Irish Food Surprises

Well, today this blog hits the big 40 (40 entries).  I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to all those who’ve encouraged, promoted, heckled, badgered, battered, belittled, and bemoaned this blog.  But most of all, I’d like to thank those who’ve cared enough about this topic to comment on and often correct what’s written here. 

Now, on to the “meat and taters” –

Dining in Ireland has been simultaneously fantastic, disastrous, and downright baffling.  Not that we’ve been here that long, but in the last half a dozen years the landscape of Irish dining has changed drastically.  The Celtic Tiger brought with it an influx of high-end bistros and artisanal purveyors. Irish palates dutifully followed along.  Then came the crash and many of those businesses folded.  Not so the palates.  About this same time, as fortunes waned, many people began to drink at home.  Pubs felt the crunch and responded with up-market changes that have included better wine cellars and dedicated dining rooms.  This upped the ante for restaurants and markets, who’ve fought gamely to remain competitive.  The result is that, on balance, Irish dining (in 2012) is quite good.  That said, as with all things in life, there have been some good and some not so good surprises on our table over the past year.

Pub Grub Redux
Having tucked into plates of fish and chips and bowls of coddle at Irish pubs back in the U.S., I was pleasantly surprised by the state of pub grub across Ireland.  While many pubs still only offer liquid sustenance, quite a few (and at least one in every town) will offer some kind of food.  Today, it’s not uncommon to find pubs offering a huge variety of dishes, early bird bargains, tasting courses, vegetarian options, and decent wine selections. The result is that a night at the pub need not be relegated to an experience just for the lads. Women and families are made to feel welcome these days.  This was not the case in the not-so-distant past.  And, I believe, this is one of Ireland’s biggest concessions to the downturn economy.  It’ll be interesting to see if this persists in better times, or if the pubs go back to being mostly for men.

For Meat Eaters
As I never really gave it much thought beforehand, it’s hard to say that the state of Irish meat was a “surprise”.  But suffice it to say that I’ve been duly impressed with most things carnivore on the Emerald Isle.

On the whole, Ireland’s best and most consistent meat seems to be the lamb.  I’ve found it to be flavorful, tender, juicy, and, well, the little buggers are everywhere, so it’s been reasonably priced.

The beef has, likewise, been much more lean and flavorful than I’d have expected.  As an American, I harbor a certain excess of pride in Midwestern cattle that I now know is unwarranted.  Irish beef has been flavorful, and, as a disabled (one-handed) steak cutter, mercifully tender.

Overall, the chops, loins, and other non-sausage pork products have been tender, easy to work with, and flavorful.  But, when it comes to Irish sausage, I have to say again (even knowing that I run the risk of an Irish fatwa for saying it), Irish sausage is pretty bland and taste-free stuff.   I know this was one of the original Five Things I Hate About Dublin.  And, yes, I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that: I’m wrong, I’ll get used to it, and I just don’t “understand” Irish sausage.  And, while I’ve grown to like Irish “bacon” (rashers), and do now get the appeal of that pork product, please bear with me as I reopen my can of whoop ass on Irish sausage.

To the apologists who’ve tried to tell me that Irish sausage is actually better than the American style sausage because it preferences actual meat over spices, I say, bushwah.  A conversation with your butcher, or even a casual glance at store packages, reveals that Irish sausages are jammed full of oats and other non-meat fillers.  It’s the taste they’ve grown accustomed to, and was more than likely a practical way to fill the casings when times (as they so often have been in Ireland) were tough. There’s no harm in that. I get it.  But don’t try to tell me Irish sausage (and I’ve tried plenty at this point) is better because it’s full of meaty goodness.

Okay, now we can invite the vegetarians back into the room.

Of Things Green & Over Packaged
One of the biggest surprises in Irish food culture has been the consistently high quality of the fruit and veg.  Granted we’ve had to get used to the fact that many of the tropical products come from North Africa, Spain, and the Mediterranean (and not Florida, California, and Central/South America), but beyond that, the variety and quality have been quite good.

