A month eating only Irish food: pricey, time-consuming, boring
No coffee, wine or sugar – Ellie O’Byrne undertakes a 30-day local food challenge
Ellie O’Byrne, based in Cork city who has spent last month eating only Irish food. Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/Provision
There’s nothing more quintessentially Irish than black pudding. Except much black pudding is made with dried haemoglobin powder instead of fresh blood. Most of this powdered blood comes from China.
Harvesting, transporting and using live blood to make pudding is complex: it requires a vet’s certificate and a special machine to prevent the blood from clotting in transit. So while there is a handful of small producers, including De Róiste of Ballyvourney, using live blood, almost all the best-known brands of this quintessentially Irish fare are made with imported dried blood.
What does this have to do with the reason why, one week into September, I’m sitting in an Aldi car park eating a buffalo mozzarella with strawberries, both from the packet?
The answer lies in my growing personal awareness of the damage to humans and to the environment by our increasingly globalised food supply chain. It’s also to do with Kerry-based artist and food activist Lisa Fingleton.
Fingleton is the founder of a growing movement called The 30-Day Local Food Challenge. Each September, she and others eat only food produced in Ireland to highlight issues of food sovereignty and provenance.
One of Fingleton’s bugbears is our food labelling system which allows products like freshly squeezed orange juice and sushi, and black pudding made with dried Chinese blood powder, to be labelled Irish. EU legislation means foods are labelled according to the country in which they “underwent their last, substantial, economically-justified processing”.
The volume of goods labelled Irish on supermarket shelves might make it look like we have a high level of food security. But how much is actually from Ireland?
Ireland is a net exporter of meat and dairy. But while we exported €127 million worth of fruit and veg in the first half of 2019, we imported €552 million worth, according to the Central Statistics Office. We exported €222 million worth of cereals in the same period, but imported €562 million worth.
Some imports obviously don’t grow in the Irish climate, but this raises questions about why such foods become staples in our diet when a quarter of global CO2 emissions are from food production, according to an analysis published in Science magazine. Other crops we could grow: we imported 72,000 tonnes of potatoes in 2018.
My partner and I decide we’ll take on Lisa Fingleton’s 30-Day Local Food Challenge. Coffee, tea, lemons, pepper, sugar, wine, pasta, rice: all will be off the menu.
I do a supermarket run so I’ll have something to eat the following day. In Dunnes, it’s quickly apparent that I can have just about all the meat and dairy I can handle, while fruit and veg are a different story. I pounce on mushrooms and scallions, but the loose onions are from New Zealand.
Fingleton’s challenge allows a reasonable margin for things like seasonings, but I’m being strict. I buy Irish Atlantic Sea Salt from the Beara peninsula. The science behind my approach is admittedly sketchy; on practicality grounds, I discount the salt added to butter, cheese and meats.
Not many people realise that, since the closure of the last sugar plant in Mallow in 2001, there’s no Irish-made sugar. Many friends and acquaintances, when we announce the challenge on social media, offer jams, chutneys and fruit wines. But all have sugar.
My partner, tackling the challenge with characteristic energy, has built himself an ingenious smoker from a whiskey barrel. We smoke a haul of mackerel that we caught while kayaking.
Caffeine withdrawal is tough. Days into the challenge, I’m suffering existential-crisis-level energy slumps. The lack of coffee highlights the extent to which my livelihood is built around a gruelling regimen of drowning exhaustion in several cups of strong black coffee each day.
Fingleton messages me: “You don’t have to do beverages as well. That’s too difficult! It’s a food challenge.” But I’m stubborn.
I’m on holiday cover for the week, a good opportunity to test drive the challenge in an office environment. Working from home goes well with the diet. You can put bread on to rise in the morning and then sit down to your emails, and prepare a slow-cooking stew in your lunchbreak.
September is harvest month and we reap the rewards of my Covid gardening mania: I have a glut of heirloom tomatoes, greens, French beans, potatoes, beets, kale, garlic and herbs.
Everything takes organisation and time. And because all the processed foods from takeaways or garage forecourts are off the menu, every outing requires preparation.
I start my office week with Monday’s packed lunch of home-made focaccia and a big tub of salad, and a flapjack (oats, butter, honey and some foraged, dried elderberries).
On Tuesday, I leave my lunch at home by accident. On my lunchbreak, stomach rumbling, I bolt for the nearest supermarket, an Aldi. Although Aldi fares quite well compared with some multiples when it comes to Irish-grown offerings, ready-to-eat choices are slim. I end up with a buffalo mozzarella and a packet of strawberries. I eat both, sitting in the carpark. It’s really weird.
