Inigo Purcell explores the story of food and drink in Ireland uncovered in the new book
He may have fought off the Cattle Raid of Cooley, but one thing that Cúchulainn, or other legendary Irish heroes wouldn’t have had access to was cheese, which was most probably brought to Ireland with the early church.
This is one of the fascinating facts contained in Ireland’s Green Larder, a new culinary and cultural history of Ireland, which examines both the changes in Irish attitudes to food throughout the ages, and what has remained the same.
Margaret Hickey, a former food and drink editor of Country Living Magazine, has done exhaustive research for the book, citing folk songs, travel accounts, academic treatises and oral histories.
The latter is especially interesting: a man born in 1917 recounts how his father would be shocked if he saw the family shop today, given the amount of milk and vegetables they sell. Throughout his father’s lifetime everyone in their rural community would have milked their own cow, and grown some vegetables themselves, even if farming was not their main source of livelihood.
It would be easy for such a book to be sentimental, rueing the loss of a culture close to the land while ignoring the changes for the better, but Hickey doesn’t avoid the more unpleasant aspects of food history, or the changes for the better.
A collection of descriptions of cheap bacon available in the eighteenth and nineteenth century stress how unpleasant much food for the urban poor was, and the book dwells in some detail on how classic recipes often came about through food scarcity and having to do the most with what was there.
Likewise, there have been positive changes in the Irish relationship with food in the past fifty years: Irish people are far more likely to sample seafood, and types of fish, taking advantage of the Irish coastline and many rivers. (In contrast to the story that Hickey relates of taking a cousin to a well regarded seafood restaurant in the late 60s – her cousin scoured the menu for a considerable time, and finally was relieved to be able to order a ham salad, so reluctant was she to eat fish).
Each chapter concludes with a selection of recipes, from dishes discussed earlier in the chapter. Some of these recipes are sourced directly from the primary sources which are used in the book (in the case of one older recipe there is the warning to ‘not be alarmed’ by the vagueness about quantity and cooking times, as the recipe predates the precise levels of modern ovens), and these are accompanied by Hickey’s notes on how the recipe is best enjoyed, or her experience of cooking them, which are illuminating.
Perhaps remarkably for a book about Irish food, Ireland’s Green Larder takes nearly two hundred pages to reach the potato, although then that vegetable is discussed at length (and with many recipes). It is placed into its historic context, as an invaluable vegetable both because of the range of meals in which it can be used, and because the acreage required to grow potatoes is considerably smaller than that for other vegetables.
Hickey notes that a family of six in the 18th and 19th centuries would be able to survive on the potatoes from an acre and a half, if they also had a cow to provide milk, whereas to grow a similar amount of other vegetables they would require about five or six acres. This shows why the potato famine had such an impact, especially on the poorest in society.
There is a detailed discussion of the famine, and of both the political and social causes of it at the time, and the long term effects of it in terms of the Irish relationship with food. (Hickey notes that food regarded as a delicacy elsewhere, such as types of shellfish, was regarded with disdain by the Irish for a long time, probably because of the association with eating it during times of extreme hardship).
Among the themes of the book is that despite the many changes that have happened to Ireland’s culture around food and agriculture, the Irish remain passionate about food. Hickey notes that even in supermarkets, ‘economy mince’ and other low-quality styles of meat are rarely seen in Ireland, and that most towns and villages still have (and value) a butcher.
She is not critical of supermarkets, either, recognising their value but hoping that they might improve in terms of educating both their staff and their customers about food, especially seasonable vegetables.
This Irish passion for food might be reflected in the unusual publication method of the book: Hickey raised funds for the publication through the crowdfunding publisher, Unbound, and thanks her many subscribers whose contributions paid for the book in a preface.
She also notes that this method of publication may seem very new, but is actually quite old: Samuel Johnson funded his dictionary the same way.
The novel form of fundraising seems especially well suited for a project like this, which while meticulously researched and fascinating, falls somewhere between genres.
Part cultural history, part cookbook, and part memoir, it is an enjoyable read from which you might learn a great deal about Irish food – beyond the potato.