Irish cuisine is a style of cooking originating from Ireland or developed by Irish people. It evolved from centuries of social and political change and mixing between the different cultures on the island, predominantly English and Irish. The cuisine takes its influence from the crops grown and animals farmed in its temperate climate. However, the development of Irish cuisine was affected negatively by the English conquest in the early 17th century because this forced the impoverishment of the mass of the people through land dispossession and the organisation of Ireland's food economy to provide supplies to England and its armed forces. This also replaced the upper levels of cuisine with English norms. Consequently, the potato, after its widespread adoption in the 18th century became almost the only food of the poor (the vast majority of the population) and, as a result, is often now closely associated with Ireland. Many elements of Irish cuisine were lost or abandoned during this time and particularly from the Famine up until the mid 20th century, but are now being revived. Representative modern Irish dishes include Irish stew, bacon and cabbage, boxty, coddle, and colcannon.
There are many references to food and drink in Irish mythology and early Irish literature such as the tale of Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Salmon of Knowledge. The old stories also contain many references to banquets involving the heroes portion and meat cooked in cauldrons and on spits. The Irish mythology is a Celtic Indo-European tradition and shares many foods with others in this group. For example, honey has always been valued and was used in the making of mead, a drink featuring in many ancient Indo-European myths and rituals from Ireland to India.
In the Mesolithic seafood appears to have played a large part in the diet. Huge mounds of shellfish, known as middens, are common in many parts of the coast, for example at Sligo, a place meaning "shells" in reference to these mounds. Red deer, wild boar, fish, shellfish, berries, nuts and fruits were the staples of this hunter gatherer economy.
The most common sites associated with cooking are fulacht fiadh, the name means sites for cooking deer, consisting of holes in the ground which were filled with water. The water was heated by the introduction of hot stones. There are thousands of fulacht fiadh sites across the island of Ireland, they mostly seem to date from the Bronze Age 1800-900 BC, although many appear to have been used into much more recent times. Horses arrived in the Bronze Age and seem always to have been taboo as a foodstuff, as they are in neighbouring Britain.
Customs and equipment
Hospitality was compulsory on all householders under Irish law and those entitled could sue on refusal. Much evidence for early Irish food exists in the law texts and poetry which were written down from the 7th and 8th century AD onwards. The arrival of Christianity also brought new influences from the Middle east and Roman culture.
The main meal was eaten in the afternoon or evening. A daytime meal was termed díthat. A meal at night, and especially a celebratory one, was called a feis and was often accompanied by beer. Food was served on wooden boards or low tables termed a mias (from mensa, a table, in Latin). Only a knife was used to cut food which was eaten with the hand and using bread. The taste even among very high status individuals seems to have been towards simply prepared dishes, without many spices but with a variety of seasonal accompaniments.The main cooking utensil was the cauldron in which a variety of broths and stews were made. Meals consisted of a staple of bread, fresh milk, or a fermented variety such as bainne clabhair, yoghurt or cheese accompanied by an anlann or tarsunn (relish, condiment) usually of vegetables, salted meat or honey, but could be any variety of seasonal foods. At the public guesthouses (bruiden) a person of high rank was entitled to 3 tarsunn, a lesser person only one.
Until the arrival of the potato in the 16th century, grains such as oats, wheat and barley, cooked either as porridge or bread, formed the staple of the Irish diet. The most common form of bread consisted of flatbread made from ground oats. These flatbreads could be wafer thin, like chapati, or thicker like the oatcakes still popular in Scotland. Household equipment included a kneading trough lasat, a kneading slab lecc, a griddle lann and a griddle turner lainnéne. While oats were the most commonly used grain, bread made from wheat was regarded as a luxury of the aristocratic class. Bread and milk formed the staple of the Irish diet for millennia. From Latin came tortine meaning a small loaf.
Four varieties of porridge are described in old texts. Traditional porridge was cooked from oats, barley or wheat meal mixed with water, buttermilk or new milk and cooked to a smooth consistency. This was accompanied by either heavily salted butter, fresh butter or honey.
A fermented mixture of cracked wheat and heated milk was prepared as some form of frumenty or product similar to Turkish tarhana or middle eastern kashk. This could have other ingredients added such as egg yolks making a highly nutritious food that could also be dried and stored over winter.
Another grain preparation known as menedach was made by kneading grains and butter together into a type of paste and was known for its medicinal qualities, especially for monks on strict penitential diets. It may have been an early form of roux or perhaps a type of polenta. It could be spread on bread. It is described in the 12th century Icelandic saga Landnamabok in which Irish slaves prepare the food claiming that it will cure thirst. "The Irish thralls found the expedient of kneading meal and butter and said it would quench the thirst. They called it minapak".