Blessed are the innovative Irish cheesemakers who sallied forth and borrowed freely from continental cheese-making traditions over the past 30 years.
Ardsallagh does a “salad cheese” like Feta, sold in Dunnes Stores, so a Greek salad, with cucumbers and tomatoes from the garden, is a regular lunch. Toonsbridge mozzarella and halloumi are a joy. There’s a reasonably priced cream cheese called Ardagh available in Aldi.
It’s incredibly expensive. Clonakilty SuperValu has a very impressive range of locally grown produce. But three litres of Gloun Cross milk, a carton of double cream, a chicken, some rashers, onions and garlic from the West Cork Garlic Company, a bag of mixed salad leaves, some cheddar and a bag of oats, and there’s not much change left from €50.
My partner’s mother grows tea plants in her garden. On the final Sunday morning of the challenge, we brew ourselves a pot, straining the dried leaves, careful not to waste a drop. I think of the countless times I’ve discarded cups of tea left to go cold with their teabag still in. The tea is delicious.
I limp towards the finish line. I’m broke, from both my usual freelancer’s end-of-the-month squeeze and the additional food costs. Broke and eating only Irish is repetitive. It goes like this: potatoes, eggs, cheddar, whatever you can find in the garden.
The stunning quality of Irish-grown ingredients, the elimination of sugar and processed foods: I want to continue with this diet indefinitely. But most families couldn’t choose to eat this way permanently. Maybe with one full-time stay-at-home parent and a high income, but the time and money it takes is prohibitive.
The challenge has given me food for thought. I’m more conscious of how far foods have travelled, the work that’s gone into producing them, and of not wasting them. There’s something right about treating rare commodities as precious. An orange, a packet of tea or coffee, salt: these things were treasured not so long ago.
Even when ingredients aren’t as local as they’ve been this past month, I’m hoping to carry this habit forward into the future. And I’ll definitely sign up for the 30-day challenge again. Next year.
What can’t you get and what can you use instead?
Oil: To replace olive oil and sunflower oil, rapeseed oil is the only commercially available Irish-grown vegetable oil crop. It is extremely versatile. It makes great roast potatoes and fries, but also works well in vinaigrettes. Wicklow Rapeseed Oil produces an award-winning extra virgin oil. Aldi stocks an Irish cold-pressed oil for €3.99. Or you could embrace the animal fats our ancestors used for cooking: suet, dripping and butter.
Tea: There are tea substitutes like rose-bay willow herb, a purple-flowered plant common in roadside verges, used in the UK during second World War rationing. Theresa Storey runs a tea farm in Derryclough, Co Limerick, though her limited stock is sold out this year. You can buy tea plants at Irish garden centres to try growing your own.
Sugar: The only real substitute to imported sugar is honey. Watch out for labelling which gives the impression of being Irish but may not be. The provenance of honey is listed on the back of the label and will often read “a blend of EU and non-EU honeys”. Irish honey is best from farmer’s markets or direct from the beekeeper and costs between €6.50 and €8 a jar.
Wine: Fruit wines are made in Ireland, but most contain sugar. David Llewellyn has a successful vineyard at his orchard in Lusk, Co Dublin, where he grows Merlot, Ronda and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes under cover, producing 1,000 bottles per year. His Lusca 2016 Cabernet Merlot, is distinctive and fabulous, and costs €48. It’s available from Wines on the Green, Dawson Street.
Flour: Most grain for human consumption is imported. There are small mills, like Dunany in Co Louth, The Little Mill in Co Kilkenny and Oak Forest Mills, that mill grain grown in Ireland. Check supermarkets and local stockists. Oak Forest Mills is available in 5kg sacks from Neighbourfood.
Spices: Vanilla, cinnamon, black pepper: there’s a reason why many spices are worth their weight in gold. Mustard seed, horseradish, watercress and Irish-grown chillis all provide heat. There are lots of herbs and spices that can be grown to add pep to plain meals. I dried and ground my own coriander seeds. Bay and curry leaves are also good, both readily available in garden centres.
Juice: Fresh-pressed Irish apple juice is the substitute for OJ but is often expensive, up to €4 a bottle. Smoothies are a win: a base of apple juice, frozen blueberries from Derryvilla blueberry farm near Portarlington or foraged blackberries, a dollop of yoghurt and a spoon of honey makes for a satisfying sweet treat.
Booze: Most beers have imported hops, but there are microbreweries growing their own. Wicklow Wolf brewing company produces all-Irish brews including an oatmeal pale ale. There are plenty of small cider producers but check labels carefully: some don’t list their apples as Irish or have added sugar. Whiskeys include Kinsale Spirits’ recently launched Red Earl Whiskey and Waterford Distillery.