little over a year now, and while it has been a very special time, in many ways I think it has worked well – at least in the kitchen. Just as lockdown travel regulations forced me to explore my own neighborhood in depth rather than scouring the entire island in a whirlwind, it made my connection to Irish cuisine dependent on cooking for myself with the ingredients that I can find in my local grocery store.
I’ve always been one of those weird travelers who like to visit local supermarkets to see what the locals are really eating. And so it was the trips to my Tesco, SuperValu, Aldi and luckily Ardkeen Quality Food Store that was my introduction to real Irish food.
The seafood was a revelation. Roaring Water Bay mussels, steamed with leeks and just a little white wine and finished with cream and chives, are my wife’s favorite treat
And without the model of restaurant dishes to learn or even the chance to cook with my neighbors, I had to stumble to find my way on my own.
As I guess any immigrant will attest, cooking in a new country is mostly an act of adaptation rather than recreation, at least in the beginning.
The first time I cooked with Irish bacon – so different from the United States – I cut it into chunks and simmered it in a large pot of pinto beans. It was a very short drive from this familiar setting to my first try at bacon and cabbage. And after that, I was addicted.
The same sort of thing has happened with vegetable soups. On my previous visits, I had fallen in love with the mashed potatoes served here. But the first time I tried just one, it was a very familiar (to me) combination of leeks and potatoes. It was so good that a variation of root vegetable soup is now a standard midweek dinner – carrots, parsnips, celeriac, all together or individually. These roots also make excellent gratins, cooked with good cream and Irish cheese.
While I haven’t yet found the wild salmon I was hoping for, the seafood I’ve cooked with has been a revelation. The Roaring Water Bay mussels, steamed with leeks and just a little white wine and finished with cream and chives, are my wife’s favorite treat; roasted cod with potatoes; mackerel with onions and vinegar. I still think of that beautiful whole lemon sole that I sautéed on the bone; Can’t wait to return to this little Spar fish market in Dunmore East once we get past 5 miles.
Beef and lamb from the butcher down the road; cheeses from St Tola, Knockanore and Cooleeney Farm. I know I’m only scratching the surface of what’s here. There is so much more that I can’t wait to explore.
And who knows? On St. Patrick’s Day, in a few years, I might even start making corned beef.