It’s that time of year again when all over the world there will be people dying everything they can get their hands on green. Others will be decorating anything that moves with a shamrock, while various statues and national monuments abroad will be lit brightly in a Halloween-ish hue. We, in the real Ireland, shall look on with great amusement and for our own efforts the business community will wash their vans and trucks, chuck a bit of bunting at them and drive them through the obligatory, usually wet, St Patrick’s Day parades in towns and villages all over the country. Why is it that people abroad ‘do’ our national day so much better than ourselves; it is a true paradox. They take it so much more seriously. They seem to respect it and celebrate it with a degree of enthusiasm that we just can’t seem to muster. It is nothing short of a phenomenon – there is no other little country in the world that gets such global recognition for its patron saint.
Because of the annual interest in Ireland around March it’s always interesting to look at some of the websites and magazines suggesting ‘Irish’ food and recipes to cook in honour of the big day. In a way it feels as if we have progressed and moved on to the current cosmopolitan (if broke) position while the sentimental view is largely unaltered. I looked at one website that reported us as huge soda bread eaters! This was certainly true of the past, but today you’re more likely to find focaccia bread, garlic loaf or a French stick in an average Irish kitchen. When did you last make soda bread, some brown scones or a porter cake? The meat section was equally mystifying. It suggested ‘common’ recipes for Dublin Coddle, Chicken Stroganoff pheasant and, of course, Irish Stew. Apart from a beef stew, I can’t remember when I last had any of the others. To be fair they got the full Irish breakfast bang on the money, complete with black and white pudding. It’s no wonder people are still visiting Ireland for the first time and are relatively surprised at our outward looking food landscape.
So what if we were to go back to our roots and revisit some of those favourites? I definitely think a loaf of soda bread would have to make it onto the list. I have very fond memories of visiting farms as a child and young adult where there would always be a slice on the go. If you were lucky you could hit it just as a fresh one was unwrapped from the clean tea towel. Light fruit cake loafs were also popular and in some places you even got a slice with an extra (if unnecessary) spread of country butter, though by far my favourite was a hot apple tart preferably without the cloves.
I was never a huge fan of what is commonly known as traditional Irish stew. All that mutton and potato that always had a sort of light beige-y colour never excited me. I prefer a rich brown beef stew and while I love the taste of lamb, a roast leg at this time of year is always to be favoured. However learning how to create a good stew gives you endless recipes. Change the liquid and general taste of the dish by adding red wine, or a good quality stout or ale (never, ever lager!). Put it in a pastry crust or add some suet dumplings. As stewing beef is also economical it is a great family dish and any leftovers freeze very well. Cook it as slow as you can to really get the best out of it. If you really want to try a traditional Irish stew, try using lamb chops as opposed to mutton and sweet, new baby vegetables. I think it gives a nicer overall look and taste to the dish. While bacon and cabbage is also synonomous with our little island and always great if cooked properly, try a ham joint instead. I love to see a nice glazed ham being cooked as I know I will enjoy it with a little Irish cheese in a sandwich later. If you are having people over for celebrations don’t forget that we have plenty of traditional Irish vegetables and cheeses that shouldn’t be overlooked. Leeks, cabbage, turnips and potatoes have great versatility and flavours that give that traditional Irish feel to many dishes and can also be used to make lovely soups as starters. Finish it all off with a traditional bread and butter pudding, with a jug of custard and it’s an Irish feast fit for St Patrick himself.
When I look back over this list you can’t help but be transported back to childhood. It also strikes me that it is all accessible food. Nothing is overly expensive and the common factors are simple, fresh, local and Irish. We have great, filling hearty recipes and while we sometimes tend to dismiss traditional dishes as ‘plain food’, we really should take another look. In the past perhaps that bland reputation had more to do with our cooks rather than the food! Today we have acres of resources, books, programmes, websites and apps telling us the best way to cook everything and anything; no excuses. Good Irish food is great at any time of the year. Take another look.
1-1½ kg neck or shoulder of lamb
Bouquet of parsley, thyme and bayleaf (tied together with twine)
3 large onions, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3-4 carrots, chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 leek, chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 small turnip, chopped into bite-sized pieces
Some small new potatoes, peeled and quartered, or large potatoes, peeled and chopped
75-100g cabbage, shredded
Finely chopped parsley and dash of Worcester Sauce
Remove the meat from the bone, trim off all the fat and cut into cubes. Keep the bones, place the meat in a pot, cover with cold salted water. Bring to the boil, drain and rinse the lamb.
In a fresh pot put the meat, bones, bouquet of herbs, onions, seasoning, carrots, leeks and turnip and cover with water. Simmer gently for one hour. Skim off the foam as it rises. (this is very important for the final flavour and appearance of the stew.) Add the potatoes and continue cooking for 25 minutes. For the last 5 minutes add in the cabbage. When the meat and vegetables are cooked remove the bones and bouquet of herbs. Stir in the chopped parsley and a dash of Worcester sauce.