Meat was generally cooked fresh and unspiced, or salted and was boiled in a cauldron (coire). Sometimes it was flavoured with honey. There are many descriptions of meat boiled in a cauldron in a form of stew. One recipe appears to have used "purple berries" to colour the meal. There are also descriptions of meat being parboiled and then roasted over a fire on wooden spits somewhat similar to shish kebab.
Consumption of meat was forbidden twice a week on Wednesday and Friday and during Lent. Céadaoin, the name for Wednesday in Irish, means first fast and Aoine the name for Friday, means fast. Orthodox Christian churches still maintain this practice.
Deer were hunted for meat, being trapped in pits or hunted with dogs.
Both domestic pig and wild boar were eaten. Pork was probably the most common meat consumed in Ireland. Pigs were fattened on acorns in the forests. The flitch of bacon suspended on a hook is frequently mentioned in sources. Sausages made of salted pork are mentioned.Two types of sausage known as maróc (from a Norse loanword) and indrechtán (a sausage or pudding) are mentioned.
The dominant feature of the rural economy was the herding of cattle. Cows were not generally slaughtered for meat unless old or injured, but male cattle, if not destined to be oxen, were often slaughtered at one or two years. Salted beef Meat was cooked in a cauldron where different forms of stew were commonly made. Meat was also barbecued on spits (bir) made of either wood or iron. The poem Aisling Meic Con Glinne describes the roasting of pieces of beef, mutton and ham on spits of whitebeam. The meat was marinated in salt and honey first.
Offal was used in various dishes, with tripe being mentioned the most.
Fish was also sometimes grilled on a spit or griddle over a fire.
The meat of horses and the crane was taboo and avoided. Fowl in general does not seem to have featured much in the diet.There is also evidence for taboos related to totem animals amongst certain groups or tribes for whom consumption of these animals was forbidden.
Ireland with grass growth ten months of the year and no need to house cattle in winter has always produced exceptional quality dairy products.
Dairy products were known as bánbia (whitefoods) and milk, butter, curds and cheese formed a very important staple of the diet.Táth was a form of pressed curds, perhaps similar to paneer, and Cottage cheese.
Milk was heated with butter to make a sweet drink called milseán. Milk diluted with water was termed englas.
The practice of bleeding cattle and mixing the blood with milk and butter (similar to the practice of the Maasai) was not uncommon. Black pudding is made from blood, grain, (usually barley) and seasoning, and remains a breakfast staple food in Ireland.
Honey seems to have been a precious commodity, with beekeeping particularly associated with the church and much used in medicine.
A hard cheese called tánach, a skimmed milk cheese called mulchán,
Bog butter was allowed to ferment and was buried in bogs to provide a stable temperature during the aging process. The end product may have been something similar to smen, a north African ingredient in many dishes.
Fruit and vegetables
Due to the extensive periods of fasting and the natural shortage of meat and dairy in the early spring, Irish cuisine made extensive use of vegetarian meals.
Vegetables included onions, chives, cabbage, celery, wild garlic and leeks. Fathen (Chenopodium album) a form of wild lentil, is often found on pre Norman archaeological sites and appears to have been an important part of the diet, as it still is in Northern India. Skirret (Sium sisaram) in Irish cearrachán, appears to have been grown as a root vegetable, this is no longer used. Watercress, sorrel, parsley and nettles were picked wild and eaten raw or added to broth.
Apples and plums seem to have been the most common cultivated fruit.
Pulses such as peas and broad beans and lentils were grown and dried since early medieval times, providing a valuable source of protein when meat was unavailable.
Berries and nuts were extensively eaten. Hazelnuts were of great importance. Bilberries known as fraochán in Irish were traditionally picked on the festival of Lúghnasa in August. Sloes, mulberries and blackberries were also available.
Pepper has been known in Ireland since early Christian times, being an import from the Roman empire..
The fruit of the strawberry tree, known as caithne in Irish (Arbutus unedo) is associated with religious establishments and may have been used to make or flavour medicine.
A four handled wooden cup called a meadair was used, or a drinking horn for high status individuals..
Beer was a prerequisite of a nobles house and was usually brewed from barley, although a wheat beer was also made. Malting kilns are a very common find in archaeological digs in Ireland and appear from early Christian times on.
