A country’s food culture is an essential part of its cultural identity, just ask any Frenchman or Italian. The food they eat forms their memories growing up, it becomes the cultural signifier of their national identity. It’s the meaning of the language of food and chefs are the artists who create new expressions of that language.
Ireland, for a small country of 4.5 million people, has a strong sense of national identity. St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated all over the world by those with Irish heritage and without. However, when it comes to food, the Irish are only just beginning to revive their culture. It’s an exciting time, but there’s a lot of work to be done to push New Irish cuisine, beyond bacon and cabbage or Irish Stew.
A new generation of Irish chefs is working to revive and reinvent Irish cuisine. Kevin Burke is the Head Chef at The Ninth a Michelin star restaurant in London. A native of Dublin, he spent many a summer in the wilds of West Cork.
“If you ask people around the world about Irish food”, says Burke, “no one has a clue. Even in London, they’ll know bacon and cabbage, but nothing else, and that’s our fault for not telling the world about our food. It’s our job as chefs to change that.”
“We never really talked about food, our whole tradition was lost. We always looked outside the country for the benchmark. We looked to French food as being the ‘best’ or ‘fanciest’, or the Italian as the ‘most rustic’, we never looked at what we had, there was never that mentality. The best food was always another country’s food.”
“It was a lack of confidence, we didn’t believe in ourselves too much and there was literally no education about food in Ireland, there still isn’t. We were never taught about what we have or what we do well. As a country, Ireland is incredible for its food producing.”
Ireland, experienced its Cultural Revival at the end of the 19th century, when artists and intellectuals begin to revive the Irish language, there was a surge in an interest in Gaelic language, art, poetry and mythology, the awakening of a new identity of what it meant to be Irish sowed the seeds of revolution, the Rising of 1916 and the War of Independence, and eventually the Free State in 1922.
However, in that wave of new Irish culture, food was left out of the conversation completely. Which is extraordinary when you think of the importance of food and how political a subject is in Ireland.
The Irish Potato Famine (1845-49), when the potato crop failed, saw a million people die and another million emigrate. It was a devastating event whose repercussions are still felt today. The Irish had become overly reliant on the potato and when it failed, it wrought devastation on the peasant people.
When England colonised Ireland, confiscated lands and banished the Irish to small land holdings in the west where the soil was poor. The potato was the only thing that would grow in the soil and it was a hardy crop, that was nutritious and could feed a family and this was how the vast majority of Irish Catholics lived for hundreds of years, while the country’s trees were felled to build the ships of the British Navy and the land was turned over to cereal and crop farming, the harvests of which were sent to feed the armies of the Empire and later the workers in the cities of the Industrial Revolution. Ireland’s English masters suppressed all Irish culture, Catholics were forbidden from speaking their language, from owning horses or property. Little by little, the Gaelic culture, the language and the cuisine were lost.
But before it was lost, there was an Irish cuisine, one based on the terroir of the island, a bountiful, wild place whose rivers and seas teemed with fish, whose forests were filled with berries, fruit, wild boar and game and whose mountains were home to deer and hare.
Hospitality was a cornerstone of Irish culture, in fact, it was compulsory under Gaelic law. If you were entitled to hospitality and were refused, you could sue. Eating together was how alliances formed, it maintained the fabric of Gaelic society and feasting and celebratory eating very important. With a climate suited to cattle rearing dairy played an important role in people’s diet with milk, cheese, and yoghurts as staples. Butter was buried in the bog to age and is often unearthed today still well preserved.
Pork was the most eaten meat in Irish cuisine, but all game was hunted including deer, wild boar, hare and rabbit. Poultry doesn’t feature greatly in historical accounts and horse was taboo. Fasting was a strong tradition, with as many as three fasting or meat-free days in the Irish week, vegetarian dishes were commonplace. Fat-Hen, similar to Quinoa was widely used and onions, chives, cabbage, celery, wild garlic, leeks, watercress, sorrel, parsley, and nettles were foraged. Apples and plums were important fruits along with sloes, mulberries, mulberries and blackberries.
Spices were not used in Irish cuisine apart from pepper which was an import from the Roman Empire and the food was all based around seasonality and availability, values that are very much central to modern fine dining. In a way, the conditions are right for Irish cuisine to make its comeback.
“The Irish mentality is of getting food as fresh as possible, as locally as possible, treating everything with respect. That really is the Irish food mentality, that’s where we’re coming from."
“There was never anyone personality standing up and proclaiming, ‘this is Irish food’. You need that voice, but for some reason in Ireland, we’re almost too humble, so we’re constantly looking for other people outside to validate us, people from England or even further afield.”
“Recently in the last few years, Ireland in the culinary world has just blown up. From London, I’m looking over and I see so many new things happening, whether it’s Michelin posting and tweeting about Ireland. You see JP (McMahon) everywhere, he’s in Paris one day and America the next and he’s championing Irish produce and rightly so. It’s about getting the word out there.
“It’s only now that Irish food is being taken seriously, people are starting to listen. It’s like were starting from scratch. We lost our culinary heritage and we’re creating it again, trying to answer questions, but it’s hard, it has to evolve naturally too." ' Kevin Burke
“ We should be using more foraged food, we’re an island and we’ve got some of the best seaweed in the world and we don’t really touch on it, we don’t have the knowledge. The Japanese utilise seaweed in all their stocks in so much of their food, so we should be using it too.”
It goes far beyond the confines of fine dining, there remains a lack of awareness about food in the general population. With childhood obesity on the rise and Ireland to on course to become the most obese nation in Europe by 2030. Education in food, in origin, and quality is a matter of urgency.
“We have to nurture our homegrown talent. In the past if you were interested or in any way talented in the world of food, you left Ireland,” says Burke. “You went to France or to England, the United States. What we have to do now is to find a way to encourage this talent to come back. Because in the short term there is no overall plan for food education in Ireland, so it will fall to the chefs to be that champions of new Irish food. They have to be encouraged to come back and share their knowledge.”
The New Irish Cuisine hasn’t lost its very intimate connection to the land from which it came. The Irish landscape is a unique and beautiful place, if you haven’t visited it, you really should. A sense of place runs very deep in the Irish and the food, when eaten in Ireland has another meaning altogether.
“I was at Food On The Edge last year and some of the chefs were travelling around together discovering Ireland,” says Burke. “We were in a restaurant in the west of Ireland and I was sitting next to Albert Adria and he was just blown away by the landscape. He said “I just want to open up a restaurant on those cliffs, serve seafood and hope no one comes”.
The success of Denmark and their New Nordic cuisine has inspired Irish chefs. Denmark and Ireland have a lot in common. It has served to inspire the Irish to find their own culinary identity, the thinking has been “if Denmark can do it, why can’t we?”, which speaks volumes of the power of food movements to inspire and lift people up. Just as a movement in the arts, like theatre, for example, can serve as an ambassador for a culture, so too can food.
But, just as the arts serve to better our society, so too can food. A new Irish cuisine can be more than an expression of our history and territory, it can define the society we aspire to be. That is the real power of a movement and the opportunity that Ireland has in hands today.