Katy McGuinness poses the question…
“Yes we do, but it’s nebulous, blurry, intangible and complex,” says food writer and historian Regina Sexton of UCC. “The current yearning for an identity attached to food, and to understand Irish food,” she goes on to say, “is prompted by the insecurity that comes with globalisation.”
“We do have a food culture,” says Dr Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire, senior lecturer in the School of Culinary Arts & Food Technology at TUD, “but it’s attached to the home and doesn’t translate naturally to a restaurant, as the idea of paying for what mother cooks does not sit easy. What is real Irish food? Potatoes, vegetables, soup, oysters, apple tart, porter cake, a pot of tea.”
Google Irish food and you’ll find images of colcannon and coddle, Irish stew and boxty, bacon and cabbage, a virtual theme park of Irish cuisine. All well and good, and these dishes can be delicious, but when was the last time you ate them? Chances are your recent meals featured hummus, burritos and burgers, flatbreads and noodles, poke bowls and tapas, pasta and pizzas. Very few of Ireland’s Michelin-starred restaurants showcase “Irish” food. They use Irish ingredients to varying degrees but serve international food, sometimes with an Irish twist. The four two-Michelin Star restaurants in Ireland (Liath, Dede, Chapter One and Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud) are led by chefs from Australia, Turkey, Finland and France, respectively.
Chef JP McMahon owns two restaurants in Galway: Michelin-starred Aniar, serving ‘“Irish” food, and Cava, a tapas restaurant. Ironically, he says, most customers at Aniar are visitors from abroad, while Irish people gravitate towards Cava. “We Irish desire foreignness in our food,” he says. “We want Italian, Spanish, French, and American dishes; people from those countries want to experience Irishness. I think it’s because there’s a lack of confidence in our own food culture and even in exploring it.”
Dr John Mulcahy, who used to lead Fáilte Ireland’s food initiatives and is now an independent researcher, reckons the main reason our food culture is the way it is – disjointed, incoherent and often evidencing a lack of pride – is because the mechanisms of government don’t see food culture as an economic benefit. “Food isn’t central to government agencies in the way it is in the Nordic countries,” he explains. “There, in the early 2000s, governments got together and came up with a food strategy that was not about exports but about embedding the idea of local food.”
While Fáilte Ireland reports that 35 per cent of what visitors spend here is spent on food and drink, the organisation appears not to have any overarching vision or strategy. “No one is looking after food as a cultural experience,” observes McMahon. Food tourism focused on high-end restaurants is seen as elitist, so Mulcahy suggests the smarter approach is to look at food in tourism, where the motivation to travel is something else but the visitor becomes a food tourist in the evening, when they want something memorable to eat, something to share on social media.
“Food in tourism is much more important than food tourism,” he says, “yet many of the places serving food in our tourist destinations settle for the lowest common denominator.” Visiting a heritage attraction in Donegal, Mulcahy was disappointed to find no reference to Irish food – “never mind local”– in its café. “Why doesn’t the OPW require the provider to support local businesses when it puts the catering out to tender?” he asks. “If we are to promote food culture the state has to lead, as they operate some of the largest food budgets.”
“Fáilte Ireland’s research shows that French and Spanish visitors are the most disappointed with the food they encounter in Ireland,” says Blanca Valencia, a Spanish-born food writer and consultant living in Ireland. “I visited The Museum of Country Life in Mayo, where millions have been spent creating a very well thought-through visitor experience,” says Valencia, “but there was a total disconnect in the cafeteria. When it comes to the food, nobody seems to care. The government should aim for higher standards in strategic places, they are little embassies. There is a lack of engagement on so many levels. Dublin doesn’t have a municipal food market. I haven’t even found a single food truck doing cool Irish food. And why does every restaurant serve olives and almonds when they could be offering seaweed and periwinkles?”
Mussels are a good example. We have lots of mussels but in restaurants they are usually cooked in a French way. How do you change that?
In France and Spain, schools bombard children with French and Spanish food, says Valencia, and the foundations of the gastronomic experience are laid in the lunchroom. Yet food education is absent from the curriculum in Ireland. “There are movements to try to preserve our traditional food culture,” wrote Denis Cotter in his Café Paradiso cookbook back in 1999. “But there is so little there and what is there is a scrappy collection of dishes, some delicious but others only historically interesting, that they hardly add up to a national culture. The opportunity that exists is, I believe, to accept that we have an almost blank page and to cook as we see fit from the finest produce we can muster.”
In the intervening years, while progress has been made in the realm of fine dining, little else has changed, with the chicken fillet roll considered (unironically) by many to be our national dish. So why is Irish food culture in such a sorry state? The reasons are many and complex.
“We have a set of values around food being for making income rather than to enjoy,” says Regina Sexton. “In other cultures, food has a different primary purpose, to be cooked and eaten and enjoyed. Ireland has also gone through and shed various food cultures. It was a colony, supplying the Empire, there was a famine and then it was economically depressed. We were a poor country until well into the 20th century and food used to be relatively more expensive than it is now – people were eating to survive rather than to enjoy. Because of Ireland’s history, there is already a faultline in what we consider traditional so if you are trying to recover the traditional, you are hamstrung. Instead you have to consider the recent culture of place, product and cooking.”
Mulcahy sees cause for optimism in the food of talented chefs including Cuan Greene and Ciaran Sweeney reimagining dishes such as boxty and fermented potato bread with bacon and cabbage. But until these dishes move beyond the realm of fine dining they remain inaccessible to most.
“I think we have to look at it in a more holistic way,” says McMahon. “Irish food and food in Ireland are two different things. While we say Irish food might have a lack of associated dishes, food in Ireland is a 10,000-year-old project with all sorts of exciting ingredients. We can try and make new Irish dishes that will not so much replace the old ones, but at least sit alongside them, dishes more suited to a modern palate. Mussels are a good example. We have lots of mussels but in restaurants they are usually cooked in a French way. How do you change that? You use Irish ingredients such as cider or seaweed or sea herbs. By doing that you’re giving people a little insight into what an Irish dish looks like now – it’s based on bits of the past, but it’s not something we were making in the 1950s or the 1850s. We can establish a food culture this way.”
Mac Con Iomaire says we have to get away from the “dancing at the crossroads” version of Irish food, which is not a true reflection of Ireland’s diversity. “Thirty-five per cent of the population was not born here; 50 languages are spoken in Dublin, the most multicultural European country.”
This has potentially thrilling consequences for our food culture, as seen in ventures such as Richie Castillo and Alex O’Neill’s Bahay Filipino pop-up restaurant serving up battered Irish Longanisa sausage, with Pinakurat garlic mayo on the side, and in Big Fan Bao’s wontons filled with scamorza from Toonsbridge Dairy. It’s there in the Connemara pasties at the Misunderstood Heron in Leenane, a riff on the empanadas of chef Reinaldo Seco’s native Chile, in the lobster kebab at Dede, probably the most exciting restaurant in Ireland right now, and in the zeppole filled with lobster and topped with caviar at Danny Africano’s Lignum in Galway.
“The broader version of Irish food culture can take in pizzas, burgers, pasta, even bao buns, if we view them as vehicles for communicating with people,” says McMahon. “Then the sauce you make or the ingredients you use can interpret Irish food culture as it is now. But when food culture is only the preserve of fine-dining restaurants, it doesn’t impact enough people. If we have good petrol station food, good hotel breakfasts, and good deli food, if we change all these things, then you could start to say, now we’re building something.”