By Margaret M. Johnson
Less than a half century ago, in 1968, food writer Theodora FitzGibbon wrote her first cookbook dealing with Irish food. She called it "A Taste of Ireland." As the cookery editor of Image magazine and the Irish Times, she had already authored more than 25 books on international cookery — "Tastes of" Rome, Wales, Scotland, Paris, Yorkshire among them — before finally tackling a "taste of" her own country. It’s a lovely cookbook of traditional
recipes accompanied by period photos taken by her husband, George Morrison.
The book was reissued in 1994 with a foreword by novelist M’ve Binchey.
In her introduction, FitzGibbon says, "The best food of a country is the traditional food which has been tried and tested over the centuries. It suits the climate and uses the best products of that country. . . [it] is part of its history and civilization, and, ideally, the past and the present should be combined so that traditional food is not lost under a pile of tins or packages."
If this sounds oddly familiar, perhaps it’s because it’s a food philosophy that Irish chefs have been quietly adopting and perfecting for at least the last two decades, during which, arguably, a "gastronomic revolution" has been taking place on the Irish table. Then what was going on in Irish kitchens before 1975, the year most mark as the real beginning of it all?
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What on earth were the Irish eating then? And what, pray tell, are we eating now? Let’s take a look.
Travelers to Ireland are, undoubtedly, familiar with Visitor, the tourism magazine found at the airports and in hotel rooms throughout the country. When it was first launched in the late 1980s, it was the official magazine of the Irish Hotels Federation (today it’s supported by Aer Rianta and produced by Mac Publishing) and offered advice on shopping, sightseeing, entertainment, eating, and drinking. This was the magazine’s assessment of Irish food in a 1991 edition:
"If any visitors who have been coming to Ireland for say, over a quarter of a century are reading this, please step forward. If you’re one of those, then you’ll remember what Irish food was like in those days. Awful! But we’ve got news for you. Things have changed. Irish food, based on the unmatched excellence of the raw product which Ireland could always produce but never seemed to market properly, is now amongst the very best in the world. It’s been a remarkable and swift change-about, but what has happened to make it thus?
"Basically, it can be put down to one broad factor. With increasing affluence in the 1960s, the Irish traveled much more to Europe, thus getting, literally, a taste of what other countries had to offer. Gradually it began to dawn on Ireland that the food we were eating was so collectively dull, insipid, uninspired and, frankly, repellent that something must be done about it.
"At the same time, it was clear that nothing was wrong with the basic ingredients of our cooking — it was just the way we cooked that was wrong . . . [it] was our extremely conservative tastes in food, a natural consequence of being a somewhat isolated island people. We produced the best beef in the world and some of the best lamb and pork, while our vegetables were supreme. All we had to do, really, was to learn to cook all these wonderful ingredients, learn to broaden our tastes, to experiment, be brave. We needed to try everything at least once. Who knows, we might even like it!"
Two years later, a food writer for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate suggested in her St. Patrick’s Day piece that at one time cooking something Irish for March 17 was "a dismal prospect, given that the Irish are famed for reducing most foods to a tasteless, boiled-to-death mush. In fact, Ireland’s culinary status has long hovered down near the bottom of the heap, below that of England, home of gluey meat pies and gray vegetables."
By way of contrast, she, too, was explaining the "culinary reawakening" that was sweeping Ireland. "At last," she said, "they [Irish chefs] started paying attention to the marvelous bounty of their homeland: the fish pulled from cold Atlantic waters, the incomparably rich dairy products, the wild berries, the free-range chickens, the fresh meats and the potato, the country’s great staple."
So who led the charge? Nearly everyone agrees that the Allen family of Ballymaloe House (Shanagarry, Co. Cork), Myrtle and her late husband, Ivan, and later son and daughter-in-law Tim and Darina, were among the first to yank the inert image of Irish cooking — its legacy of famine, emigration, wars, and The Troubles — off its feet and into international prominence.
The Allens opened Ballymaloe as Ireland’s first country house in 1964 and gently nudged wholesome, traditional Irish foods into the culinary limelight.
In the 1970’s, they became active in the Irish Country House and Restaurant Association, and in the late 1980s, Allen became Ireland’s founding member of Euro-Toques, an organization of chefs who support the producers of the best food in Europe and protect its culinary traditions and dishes. She recently served a two-year term as commissioner-general of Euro-Toques, succeeding legendary French chef Paul Bocuse.
Eventually, Ballymaloe became not only a byword for good food but also one of Europe’s foremost cookery schools. Since 1983, the Ballymaloe Cookery School, run by Tim and Darina Allen, has attracted students from all over the world who are trained in the Allen culinary philosophy based on enhancing the natural flavors of the best and freshest local ingredients. The Allens not only perpetuate the unique style of cooking pioneered at Ballymaloe House, but they also promote the use of organically-grown produce, a trend that is growing rapidly in Ireland. Most of the vegetables and herbs used at the school are grown organically in the adjoining greenhouses and gardens, free-range eggs come from the hens who feed happily on the school’s scraps, and meat, fish, and farmhouse cheeses are provided by the best local producers and suppliers.
