Deputy Editor of Easy Food Jocelyn Doyle shares her love of Irish food in this post, guaranteed to make you hungry.
Food of all ethnicities excites and absorbs me. Give me rillettes or steak tartare from France, soft tacos from Mexico, a fiery Thai curry, Canadian poutine, Polish pierogi, a strong and sweet Vietnamese iced coffee, Spanish jamón, Japanese sushi, haggis hailing from Scotland, a good Indian pickle or literally anything from Italy, and I am a very happy woman indeed. My only restrictions are a general disinterest in sweet foods, and the sad fact that my appetite is no longer bottomless, as it was in my ravenous teens.
“Laughter is brightest where food is best.” – Irish proverb
Irish food, however, holds a special place in my heart – and not just because I hail from Co. Wicklow. The year spent completing my Masters at the Univeristy of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy’s Piemonte region was a blur of eating, drinking, talking about eating and drinking and then eating some more, but we also learned plenty along the way, largely about how food has shaped our history, our culture and the very essence of our humanity.
The idea of terroir — that the soil, climate and environment in which grapes are grown have direct implications for the characteristics of the wines they will produce — is not just applicable for a myriad of foods outside the scope of vinification, but for us, too. The old adage that ‘we are what we eat’ is true in a cultural sense, as well as a dietary one. The foods on which we’re reared seep into our collective consciousness, shaping us as a people. Back at home, as I learned to consider these things more deeply, one thing I was struck by is how derisive we Irish could be about our food heritage.
“Irish food?” people would snort, when asked, “What, stew and potatoes?” Again and again, I listened as we collectively talked down the role our food plays in the very nature of Irishness. I believe that much of this is a hangover from centuries of British occupation; that we were told so often that our culture was worthless, low and uncivilised that we have internalised those beliefs.
Because, truth be told, we are so much more than stew and potatoes — delicious as those are. We are also more than the overly processed “food-like products” made in the huge factories that became widespread as our island was industrialised.
What are we?
We are the product of ancient middens of mussel shells, of juicy, tender meat cooked in a fulacht fiadh, of gatherings fuelled by mead. We are hardy sheep clambering across rugged terrains; we are succulent spring lamb. We are bountiful seas and wild winds whipping salted spray over shores draped with seaweed. We are fertile soils and lush grasses, producing the best dairy in the world; weird and wonderful cheeses, teeming with helpful microorganisms unique to our air and beneficial to our bodies.
We are hedgerows filled with nature’s bounty, waiting to be picked and savoured. We are iron-rich black pudding and smooth creamy white; greasy crubeens with our pints of black, and using every last bit of that animal. We are steaming bowls of porridge on cold, rainy winter mornings, pot after pot of tea and a nice hot whiskey at the end of a long day. We are sweet ripe apples fallen from the tree and crisp, dry ciders; rustic home-baked breads spread thickly with yellow butter; warming leek and potato soup; salmon hanging in the smokehouse.
And we are people: the hundreds of hardworking producers pouring their souls into their foods and, increasingly so in modern times, the people arriving from other nations and bringing their own delicious food cultures along to mingle with our own in new and exciting combinations.
The fire that was lit in my hungry belly when I first started to think about these things has never gone out, and this is why I am always so happy to write my monthly column, Eat Ireland, for Easy Food. Researching the column gives me the chance to meet more of the amazing food producers working around Ireland, to talk to them about the work they do and — much to my daily delight — to taste their wonderful foods, the foods that continue to shape us as a people today. While this will never quell my love for exploring the cuisines of all nationalities, it does make me so, so proud to celebrate my Irish food heritage. You should be, too.
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