I am sure most of you know this but it’s not been long since my husband and I moved to Boston, Massachusetts. It’s a beautiful city in an equally stunning region, surrounded by lush farmland, coastal havens of shellfish and deep blue Atlantic fishing grounds. It is probably the most Irish city in the world outside of Ireland. Yesterday I was driving through Cambridge (home of Harvard University) and cycling in the opposite direction was a guy wearing a Kerry jersey. I am no longer surprised when I hear Irish accents on public transport and half of the kids working in pubs and restaurants over the summer are here on J1 visa’s from Ireland.
Yet I am constantly surprised when I walk into Irish bars and restaurants at how outdated the menu seems to be. They are at best out of touch with modern Ireland. Corned beef and cabbage, beef stew and shepherd’s pie are all common. Despite being born and raised in Ireland, the first time I ate corned beef and cabbage was on St Patricks Day last year in Ballymaloe. It was cooked specifically for our American counterparts. Similarly soda bread of US tradition is in fact very different to that which I grew up with. There is nothing wrong with food focused on nostalgia and tradition but it got me thinking about that perception of Irish food. People associate Ireland with old fashioned food when these days, the opposite is true.
I quite agree that many pubs in Ireland serve fantastic fish & chips and great steaks but I feel Irish food has evolved in recent years. It has become so much more than these staples. When I mention my observations to people here in Boston, I am regularly queried as to what Irish cuisine actually is. Why do I think its special? So below, I have described why it is special to me. I would love to hear from others – what is modern Irish food to you? What dishes or ingredients are indicative of a great Irish experience?
Certainly one of the features of the traditional cuisine of Ireland is making something wonderful out of a few simple ingredients, by necessity in the past I suppose. Simplicity and the focus on ingredients is not something that has been lost and in my mind, has only grown in strength in recent times but out of pride and passion rather than necessity.
Possibly what Ireland is most famed for, and for good reason. Folks may not appreciate the grey days and wet weather when they come to visit, but we could not have our wonderful dairy products without all that lovely rain. Lush green fields are where our cattle feast and create this white gold. Irish butter is, in my opinion, the best in the world! There is nothing like a slice of warm soda bread slathered with melty butter and Kerrygold butter seems to be available in every little store here in Boston. Cheese has had a revolution is Ireland and the farmhouse cheese movement is famed the world over for cheeses such as Durrus, Ardrahan, Cashel Blue and Coolea. Cheeseboards are de rigeur on restaurant menus across Ireland now. Trust me – taste some local cheeses wherever you go in Ireland and you will understand.
Provenance, Sourcing and artisan Producers
The importance of food provenance has come into focus in Ireland more than ever before in the last decade. Provenance is worn proudly on menus as brand names might be on clothing and menu pages are peppered with producers names and locations. Skeaghanore Duck, Roaringwater Bay mussels….the list goes on ad nauseum. Traditionally, this would have been nothing special, simply that your food was naturally coming from the local area in which you lived, subsisting on what was in season.
As the world became a smaller place and imports grew, this became a more rare thing to find. Chain restaurants and fast food joints dominate high streets the world over and Ireland is no different. Thankfully though, even though chains are a fact of life now, food sourcing is celebrated in Ireland more than ever before and even the worlds biggest fast food chain advertises the use of Irish beef on its menu!
In the same vein, the rise of small scale producers in the last number of years, justifiably proud of their craft, has only served to heighten the celebration of local, seasonal food. The importance of tacit knowledge that has distinct ties to the surrounding land is recognized more than ever. Knowing how the grass in summer will make the butter taste is the kind of knowledge that can’t be taught but is inherent in living and working on the land, observing the changes and reflecting on these factors.
This focus on local, seasonal food is not just about the quality of produce. Ireland still holds its nepotistic traditions close to heart. In some cases, this is an awful reminder of corruption in the political world but I speak of nepotism in a positive light. Supporting those around you through tough times is one of the backbones of Irish society. Incredibly, through the last recession, food producers grew in number and the food industry was still a hive of activity, partly due to this neighborly support.
Seafood and fish
I think this one won’t come as a surprise, given that Ireland is an island. I was lucky enough to have been brought up on incredible fish and seafood. From mussels and oysters grown in the clean bays of the west of Ireland, to my favorite….. Dublin Bay Prawns. Freshly picked crab on soda bread is a gem found on many menus. Crab claws tossed in garlic butter are another speciality. The sad thing is that a significant proportion of Irish seafood is exported. I beg of you – increase the demand, eat plenty of it and try something new!
The deep Atlantic waters off the Irish west coast is home to some rich and valuable fishing grounds. Buying local fish from fish markets, fish mongers and directly from fishermen, means you are getting the freshest fish. This not only helps you to learn about lesser known species in your local area but supports a range of people. If you visit Ireland, a trip along the Wild Atlantic Way is a must!
For similar reasons as the dairy products, beef products in Ireland are seriously good. Cattle are routinely fed on grass rather than corn meal. In years gone by, steaks were charred to within an inch of their life. Not anymore – meat is celebrated and no longer tortured. I have not had better steak in the US than in Ireland yet. One of my favorite steak houses in the world is in Dublin. The Butcher Grill in Ranelagh is one of the best – I mean look at that steak!
Traditionally, pork products were much more commonly eaten than beef and more obscure cuts have made a fantastic resurgence recently. Crubeens are pigs trotters boiled or braised and often served with cabbage. Instead of corned beef, bacon and cabbage is the traditional meal of Ireland and its delicious! Ham hock in terrine form is also common now and cheeks and other cuts are celebrated in many restaurants.
This may sound strange, but some of the best charcuterie I’ve ever had is coming from Gubbeen in West Cork. Chorizo, salami and bacon are delicous coming from the farm, stocked in deli’s, gourmet stores and supermarkets alike.
Spirits and other beverages
Ireland is well know for its wonderful black stuff, it is true and we aint so bad at whiskey either. There has been an explosion on the Irish craft drinks scene in the last number of years that is a remarkable reversal of fortune. Historically, Ireland had many hundreds of distilleries, brewers and a poitín still or two. While many of these merged or closed over the years, a serious resurgence has emerged. From incredible distilleries in Dingle and Blackwater to name but a few, to sparkling cider being produced to rival champagne. Add to that a whole slew of wonderful breweries – drinks are as much on the agenda as food these days.
So there you have it, that is my whistlestop tour of the best of Irish food. There is so much more to look out for! With an increasing number of people asking me where they should go on Irish vacations and what they should see, I am intending to write a series on the places to eat in the Emerald Isle! To start with, here are a couple of posts I wrote last year about my favorite spots. They are a good place to start when looking for some delicious food! If you have any further requests, please drop me a line!