Back to Ireland
Conservative Irish cookery in the home has not moved far from the
traditional staples known and enjoyed for centuries. The earliest staples
were oatmeal, dairy products, and leeks. Oatmeal is still used; dairy
products are still favored, although tea and stout are more popular as
beverages; leeks still appear in traditional dishes, although they have
been widely replaced by onions. The biggest change over the centuries was
the replacement of oatmeal with potatoes. Fish was and continues to be the
principal source of protein (next to milk) because it is readily available
and generally less expensive than meat. To most Irish, "meat" most often
means variety meats, sausages or pork products, not by preference, but for
economic reasons. So adept are the Irish at putting together a satisfying
meal economically, that at least this Irish saying is based more on fact
than legend: "When it comes to knocking up a light savory meal you can't
beat the Irish." But increasingly the spice shelf and supply of herbs and
vegetables are expanding.
Milk is used in cooking oatmeal and making soups. Buttermilk is a beverage
often taken with a light vegetable meal. Cottage cheese, called "curds,"
is eaten occasionally and used in Irish curdcake, a type of
cheesecake made with curds, eggs and flavored with butter and lemon, all
baked in a pastry shell. Local Irish cheeses are gaining heightened
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
Apples are the most popular fruit and are used in applecakes, fruit fools,
flummery, and the toffee apples prepared especially for Halloween. Oranges
are a special treat, not daily fare. Blends of fruits, such as plums and
apples, and berries are made into preserves.
Potatoes are the number one vegetable; although many others are available,
they are not used in quantity. Cabbage, carrots, and onions are used year
round because of their keeping qualities, but purple broccoli, asparagus,
chicory (Belgian endive), endive (curly green leaves), leeks, kohlrabi,
marrows, mushrooms, peas, and parsnips also are used. Stoke is a sea
"spinach" which must be cooked four to five hours, and dulse (also called
dillisk or dillesk) is a type of reddish brown seaweed often added to
soups, fish or vegetable dishes or mashed potatoes (dulse champ).
The variety of delicious and satisfying dishes produced from and with
potatoes makes their popularity understandable. People near the sea enjoy
potatoes freshly boiled in seawater, and boiled potatoes often form at
least a part, if not the main part, of a meal. Whether boiled in seawater
or saltwater, their appeal is national. Champ is a mound of hot mashed
potatoes served in a soup plate with a pool of melting fresh butter; each
spoonful of potato is dipped in the butter. Colcannon is a dish of
Scottish origin, using mashed potatoes and other vegetables (usually
cabbage or turnip) well cooked and blended with the potato. Leftover
cooked potatoes may thicken a soup or stew, or be blended with flour to
form a potato dough or bread, or formed into patties to be fried as
pancakes called boxty bread or boxty pancakes. Cumberland pie is a hearty
dish of two layers of the potato pastry filled with rolled slices of bacon
and beaten eggs, all well baked. Haggerty is another main dish made with
thinly sliced potatoes and onions fried in bacon fat to form a large
crisply browned cake. Dublin coddle, a traditional Saturday night dish
guaranteed to prevent hangovers, is a piping hot casserole (like a thick
soup) of bacon and sausages topped with sliced potatoes and onions.
Casseroles, vegetable dishes, pancakes, and soups do not complete the
lengthy list of uses for potatoes. Ingenious Irish cooks have developed
delicious recipes using potatoes – usually leftover cooked ones – in
pastries, cakes, biscuits and breads. A mouth watering baked pudding is
called potato-apple cake, layers of sliced apples between a potato
"pastry" sweetened with sugar and spiced with ginger, are baked till
golden brown and the apples meltingly tender. This is almost a meal,
served hot with sweet cream. It wouldn't be unusual to have a three-course
meal with potato in some form in each dish!
