What to Eat
Modern Irish restaurant cuisine only scarcely resembles the rustic peasant foods of medieval days. Young chefs have traveled away from and back to their native island, training in between at Michelin starred restaurants and trendy American cooking schools. As a result, you can find indigenous ingredients prepared with French or Asian techniques and a decidedly lighter touch. In the kitchens of the new Irish cuisine, vegetables are never cooked to mush, vinaigrettes are minimal, and flavors fresh and seasonal.
The long-standing traditional dishes, though, still have their place and rightly so. A typical menu always include the Irish trinity of meat, vegetables, and potatoes - a healthy combination that may be served separately or altogether, as in the national dish of Irish Lamb Stew.
Cheese: The Other White Meat
Cream, milk, buttermilk and butter have always graced the Irish pantry, but cheesemaking fell into decline during the 17th century, during periods of English conquest and economic downfall. However, cheesemaking has enjoyed a rebirth in recent times. Such areas as County Kerry are producing remarkably rich and tasty varieties like Blarney, St. Killian (a Camembert-style with mushrooms), cheddary Bandon Vale, blue-veined Cashel and Millens, a soft, raw cow's milk cheese.
Meats: Inside and Out
Pork is Ireland's favorite animal, judging from the proliferation of homemade sausages and dishes featuring pigs feet (trotters), offal, bacon, ham, ribs, chops, and roasts. Sheep, in the forms of older mutton and younger lamb, also play a major role in Irish cooking - from stewed chunks to whole roasted legs.
Beef has traditionally been more expensive, and most cattle were raised as dairy suppliers rather than main courses. However, beef is still a favorite, with the most famous dish being Corned Beef and Cabbage. Cooked, minced beef appears in the comforting Shepherd's Pie, topped with a mashed-potato crust, and a robust dish known as Gaelic Steak pairs beef fillet with Irish whiskey.
Foods that can be gathered easily always become prominent in native diets. For the Irish, their shoreline of readily available cockles, mussels, and oysters give them foods they can eat raw or quickly cooked, with nothing more than a slab of Soda Bread and a smear of butter. Salmon is the king of Irish fish, but sole and herring also hail from local waters. Some of the most unique ingredients, seaweed and sea vegetables, work their way into soups, vegetables, and mashed potatoes, as in the case of champ made with dulse, a type of seaweed.
Grains for Breads and Brews
Ireland is world famous for its oatmeal, which is made from "steel-cut" oats - oats cut into two or three pieces rather than rolled. The oats have a pleasantly chewy texture, making them excellent additions to breads. They also appear commonly in desserts, such as cakes and crumbles, and of course as cooked oatmeal and porridge for breakfast.
Irish flour is so soft it reacts poorly with yeast, but works well with baking soda.
Irish soda bread, so named because it's leavened with baking soda, is another staple at most meals, and every cook has his or her own personal recipe for making it. Originally the bread was baked on cast-iron griddles over open peat fires, but today the loaves are baked in regular ovens.
Ireland's lush soils gave rise to such other fine crops as barley and hops, and combined with Dublin's pure water, led to one of it's most famous products: stout, a thick dark beer introduced by the Guinness brewery in St. James's Gate. Equally as well-known as Guinness stout is Ireland's other fermented grain drink, Irish whiskey. Old Bushmill's and Jameson are the leading brands of Irish whiskey, which is spelled with an 'e' to distinguish it from Scotch whisky. Reportedly, the art of brewing whiskey, the water of life, was developed in the monasteries that once dotted the land. Centuries later, one of the world's most successful liqueurs grew out of mixing Irish whiskey, cream and cocoa together. The result: Bailey's Original Irish Cream Liqueur, usually served on the rocks or splashed into hot coffee.
Roots and Shoots
Potatoes, parsnips, carrots and cabbage these are the primary vegetables served in Ireland. Onions also play into most dishes. When available, the Irish also cook meals with cauliflower, mushrooms, leeks, broccoli, turnips, peas, chicory, endive and asparagus. Apples are by far the most common fruit, eaten fresh or made into cakes, breads, pies, and fools. Fools are simply pureed fruit layered with rich whipped cream, usually served in glasses, but their simplicity is part of Ireland's moniker. Besides apples, strawberries and rhubarb also appear in puddings, jams, cumbles and tarts.