Irish Cuisine Guide

June 12, 2019 | By Dave Mattingly

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The early history of Irish Food was centered on grains, mainly oats and barley, eaten in the form of porridge. Beef, mutton, pork and shellfish were also eaten, in addition to wild fruit and nuts, especially hazelnuts. The main vegetables grown were carrots, parsnips, celery, turnips, cabbage and onions. Cattle were an important part of Irish Food history, from Medieval times until the introduction of the potato. Meat was reserved for the wealthy with the poor subsisting on milk, cheese, butter, offal (organ meats), oats and barley. Bread was a common Irish Food by the 16th century, and cake was eaten, although not regularly and only by the wealthy. By the 17th century, English colonists brought with them fruits such as strawberries, pears, plums and cherries. In towns, shops such as butchers and bakers emerged in the early 1600s. The wealthy had access to exotics spices, sugar and meats such as beef. The poor, when they had access to meat at all, would have eaten pork. Because there was no way of storing fresh meat, they made the pork into bacon. This was done at home by brining it, or preserving it with salt.

Irish Food and the Potato
Introduced in 1580, the potato, called "praties" in Ireland, became a staple food in the country, thanks to bountiful harvests and the fact that it could be easily stored and eaten during the winter months. As a result, the Irish population grew exponentially, most of which were poor. Potatoes and milk became the main foods in their diets, which although repetitive, were surprisingly nutritious. In the late 1700s it is estimated that a family of two adults and four children needed about 5 lbs of potatoes per person a day which could easily be grown on ½ acre. The wealthy ate cultivated vegetables, pork, mutton and dishes such as black pudding, made from ox blood and oatmeal. Potatoes were used in most meals including: champ (potatoes with scallions), colcannon (potatoes with cabbage), Irish Stew (potatoes with meat and vegetables) and boxty (potato pancakes).

Approximately 75% of Ireland's male population was engaged in agriculture, and in 1845 disaster ensued when the first potato crops were destroyed by fungal disease known as Potato Blight. The disease rotted potatoes and rendered entire crops inedible destroying the primary food source for millions of people causing the Great Irish Famine. By the end of the famine in 1852 over 1 million people died, and many more emigrated due lack of food and work, and by 1900, the population of the country had decreased by another 2 million people. After the famine, the availability of vegetables such as turnips and cabbage improved. The typical Irish diet included potatoes, wholemeal bread, porridge, vegetables and smaller amounts of meat, fish and eggs. Between 1860 and 1900, the consumption of tea rose drastically, and became one of the most popular beverages consumed in Ireland.

Modern Day Irish Food Culture
As the 20th century approached, developments in processed food industries, food distribution via railways and roads, and the growth of retail food outlets allowed new foods to spread throughout the country. While typical Irish Food still consisted of bread, porridge, potatoes, meat and vegetables, other foods that were considered luxuries such as biscuits, bread, sugar and tea reached the rural population. It wasn't until the mid 20th century that electricity and modern kitchen equipment such as refrigerators would reach Irish homes. The 1960s and 1970s saw rice and pasta eaten more frequently, and by the 1980s upscale restaurants and fast food chains arrived. A new Irish cuisine developed in the past few decades that focuses on fresh vegetables, seafood, and traditional foods such as soda bread and artisan cheese. Such traditional foods that have regained popularity are Irish Stew and the full Irish breakfast (see below). First sold in Dublin in the 1880s by an Italian immigrant, Fish and Chips, or deep fried battered fish served with French fries, are also very popular today, especially as a take-out food item.

Popular Irish Foods
Potatoes, both a savior and destructive force in Ireland's history, must be mentioned when discussing Traditional Irish Food. Potatoes are baked, boiled, fried and mashed in a vast array of dishes in traditional Irish meals. Potatoes are mixed with cabbage to make colcannon, mixed with scallions in champ, and added to meat and vegetables to make the traditional Irish Stew. Irish Stew has been a national dish of Ireland for nearly two hundred years, and is a hearty meal appreciated for its ability to satisfying hunger. Potatoes are also added to all types of soups made with seafood or meats, including salmon, scallops, lobster, oysters, beef, lamb or pork.

Pigs, the oldest domesticated animal in Ireland, provide meat that is used in Irish Foods such as sausages, back bacon, gammon and Dublin Coddle, a dish made of bacon, sausage, and potatoes. Pork is also used in Crubeens, which are made from boiled pigs feet.