Uisce beatha (water of life) or whisky is an invention of the Gaelic world and was developed after the introduction of distilling in the 12th century.
Vegetarian diets were known among the strict monastic orders, but it was not compulsory. However, those that did eat meat were only permitted to eat wild pig or deer. Monks lived on a staple gruel made with water or milk and meal known as brothchán. This, on Sundays and festivals had seasonal fruits and nuts and honey added, and it has been suggested that brothchán may have been an early form of muesli.
The Pale was the small area around Dublin in which English influence was strongest, here a hybrid food culture developed consisting of Norse, English and Irish influences.
Excavations at the Viking settlement in the Wood Quay area of Dublin have produced a significant amount of information on the diet of the inhabitants of the town. The main meats eaten were beef, mutton, and pork. Domestic poultry and geese as well as fish and shellfish were also common, as was a wide range of native berries and nuts, especially hazel. The seeds of knotgrass and goosefoot were widely present and may have been used to make a porridge.
The Norse word for bean was borrowed into Gaelic as ponaire.
Ovens for baking were used in the towns
Evidence for cherries has been found in 11th century Dublin. Bread was sometimes flavoured with aniseed.
The Norman invasion marked the beginning of both the English and French presence in the country which continued as a unique Hiberno-Norman culture developed in the Norman settled areas and towns. The Norman cuisine characteristically consisted of spicy meat and fowl along with potages and broths, roasts and sauces. The Normans may also have introduced the making of cider. Oysters and scallops were another favourite of the Normans.
Two widely divergent diets developed in British ruled Ireland, with stark differences between rich and poor. The rich dined on an abundance of meat such as turkey with beef, roast goose with roasted bacon, cheese and butter. Game birds such as snipe and pheasant were regularly eaten. Sweets included apple tarts. The cuisine combined that of the developing Imperial world, for example curries, alongside Irish staples such as soda bread and potatoes. A 19th century recipe book lists "sweet and savoury puddings of both a baked and boiled variety are the most numerous recipes, followed by recipes for preserved fruits, meat, fish and oysters".
The situation was very different for the poor, who made up 75% of the population of around nine million by 1840. Potatoes form the basis for many Irish dishes and indeed were eaten both by the Anglo-Irish gentry and the mass of the people. Which was unusual as the potato was shunned in most of Europe for centuries after its introduction, particularly by the elites. The potato was first introduced into Ireland in the second half of the 16th century, initially as a garden crop. It eventually came to be the main food crop of the poor. As a food source, the potato is extremely valuable in terms of the amount of energy produced per unit area of crop. The potato is also a good source of many vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin C when fresh. Potatoes were widely cultivated, but in particular by those at a subsistence level; the diet of this group of this period consisted mainly of potatoes supplemented with buttermilk.
At this time Ireland produced large quantities of salted (corned) beef, almost all of it for export. This beef was packed into barrels to provide supplies to the British Navy, army and merchant fleet. Corned beef became associated with the Irish in America where it was plentiful and used as a replacement for the bacon in bacon and cabbage. However, it was not traditional fare in Ireland.
Fresh meat was generally considered a luxury except for the most affluent until the late 19th century. A pig was often kept for bacon and was known as the "gentleman that pays the rent".Potatoes were also fed to pigs, to fatten them prior to their slaughter at the approach of the cold winter months. Much of the slaughtered pork would have been cured to provide ham and bacon that could be stored over the winter. Chickens were not raised on a large scale until the emergence of town grocers in the 1880s allowed people to exchange surplus goods, like eggs, and for the first time purchase a variety food items to diversify their diet.
The over reliance on potatoes as a staple crop meant that the people of Ireland were vulnerable to poor potato harvests.The first Great Famine of 1739 was the result of extreme cold weather but the famine of 1845 to 1849 (see Great Irish Famine) was caused by potato blight which spread throughout the Irish crop which consisted largely of a single variety, the Lumper. During the famine approximately 1 million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland.
Dishes that were popular then are
Introduced baking and roasts
Tea was introduced during Ireland's time as part of the British empire and became increasingly popular, especially during the 19th century. Irish people are now amongst the highest per capita tea drinkers in the world. Tea is drunk hot and with milk at all times of the day, slightly stronger varieties are preferred than in England.
Life in Ireland
In the 21st century, the usual modern selection of foods common to Western culture has been adopted in Ireland. Common meals include pizza, curry, Chinese food, Thai food, and lately, some West African dishes and East European (especially Polish) dishes have been making an appearance, as ingredients for these and other cuisines have become more widely available.
