The eating of meat on a daily basis is a relatively recent development in Ireland. Throughout time, meat especially fresh meat was considered a luxury except for the most affluent in society.
Many of us grew up with the perception that no meal was complete without a piece of meat, but very often when meat came to the table in times gone by it came in salted or preserved form thereby making fresh meat a supreme delicacy.
On top of that the consumption of fresh meat and in particular fresh beef was something associated with the more wealthy classes, those who had access to markets, those whose herds were strong enough to sustain the slaughter of a beast.
Even outside these circles if fresh meat came to the table very often it was a piece of farmyard fowl or a sheep - units that were small enough to be consumed within a reasonable time. We must recognize that Pork and Bacon are the meats of the Irish and this programme examines the reason why and the broader traditions of meat eating in Ireland.
Nowadays when we think of poultry and eggs we tend to think rather restrictively in terms of chickens, hens and their eggs but this is only a tiny remnant of what was once a broader tradition and in the past a great diversity of birds were brought to the table sometimes ordinary, sometimes exotic. In addition the methods of cooking them and the diversity of fowl eaten varied with social class and like many aspects of Irish food traditions the diversity of fowl in Ireland was influenced by waves of settlers and newcomers that came to the island.
Poultry are a rather late introduction into Ireland the domesticated chicken for instance is derived from South East Asia and it came into the Roman world and it appears to have come into Ireland in the first few centuries A.D.
The domesticated goose, which is derived from, the Greylag goose also appeared this time but the domesticated Duck appears only slightly later probably at the time of the Anglo Normans.
The early medieval Irish were not greatly interested in the hunting of wild birds but the Anglo Normans had a much wider diet in terms of wild species There was a wider variety of species; pheasant and peacock are present at this time. Little birds, which you normally wouldn't eat such as finches, blackbirds and thrushes, are being eaten as well. They also seem to be keeping pigeons for the first time in dovecotes.
By the 18th century the turkey had become popular appearing in the diets of many sectors of society. It was now a farmyard fowl alongside hens, ducks and geese. The turkey eventually usurped the goose as the festive bird.
By 1900 it was estimated that there were l8,500,000 chickens in the country; 5 times what there had been in 1850. Even on tiny farms there might have been a flock of one hundred chickens. Towards the end of the 19th century when the grocers shop becomes a feature on the Irish landscape the woman could use her eggs and her fowl as items of barter and exchange. This gave her a certain degree of economic independence and she could purchase more expensive items.
Eggs were very important because they were extremely nutritious and very versatile. The important point is that the egg is preservable; when the hen's potential was low you could still have a stock of eggs.
Seabirds were a regular part of an island diet. The most popular ones were gannets and puffins. Other less commonly eaten were guillemots, shearwater and cormorant.
Nowadays the poultry industry is as vibrant as ever, however, it is unrecognizable from the historical picture in that it has become grossly intensive, except in isolated rural pockets fowl has been lifted from the landscape now assigned to a life of confinement and even for those who wish to restore fowl to their yards their attempts are often compounded by European regulations and directives.
Gone is the relationship the woman had with her fowl as is the colour, character and movement such birds brought to the farmyard.
When it comes to fruit and vegetables in Ireland there is a perception that these have always been of a very limited range and in fact we have all grown up with carrots, parsnips, turnips and cabbage and little else. We have also gone through the similar restrictive quartet in terms of fruit in the shape of apples, oranges, pears and bananas.
Vegetables have also been stigmatized in Ireland, because of typical Irish cooking techniques which tended to render them into an inedible pulpy mass rather like institutional food and still when a typical Irish dinner plate comes out with meat and two vegetables, vegetables are still considered to be inferior to that meat part.
Of course this is just part of a wider picture and of all the food categories it is fruit and vegetables that have been most overtly affected by the wave of settlers that come to the country starting in the 12th century with the Anglo Normans.
For this programme we are going to start in early medieval Ireland. In early medieval Ireland vegetable gardens were of importance in supplying a range of plants that were used for culinary purposes but also medicinally in the care of the sick. Culinary herbs were used as a relish to accompany breads and meat or else used as potherbs.
However, with the coming of the Anglo Normans in the mid 12th century the range of vegetables and fruits is greatly extended. The Anglo Normans came with a greater emphasis on foods from the field and garden: new technology, new varieties, more emphasis on the enclosed garden and new types of herbs and vegetables.
The Anglo Normans were to Ireland what the Romans were to Britain, they brought with them many of the vegetables and herbs that the Romans would have originally taken from the Mediterranean area and although some of those plants were brought across from Britain by the monks at an earlier stage, Ireland lagged behind Britain in having these plants as normal constituents of the garden.
The greatest vector of change and influence were the New Monastic Orders that came to Ireland from the early 12th century. The Monastic outlook which honoured God in work and prayer with an emphasis on work in the fields and their highly organized gardens of which there were many.
The range of vegetables must have expanded dramatically with the Elizabethans, they had been travelling the world and realized that there are very many more fruits and vegetables out there.
