A teeny-weeny history of Irish Food

The new Junior Cycle syllabus at second level in Ireland is undergoing changes which will reduce the number of mandatory subjects in schools. From 2017, history will no longer be compulsory. History teachers and historians are rightfully concerned, with UCD Professor of Modern Irish History Diarmaid Ferriter saying that to have no knowledge of the past “is to be permanently burdened with a lack of perspective, empathy and wisdom“.  My lack of enthusiasm for Irish food could be linked with my non-existent comprehension of Irish food history. In all fairness, I’m slowly improving my knowledge thanks to A little History of Irish Food, a book by Cork-based Food Historian Regina Sexton.

Published in 1998, Sexton’s book draws on literary and historical sources as well as documenting oral traditions and recipes. Each chapter examines a food type along with its historical, cultural, and sociological importance in Irish society. Three themes are consistent throughout the book; those of poverty, class structure and colonial oppression.

One-pot cooking could best describe the modus operandi of Irish cuisine down through the centuries as houses were heated by an open fire which doubled-up as a cooker. Vegetables and herbs were easily grown in our fertile soil and therefore in plentiful supply to be used on their own, mixed in with other ingredients (e.g. cabbage mixed with potato to yield colcannon) or simply used in soups and broths. Our ancestors made good use of foraged foods in soups with nettle soup still found on menus today. Soups and broths were enhanced by the introduction of pulses by the Anglo-Normans in the 12th Century whilst chowders were popular in coastal areas. Indeed, geography had a massive influence on the diet with seafood rarely eaten inland except on Holy Days of fasting. Sexton points to Ireland’s mediocre attitude towards fish and questions whether this attitude stemmed from the fact that eating fish on fasting days was a sacrifice therefore relegating fish to being the unwelcome substitute to meat. How times have changed with fish now considered a luxury food given its price.

Dairy products have always been part of the Irish diet. Nowadays we drink milk all year round but the dairy season was limited to the summer and autumn months for our ancestors. They invented methods of preserving dairy to tie them over until the following year, namely cheese-making and the salting of butter. Cows were more valuable to the poorer classes as many years of dairy produce could be had from the one cow. Only the aristocracy with large swathes of land could afford to raise cattle for beef. As the Cattle Acts of the 17th Century banned the importation of live Irish cattle into England the focus moved towards the production of meat products such as salted beef for export. Cork city became one of the main slaughter and curing centres in the British Isles with Drisheen pudding made from the blood by-products of slaughtering.

As no milk could be got from a pig, much of the meat for the poor came from swine, both farmed and wild. Interestingly, pigs were fattened on potatoes so during the famine pigs were unable to survive as well. Poultry and game were other meat sources for our forefathers although game such as venison was again the preserve of the aristocracy. Domestic hens as we know them were imported but up to that point eggs and meat from native wild poultry was utilised. Goose was served on special occasions such as Christmas and also where a successful marriage match had been arranged.

The colonisation of Ireland could easily be plotted from the history of our breads and cereals. Unleavened breads such as oatcakes have always been part of our history. Porridge was one of the most widely eaten forms of oats whilst there is evidence that muesli has been in existence since the 9th Century, therefore not a Swiss invention as widely claimed. The Anglo-Normans introduced leavened wheaten loaves in the 12th Century whilst the Elizabethans and the Jacobites brought the concept of spicy fruit loaves to Irish taste buds. Soda bread, considered the quintessential Irish bread, only came about in 19th Century with the introduction of baking soda but was an instant hit given its ease of preparation. Maize was also introduced in the 19th Century but never earned itself a good name; firstly as inferior quality product caused illness and secondly as it was used as the crop substitute during the Famine.

Finally, no study of Irish food could be complete without an examination of the potato. According to my history knowledge, it was introduced from South America by Sir Walter Raleigh towards the end of the 16th Century although Sexton mentions that there has been speculation that the crop arrived via the Spanish Armada around the same time. The popularity of the potato was explained by its higher yield than grain crops and hence why the population increasingly relied on it. The potato had greater flexibility as a food as other dishes could be made from it (i.e. Boxty bread). The failure of the potato crop from 1845 – 1847 due to blight is mistakenly seen as the only cause of the Famine although the real reasons behind this low point in Irish history lay in the political rather than the horticultural and Sexton doesn’t shy away from this citing evidence that the administrative powers were aware that the best of produce was being exported whilst the Irish people were forced to rely on the failing potato crop.

The book continues with a look at seaweeds, sweets, wild foods, and mutton/lamb with recipes featuring in each chapter. Another book I can highly recommend is Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking which, with its extensive listings of recipes, complements Regina’s history publication. Despite its small size, A little History of Irish Food packs much information into its pages. Then again, good things come in small packages.

© Hazel Joy 2013

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