I have often thought of what Irish food looked like before the advent of the potato in the late 17th century. We often think of Irish food as synonymous with the spud (or at least most tourists still see us as the land of “beer and potatoes”, according to a recent survey). Without the potato in our repertoire, we would have no cheese and onion crisps, no Shepherd’s pie, no coddle, no colcannon or Irish stew (or at least we’d have these items without potatoes in them).
The potato marks Irish history like a big branding iron because, in one sense, it both made and unmade the people of the island. It was the potato, along with our dairy industry, that led to a spike in the population in the 18th and 19th century. Many millions depended on the potato – for breakfast, dinner and tea. The advent of the potato blight, which caused The Great Hunger (not an actual famine, I might add), led to the death and emigration of at least half the population. We are scarred by the potato, but that does not mean we have to fear it.
I've often said it was unfortunate the potato has played such a role in our food history, but you can't choose your food history in the same way you can't choose your family. If we are condemned to be a country of potatoes and beer then we need to make sure we produce the best potatoes and best beer in the world. We have some wonderful heritage potatoes in Ireland, three of which are grown in Ballymakenny Farm in Co Louth. But there are many more. We need to investigate these potatoes much more, looking into the way they cook and taste differently. A potato is never just a potato.
Beer sauces are something we never think about enough, always reaching for the white or red wine to make that sauce. While using beer is a bit more difficult (because of its bitterness), a little honey can offset this problem. Using beer to make a beurre blanc is a nice alternative.
Peel and half a potato and cut incisions in the potato without cutting the whole way through (it’s called a Hasselback potato). Place the potato in a pot with oil and butter and cook on a medium heat until the potato is soft and crispy. Serve with the beer beurre blanc and a little sea lettuce. Very Irish!