What’s your kinda Irish food?

My pal emailed me from Barcelona.

Hola hola! (she said, twice)… I need to cook simple Irish dinner for some Argentinian friends. (They’re great cooks so I’m nervous!) Any suggestions?

The challenge of it. The waves of doubt, of cultural inferiority. I was nervous on her behalf, on our collective national behalf. Argentinians, living in Barcelona, feasting on all those great tapas and creme Catalana, or remembering home by rustling up some empanadas or pigging out on an asado (a meat feast of a grill-up). What’s our equivalent? Tayto and peanuts with a pint and stewed apple and custard? Toasties and a full-fry?

It brings us back to that old chestnut: what can we claim as real Irish food? I mean the kind of thing that you would cook to show off a little (well you’d have to make the effort when representing the nation, wouldn’t you?) but that’s simple enough that you wouldn’t look like you were going to too much effort, especially if you’re not sure the whole thing would go exactly to plan, what with not having to hand Irish spuds or Irish butter or Irish cream or Irish lamb or, well you get the point. I mean the kind of food about which you could say, yes, I grew up eating that, and also yes, I’m proud to call that Irish.

I didn’t grow up eating coddle, though I have been known to do so, and think it’s rather tasty too. I used to have a colleague who would go all dreamy when you mentioned coddle. She might cook it for her Argentinean friends if they were asking, but I wouldn’t.

My Barcelona friend said she was thinking of doing a Shepherd’s Pie – even though she never really ate it at home and had never made it before.

I thought of cockles and mussels, alive until cooked in wine or cider – oh, that’s not very Irish is it? (Unless of course you used David Llewellyn’s cider, or his wine, both of which he makes in Rush, Co Dublin, but I’m not sure you can get either in Barcelona.)

And I thought of a beef and Guinness stew, if you could get the Guinness, though of course you wouldn’t get the great Irish beef. Then I thought of a really gorgeous oyster and Guinness beef pie that features in Mairin Ui Chomain’s book, Irish Oyster Cuisine. And that made me think of Prannie Rhatigan’s wonderful cookbook, Irish Seaweed Kitchen, in which I’m fairly sure there’s a version of Mairin’s pie, but featuring seaweed too. I tried it as part of a most extraordinary feast cooked up in Sligo once to launch the book, where everything from the bread to the desserts were based on sea vegetables (which is the PC name for a much under-rated national resource). And in looking for that recipe I came across The Daily Spud’s version of dillisk mash (I recommend both blog and mash to you).

I thought of some of the more traditional or old-fashioned things our mother used to make us, much of which seemed to feature offal. Liver and bacon and sauteed potatoes. Beef tongue with parsley sauce and mashed potatoes (I used to love the sweet flavour of the meat). Steak and kidney pie (I never did like those kidneys, but the pastry! and the onions! and the beef!).

I thought of the sound of the chips going into the deep fat fryer and the radio turned up so it could be heard over the extractor fan and the cat meowing at the knives being sharpened which meant that there was a fish about to be filleted and that she would get to eat the scraps and all of this while watching the original Sherlock Holmes after school on one of those good days when it was fish and chips for tea.

I thought of my grandmother (whose birthday it would have been yesterday, happy birthday Bobbie) and the kinds of simple suppers she liked to cook for herself: a lamb chop, some buttered carrots and wholegrain mustard from the big jar that she brought back from Tenerife which myself and my sister used to dip our fingers into and eat mustard straight out of.

I thought of restaurants like The Winding Stair and Chapter One and Ard Bia and their pride in serving up great Irish produce from some of the best smoked fish and charcuterie producers around the land. And of Sheridans and all that they’ve done for Irish farmhouse cheeses.

I thought of flapjacks and brown bread – and of brown bread ice-cream. Of Loop the Loops and JRs and Super Splits and 99s from Teddy’s. I thought of eating so much chocolate cake on my 7th birthday that I couldn’t eat chocolate cake for years. Of double-decker egg salad sandwiches in tupperware on a dune at Brittas Bay and sand in the sandwich and that making them even tastier.

I thought of the smell of stock cooking up to be turned into a endless pot of soup filled with sweet leeks and soft carrots and the comfort of barley and the love that went into making it. Of spaghetti bolognese with chopped carrot in it, which sounds wrong but worked. Of bright yellow curry with raisins in it, which didn’t.

All fine diversions, all treasured food memories that I’m proud to call my own. But no great use to my Barcelona friend.

Really, when it came down to it, in terms of cooking simple Irish food with Spanish ingredients – no Odlums flour, no buttermilk, no smoked salmon and oat cakes and farmhouse cheeses and salted hams and heads of cabbage – it was hard to say.

So I said, shepherd’s pie is nice and easy…

She emailed me back, and after waxing lyrical about the joys of Catalan calcots (Google it) she said:

so i ended up making a banana chocolate chip cake.. also very tasty…
last nite we ate the shipment from ireland.. smoked salmon and burren hot smoked salmon .. mum had also sent all ingredients for her brown bread… and i made my favourite orange sponge butter cream cake..

will defo try get my hands on some guinness and make that stew…
cheers for that
lots of love

Sounds to me like the Argentinians did well, what do you reckon?

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  • http://www.honest2goodness.ie brid carter (@brid_h2g)

    Lovely article Aoife – as usual! I think that maybe slow cooked mutton stew would feature in trad recipes, served with lots of floury spuds! Also an elderly aunt of mine used to make a treacle & mixed spice sweet bread which always went down well… or how about really fresh mackerel (ahem!) fried on the pan, carrageen moss milk pudding, with stewed apple, fresh crab salad with some of that brown bread… for starters!!

    • http://holymackerel.ie/ Aoife

      Sounds great Brid – when are you having us over for all that?! Thanks for reading and commenting, and sorry it’s taken me so long to filter through all the spam to your comment!

  • Alicia

    “Thank you for the memories!” I laughed and laughed and nearly cried.
    Happy birthday, Bobbie. The Mammy.

    • http://holymackerel.ie/ Aoife

      Ah, you’re welcome. Thank YOU for all the memories Mammy! xxx

  • Bernadette n

    Bacon and cabbage!

  • http://grahamjones.ie GJ

    As you say, we have the produce, but not much of a cuisine – that’s why I think the best route is stuff like Irish Seaweed Kitchen etc.

    What about Boxtys though! Did you ever have one of those in that place in Temple Bar, beside the Elephant & Castle? Those yolks are Irish, aren’t they? Are they? :D

  • Paul Byrne

    Of spaghetti bolognese with chopped carrot in it, I really don’t understand the hesitation relating to this? It’s absolutely necessary, although, I tend to grate it myself!!!! Lovely article Aoife x