I was asked yet again by tourists where they can find real Irish food to sample as when they go into restaurants they mostly see dishes from around the world like burgers, pizzas and curry. I sent them to a local carvery for bacon and cabbage. I always say our Irish cuisine is only in the oven, just being baked right now. We cannot claim we have a food culture that emulates other countries where food and eating is an integral part of daily life. In Ireland food is still merely fuel to a majority and it is only in the last few decades that the Irish palate is waking up. We seldom sit around a table to eat anymore and we cook our meals even less.
Historically, as a colony our function was to produce food for export and to only eat what was left over. Then ravaged by famine, emigration and constant poverty we could only eat to survive. We may have gained our independence in the last century but we are left with the food legacy of our colonizers meaning most of what we still eat and cook has their fingerprints all over it to this day. To expect a readymade Irish identity of food and cooking with all that to consider is just not realistic, so we are actually starting very late in the culinary world.
It would have been difficult anyway to create from any native ingredients with ideas, equipment and skills in short supply. The continentals had centuries of culinary development and with a sunnier climate they were always going to be gastronomic paradises. When you live and work in Europe you see how steeped it is in cooking. Look at everything you eat daily here and compare that with what you would eat in France, Spain or Italy. Indeed we eat as much of their cuisines here as we do anything trulyIrish, as well as Asian and American
dishes to beat the band.
We have our potato dishes, soda bread, Irish breakfast, Irish stew and Irish coffee, well coffee is not very Irish. There is not much though in our canon of home-grown recipes that is not also common in some form across the Irish Sea or other Celtic outposts. In our professional kitchens these days we use a lot of imported ingredients, continental techniques and inspiration. At the high end you may as well be eating in France. It is probably way too late in the cooking race for Ireland to invent anything truly original at this stage.
The cruel irony in all this is that we have some of the best natural ingredients in the world like in our seafood, meat and game; it’s just that we did not eat them often or have much access to them in the past and when we did the skill was not there to turn them into real gourmet delights. I believe that when you have top of the range raw ingredients the less you do to them the better anyway and maybe this should be our Irish food identity recipe. I have always winced when I see dishes having so many steps that the end product is as far removed in look and flavour to what it had started out as.
Why would you want to start poaching and stuffing delicious native oysters? Less is really more in cooking. I recall a story told to me in Brussels by the most eminent Belgium chef who had led a group of three starred Michelin chefs from Europe to Ballymaloe in the early eighties to form an international chef association and Myrtle Allen served them local smoked salmon, her Irish stew and apple tart and they had all agreed it was the best meal they had ever eaten anywhere.
We should not go straight for copying what the rest of the world is eating. We have had our peasant past but remember all the great dishes on the continent started out in the adversity of the farm workers and then became fashionable by the upper classes. So if we just ate what we superbly and seasonally grow and farm in Ireland and kept the dishes simply prepared then we are well on our way to developing an original look and taste of Irish cooking with an eventual culinary identity all of our own.