Bread has long been an important part of Irish Food. Soda bread, a brown bread made from whole wheat flour and buttermilk is national dish of Ireland. Potatoes find a way of sneaking into many traditional Irish recipes and Potato Bread is no exception. Potato Bread is made by substituting potatoes for a portion of the wheat flour in the recipe.

The traditional Irish breakfast is a large meal including such foods as fried eggs, bacon, sausage, black pudding, white pudding (similar to black pudding but with no blood), toast, fried tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, baked beans and brown soda bread.

Irish Food and St. Patrick's Day
St Patrick's Day, an Irish holiday celebrated for 1,000 years, was traditionally celebrated in Ireland with Bacon and Cabbage. When Irish immigrants came to America, they found that beef was now affordable and substituted beef for bacon in Bacon and Cabbage and created the Irish American dish Corned Beef and Cabbage. It wasn't long before brined beef, or corned beef, became traditional among Irish Americans. Gaelic Steak, pan fried Irish beef with a shot of Irish whiskey, is another traditional Irish dish served during St. Patrick's Day.

Irish Desserts
Many Irish specialty desserts are reserved for holidays throughout the year. On Good Friday, the Friday before Easter Sunday, Hot Cross Buns are consumed, a spiced sweet bun topped with a frosting cross on the top. On Halloween, Barmbrack, a currant cake, is traditionally eaten, which has a variety of objects baked into the cake which are used for a type of fortune-telling, such as a coin or a ring, symbolizing good fortune, or marriage in the coming year. During the Christmas season, the Irish Christmas Cake is popular, full of dried and candied fruits and decorated with marzipan, white icing, and holly sprigs. Irish Shortbread cookies made of butter, flour and sugar are a perennial favorite. Apple Potato Bread, wrapped around a sweet apple filling, is a specialty of Northern Ireland, a region famous for their cultivation of apples. Although there are no potatoes in them, Irish Americans in Philadelphia, PA have been celebrating St. Patrick's Day for over 100 years with "Irish Potatoes" which have coconut cream center and are rolled in cinnamon, causing them to look like potatoes.

Irish Food and the Role of Alcohol
The best selling alcoholic drink in Ireland is Guinness, a rich, dark, stout beer, originating in Dublin in the 1700s. Guinness is one of the best selling beers in the world and is known for its burnt flavor due to roasted unmalted barley.

Irish whiskey is one of the world's great whiskeys. Distilled by monks nearly a thousand years ago, it is said that in the late 19th century over 400 brands of Irish whiskey were being exported and sold in the United States. Production of Irish whiskey has seen a downturn in the 20th century, with only three distilleries in operation in Ireland today. Irish Whiskeys are available in single grain and single malt or in blended form, and by Irish law must be aged for a minimum of three years in barrels.

The Irish are known for their cream liqueur, thanks to the introduction of Bailey's Irish Cream Liqueur in 1974, a mixture of famous Irish whiskey, cream and other ingredients. Bailey's Irish Cream is commonly added as a shot to black coffee or served over ice.

Irish Coffee
Irish Coffee came into existence after World War II. It is made of strong black coffee, a shot of Irish whiskey and is topped with thick double cream poured over the back of a spoon. Irish Cream Coffee is a flavored coffee that offers hints of Bailey's Irish Cream liqueur.

Irish Cheese
Due to economic factors in the 16th and 17th centuries, cheesemaking in Ireland fell to the wayside and became an art of the past. Early in the 20th century, interest in cheesemaking was renewed, and by the 1970's a revival of farmhouse cheese production began in the Irish countryside. These cheeses were first made by families who emigrated from continental Europe and were missing cheeses from their homelands.

Today, Irish cheese is known for its distinct flavor and high quality made by the same families who farmed the land for generations. This high quality is seen in not only many varieties of Cheddar cheese, found in such brands as Kerrygold, Tipperary, Wexford and Shamrock, but also other artisan farmhouse cheeses. Dubliner, named after the city of Dublin, is a sweet cow's milk cheese aged for a year, which holds the flavor of a mature Cheddar with the sweet aftertaste of Parmigiano Reggiano. Cashel Blue, Ireland's first blue cheese is an award-winning cow's milk cheese, is creamy, mild and slightly sweet. Blarney Castle, named for the famed Irish castle, is an all natural mild and creamy cow's milk cheese. Cahill Farms in Country Limerick offer some interestingly flavored Cheddars, including Cheddar with, Elderberry, Porter or the mild, sweet flavor of famous Irish Whiskey.

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