In tandem with these developments, and led by Myrtle Allen, the last quarter of the 20th century saw the emergence of a new Irish cuisine based on traditional ingredients handled in new ways. This cuisine is based on fresh vegetables, fish (especially salmon and trout), oysters, mussels and other shellfish, traditional soda bread, the wide range of cheeses that are now being made across the country, and, of course, the potato. Traditional dishes, such as Irish stew, coddle, the Irish breakfast, and potato bread have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. Schools like the Ballymaloe Cookery School have emerged to cater for the associated increased interest in cooking.
Fish and chips take-away is popular. The first fish and chips were sold in Dublin in the 1880s by an Italian immigrant from San Donato Val di Comino, Giuseppe Cervi. His wife Palma would ask customers 'Uno di questa, uno di quella?' This phrase (meaning 'one of this, one of the other') entered the vernacular in Dublin as 'one and one', which is still a common way of referring to fish and chips in the city.
The proliferation of fast food has led to increasing public health problems, including obesity, where it was reported that as many as 327,000 Irish children are now obese or overweight and in response the Irish Government is now considering introducing a "Fast Food Tax". Government efforts to combat obesity have also included television advertising campaigns and education programmes in schools.
- Dairy: butter, milk, buttermilk, cheese
- Grains: barley, oats, wheat
- Freshwater fish: trout, salmon (frequently smoked)
- Meat: beef, chicken, goose, lamb, mutton, pork, offal
- Seafood: mackerel, cod, shellfish (particularly mussels, oysters and lobster)
- Vegetables: cabbage, curly kale, potatoes, carrots, onions, rhubarb
- Fruits: apple, pear, plum, blackberry, strawberry, raspberry, tomatoes
- Barmbrack – a kind of currant cake which contains a golden ring. Traditionally eaten around Halloween.
- Goody – a dessert dish
- Soda bread – a popular yeast-free bread
- Wheaten bread
- Potato bread
- Veda bread
- Bacon and cabbage
- Black pudding – a traditional dish made from pigs blood, barley and seasoning
- Coddle – main ingredients: pork sausage, back bacon and potato
- Crubeens – pig's trotters
- Skirts and kidneys – a kind of pork stew
- Boxty – a kind of potato pancake
- Champ – main ingredients: mashed potato, scallions, butter and milk
- Colcannon – main ingredients: mashed potato, kale or cabbage, and butter
- Shepherd's Pie/Cottage Pie – main ingredients: mashed potato, minced lamb/beef, and vegetables
The eating of seafood, despite Irelands enormous coastline, is not as common as in other maritime countries. Irish people eat well below the European average of seafood. It appears that it may have been more common in the past, but declined markedly in the last few centuries. There may be various reasons for this. Irish owned shipping was severely restricted under English governance from the late 16th century on. Ireland was traditionally a cattle based economy and fish was associated with religious fasting. It was the traditional food of fast on Fridays, in common with other Catholic countries. Also, seafood and particularly shellfish became associated with the poor and the shame of colonisation. Seafood remained an important part of the diet in coastal cities like Galway and Dublin. In Dublin the fish seller is celebrated in the traditional folk song "Molly Malone", and in Galway the international Galway Oyster Festival is held every September. An example of a modern Irish shellfish dish is Dublin Lawyer (lobster cooked in whiskey and cream). Salmon and cod are perhaps the two most common types of fish eaten. Carrageen moss and dulse (both types of red algae) are commonly used in Irish seafood dishes.
Seaweed, by contrast, has always been an important part of the Irish diet and remains to some extent popular today. Two popular forms are Dillisk (Palmaria palmata) and Carageen moss or Irish moss (Chondrus crispus, Mastocarpus stellatus), also eaten in the Caribbean.
- Drisheen – a kind of black pudding
- Irish breakfast
- Irish stew – a kind of lamb and mutton stew
- Whiskey (particularly pure pot still whiskey) such as Jameson Irish Whiskey, Paddy Whiskey and Bushmills
- Porter or stout such as Guinness, Murphy's Irish Stout and Beamish stout
- Irish red ale such as Smithwick's
- Lager such as Harp Lager
- Irish coffee – made with black coffee, whiskey and whipped cream
- Irish cream such as Baileys
- Irish Mist
- Poitín – a very strong (often homemade) spirit made from potatoes or barley.
- Cider, such as Bulmers
- Brown lemonade
- Red lemonade
- Cavan Cola
- McDaid's Football Special
- Irish breakfast tea
- Club Orange
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