Coming clean on Drisheen – Frank McNally on the mysterious pleasures of a Cork culinary classic

  Tripe and drisheen in the English Market in Cork

Tripe and drisheen in the English Market in Cork

 

On a visit to Cork’s English Market last week, I stopped, not for the first time, to marvel at a stall devoted to that city’s classic food combination – the Romeo and Juliet of Leeside charcuterie– tripe and drisheen. I had never eaten either, somehow, although tripe is still commonly available in butcher shops.

Drisheen is the more exotic of the two, being confined to Ireland’s deep south (Limerick and Kerry also have versions). So on the basis that I had to try it once, I bought a small section of the black, snake-like coil, and took it back to Dublin.

It then spent several days in the fridge before I could brace myself to take it out again. 

As Swift said about oysters, it must have been a brave man who first ate a drisheen. 

Had I had fried it all out? Or could it be that the deficiency was in my taste buds?

But then again, it is a manufactured dish – made from sheep’s blood and milk, among other things – so the man must have had some idea what he was doing.

From the outside, it looks like its sturdier cousin, black pudding. It’s only when you cut through the intestinal skin covering you see the difference. 

The texture is almost disturbingly smooth, like raw liver, except that it cuts as easily as jelly, and after cooking, breaks up like jelly too.

You don’t have to cook it, by the way. It’s cooked already. If you’re really brave, or from Cork, you can even eat it cold.  I was happy to take the advice of the saleswoman and fry it. Then, especially eaten with “smoked rashers”, she said, it would be “absolutely beautiful”.

I had my doubts. On first bite, the most I hoped for was not to be disgusted. Instead, as I nibbled, it dawned on me that the most obvious thing about it was not so much the taste as the lack of it. For a food so daunting in appearance, it had a flavour somewhere between bland and non-eventful.

Had I had fried it all out? Or could it be that the deficiency was in my taste buds? I remembered from somewhere the word “delicate” being used of drisheen’s flavour.

Perhaps the fault was in my palate, which if not uneducated, had dropped out of school before the exams.

Conversely, I wondered if drisheen wasn’t an ancient Cork joke at the expense of Dublin people, and other foreigners: a culinary version of the emperor’s clothes, whereby they all agreed to pretend it was something special, then laugh at those who fell for it.

And yet the delicacy’s credentials have been well vouched in literature, most notably by James Joyce, the Dublin-born son of a Corkman, and a bit of a charcuterie specialist, who mentions it in at least two books. 

On the other hand, even in the era of globalisation, drisheen does not seem to have travelled much

In Portrait of the Artist, he remembers his old man ordering “drisheens” for breakfast in a Cork Hotel. And in Finnegans Wake, Joyce pays it the compliment – very unusual in that book – of three sentences in intelligible English: “Correspondents […] will keep on asking me what is the correct garnish to serve drisheens with. Tansy Sauce. Enough.”

Maybe that was where I went wrong, although tansy – a fascinating herb in its own right – is also an ingredient of the actual drisheen, sauce or no sauce.

Drisheen is reputed to have medicinal benefits too. Or so the English travel writer HV Morton was told when he too ordered it in a Cork hotel, circa 1930. It was “the first thing all doctors [there] give you when you are seriously ill”, he heard, and quoted a local man who had once had emergency supplies sent to him in London to aid recovery from a bad flu.

Drisheen has also withstood the tests of time, unlike other regional specialties. It was included, for example, in an Irish-themed “educational dinner”, given in London in 1912 as part of an international series. But where today, and what, are “Irish Stanicles”, “Kilkenny straws”, “Derry’s Darlints”, or even “Dame Soup of Dublin”, which were also on the menu?

On the other hand, even in the era of globalisation, drisheen does not seem to have travelled much, except in the occasional suitcase.

Morton was also assured that when visiting “less enlightened cities”, Cork people often brought “a yard of drisheen with them” (Does that still happen?)

His own portion came boiled, by the way, and looked like “a firm chocolate blancmange”. Having a finer palate than mine, he found it a “peculiar, subtle dish, pleasant and ladylike”. Or maybe he was letting on, because there was also a hint of criticism when he added: “I believe that I would like it better fried.”

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