Monday, 25 June 2018

THE IRISH FOR FOOD


      
                                                                  The Joy of Food.



I HAVE fond memories of eating livers, hearts and kidneys. My offspring still gag when I mention that.


Before anyone else has heart failure, I should add that the organs all came from animals. In 1970s Dublin, offal was the cheapest protein you could buy. As a young child, I assumed that everyone else ate stuffed pigs hearts or lamb kidneys. 

I also assumed that everyone ate Coddle. Coddle, it turns out, is a peculiarly Dublin dish. It has its roots in Dublin's Georgian tenement houses: those once-fine houses which were abandoned by the wealthy Anglo-Irish and rented out to poor Dublin families.

As families of up to a dozen or more people all lived in one room, women were forced to cook one-pot meals over an open fire in the grate.


No doubt it morphed a bit down the years. By the time my mother was making it, it was a one pot delight of sausages, rashers, liver, potatoes, carrots and onions: a kind of stew that simmered in a stock until cooked. The fact that everything except the carrots were white, never bothered me.


Turns out, lots of people never ate offal or Coddle. 


As I discovered when I started college, and my circle widened to include people born and bred outside the narrow confines of the capital. Friends who grew up on farms, where free range chicken and their own beef and lamb were everyday fare. But you didn't have to be a Culchie* to eat steaks and chicken on a regular basis: you just had to have money.


Meat, apparently, was dear. The better stuff, at least. In 1970s Ireland, we didn't have the intensive single-product farming we do now. And we were only starting to enjoy the benefits of the European Union (EEC as it then was) after we joined in 1973. Things don't change overnight.


I was recently reminded of how far we've come on our food journey, when the lovely Myrtle Allen died. In 1968, she opened the Yeats Room restaurant in her home, Ballymaloe House, serving beautiful and seasonal produce from her husband's farm. The rest is history.


But it took a while for the standards being set at Cork's Ballymaloe, to trickle down to the rest of us. And food my own kids take for granted, was either unavailable, or outrageously expensive in Ireland. 


In 2018, we're overloaded with TV chefs preaching the value of eating in season. In Ireland, we always did. We didn't have a choice. In Winter, we had tubers and cabbages and potatoes with every meal.

None of your fancy roasted parsnips and carrots. Vegetables like parsnips and turnips were boiled to wilting, mashed together and slathered in butter. In Summer we ate salads.

An Irish 1970s salad, of course: Butterhead lettuce, tomatoes, onion and hardboiled eggs. The salad dressing was white, gloopy stuff that came straight from a bottle.


My mother made waves in our neighbourhood when she learned to make a French dressing: hunting down the Dijon mustard in a specialist delicatessen and buying the olive oil in the pharmacy.


As far as we were concerned, nobody except the 'continentals' actually used olive oil in their cooking. Here in Ireland, olive oil was only used to treat earache.


Salad teas though, were a huge thing. Winter and Summer, you could have as many people as you wanted in for 'tea' in the evening. ('Dinner' was normally served at lunchtime - then we discovered Europe and lost the run of ourselves.)

But while salad teas always included fresh tomatoes and free range eggs (there were no other sort), it also included a lot of stuff from tins. Beetroot only came in a tin, and for some strange reason, it didn't occur to anyone to make a fresh potato salad, so that too was scooped from a can.

Ditto something called 'Russian salad', the details of which I've completely wiped from memory. On the upside, and for reasons best known only to my family, salads also included bowls of Tayto cheese and onion crisps.**

Simple food wasn't always processed, of course: often the exact opposite. I remember one Summer, my family took a fortnight's holiday in an old farmhouse in Wexford.

Every morning, the Dad would head off early to the harbour, to catch the fishermen landing their morning's haul. He'd buy fresh mackerel directly from them. For 13 evenings IN A ROW we ate fried mackerel with new Irish potatoes and a green salad.

On the last day, the Dad went hunting with a local lad - a first and I think, last, for him - and they shot a couple of rabbits. That evening we all ate rabbit stew. I'm not making any of that up.

We drank milk with most meals. Years later, I asked my mother why. "To help fill you up and because we believed it was good for you," she said. I rarely make dessert for my own family, but we had them every day. Jelly and ice cream, apple tart or stewed rhubarb with fresh cream or custard, fruit salad (exotic fruit from tins, to supplement the more ordinary apples, oranges and bananas) and semolina or rice pudding.

My own kids had never heard of rice pudding. In the same way that the only pasta we ate came from tins, shaped like alphabet letters and smothered in tomato ketchup, the only rice we had came in tins, covered in sweet, creamy sauce.
Which was why potatoes graced every dinner plate.

Cheese was beyond simple. There was a choice of Cheddar (red or white, mind) or the plastic, processed stuff, that might have been cheese, but might well have been something else entirely. The first time I saw an exotic cheese was in France, and I remember trying to put a mile of sniffing distance between me and it.

A couple of weeks ago, Dublin hosted its annual Taste of Dublin in the Iveagh Gardens: a four day celebration of the best of Irish food and drink, with tastings and market stands and cheff-y demonstrations.

We flocked to enjoy Champagne and craft beer, chocolate-dipped strawberries and artisan chocolate, organic vegetables, country farmhouse cheeses and posh handmade sausages. The notions of a nation which only discovered quiche about 30 years ago.

We've come a long way from overcooked vegetables. We know how to make a decent avocado toast (I admit I'm not a fan). And we're not afraid to sprinkle our salads with olives and seeds and toasted nuts.

But at a time when every food market and grocery store boasts a staggering array of breads, I remember my nana's homemade soda bread, and am determined to beg my own mother to make the rich, dark, yeasty brown bread of my childhood and teen years: delicious with hot-off-the-pan potato cakes.

And I still miss stuffed lambs' hearts.

                                                             *


* Slang word for an Irish person born in the countryside. (There's plenty of slang terms for city-born Irish!)
** Popular Irish-made potato chips.



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Enjoy the last few days of June,     
Hugs,
Sharon. xx


 

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