What is Irish Food? The Country’s Top Chefs Define Our Nation’s Cuisine
Search ‘Irish Food’ on Google Images and you’ll find it depicted predominately by stock-like pictures of soda bread, suspect Irish stew with chunks of indistinguishable grey meat, pallid bacon and boiled cabbage and various other riffs on potatoes.
That’s all well and good, there are few that would turn down a hearty portion of their mammy’s shepherd’s pie or a Full Irish breakfast on occasion, but does that represent where Ireland’s food culture is today, and what guests from abroad should expect to be served at the growing number of eateries across our isle? A scroll through the wall of tweets using the hashtag #ThisisIrishFood reveals an altogether different story.
There’s baked Irish scallops, air dried ham with a herb butter from chef Wade Murphy of 1826 Adare, rye baguettes, purple potato cheesecake and black barrel whiskey puff pastry from Darren Hogarty, pastry chef at Chapter One, and the feed is dotted with the crucial components of dishes at Wine & Brine, like duck ham, Manglitsa pork and the harvest spoils from the restaurant’s rooftop garden.
Chef JP McMahon leads the pack from his Michelin starred restaurant Aniar, alongside with his protegee Killian Crowley, and while his scant descriptions of dishes like ‘Monkfish’ and ‘Lamb’ give little away they reveal themselves to be delicate constructions of local ingredients often enhanced with colorful smudges and splashes and touches and tendrils of vivid green.
JP is shouting about Irish food far beyond the realms of Twitter. He is the architect of Food on the Edge, “a coming-together of top international chefs for a two-day Food Symposium in Galway city.”
“Food on the Edge is only in year three now, and I am hoping by year five it will have a legacy of bringing chefs to Ireland who know Irish food, Irish ingredients and a new Irish cuisine that I think has yet to be defined.”
“We are still dipping our feet into the water,” says JP, “it can’t just be defined in terms of fine dining it has to be defined across all types of dining.”
Looking through outsider’s eyes, Food on the Edge has emphasised for JP himself the uniqueness our native ingredients. “Nathan Outlaw taken aback by the quality of oysters, mussels, ducks, Connemara lamb, there is no end to that list, and it’s only when you put them all together you realise how good we have it in Ireland.”
“I think that cuisine is always going to be rooted in the local produce.”
“We have the most amazing seafood and seaweed, and I don’t understand why every single restaurant doesn’t use seaweed, because it should be our national vegetable. We have 2,500 varieties on the west coast of Ireland. It’s so versatile and nutritious.”
At Aniar JP says he is constantly conducting an exploration into Irish food. The process of excluding external influences like black pepper forces him to seek out and unearth new flavour profiles, like pairing mackerel with a celery vinegar rather than lemon or lime.
“What we try to do is to use local ingredients and we are very influenced by global trends. There’s no reason why we can’t borrow and learn because at some stage everybody borrows and learns.”
“From the Spanish it’s that transforming the mundane to the magical; from the Nordics it’s that wild purity of their ingredients; and from the Japanese it’s how they treat seafood and seaweed to create the most amazing umami rich dishes.”
For Ross Lewis there are two sides to Irish food: those traditional potato led dishes that sustained the workers and the modern embodiment which he says is takes the shape of however chefs in Ireland today choose to interpret Irish ingredients.
Ross, like JP, admits that in the drive to develop a new layer of our food culture we have “borrowed” techniques from other cuisines, taking indigenous ingredients like seaweed and using them in ways we traditionally might not have, like at Michelin starred Chapter One where they make a seaweed stock inspired by Japanese dashi.
“We have always looked to other cuisines for inspiration and this doesn’t necessarily make it any less Irish.”
At Chapter One, a restaurant which not alone puts Irish ingredients on a plate but surrounds the diner with the work of Irish craftspeople, from handmade bread baskets to the bog oak roots on each table, dishes like stuffed pigs tail with Gubbeen smoked bacon and poached lobster represent what Irish food is today, albeit in its most finessed form.
Spurred on by the growing “Irish food family” of chefs, producers, journalists and food lovers, Ross says that while “we might not have the food history of the Ottoman Empire yet” it is a work in progress.
“I have been on the side lines of Irish food for over 20 years and I never thought we’d get where we are today, so I think the momentum is now truly in our favour.”
“Like many other Irish chefs, especially younger ones, I am only starting to find my way into it really,” says Ciaran Sweeney, head chef at one of Dublin’s buzziest new openings Forest & Marcy when asked his opinion on the matter.
“When I began cooking initially there was no emphasis on an Irish cuisine as such, a lot of our produce wasn’t coming from small farmers.”
“Local producers were always there, supplying the farmers markets and local shops, but they wouldn’t have gone into the market for restaurants. If someone was growing something in Donegal it would have stayed in Donegal.”
“Now that has changed, you see chefs across the board tapping into small, local producers.”
He disputes the notion that Ireland’s food culture needs recreation but rather that it needs to be re-established. “I think there is so much there to draw from already. Everybody goes on about fermentation being a trend but if you look back fermentation was always a way of survival in Ireland.”
While he says Forest & Marcy doesn’t strictly serve Irish food there are dishes that “scream out Irishness” like fermented potato bread with bacon and cabbage, and smoked salmon with buttermilk, seaweed and potato.
That combination of potato and seaweed is something that really resonates with Ciaran, who says pairing the two reminds him of how his grandfather used sea vegetables to fertilise his potato crop in Donegal.
Looking south, Cork still holds the title of Ireland’s Food Capital in terms of the wealth of producers who call the rebel county their home, many of which are championed and traded within city’s historic English market, established in the 18th century though very much still a thriving hub at the heart of the community.
Armed with spoils of the landscape local chefs like Brian McCarthy of Greenes, Mark Jennings of Pilgrim’s and SAGE’s Kevin Aherne, who operates a 12Mile policy strictly sourcing suppliers from within this radius, are among the fleet of Cork’s culinary leaders crafting a contemporary Irish cuisine.
This summer twelve Cork city restaurants took over the South Mall for the Cork Long Table Dinner, a unique gastronomical experience which saw chefs working together to showcase the city’s food culture.
Speaking to chef Kate Lawlor who took part in the event she said: “We served 420 people that day and showcased Cork and our produce for what it is. On our boards we had ham hock terrines and crubeens, there was lamb for main course, and simple Eaton mess for dessert. It wasn’t Michelin star quality but it was good, simple honest food.”
“If we could take that bottle it up and take it to some international produce to say this is what we do, this is Irish food, it might kick start something,” says Kate on how we need to do more to get the word out there about Irish food, to challenge and change misinformed perceptions.
It seems the Gods of food were listening to Kate, at the Welcome Dinner at the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery last month, 265 scholars, journalists, chefs, scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists from across the globe were introduced to the spoils of Ireland’s burgeoning food pantry.
In a feast inspired by Ireland’s Ancient East, prepared by a team of chefs headed by Rob Krawczyk, the evening began with boards that celebrated to best of land and sea, went onto deliver a tongue to tail meat platter, and culminated in a goat’s milk and honey ice cream, and, of course, whiskey.
Now that’s Irish Food.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.