A Brief History of Irish Cuisine
Appreciation Dinner Wrap-up
& General Merchandise News
Profile: The Igl Family
the Midwife: Starting Your Baby on Solid Food
Corner: Spring Equinox Bloomers
& Drink Recommendations
the Vegetable Less Traveled... Buy Local!
Brief History of
When you mention Irish food, the first thing that comes to one’s
mind is, of course, the potato. The potato, however, is a relative latecomer
to Irish cuisine. Seafood, leafy greens, root vegetables, and a variety
of berries were abundant in Ireland and were mainstays of the diet long
before the potato arrived. In fact, salmon is probably a more representative
meal in Irish cuisine than any potato dish, and it plays a role in one
of the nation’s oldest myths. (According to the legend, the “magical
salmon of knowledge” grants vast wisdom to a boy destined to become
a great warrior.) Irish peasants, who couldn’t afford the equipment
necessary to navigate the ocean and therefore get to the seafood, ate
kale, cabbage, carrots, and onions that grew wild across the Irish countryside.
Hunting and Farming
Agriculture took hold in Ireland around 3500 B.C., and, with that, the
cultivation of grains and the raising of livestock. The small communities
scattered about the island were very much self-sufficient in hunting and
farming, making use of local fowl, deer, and vegetation in their cooking.
Many older Irish recipes center on the use of venison or seafood, alongside
kale and cabbage, usually cooked in one big cauldron, where it could cook
all day while the folks were out working in the field or hunting the next
day’s supper. One-pot meals are still a staple of Irish food, and
many people blame this tradition for the Irish/British habit of cooking
veggies until they are rendered unrecognizable.
The Introduction of the Potato
Then, in the 16th century, a momentous occasion in the history of Irish
cuisine occurred. The introduction of the potato to Ireland from Peru
changed Irish agriculture, cuisine, and history forever and not in a good
way. Irish peasants found that they could get nourishment and nutrition
from raising potatoes and, even better, potatoes were easy to grow. They
required little labor, training, or technology, and provided more calories
per acre than any other crop—perfect for poor farmers. Originally
many varieties of potatoes were grown, until one type of potato (the “lumper”)
became the dominant crop. The “lumper” potato was one of the
worst tasting varieties, but it was incredibly fertile and had a much
higher per acre yield.
The Origin of Blight
It was this relatively sudden reliance on one crop (especially one variety
of one crop) that made Ireland susceptible to famine. Genetic variation
lends protection against disease, pests, and climate problems (a lesson
we’d do well to remember nowadays). A slight climate change in the
island’s weather made conditions ripe for a fungus, which caused
blight. Although not all the crop was ruined, the remaining tubers planted
the following year harbored some of the fungus and that crop was ruined
as well. One in every nine people in Ireland died as a result. The tragic
irony is that, in spite of the potato blight, plenty of food was grown
in Ireland in those years. Most of it was intended for export to England,
where it would fetch a higher price. So the Irish poor didn’t die
because they had no food, they died because they couldn’t afford
the food available.
The Walled Garden
Some good did eventually come out of this episode. The walled garden had
at the same time come into fashion amongst the wealthier classes of Irish
society. (Go figure it was walled; there was a famine going on.) People
were teaching themselves the art of growing a variety of fruits (like
pineapple, melons, and oranges) as well as improving the variety of vegetables
they grew. Even more importantly, they were improving techniques for cultivating
these items in Irish soil.
Meanwhile, the poor were beginning to suffer an outbreak of blindness.
Apparently those starving lacked sufficient amounts of vitamin A. The
government stepped in, and began paying people to visit the various counties
and give lessons on constructing these “cottage gardens,”
and specifically on how to grow staple vegetables, like carrots, to ward
off the blindness outbreak. They also provided cheap seed and planting
plots. Little by little, Irish agriculture began to recover from the potato.
Today the potato is still an important part of the Irish diet in traditional
dishes like colcannon and rumpledethumps, but the cuisine has become much
The Importance of Local, Sustainable Foods
Because the Industrial Revolution originally passed Ireland by for the
most part, agriculture remained the most important Irish industry. The
slow industrialization also helped encourage consumption of locally produced
and home-produced foods from meat and seafood to dairy and vegetables,
since there were still few roads and factories for which people could
leave their farms. The history of Irish food has taught nothing if not
that the mission of local, sustainable foods with a strong genetic variety
can make all the difference in a nation’s well-being.