Russ Parsons: My vision of Irish food was as askew as that of any green-beer-guzzling yahoo

The Los Angeles Times’s former food editor on a year of discovering the way Ireland really eats

‘Some variation of vegetable soup is now a standard mid-week dinner.’ Photograph: iStock

‘Some variation of vegetable soup is now a standard mid-week dinner.’ Photograph: iStock

 

When most Americans think of Irish food, it is only for one day and only about one dish. Paddy’s Day and corned beef is a hallowed tradition that ranks right up there in our holiday food pantheon with the Super Bowl and guacamole.

Of course, being a Verified Food Person, on my first trip to Ireland I was convinced I knew better. Having taught with Ballymalloe’s Darina Allen, and having read my colleague Colman Andrews’ terrific book Irish Country Cooking from cover to cover, I knew with certainty that the average Irish dinner was made from stuff like wild salmon, farmhouse cheeses, and vegetables grown on tiny allotments.

So sure was I that when we came for the first time, I was shocked to find that most of the mainstream restaurant menus I saw seemed to consist largely of burgers, kebabs and curries. My romantic vision of the way Ireland eats was almost as far from reality as that of any of the green-beer-guzzling yahoos I’d sneered at back home.

I still remember my first serving of bacon ribs, stacked atop a mound of colcannon, with a piquant parsley sauce ladled over. Heaven on a plate

To be sure, those foods I had fantasised about do exist, it just took a bit of searching. I still remember my first serving of bacon ribs, stacked atop a mound of colcannon, with a piquant parsley sauce ladled over. Heaven on a plate.

My point is not to bemoan the state of Irish food but to remind myself that for any visitor, whether short-term tourist or a longer-term blow-in, it’s important to remember to learn to love things as they are rather than as how we imagined them to be.

Food is an intrinsic part of culture, and culture has a way of insisting on moving forward, regardless of our notions. I remember years ago a friend had wangled an invitation to visit an old shepherd in the Sicilian outback who still made ricotta in the traditional way, among his sheep over an outside fire. It was a magical experience, he said, but it was jarring to him that the shepherd’s granddaughters who helped out were dressed all in the latest Prada.

I thought that was funny then, but it turns out I was guilty of the same thing when arriving in Ireland – the culinary equivalent of expecting every pub to be hosting a nonstop céilí with Séamus Begley in the corner singing Raglan Road.

We’ve been living in Ireland for just over a year now, and though this has been a most peculiar time, in many ways I think it has worked out well – at least cookingwise. Just as lockdown travel regulations have forced me to explore my own neighbourhood in depth rather than travel the whole island in a whirlwind, it has made my connection to Irish food dependent on cooking for myself with the ingredients I can find at my local groceries.

I’ve always been one of those weird travellers who relish visiting local supermarkets to see what the locals are really eating. And so it’s been trips to my local Tesco, SuperValu, Aldi and, thankfully, Ardkeen Quality Food Store that have been my introduction to real Irish food.

The seafood has been a revelation. Roaring Water Bay mussels, steamed with leeks and just a bit of white wine and finished with cream and chives, is my wife’s favourite treat

And without the model of restaurant dishes to learn from or even the chance to cook with my neighbours, I’ve been left to stumble around finding my way on my own.

As I suspect any immigrant will attest, cooking in a new country is mostly an act of adaptation rather than re-creation, at least at the start.

The first time I cooked with Irish bacon – so different from that in the States – I cut it into chunks and simmered it in a big pot of pinto beans. It was a very short journey from that familiar setting to my first try at bacon and cabbage. And after that I was hooked.

The same kind of thing happened with vegetable soups. On my previous visits I’d fallen in love with the chunky purees served here. But the first time I attempted one on my own it was a very familiar (to me) combination of leeks and potatoes. It was so good that some variation of soup from root vegetables is now a standard midweek dinner – carrots, parsnips, celeriac, all together or individually. Those roots make terrific gratins, too, baked with good Irish cream and cheese.

Though I have yet to find that wild salmon I’d hoped for, the seafood that I have cooked with has been a revelation. Roaring Water Bay mussels, steamed with leeks and just a bit of white wine and finished with cream and chives, is my wife’s favourite treat; cod roasted with potatoes;  mackerel with onions and vinegar. I still think about that lovely whole lemon sole I sauteed on the bone; I can’t wait to get back to that little fish market at the Spar in Dunmore East once we can get beyond our 5km.

Beef and lamb from the butcher down the road; cheeses from St Tola, Knockanore, and Cooleeney Farm. I know I’m just scratching the surface of what is here. There’s so much more I’m looking forward to exploring.

And who knows? Some St Patrick’s Day a few years from now I might even get around to making corned beef.

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