Irish chef JP McMahon undertook the mammoth task of writing the definitive Irish cookbook which will be published next month.
With his Michelin starred restaurant Anair in the Galway, the cultural heart of Ireland and his brainchild Food On The Edge going from strength to strength, JP McMahon has emerged as a spokeman for the burgeoning New Irish Cuisine.
With a culinary history that is partly lost and partly obscured by the Irish Potato Famine and McMahon wanted to channel his passion for Irish food into a definitive compendium of recipes that illustrate the depth and breadth of the Irish culinary tradition.
It was a project that took over three years as he travelled the country seeking out and adapting old recipes and researching archive material in the National Library of Ireland. He trawled through the books of Ireland’s food writers - pulling together classic dishes, finding lost recipes and learning about the uses of ancient ingredients.
“I had a limit of 450 recipes for the book,” says McMahon, “but in the end I had 900 and we had to pick which ones to put in the book.”
While much of Ireland’s cultural heritage has been collected and archived by folklorists and historians over the years, creating a wealth of knowledge on the country’s music and bardic story-telling traditions there is a lack of knowledge on Irish food, recipes and cuisine. This book is an investigation into the old traditions of Irish cooking but also modern Irish food and how it represents a new and outward-looking Ireland.
“I tried to include as many international influences as possible,” says McMahon. “There’s no reason why a contemporary Chinese restaurant can’t cook Irish cuisine. Some people might have a narrow view as to what Irish cuisine is, but it really depends on your point of view.”
McMahon is keen to get away from the outdated image of Irish food as bacon and cabbage and his collection reflects a culture that for centuries was very connected to the outside world and its influences.
“When you look at Ireland as a nation, the first people settled on it 10,000 years ago,” he says. “People always came to Ireland from somewhere else, there was no ‘indigenous population’, and these people all brought techniques, ingredients and ideas with them. So it’s a very broad definition.”
In fact this outward openness defines the Irish, despite a misconception as the country’s culture as historically insular or isolated. Hundreds of years ago, it was easier to reach Ireland from North Africa by boat than it was to take the arduous and perilous journey over land to the heart of Europe. Ireland traded freely with distant nations, and many people conquered the country all bringing their own influences and ingredients with them. Spices have always featured in Irish cooking.
However, with colonisation and poverty much of the culinary knowledge was lost. It’s something McMahon doesn’t gloss over in the book. For him, the culinary tradition of the British ruling class is an important part of the story of Irish food.
“I tried to include those traditions from the landed gentry, you know, the great house on the estate and the traditions that was found in their kitchens. There’s a lot there worth keeping,” he says.
So what are the characteristics of Irish food? What were the criteria for including it in the book?
“People ask me and all I can really say is that if it has been cooked in Ireland for forty or fifty years then it’s Irish food,” says the chef.
“It’s based on the Nordic model, built on the terroir. Seafood was always lacking in any Irish cookbooks that I found, which is strange because we’re surrounded by water. Other definitions of Irish cuisine were always very focused on the land, which is fine because we have great beef and agriculture is very important to us, but fish is fundamental to Irish cuisine, but not only fish, also the sea herbs, and shellfish, so I tried to emphasise their importance a bit more.
“I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. You could easily write books about the coasts, about the provinces, because, recipes, like songs, get interpreted differently from place to place, from family to family and you see that in the tradition of the written recipe.”
“This book is not a history of Irish food. No book is definitive. Rather, it is a present understanding of the lay of the land, what food in Ireland was, how it was used, how it was not and, ultimately, what Irish food can be. I hope you enjoy this journey of discovery. To understand the new Irish cuisine that has come about in recent years, we need to look backwards as well as forwards, to understand what food this island has given to us. We need to celebrate this food in our imaginations as well as our bellies!” - JP McMahon, in the introduction to The Irish Cookbook.
The Irish Cookbook by JP McMahon is published by Phaidon, available February 28th.
Shellfish: Cockles and Breadcrumbs. Photography and Styling: Anita Murphy and Zania Koppe
Wild Mushroom and Walnut Tart. Photography and Styling: Anita Murphy and Zania Koppe
Nettle Soup. Photography and Styling: Anita Murphy and Zania Koppe
Colcannon. Photography and Styling: Anita Murphy and Zania Koppe
Onions Roasted in Pork Fat with Thyme. Photography and Styling: Anita Murphy and Zania Koppe
Dill-cured Salmon with Horseradish Cream. Photography and Styling: Anita Murphy and Zania Koppe
Crab Claws with Seaweed and Samphire. Photography and Styling: Anita Murphy and Zania Koppe
Seafood and Seaweed Chowder. Photography and Styling: Anita Murphy and Zania Koppe
Lamb, Mutton and Goat: Lamb Hotpot. Photography and Styling: Anita Murphy and Zania Koppe
Buttermilk and Elderflower Tart. Photography and Styling: Anita Murphy and Zania Koppe