The Potato was introduced in the 16th century. As the 17th century progresses two things happen at both ends of the social spectrum: The potato of course and its relationship with the poor but the upper class garden there was more variety, more dishes. The 18th century saw the emergence of the classic walled garden. From these gardens there was a bewildering variety of produce, functional to feed the house but also to augment the reputation of the house in providing good and fashionable hospitality. This was particularly demonstrated in the expansive range of fruit. By the end of the 18th century, oranges, pineapples and melons were grown in the glasshouses of the wealthy.
The importance of the kitchen garden or cottage garden really comes to the fore after the famine. It was discovered during the famine that people who were starving were more prone to various diseases such as blindness and that was by vitamin deficiency in particular vitamin A. That is why one of the vegetables recommended to grow was the carrot. By the end of the 19th century, the Department of Agriculture employed instructors to visit various counties to give instruction on the construction of cottage gardens; they hired out demonstration pots and provided cheap seed for the labouring classes.
The real golden age of apple growing you might way was the 18th century when people had different apples for specific purposes. Kilkenny, Waterford and Cork were particularly good for apples and the soil in those areas was so suitable that many local varieties developed there.
The story of Irish Fruit and Vegetables far from being simple is a very complex one. It is also an area that has been directly shaped by settlers and foreign influences. In the past very often access to a wide variety of fruit and vegetables was clearly an indication of social status. From a contemporary perspective it is very encouraging to see a new interest in kitchen gardens and something of a willingness to explore the culinary heritage of the great Irish house.
We should also bear in mind that for a lot of the 18th and 19th centuries one sector of Irish society was confined to just one vegetable: the potato, with dire consequences.
From a contemporary perspective the old reliable like cabbage, potatoes and apples have still managed to retain a foothold in Irish food ways despite more recent food developments. Those food developments have turned up something very positive indeed; that is a great interest in a greater variety of fruit and vegetables. Also an emphasis on organic produce, pure fruits and vegetables: ones that have been selected specifically for their taste and flavour and of course that is what food should be all about!
The history of the potato in Ireland is one of sharp contrasts. Since its probable introduction in the 16th century the potato has been successfully integrated into a variety of culinary traditions: depending on time or place it was viewed as a luxury novelty or stigmatized as a badge of poverty.
It was maligned as a curse upon the rural poor bringing them to the great famine in the mid 19th century. At the same time it was relished in a variety of preparations we like to hold as traditional and on top of that it has given us regional dishes in the form of boxy and stumpy.
To date focus has tended to concentrate on the issue of the great famine and that tends to blur our view of the potato in the kitchen. Nonetheless it would be unwise not to revisit the famine and we will do so in this programme. We will also look at the potato in Ireland and in doing so will map it's culinary journey as it moves from garden to field and will assess the different values assigned to it in this process of wider integration.
The story of the potato in Ireland begins at Myrtle Grove in Youghal, Co. Cork; or does it really?? Legend suggests that Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the potato to Ireland in the late 1580's; it came from Virginia and he planted it on his estate lands in Munster. Now however appealing and succinct that legend is it hasn't really gone through critical analysis and a question mark does stand over Walter Raleigh and his connection with the introduction of the potato to Ireland.
Another suggestion is that the tuber could have come to the island after the destruction of the Spanish Armada when possibly the cooks' stores of potatoes were washed onto Cork/Kerry shores. Whatever the means of introduction the potato is certainly in Ireland by the 17th century.
It was soon discovered that the potato didn't need garden cultivation that it could grow in the fields and that the potato adapted well to lazy bed cultivation prevalent in Ireland so that through the 17th century you get this transition of the potato from being a gentry's crop into being a crop of the poor. The potato could thrive well in the wet environment of Ireland and became a subsistence crop, a winter crop.
It makes room for the great dairy products of the Cork area, butter and cheese to be released into the market so that they become commercial products. The emergence of the potato displaces an earlier diet tradition, which was based more on dairy products. It also facilitates the commercialization of Irish agriculture as an export industry in other areas particularly in the production of cereals.
By the 18th century the potato starts to dominate the diet of one sector of Irish society, the small poor farmers and the landless labourers.
Anything between 7 to 15 lbs was consumed per person per day, taken in two or three meals. Boiling over the open fire was the most common method of cooking, as there were no utensils. They were drained through a potato basket placed on possibly the upturned cooking pot and the family sat around and ate communally. They were eaten with their skins on or could be peeled by a special, long thumbnail, which people grew for the purpose. Depending on the resources available the rather bland potato was eaten with various dips; buttermilk, herring, herring water, shellfish and seaweeds.
The potato diet was nutritionally a very good diet; it gave the consumers plenty of calories and high quality protein and vitamin C. It would be mistake to think that the entire population were solely dependent on the potato. The population was around 8 million, 3 million poor. The rest had a varied diet. Food was being exported at this time. However for the poor, particularly the cotter and the landless labourer, the dangers of not only relying on one food but on one variety of potato (lumper) were mounting.
