I have a longstanding relationship with Irish food. And the relationship, like all relationships, has had good times and bad. But, you might be surprised to hear that the good has always outweighed the bad.
When I talk about the exciting Irish food scene, I'm often met with blank stares and words like boiled, bland, overcooked are inevitably tossed around. Yes, it is true – somewhere along the lines Irish food became synonymous with huge pieces of meat boiled to within moments of being edible, bobbing in a huge pot of water alongside potatoes and carrots that are an equally unpromising muted version of themselves. But, in my twelve years of traveling and eating my way around the Atlantic's Emerald gem, I have yet to encounter this type of stereotypical bland cooking that has given Irish cuisine such a bad rap. This is not to say that I haven’t had an overcooked steak or salmon roasted until it was dry. And the Irish HSE’s (Health Service Executive) rather shortsighted mandate that no burgers with even a trace of pink in the middle can be legally served doesn’t help the country’s food case. However, a country where cows happily munch on grass all year round has got do be doing something right. Even during the chilly winter, cows feed mainly on silage, grass that has been cut and preserved to sustain them through the short break in the otherwise vigorous growing season. Whereas we are now accustomed to paying ridiculous premiums for dairy and beef from grass fed cows, in Ireland it is, as they say, the bog standard. This means that the jug of milk that you grab in your village gas station's shop is of equal quality to the jug of milk that you purchase in your high-end, gourmet food shop. The same is true of the dairy – butter, cheese, yogurt - and beef. If it's Irish, it’s mostly, if not all, grass fed.
And that's just one thing Irish food has going for it. It is also surrounded by coastal waters that are full of some of the world’s most delicious oysters, langoustines and other shellfish. Salmon deftly navigate the rivers. And the growing season, great for the grass, is equally as beneficial for fruits and vegetables and a burgeoning market for specialty items like micro-herbs and veggies. We strive for local and seasonal sourcing, but in Ireland, a country that can be driven across in under 3 hours, for most ingredients, local is a given. With some exceptions. In spite of what the palm tree dotted gardens will suggest, they're never gonna grow papayas or pineapples, but I think that's ok.
I tend to believe that the quality of a dish or cuisine is only as good as the raw ingredients. On the very basis that their cows actually feast on grass, something so simple but not to be taken for granted, I think Irish food deserves to finally have a respected place at the table.
I write about food and I talk about food and I eat a lot of food. Co-writer of Amanda Freitag's, The Chef Next Door and Cooking in my Street Clothes by Missy Robbins (Fall '17). Co-founder of Family Meal, cooking classes that allow family members to learn, cook and eat together, taught by pro chefs.