In addition to being a passionate and committed teacher, Darina Allen is probably Ireland’s most famous cook. She’s also a best-selling author, host of a successful television series called "Simply Delicious," and a tireless ambassador for Irish food both at home and abroad. Several years ago she told a reporter that, like Paris and Rome, one day people will go to Ireland for the food.
"Months in advance, they’ll book tables in Dublin and Cork," she said, "planning their trips so as to get there when the bilberries are ripe or the oysters are at their plumpest best." Most agree that day has come.
New Irish cuisine
With the Allens at the vanguard, it was only a matter of time before more and more chefs began to work with and develop what is now referred to as "new Irish cuisine" — a style of progressive cooking that not only makes the best use of local produce, but also has a definite Irish identity.
In 1994, Bord Bía (The Irish Food Board) was established to promote Irish food and drink at home and abroad, and in 1996, in conjunction with the Restaurants
Association of Ireland, they sponsored a recipe competition that invited chefs to develop innovative dishes based on traditional foods but in a lighter, more modern context. The competition was such an overwhelming success that it was repeated the following year, and as we enter the new millennium, new Irish cuisine has been hailed as a revolution in Irish cookery.
But did it spell an end to old favorites like bacon and cabbage, hotpot, fish cakes, poundies, coddle, or blood pudding? Not in the least. Modern Irish cooking has, in fact, popularized many traditional favorites by reinventing them for modern tastes. Winning recipes in the first competition are good examples. Gerry Galvin (Drimcong House, Galway) created a smoked eel and mussel hotpot for a starter and tipsy pudding in mulled wine for dessert; John Desmond (Island Cottage, Cork) rested duck legs on a bed of turnip purée and turbot on beet root and spinach, and Noel Kenny (Crookedwood House, Westmeath) topped an old-fashioned potato pancake with apple-ginger marmalade and stuffed beef olives with wild mushrooms. Warren Massey (Popjoy’s, Terenure, Dublin) turned breakfast black pudding into a "croquette" and served it as a starter with gooseberry compote, and he substituted a breast of chicken for a loin of bacon and roasted it with cabbage and bits of streaky bacon.
In the second competition, Marie Harding (Lovett’s, Cork) baked champ (also known as callies or poundies) with fresh crabmeat and carrageen moss in individual ramekins, and Derry Clarke (L’Ecrivain, Dublin) completed his meal with a hot dessert of currant soda bread and caramelized apple, which he flipped into an upside down tart.
Drinks like Irish whiskey, stout, cream liqueurs, and mead turned up in desserts like Posset Cúchulainn, a combination of orange juice, cream, and whiskey; Gooseberry and Mead Swiss Roll, a sponge cake rolled with gooseberry purée, whipped cream, and Bunratty Meade, and Poached Pears, which were drizzled with cinnamon syrup and served with whipped Bailey’s Irish Cream.
Chefs here have been encouraged to experiment with Irish food imports, too, and with the establishment of the Irish Food Board in the U.S. in 1996, it’s never been easier to add "a touch of green" to your table. Farmhouse cheeses, whole-grain mustard, oatmeal, honey, preserves, smoked salmon, traditional bacon, sausage and puddings are as likely to turn up in dishes at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco or the Redeye Grill in New York as they are at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud in Dublin.
Even the ubiquitous potato, a staple of the Irish diet since the 17th century, has undergone a virtual metamorphosis in the hands of modern Irish cooks, although few cookbooks describe potato recipes are as memorably as these from Theodora FitzGibbon.
On potato pie, FitzGibbon wrote: "This is Sara Power’s 1746 recipe for a very grand potato dish. I have made it and found it delicious: Boyle and peel your potatoes, pound and break them thro’ a sieve, then weigh a pound of them and put to it half a pound of butter, half a pound of powder sugar, a little brandy and the yolk of six eggs. Beat them some time, your dish being ready, paste on the top and bake an hour." (from "Irish Traditional Food")
On potato cakes, she wrote: "While I live I shall not forget her potato cakes. They came in hot, and hot from the pot oven, they were speckled with caraway seed, they swam in salt butter, and we ate them shamelessly and greasily, and washed them down with hot whiskey and water." (from "A Taste of Ireland")
Perhaps more suitable to modern tastes, these updated recipes were created for the Irish Food Board by leading Irish and American chefs.
This spunky version of gratinéed potatoes, from Chef James Moore of Fado, an Irish theme pub and restaurant in Chicago, combines Irish cheddar cheese with traditional bacon.