MEATS AND ALTERNATES
Pork is the country mainstay and a favorite throughout Ireland. But
budgets seldom permit roasts, chops, and other expensive cuts. The
ingenuity of the Irish cook, however, produces a proliferation of
delicious dishes based on trotters (pig's feet), Bath chaps (cured cheeks
and tongues eaten breaded and fried), brawn (pig's head cooked in spicy
broth then chopped and gelled), griskins (odds and ends of pork trimmings
pounded flat then breaded and fried), and the wide use of bacon fat to
flavor dishes based on cereal or vegetables.
Beef is enjoyed but expensive for frequent use. Mince is the name given to
ground beef, brisket is used for simmered corned beef and cabbage, while
spiced beef is a traditional Christmas treat. Chickens are used
occasionally, mostly in soups or stewed dishes, and goose is a holiday
specialty. Game finds its way to the table less often: quail, grouse,
hare, pheasant, snipe, partridge, woodcock, duck, and venison. Local lamb
is increasingly enjoyed.
Herring is a regular part of the diet and Irish fish soups are a
specialty. Lough negh pollan (a fresh-water herring) and potted or soused
herring make good companions to potatoes. Fish that is baked slowly in a
pickling mixture keeps well and may he eaten hot or cold: this is called
potted or soused. Many other fish are readily available: mackerel, trout,
cod, haddock, whiting, flatfish, and smoked or fresh eels. Willicks
or willocks are winkles or periwinkles that have been boiled in
seawater then eaten out of their shells with a pin, sometimes accompanied
with vinegar and salt or lightly dipped in fine oatmeal. Blocking
and lythe are two fish commonly sold dried and filleted. Crab and
lobster are available but the large Dublin prawns, whose fat tails are
sometimes exported as scampi, are special favorites, as are freshly
Eggs are enjoyed with ham, bacon, or sausages, often as a breakfast dish,
but more often as a dinner. Eggs are also a frequent ingredient in other
dishes. Peas and dried beans are used less frequently. Nuts cannot be
considered a protein source as they are infrequently used in baking, and
only on special occasions (Halloween) as a treat.
BREADS AND GRAINS
A hot cereal for breakfast in Ireland means oatmeal. Oats and wheat flour
(often wholegrain wheat) are used widely in preparing the many breads and
biscuits that are a part of most meals and always accompany tea.
Frequently, fine oatmeal or coarse wheat flour kneaded into leftover
mashed potatoes will form the dough for a stomach filling bread or even a
main dish piecrust.
Bacon fat is the most widely used fat for cooking and baking and even as a
spread. Butter is used when it can be afforded, most often to lend taste.
Increasingly, oil is finding its way to Irish kitchens.
SWEETS AND SNACKS
Traditionally, simple cooked fruit desserts, custards and milk puddings
made with carageen (a fresh moss used as a thickening agent), and
bread puddings are the usual desserts. Cakes are for special occasions
only (Christmas and weddings) and most baked goods are not heavily
sweetened if they are indeed sweet at all. Honey, treacle (molasses), and
white sugar are the usual sweeteners. Yellowman is the traditional
Irish sweet: a hard candy similar to the brittle in peanut brittle. Sugar
is also consumed in tea. The Irish also enjoy homemade jams and jellies
eaten with breads and biscuits. Newer Irish cuisine is borrowing gourmet
recipes and using fresh Irish fruits and cream to create spectacular
The Irish spice shelf is a small one but growing! Salt and pepper together
with onions and leeks are the daily seasonings. Caraway seeds are used in
breads, cakes, and pancakes, cinnamon and nutmeg and mace enhance rich
festive fruitcakes together with nuts, dried fruits, and currants. Butter
and bacon fat also add flavor to vegetables and fish. More recently, fresh
herbs, more spices and even garlic and butter simmered vegetables are
being enjoyed and not just by tourists.
Tea is the beverage accompanying every meal and most snacks. The Irish
have a reputation for their love of alcoholic beverages, stout being the
usual, but occasionally whiskey or mixed drinks too. The Irish don't
linger over their drinks, the reason perhaps found in one of their many
sayings: "Don't sip a cocktail, drink it quickly while it's still smilin'
Of the milk drinks, buttermilk is enjoyed over whole or skim milk as a
drink for refreshment or with meals.