“The food of a nation tells you a great deal – what is plentiful, what is absent, what is valued”
Margaret Hickey born near Manchester and studied English at Trinity College, Dublin. As Food and Drink Editor of Country Living she commissioned a range of food writers and chefs, including Richard Corrigan, Sophie Grigson, Nigel Slater, Rick Stein and Darina Allen and wrote extensively about food, drink and travel for The Financial Times, The Guardian and The Times among others.
In 1999 she moved to Ireland to write Irish Days, a collection of oral histories which was published in 2001. Here she recounts her experience of going to the root of Ireland’s relationship with food.
“Not long after I’d moved from central London to a house beside the Shannon, I decided to write Ireland’s Green Larder, a history of Ireland seen through the prism of food and drink. When I moved to Galway I found that every small town still had a butcher’s, often more than one, sometimes charmingly called victualler’s.
“The quality of the beef was superb. In my local greengrocer’s (another shop well in decline back in Britain) they discussed the variety of potato you’d want, and they sold golden country butter, wrapped simply in greaseproof paper and made ten miles away.
“On the minus side, you had to travel some distance to find exotic foodstuffs. No, not lemongrass or yams. I mean such weird vegetables as leeks or watercress. When they first stocked it, the woman at the checkout asked me what you’d do with asparagus.
“And, brought up in the north of England, as I was, I couldn’t understand the lack of savoury pastries. Where were the pork pies? The food of a nation tells you a great deal – what is plentiful, what is absent, what is valued. Never mind battles and soldiers, politicians and laws – the history of a nation is, at its very core, an examination of what is of daily and utmost importance – food and drink.
“There is no history without the staff of life. Brillat-Savarin sums it up – we are what we eat. And in Ireland’s case, the story of food thrums with significance, sometimes triumphant, often tragic. And so I began my researches for Ireland’s Green Larder,
“Around the country I buzzed, from west Cork to Antrim, interviewing food producers, poring over folklore archives, inspecting a fulachta fiadh (ancient cooking pit) at Craggaunowen in Co Clare, visiting the Ceide Fields, the site of the oldest field system in the world (a thousand years older than the Pyramids) and much more.
“I read extensively and I conducted culinary experiments with the crane that swung out over the turf fire in my cottage. I even made bull’s milk. (You’ll have to get your hands on the book to learn what that is!)
“Then there was the ultra-strict diet of the Culdee monastic communities which contrasts with the lavish dinner given by a Mrs Delany in the 18th century – her first course alone comprised a large joint of beef ‘tremblante’, garnished with small patés, two soups, pigeon pie, stuffed veal with parsley and cream, and casserole with vin de Bourgogne. Mrs Delany wished to pique her guests’ appetite for the following two courses. Despite Mrs Delany my major concern was for the rural poor.
“I wanted to learn what they grew, what they caught, on land and on water, and I was fascinated to study the ways in which they dealt with food. Even in relatively good times, nothing was wasted. And in lean times, the bean an tí would find ingenious ways to make a meal from scraps. Among the urban poor a satisfying dish of Dublin Coddle would be made out of odds and ends.