March 17th is upon us, but before you trot out the old stand by staples of St. Patrick's Day, know that there's much more to Irish cuisine than corned beef and cabbage. This month on All the Swirl, Hillary Lyons explores the rich history and modern renaissance of Irish cuisine.
As Saint Patrick’s day approaches and Spring begins to bloom in full force, much of the Northern Hemisphere takes on a lush, green hue. While I enjoy the frivolity and free license to drink beer each March 17th (though, I must admit, I’ll pass on the Guinness), this Hallmark holiday has painted an unfair portrait of Irish culture and cuisine.
When most people think of Irish food, they think of corned beef, limp cabbage, boiled potatoes and perhaps, if you’re lucky, some crumbly over-dry soda bread (I won’t even get into the food dye frenzy we will soon face). But there is so much more to Irish cuisine than what these iconic (if historically incorrect) dishes portray.
Geographically speaking, Ireland is ideal for an agrarian society. The isle’s rolling hills are perfect for pasturing and the temperate climate makes for long growing seasons. In fact, evidence of farming in Ireland dates back 5000 years and Gaelic culinary traditions were quite sophisticated. It was not until the British colonized the island in the 16th century and transformed Ireland’s land to supply English palates that the cuisine we are familiar with today took shape. The potato ousted a rich diversity of grains and other produce, while the agricultural economy shifted from one of subsistence to export in order to supply the Royal Army with staples like salted beef (which laid the foundation for ‘corned beef’ as a later American invention).
Under British rule, Irish cuisine went through a sort of Dark Ages, where the elite ate the fat of the land (quite literally, talking about dairy) and the poor (about 75% of the population in 1840) ate potatoes, reaching its lowest point with the devastation brought on by the Great Famine. But ever since this tragedy, Irish food has been stigmatized as bland or over-cooked, given the country’s history of poverty…until now.
The universal food movement stressing locality and sustainability has given rise to a burgeoning artisanal food landscape in Ireland. Small-scale producers, purveyors and innovative chefs are triumphing the wealth of ingredients their island can produce, and reinventing traditional Irish dishes like colcannon and black pudding with distinctly modern twists. At any of the nation’s hundreds of farmers’ markets you can find foraged greens, fresh salmon and shellfish, lamb grazed on seaweed, infinite varieties of cheeses and butters, and more. While this renaissance reflects a global shift in recent years toward tradition and eco-consciousness, Irish cuisine started this journey decades ago.
The pioneer responsible for putting Irish cuisine on the map is Myrtle Allen, the 93 year old patron of the inn, restaurant and culinary school Ballymaloe House. Allen did not set out to change her country’s foodscape. In fact she wasn’t even a chef. But when the economy slowed after World War II she convinced her husband to stop exporting their farm products and open the now iconic inn. She traveled far and wide seeking traditional farmers, fishermen and foragers that were being squeezed out of the food system by the agro-industrial giants, and she heroized their work much in the same way that Alice Waters did with Chez Panisse.
The result was a profusion of artisanal producers emboldened to valorize their traditional Irish products, and a newfound respect for Irish cuisine both at home and abroad. Furthermore, the Irish food revolution has brought incredible stimulus to the economy, prompting the government to support these sustainable producers through tax credits and encourage conversion to more planet-friendly practices, making all things Irish green in more way than one.
Ireland is a nation of people that acutely remember the hardships of the past, and today, cuisine has become a vehicle to resurrect the comforts of tradition and celebrate the land that has sustained them. So when planning your Saint Patrick’s Day feast this Friday, honor the rich tradition and fertile soil that served as the breadbasket of Europe for so long. Go beyond corned beef and cabbage to indulge in sweet oysters, roast lamb, complex cheeses and, of course, some cabbage – just be sure to cook it right.
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