Salmon, lamb, and farmhouse cheese; innovative chefs; one of the world's great cooking schools; delicate whiskey and hearty ale ... If you've got an appetite, the Irish are ready for you.
That's why photographer Christopher Hirsheimer and I made four trips to Ireland between October 2004 and June 2005 to create this special section—covering thousands of miles by car, up and down and around the republic and into Northern Ireland, from Hare Island off the West Cork coast and the eerily beautiful glaciated limestone reaches of the Burren in County Clare to lively Galway and bustling Dublin and up to the pretty (despite it all) red-brick city of Belfast and the verdant landscapes of County Fermanagh. Almost everywhere we went, we saw things happening: rural entrepreneurs building little food production businesses; restaurants revising their menus to take better advantage of the native bounty; writers delving seriously into the history and culture of Irish food. If we didn't exactly find a gastronomic wonderland, we certainly found a delicious work in progress.
Ireland is today a rich country, but it is a rich country that vividly remembers having been a poor one. Men and women in their 40s and 50s who drive Saabs and Audis and wear Burberry and Armani will sometimes tell you that they grew up in the country without indoor plumbing or electricity or walked to school barefoot, summer and winter (or knew kids who did). And everybody "remembers" the tragic defining event of recent Irish history. As Alan Pierce, who runs an organic farm in County Wicklow, puts it, "Our children's generation is the first that isn't afraid, in some part of their mind, that the famine will happen again." The famine he's talking about, of course, involved potatoes—the Irish culinary cliche.
In her book A Little History of Irish Food (Kyle Cathie Limited, 1998), the County Cork food columnist and culinary historian Regina Sexton quotes an 18th-century English agronomist on the diet of the peasantry in County Sligo: "[T]he food of the poor people is potatoes, milk, and herrings, with oaten bread in summer … They have an absolute bellyful of potatoes, and the children eat them as plentifully as they like." This would have been true in most of Ireland at the time.
Potatoes were introduced to the island in the 16th century and, because they grew easily and vigorously in Irish soil, soon became the staple food of the agrarian poor—which is to say the vast majority of the population. Potatoes were hardly the only product of Ireland's farms. Sexton also quotes a government official who, in 1835, told Alexis de Tocqueville, "The Irishman raises beautiful crops, carries his harvest to the nearest port, puts it on board an English vessel, and returns home to subsist on potatoes." But potatoes, as it turned out, couldn't be counted on. In the 1840s, a potato blight swept through Ireland repeatedly, effectively wiping out the crop. In a matter of a few years, more than a million Irish had died of malnutrition and associated diseases and another 2 million had emigrated, many of them to America.
Giana Ferguson, one of the pioneers of Ireland's new artisanal food movement and married to a fourth-generation West Cork farmer, says that after the famine in Ireland "people lost all faith in the land". What she and other rural artisans are trying to do, she explains, is to restore that faith and to revive an era of "ethical farming" in which the people who tilled the land were repositories of old farming knowledge, working not just for money but for the esteem of their neighbors. "What we're talking about is breaking away from the great modern Irish dream of industrial riches from the land. We are in effect inventing a new peasantry. People sometimes ask me, 'Are you mad?'"
We have dinner on a spring evening at the home of Peter and Mary Ward, owners of Country Choice, a small but influential grocery shop and cafe in Nenagh, in County Tipperary. Joining us are Nancy Byrne and her daughter Anne Gernon, who run Brocka on the Water, a good restaurant near Ballinderry. The meal is built around a baby Suffolk lamb raised by Peter's brother. We begin with slices of the sweet liver (a favorite meat in Ireland) cooked with whiskey and cream, then make quick work of the tiny roasted leg, well done but juicy. On the side, there is simple sauteed spinach; fat, mild local asparagus ("One day, a lady came in the store," Peter says, laughing, "and asked why the farmer couldn't grow the asparagus all the same length so it would be easier to cook!"); and colcannon, the ubiquitous Irish specialty of potatoes mashed with greens—which Mary has made with a whole handful of greens plucked from the garden. Because it is springtime, rhubarb season, we finish with a rhubarb crumble, flavored with lemon verbena, and a kind of rhubarb upside-down cake with local organic vanilla ice cream—the cake brought by Byrne and Gernon. This is unpretentious Irish home cooking of the highest order—pure pleasure.
Ah, but as food writer and retired chef Gerry Galvin points out, "The whole idea of eating for pleasure was not acceptable in Ireland until very recently." With the ghost of famine always hovering in the background, it seemed almost sinful to approach the table with sensual gratification in mind. Conspicuous consumption of food for sheer joy, on the French or Italian model, would have been unthinkable in most Irish households until the latter part of the 20th century.
The mother of modern Irish cooking—the Alice Waters, if you insist—is a former East Cork farm wife named Myrtle Allen, who opened a portion of her house in East Cork as a restaurant in 1964. "Myrtle served home cooking in a refined environment, using whatever fresh, local foods were available," says Gerry Galvin. "This is a commonplace now, but it was fairly revolutionary then. At the time, anything really good was expected to have been imported. We were still suffering from the notion that anything that was our own was inferior."
The first Irish celebrity chef was Sean Kinsella, who had a Dublin restaurant called Mirabeau in the 1970s and early '80s. "He was very eccentric," Galvin recalls. "There were no prices on the menu. What he charged was determined by how he was with you. What he did was very simple: prime cuts of beef and lamb, the very best prawns, the very best sole … His food was really very good." (Kinsella closed the place about 20 years ago and never opened another one; he retired on a pension to a retirement home in south Dublin.)
In 1981, Frenchman Patrick Guilbaud opened an eponymous restaurant in Dublin that gave Ireland its first world-class modern French cuisine, and he's still going strong. Guilbaud, who has two Michelin stars, uses some Irish ingredients, but his cuisine is elaborate French-contemporary with international inflections. A typical dish: "Traditional Cork City Crubbeen [pig's foot] served as a Carpaccio, Smoked 'Andouille' and Coco Bean Dressing, Fine Herbs, Meaux Mustard Ice Cream".
Ireland's first Michelin honoree was the Arbutus Lodge in Cork, an Irish-French place run by Declan Ryan and his wife, Patsy, which won a star in 1974. Ryan went on to earn another star at the Cashel Palace Hotel in Cashel, in County Tipperary, but gave up the restaurant business in 1999 to become Ireland's best artisanal baker, using the Arbutus name.
Northern Ireland got its first Michelin star in 1991, awarded to Roscoff in Belfast; the restaurant was opened by Paul Rankin, a local boy who had traveled the world and cooked at the then three-star Le Gavroche in London. Roscoff has closed, but Rankin now runs a fusion place called Cayenne, the authentically French Roscoff Brasserie, and a host of more casual restaurants in Belfast and across Northern Ireland and the Irish republic. (The city's sole Michelin star at present belongs to Michael Deane; there are two other one-stars outside the city.)
Today, Ireland and Northern Ireland have scores of good restaurants around and hundreds of promising ones, serving cuisines of every kind—including "modern Irish" establishments with menus full of words like lemongrass, curry, caesar, and quesadilla. What the country needs—especially if it's going to attract visitors with its food—is more high-quality, uniquely Irish places, modern or otherwise, restaurants informed by Irish tradition and provisioned with the island's gastronomic treasures, old and new.
Meanwhile, though, as Gerry Galvin says, "You can eat as well in Ireland as you can anywhere—if you know where to go."