Ireland on a plate
Is there such a thing as a national Irish cuisine, and if so, what is it?
Margaret Jeffares of Good Food Ireland: ‘I don’t think we should forget our traditional and regional dishes that are indigenous to our country’. Photograph: Patrick Browne
Regina Sexton, food and culinary historian: ‘We are ingredient makers for the most part. In many instances, the quality of the ingredients can be superlative’. Photograph: Tomas Tyner
What is Irish cuisine? Have you ever fumbled for words when asked this question by a visitor to Ireland? Should you say bacon and cabbage? Potatoes? Irish stew? Or are we now defined by our black pudding, heirloom vegetables and pig’s cheek?
Ireland bills itself as the food island. We sell the finest quality meats and dairy products all over the world. So why aren’t we able to rhapsodise about our food culture on demand?
Our relationship with our food history is very complicated, according to food and culinary historian Regina Sexton, who lectures at UCC. She has spent the past 25 years studying the culture of Irish food and says our ambivalent attitude is tied up with our history as an exporter of food, our poverty, and in more recent times our entry to the European Union. Add in our general sense that things are better abroad, and the scepticism around the notion that there is such a thing as Irish cuisine, and it gets very complicated.
Sexton takes issue with the term “Irish cuisine”, saying it has French connotations, which tend to interfere with how we see the Irish story. “I would prefer to talk about what defines Irish food culture,” she says. “We are ingredient-makers for the most part. In many instances, the quality of the ingredients can be superlative.”
She singles out beef and dairy produce as two examples of our finest produce. “They stand out because of their economic and indeed cultural importance, their quality and their tangible connection with Ireland.”
But the broader culture surrounding our ingredients is not that well developed. “We don’t seem to have a culture of food that is based around cooking, the enjoyment of food and the production of signature dishes that are automatically associated with the country, and therein lies the problem of trying to define an Irish food culture,” she says.
“If you look at dairy produce and beef, we don’t really have a whole body of mainstream recipes surrounding those, things that we do with those ingredients in the home, that can be labelled as being distinctively Irish.” She says there are also many other less well-known ingredients with an ingrained association with Ireland that we have neglected or abandoned “and their stories are also worthy of telling”.
Blaming the Famine for our troubled relationship with our food culture would be convenient but it’s not the full story. She says Ireland’s “Big Houses’ of the 18th and 19th centuries had a highly sophisticated, rich and indulgent food culture, comparable to anything in Britain. “And this culture is developing at a time when the rural poor are coming to rely on a diet of potatoes and little else. You also had city merchants and rural farmers with their own distinctive food cultures.”
Our tradition of exporting our food also complicates matters. “We were producing commodities, as you might make tables and chairs, and despite the quality, the value lay in the giving away rather than in consuming at home.”
In other parts of Europe, where food exporting is not such a big business, ingredients stay close to their original source, fostering a sense of pride in local produce.
Thanks to programmes such as the Great British Bake Off it has become popular to look to the heritage of food, but Ms Sexton cautions that the trend is faddist and selective. She believes the Government must recognise that food culture is of merit and support it. “It’s a story that still has not been told properly.”