4 large russet potatoes
2 tablespoons butter
8 ounces Galtee or Shannon Traditional Bacon, diced
2 cups onions, thinly slices
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried
4 cups chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste
8 ounces Kerrygold Cheddar Cheese, grated
Preheat oven to 350°. Grease a large ovenproof casserole dish. Peel and thinly slice the potatoes. Cover with water to remove the starch. In a Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the bacon and onions and sauté until the onions are translucent, about five minutes. Add the garlic cloves, bay leaf, thyme, and chicken stock. Bring to a boil. Drain the potatoes and add to the stock. Return to boiling, stirring so the potatoes don’t stick to the bottom. Cook about 10 minutes. Remove the garlic and bay leaf. Transfer the potatoes and liquid to the casserole dish, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cover with the grated cheese. Bake 20 to 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Serves four.
Smoked Salmon Salad with Goat Cheese and Citrus Dressing
This easy-to-prepare dish might make even you smarter — but only if you believe the Irish myth about Finn McCool gaining his wisdom from the Salmon of Knowledge. It will definitely make you more popular, though, when you serve it as a starter with slices of brown bread. It’s from Chef James O’Shea of the popular West Street Grill in Litchfield, Conn.
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon orange juice
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped chives
Salt and pepper to taste
4 cups mixed baby salad greens
12 ounces Irish smoked salmon
1 lemon, peeled and sectioned
1 lime, peeled and sectioned
1 orange, peeled and sectioned
6 ounce goat cheese log
1 cup seasoned croutons
In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, lime juice, orange juice, olive oil, chives, salt and pepper. Toss the greens together with the dressing until lightly coated. Arrange three ounces of the smoked salmon over four chilled salad plates. Divide the salad greens onto the center of each plate. Place the lemon, lime, and oranges sections. on top of the lettuce. Slice the goat cheese and divide it around the greens. Sprinkle with the croutons. Serves four.
Roast Breast of Chicken with Cabbage and Bacon
Chef Warren Massey of Popjoy’s in Terenure, Dublin, teams up chicken breast with the time-honored combination of bacon and cabbage in this light, modern dish that creates its own flavorful sauce during the cooking.
6 slices Galtee or Shannon Traditional bacon, cut into strips
4 tablespoons cooking oil
2 chicken breasts, partially boned, about 6 ounces each
2 onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/4 pound Savoy cabbage, shredded
2/3 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons cream
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat the oven to 375°F. In a skillet over medium heat, cook the bacon until crisp, five to seven minutes. Drain and reserve. In a large ovenproof skillet or casserole dish, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken, skin side down, and quickly seal. Transfer the pan to the oven and cook the chicken for 12 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a saucepan over medium heat, heat the remaining oil. Add the onions and garlic and cook gently until the onions are translucent, three to five minutes. Add the cabbage and mix well. Add the chicken stock, bring to a boil, and cook until cabbage is tender, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. With a slotted spoon, remove cabbage to heated plates. Boil the cooking liquid until reduced by half, add the cream and reduce by half again. Whisk in the butter and blend. Strain the sauce and add the strips of cooked bacon. To serve, slice the chicken onto the cabbage and arrange the sauce around it. Serves four.
Irish Coffee Caramel
A classic baked custard dessert-whether it’s called crème caramel, crème brûlée or flan — is not necessarily new to Irish baking, but the Irish coffee caramel touch is a distinctly modern version. This recipe, from Chef Marie Harding of Lovett’s, Cork, treats a traditional Irish theme with a touch of innovation.
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup strong black coffee
1 tablespoon Irish whiskey
2 cups milk
1 tablespoon instant coffee
2 large eggs plus 2 yolks
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons Irish whiskey
2 teaspoons instant coffee
2/3 cup water
1 cup sugar
1/4 to 2/3 cup water
1 tablespoon Irish whiskey
Whipped cream (optional)
For the caramel: Stir sugar and coffee in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, until caramelized, eight to 10 minutes. Watch carefully so it doesn’t burn. Add the whiskey. Divide among six 4-ounce ovenproof ramekins and refrigerate 5 to 10 minutes until the caramel hardens.
For the custard: Preheat oven to 325°F. Combine milk and coffee in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until almost boiling, stirring constantly. Mix eggs, yolks, and sugar in a medium bowl and blend into the hot milk. Ladle the custard slowly into the ramekins and place them into a large roasting pan. Pour enough hot water into a roasting pan to come halfway up the sides of ramekins. Bake custards until just set in center, about one hour 15 minutes. Cool, then refrigerate until cold, at least three hours and up to one day.
For the sauce: Combine instant coffee and water in a small bowl until dissolved. Stir sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat until caramelized. Add coffee and cook until caramel has dissolved. Add whiskey and cool. (Keep sauce chilled.) To serve, turn chilled caramel custards, dark side up, onto serving plates and top with a spoon of sauce on the side. Garnish with whipped cream, if desired. Makes four servings.
For information on where to buy Irish food in the U.S., write the Irish Food Board, 12 West 37th St., 4th floor, New York, NY 10018
(Margaret M. Johnson, who writes regularly for the Echo on food, is the author of "The Irish Heritage Cookbook" [Chronicle Books, San Francisco/Wolfhound Press, Dublin, 1999].)