The Potato blight of 1845 made famine inevitable. On the 20th August 1845 the Curator of the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, David Moore noticed the first signs of the disease on the potatoes growing in the gardens. Moore suggested that the potatoes should be treated with bluestone. Despite Moore's work and experimentation people remained unconvinced.
The Potato crop in Ireland was totally destroyed the following year in 1846 and the winter of 1846-47 saw increased hardship, and starvation was widespread. Moore was first to observe and to warn of the reappearance of the blight in 1846 and '47, his warnings seem not to have been heeded. Yellow Meal was introduced to feed the starving.
As the Famine intensified various charitable groups opened soup kitchens, particularly that of the Society of Friends. The Government established the Soup Kitchen Act in 1847, distributing up to 3 million soup meals a day at its height. The taking of the soup sometimes gave rise to the stigma of souperism.
Souperism was a nickname for what was essentially prosletisation which was carried out by various evangelical protestants (the Society of Friends were the honourable exception) who offered the local Catholic population help in this time of distress sometimes in the form of soup, sometimes housing and sometimes employment. The idea was that by encouraging them to change religion to avail of help they would see the light and remain Protestants afterwards. In some cases this did happen. For those with the wherewithal to determine self-destiny emigration was the choice between life and death.
Despite the catastrophe of the Famine potatoes maintained a stronghold, however, their status was changing. Potatoes became less important in diets and diets became mote varied with more grain, including maize which remained quite popular until the end of the 19th century People ate more oats, more wheat, more white bread and then as incomes rise more tea and sugar and fatty American bacon. More and more food was being bought through shops particularly in the east of Ireland and in the towns.
In the 20th century Ireland gained a reputation for the development of new varieties of Potatoes. Floury potatoes remained popular for a whole range of dishes and the chip was introduced.
Although unassuming to look at the potato brought about catastrophic and irreversible changes to the social fabric of 19th century Ireland. It was also responsible for establishing an Irish Diaspora. As an ingredient it brought about major transformations in Irish food patterns and it also has left us with a problematic legacy in terms of our attitude to food.
But despite these complexities Ireland still maintains its relationship with the potato. In fact it is almost like a tempestuous love affair, we just have to have them and the potato does remain the anchor in many meals, in fact bringing a plate to the table without potatoes would be considered almost insulting.
Irish people have a strange attitude to fish. Why are Irish people a bit confused about fish and fish eating? Why isn't there a national fish dish?
Ireland is an island and therefore in a great position to exploit the fish of the North Atlantic. The country also has a labyrinth of internal waterways. A paradox, however, exists in the shape of Irish people's attitude to fish and fish eating. In coastal areas and on the islands there is a great enduring love for eating fish; inland however, the relationship gets a little bit strained.
Fish and shellfish represent some of Irelands oldest foods. They were to the fore in the Irish diet during the Mesolithic period, between 7,000 and 4,000 B.C., before the introduction of agriculture. People would go down to the rocky shore and pick limpets, periwinkles and whelks off the rocks. Shellfish were supplementary to the diet.
On coasts communities were both fishermen and farmers but after the introduction of agriculture around 4,000 B.C. new food options were introduced and the status of fish altered. Viking arrival in Ireland introduced a greater sophistication to sea fishing techniques, long boats, fishing nets and tackle. The words for Cod and Ling were borrowings from the Old Norse. Native Irish ate a more limited variety of fish particularly Salmon and Eels, which were taken from weirs with nets or spears.
The early medieval Irish were not too interested in fresh water fish. The Anglo Normans were great fish eaters and they imported new species. The earliest recorded import from England was the Pike.
Fish was obligatory during Lent and other meatless days. The less well off and those inland made do with salted fish. The more affluent with access to markets; new cooking styles and ingredients favoured by the Normans brought an opportunity to create elaborate fish dishes.
The fish that had a greater relationship with abstinence from meat is the herring. For a large part of Irelands history the herring was present in great nos. off both the East and West coasts.
Salmon was held on a par with meat, though it's status varied with time. Salmon was largely a seasonal dietary supplement although it could be cured and smoked. As a food resource it was most valuable in the pre-farming Mesolithic period. Salmon was an export item by the 14th century: cured in a brine and ideal for curing by smoking. The best way to eat wild salmon was to eat them fresh ideally cooked over an open fire. Salmon was regarded as the king of all fish.
The distinction between fish and meat dishes began to blur. Oysters and meat were cooked together, i.e. Oyster Pie. Areas of Dublin were famed for Oyster beds. They were pickled and used for sauces. Lobster was not widely eaten and Shellfish not held in high regard.
Fish not eaten by the poor during the famine. The people hit hardest by the potato famine did not have the resources to fish. They didn't have boats and fishing tackle. By the mid 19th century fish was a commodity; it was not caught to eat, it was caught to sell.
There is a great love for fish and shellfish on the coast and island communities of Ireland. With the emergence of a restaurant culture fish eating, elaborate, simple and dynamic fish dishes will become part of Irelands future.
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