With every pub in the area pushing its St Patrick’s Day menu (aka stew’n’mash), I can’t help but chuckle at the idea of marking the occasion with a meal. Let’s be honest – like us, the Irish don’t have much to celebrate in the way of culinary heritage. My grandmother, a tiny Dubliner, lived well into her eighties on a diet of Silk Cut and Thornton’s toffee and I’ve always thought it telling that my mother hasn’t touched a potato since she left home.
There are historic reasons for this. The Cork-based chef Denis Cotter wrote a few years ago that, given the past poverty of the country, “It’s a bit rich expecting us to have concocted a food culture that would stand up as a coherent cuisine.” Traditional Irish cooking is simple for a reason: if you only have an open fire to work with, boiled bacon and cabbage is about as gastro as it’s going to get.
Plainness and solidity remained the chief culinary virtues in Ireland long after the fitted kitchen made its debut: great reverence has always been paid to the Holy Trinity of meat, vegetables and potatoes, a routine broken only on Fridays, when dinner is boiled fish and white sauce instead. Accompanied by potatoes.
You can’t get away from spuds in Ireland: before the great famine, the average cottager consumed between seven and 14 pounds a week – not that many of them had much choice in the matter. The subsequent crop failures cost the country almost a third of its population yet, up until the accession of Poland and Latvia, the Irish remained the biggest consumers of potatoes per capita in the EU. (Britain lagged a poor second.)
Despite this ongoing obsession with tubers, which I blame for an unfortunate experience with a mashed potato spring roll in Wexford a couple of years ago, Irish food has undergone a quiet transformation in the past few decades, in part thanks to a few pioneers such as the Allen family at Ballymaloe House in Cork.
Myrtle Allen, a farmer’s wife and keen cook, opened a restaurant in her home in 1964, when eating out in Ireland came in two flavours: fancy French or the chipper. She was determined to make the most of the produce on her doorstep and Ballymaloe’s championing of local farmers, fishermen and cheese makers at a time when anything Irish was deeply unfashionable is at least partly responsible for the wealth of artisan food producers in its vicinity today, still supplying Myrtle and her now rather well-known country house hotel and restaurant.
West Cork is a place that could be described as a food hot spot, if that weren’t so at odds with the local pace of life – at times, it can feel a bit like a gastro-commune. I bump into Darina Allen, Myrtle’s daughter-in-law and head of Ballymaloe’s cookery school, at Glenilen Farm dairy, where the farmer Alan Kingston explains to me in great detail why the rain makes Irish milk the best in the world. (Something to do with carotene in the grass, apparently.)
He’s having Giana Ferguson, who makes the mellow Gubbeen washed-rind cheese down the road in Schull, over to lunch and she kindly brings some of her son Fingal’s Cork chorizo for us to try as well.
The following day, we breakfast with Jack McCarthy, butcher and champion black pudding maker, at Cork’s English Market, before popping in to see Anthony Cresswell at his riverside Ummera smokehouse for some organic salmon. Everyone seems to know each other and not one of them attempts to feed us a potato.
It’s the simple, slow food the Irish do best, relying on their world-class grass, cold Atlantic waters and the old adage, co-opted by their best-known export, that good things come to those who wait. It’s time to look beyond the old stereotypes. There’s much more to modern Irish cooking than mash.
For all that, I’ll be celebrating St Patrick’s Day with a pint and packet of Taytos. Some traditions are just too sacred to mess with.