I once interviewed the Irish chef Richard Corrigan, and when I talked to him about the food of his childhood, he prefaced nearly every memory with the phrase, 'I know it sounds romantic, but...' That's the problem I also have when I write about Irish food – not least on St Patrick's Day. It's hard not to sound as if I was brought up carrying pails of creamy fresh milk between a cool, quiet dairy and a warm kitchen (my grandparents were dairy farmers).
Not everything was idyllic. Corrigan remembers that the bacon, which they ate with big platefuls of cabbage, was too salty, but he can still tell you, his eyes shining, about getting hold of rabbits and roasting them with good butter and wild garlic.
I grew up in Northern Ireland and we were very aware of food, though not in the extreme way people can be now; it was just part of life. My memories are of eating wheaten bread with raspberry jam so soft it ran off the edges, of shelling Dublin Bay prawns – their flesh so sweet you got a hint of vanilla – bought at the local fish market, and of making mayonnaise to eat with a wild salmon someone had delivered, wrapped in newspaper, to my dad.
The greengrocer would tell you which variety of potato was in. Family friends made preserves. My mother kept tins full of home-made cake and 'tray bakes'. Not everyone was a great cook – my paternal grandmother turned the Sunday beef into leather – but, by and large, home cooking was very good. People actually cooked, and they cooked food that was local and seasonal. I put this down to the fact that we had no big supermarket chains (there wasn't a Tesco in my home town until 1997). The only food available was local and seasonal.
We weren't particularly proud of our food because the Irish have a tendency to think less of themselves and their produce than they should. Much like the Scandinavian countries at the time, we didn't have a restaurant culture. Restaurants tended to be 'grill rooms' that sold good steaks and average prawn cocktails. Fancy ones, in Dublin or Belfast, were French. A vibrant restaurant culture – with chefs who care about the terroir – makes a country look at what it has. Consider what René Redzepi and his ilk have done for Scandinavian food. Not everyone is cooking with moss, but he has inspired pride across the region.
In Ireland, a similar pride grew – much more slowly – primarily because of the late Myrtle Allen at Ballymaloe House in County Cork. She was a home cook who, in 1964, made part of her home into a restaurant. She was surrounded by farms and great fish were landed at nearby Ballycotton. Instead of serving French food, she just cooked the best local produce and did as little as possible to it. There were French things on the menu – you'd get Hollandaise with asparagus, for example – but they were minimal.
The first time I ate at Ballymaloe I had an extremely emotional response. Big floury potatoes that collapsed like snow under your fork, carrots that were cooked whole and tasted as if they'd just been pulled from the ground (they usually had – there were wellingtons at the back door so chefs could get more veg from the garden during service), these tasted intensely of what I knew. Myrtle had the same philosophy as Alice Waters – simple and seasonal – but she was expounding it over a decade earlier. In the late 1970s, new great Irish cheeses – Milleens, Gubbeen, Durrus – appeared, and since then there's been a steady rise in the number of food producers and great chefs.
When I was weaning my first child, the health visitor expressed shock that he wouldn't eat potatoes. 'Imagine!' she exclaimed. 'And you Irish!'
Believe me, even on St Patrick's Day, Irish food is about much more than potatoes.
"These little tarts aren’t a traditional Irish dish at all, but all the elements work brilliantly together and show off Irish smoked salmon."
"This isn’t a French-style potato gratin, with thin waxy layers, it’s more creamy, floury potatoes with fish. The potatoes end up slightly soupy – it’s because they’re floury – and that’s as it should be. This dish is loosely based on a recipe in Alan Davidson’s book ‘North Atlantic Seafood’; his version doesn’t have cream in it, so go down that route if you want a more everyday dish. I’ve gone for luxury."
"There is some controversy about whether carrots should be included in this dish. Escoffier says no, but then what would a Frenchman know about an Irish stew! Cold pickled red cabbage is a traditional accompaniment in Ireland."
"A seriously substantial bowl of soup. It’s a great way to use up leftover cooked lamb, but cooked chicken or pork also work well."
"I love the sound of beef and Guinness together, but in reality the pie needs a bit of sweetness to counteract the bitter taste of the reduced stout. I solved this by adding some port."
"Soda bread is beautifully quick and simple to make, and provides instant gratification. Toasted and slathered in salted butter, soda bread is comforting and wholesome, particularly when served with a warming bowl of soup."
"The salted caramel whiskey sauce is addictive and could also be poured over ice cream to make an Irish sundae. This pudding can be made up to a day in advance and warmed through in the oven before serving."
"A grown-up ice cream (my children thought it too bitter but I love it). I should, strictly speaking, call it a ‘parfait’ as it uses a parfait base. This means there’s no churning required."
"This is a luxuriously rich chocolate cake made with a splash of Guinness, featuring an easy buttercream filling (also starring the stout), and topped with a sweet-sharp sour-cream chocolate icing."
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