No tea, no coffee, no sugar: the guaranteed Irish diet
Eat Only Irish Week is a chance to see if we can live on solely Irish-produced food. You’d be surprised by some of the items that are off the menu, writes BRIAN O'CONNELL
A FEW WEEKS ago Brendan Allen, a farmer, wondered on Twitter whether it would be possible to live solely on Irish food. As a producer running Castlemine Farm, in Co Roscommon, Allen believed it could be done and took exception to people who suggested it would make for a dull and restrictive diet.
“If the food trade broke down in the morning, could we survive on our own? That was my question,” he says. “So instead of just tweeting this dilemma I decided to try it for myself. Beginning next Monday, I’ll eat three meals a day of only Irish produce for a whole week.”
The initiative, Eat Only Irish Week, has taken root and now has more than 1,000 supporters who are committed to eating solely Irish produce from Monday until tomorrow week. The idea is that the food has to be grown, foraged, caught or reared on Irish soil; the same strict criterion applies to the ingredients in food manufactured here.
I decided to adopt the food regime for three days, to test how difficult it would be to eat strictly Irish. Given our increased awareness of Irish products in recent years, and initiatives such as the Good Food movement and Guaranteed Irish labelling, a readily and easily identifiable range of Irish produce should be on our shelves. That I also live close to the local-food haven of the English Market, in Cork, meant I didn’t think it would require a big change in my eating habits.
But as well as needing a lot of thought, eating Irish throws up some culinary surprises. Firstly, some of the items I took for granted as being Irish, and which are staples of our diets, are not Irish at all. Sugar was off the menu, despite the fact that nearby Mallow was a huge producer of Irish sugar for decades. I also couldn’t find any Irish salt (although I later learned of a producer in west Co Cork), and so many processed and packaged foods were out of bounds.
I could forget about cucumbers (no problem), bananas, left-over Easter egg and a whole range of jams and marmalades. Sugar Puffs were off the breakfast table; Mr Kipling’s French Fancies didn’t get a look in.
My first shop of the week was at my local SuperValu, in Glanmire, where its manager, Tom Higgins, explained which vegetables were in season and locally produced, and helped me choose exclusively Irish products.
What struck me was the competitive prices: I picked up a free-range Carlow chicken for €5.49, a two-kilo bag of Cork potatoes for €2 and a head of cauliflower for €1. The eggs came from Riverview Farm close by, and black and white pudding came from Crowe’s Farm and Rosscarbery Recipes (although foreign salt may have been used in both). The shop also stocked Irish ranges from other local companies, including Just Food and Dee’s Wholefoods.
But I found it difficult to distinguish between truly Irish goods and products with an Irish heritage. Some carried Love Irish Food stickers; others had Guaranteed Irish ones. Higgins said that customers were more conscious of where food came from and that branding across the sector could be better.
“Brands can’t shout loud enough about their Irish credentials. I think this is the case especially as the recession hits home. It becomes more apparent if you have a nephew or son or daughter working in the food industry.”
I noticed for the first time that some scallions sold here come from Mexico and that other vegetables can come from Israel and across Europe. I would have to wait another few weeks for Irish tomatoes to come into season. The bread I picked up, though, was baked in the store, and an impressive range of Irish butter was available. But marmalade and many jams are out, as their ingredients come from abroad.
AFTER LIVING OFF porridge, potatoes and pork chops for a few days I decided to try one of Cork’s better-known restaurants for lunch, to see whether dining out could bring diversity to my diet. Kay Harte’s Farmgate restaurant, in the heart of the English Market, has been championing Irish food for decades, and over a lunch of Clonakilty chicken and local vegetables she talked me through the logistics of serving solely Irish food.
“I don’t think using mostly Irish produce restricts our menu,” she says. “I would say 99 per cent of the menu is local; the only thing I can’t say is Irish is the olive oil or the salt. But on that note I just heard about salt being produced in Ireland. I don’t have it yet but am sourcing it.
“I became more conscious not just of the need to eat Irish food for health reasons, but there are also sound economic reasons why we buy local food. It’s because of the multiplier effect in small areas – buying from local producers and shopkeepers and stallholders, and in turn they come back to you, and the money circulates.”
One of the items I missed most during my three-day Irish menu was not being able to have a daily cuppa, in my case Barry’s tea. It’s somewhat ironic that the quintessential Irish beverage comes from countries as far away as Kenya, Rwanda and India. Still, it was a small price to pay for having seasonal vegetables and local meat on my plate every day. It felt physically and economically healthier to get back to basics and support our growers and producers.
Now, who’s for a skinny latte?