When someone says to you “Irish food” the first thing you probably think of is potatoes, right? Then maybe green beer?
While the Irish do love their potatoes and beer, there is actually much more to the culinary history and traditions of the Emerald Isle than you might initially think, and with Saint Patrick’s Day right around the corner, we thought where better to kick off our first edition of food from around the world than in Ireland?
So what is Irish food?
You may be shocked to find out that the potato was not introduced to Ireland until the 16th century. In fact, the Irish people initially believed the potato to be poisonous and wouldn’t eat it! The culinary history of Ireland got its start with ancient Celtic food. According to the Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, the ancient Celtic people placed dried grass on the ground and used tables slightly raised off the floor. The meal was centered around the cauldron and the roasting spits, so much of the food they ate were roasted and boiled meats that they ate with their hands. This was representative of the war-faring nature of their society. Sounds messy.
The first people to arrive in Ireland were hunter-gatherers. At the time, Ireland was completely covered in forest, so the people made their way along the coast or traveled up the rivers in boats to break their way in. So what would these people have eaten? Seafood! Oysters, scallops, mussels, herring…whatever they could forage. Many people (ourselves included) forget that Ireland has fantastic seafood, but this tradition remains today.
What the staples in a traditional Irish diet?
Ok, so obviously the Irish people eventually realized that potatoes aren’t poisonous and as we all now know the potato has become probably the number one staple food in the country. Other important food items are grains (particularly oats) and dairy products. The Irish are also quite accomplished cheese makers, with over 50 types of “farmhouse” cheeses.
Hearty, filling soups (think Irish stew) are often found on the dinner table, and as we already mentioned rarely a meal goes by that doesn’t include seafood and meat, especially beef, lamb and pork.
Bread, made with whole wheat flour and buttermilk, almost always has a spot at the table.
Do the Irish have any special food traditions?
Why yes, they do! We’re so glad you asked.
With a history steeped in the Catholic faith, the two most important meals of the entire year are Christmas and Easter. If you read our post about Mardi Gras, you’ll remember that Lent required followers of the Catholic faith to give up all animal products (including milk, butter and eggs) for 46 days leading up to Easter. For the less-fortunate irish Catholics, this meant existing pretty much solely on oatcakes to survive. Now that’s dedication to your faith.
Obviously after eating nothing but dry cakes for a month and a half, Easter dinner was a pretty big deal for the people of Ireland.
Another fun Irish tradition is that of Barmbrack. Barmbrack is a yeasted bread with sultanas and raisins, and it is thought the yeast originally used to make the bread was skimmed from the top of fermenting beer. The Irish were nothing if not resourceful! On Halloween the bread was baked with various objects inside and they basically played Russian Roulette with their futures. (Ok not exactly, but it was a pretty twisted game to be honest) The game was as follows:
The items baked inside the cake were a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin and a ring. The cake was then served, and everyone checked inside their piece to find out what item ended up in their slice. The pea signified that you would not marry that year, the stick meant that you would have an unhappy marriage or continuously be in disputes, the cloth meant that bad luck for that you would be poor. The coin was a symbol of good fortune and riches, and the ring meant that you would be married within the year. Doesn’t that sound like fun? No? Yeah we didn’t think so either.
New Years in Ireland
Every culture has their own New Year’s traditions, and the Irish are no different. New Years Eve was known as “Oiche na Coda Moire”, which translates to “The Night of the Big Portion”. Now there’s a tradition we can get behind! The belief was that a big meal on the last night of the year signified prosperity for the year ahead. This is where barmbrack comes in again, only this time in a less depressing/terrifying fashion.
On New Years, women would make a large barmbrack, everyone would grab a chunk and throw it at the doors and windows. This practice was meant to symbolize that no one in the house was hungry. New Year’s day, also known as La Na Ceapairi or the Day of Buttered Bread had a similar tradition where people would make sandwiches of buttered bread and place them on their doorstep, again to symbolize that no one in the house was hungry. For people who were really concerned with starvation, they sure did waste a lot of food…
The Great Famine
Despite all of their cake-throwing, sandwich-making efforts, famine did strike, and when it hit it hit hard. During the Irish potato famine, 1 million people died and 1 million emigrated. Ireland, which at one time was the most densely populated country in Europe, was reduced to a fraction of what it once was. So how did this happen?
The main crop that Irish farmers grew were grains, which were sent over to the British and French navies. In fact, Irish farmers were basically feeding both groups for centuries- even while they were fighting each other! This was great since it brought in plenty of money to the country, but most of this cash flow did not make it down to the farmers who were actually growing the crops. Irish farmers were poor and therefore could not afford to buy the grains they were growing. This is where the potato came in.
At the time, potatoes were used as a “cleansing crop” to replenish the soil as the farmers rotated the grain fields. What Irish farmers found was that they could grow enough potatoes on one acre of “poor land” (ie- depleted soil) to feed a family of 10 for a year.
Things were looking up for the Irish. They were well-fed and happy so they were marrying young and having big families. More kids = more help in the fields, right? There was only one problem: as time went on they began to plant one type of potato, which made them highly susceptible to any disease that might infect the plants. And infect it did. In 1845, a blight attacked both the leaves and the roots of the potato plant and essentially wiped out the entire crop. At this point, the Irish had become reliant on the potato as their main source of food, so this obviously was a huge problem. This famine lasted for 6 years, and was the worst famine to hit anywhere in Europe in the 19th century.
The Luck O’ The Irish
Ok, so you’re probably thinking at this point “gee willackers, those Irish don’t seem very lucky at all!” You’re right- lady luck was certainly not on the side of the Irish in the 19th century. However, this saying has nothing to do with Irish-Europeans, and everything to do with Irish-Americans.
As we mentioned, a lot of people left Ireland during the famine because obviously it was not a great place to be at the time. Many of these people travelled to America, where during the second half of the 19th century they were in the middle of a gold and silver rush. Many of the most famous and successful gold and silver-miners were Irish American, hence the saying luck of the Irish. The saying was actually meant to be quite derogatory, because what they were really saying was “There’s no way those guys are smart enough to find all that silver and gold, so it must just be dumb luck”. A cruel thing to say, but guess who was laughing all the way to the bank?
So what should I eat when I’m in Ireland?
Ireland has an amazing food scene, especially if you’re interested in the farm-to-table movement. Like any modern country, Ireland has benefited from immigration, so you can find food from all over the world there. However, if you’re looking for the uber-authentic, down-home Irish roots kind of experience, here are the foods/dishes and drinks you should be on the lookout for:
- Irish stew
- Colcannon (mashed potatoes with kale or cabbage)
- Irish soda bread
- Shepherd’s pie
- Champ (another popular mashed potato dish)
- Corned beef with cabbage
- Barm Brack
- Dublin Coddle (a meat and potatoes dish to use up leftovers)
- Black pudding (“ pork meat, fat and blood mixed with barley, suet and oatmeal in an intensely flavoured sausage.)
- White pudding (same as black pudding without the blood)
- Guinness (obviously- and be sure to check out other local brews as well!)
The Irish value hospitality, so be prepared to be invited in, offered a cup of tea or something to eat, and enjoy!