Particular standouts have been Irish strawberries (mostly from Wexford), and Irish carrots (from God knows where).  As your faithful reporter, I’ve tried to pin down the source of these tasty morsels, but have failed.  If anyone out there knows whence cometh the Irish carrot (the source of the divine Irish carrot coriander soup), I’d appreciate your sharing it in the comments section.

And, while I generally don’t buy into the “organic is better” myth anymore (because companies like Wal-Mart are hard at work cornering the organic market these days), I have been surprised at the lack of organic choices in most grocery stores.

Perhaps it’s a certification issue, and most purveyors are in fact organic, but not certified.  But I find it odd that in a country so concerned about food safety that many products are double and triple packaged for our protection, and then proudly labeled as locally grown in Ireland, when scant effort is made to qualify the state of the growers or processing facilities.

Potatoes
And, finally, we come to the Irish potato myth.  Friends, I’m here to tell you that it’s no myth.  If you spend enough time in Ireland, you’ll be offered potatoes with your Thai food (or Chinese, or Indian, or Italian).  You’ll be offered potatoes as a side.  And when your plate is delivered, your main dish and side of potatoes will come with a whipped potato garnish, or one of the veggies in your “mixed vegetables” will be roasted potatoes.  It’s just the way of the world here.

Fortunately, these folks know how to work a spud.  The variety of Irish potatoes and the many ways they can be prepared is truly impressive.

Shortly after we arrived last summer, I overheard a flock of older women shoppers at my local supermarket.  They were raving about the arrival of “the queens”, and all the things they could/would do with them, and “Oh, my David just loves his queens”, etc.

‘This must be Gay Pride weekend’, thought I.

Pathetic? Yes. I was.  For that was before I discovered the wonder that is the British Queen Potato (and Irish Roosters, etc.).  And, as a parting thought, if you are ever offered potatoes roasted in duck fat: Run, don’t walk, to the table.

So, if you are thinking of visiting Ireland, but fear the food, I’m here to tell you the food alone is worth the trip.  And for anyone considering moving to another country, but afraid of what the change will do to your diet, I say that if you are bold enough to confront the other challenges of emigration, a year from now you will most  likely view figuring out the food supply as one of your many unexpected rewards for taking the risk.

Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
Comforts From Home
Looking Back On the First Year

About Glenn Kaufmann

I'm an American freelance writer, photographer, and web publisher. I specialize in writing about travel, food, arts, and culture. I also write dramatic scripts for stage and screen. I'm based in Ireland.
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23 Responses to Irish Food Surprises

  1. Cleverly done, friend. Question — as to the potatoes in duck fat, do you run TO them or FROM them?

  2. Pekin Ogan says:

    Great writin’ as always!! I could almost taste the food you wrote about. Keep on writin’ my friend!!

  3. lunamarina says:

    Hi Glen, thanks for the tasty posting. More reasons to visit Ireland say I! Btw two things for your consideration. 1) Maybe you need to get into the sausage business and revolutionize the market with well done, properly spiced pork sausage. You may become the next magnate in the sausage business. I think if you combine Irish sausage filling with the a nice selection of spices, some smoked paprika, or cumin or do I dare to suggest garam masala?, some magical may happen. Now, 2) what do you mean about running, not walking if offered potatoes roasted in duck fat? Did you mean running toward or away from those potatoes? I guess I am missing the joke somewhere in translation 🙂

    Anyway, keep the good work and reporting! Marisol

  4. C in DC says:

    When we lived in London in the mid-90s, it took us a while to adjust to the idea that one could get good pub food at lunch (and find it in most pubs) and soggy, overcooked pub food in only a few places for dinner. We eventually learned not to look for pub food for dinner. Fortunately, we lived around the corner from a most excellent fish and chips shop.

  5. How about a recipe for the carrot coriander soup. I’m already salivating…

  6. irelandwish says:

    I enjoyed your post, especially the part about potatoes. I learned quite a bit and laughed as well.

  7. Enda H says:

    Happy “40th”, Glen. Keep up the good work 🙂

    Carrots are grown everywhere in the country but, like strawberries, are mostly associated with County Wexford.

    The Irish Agricultural Research Board (Teagasc, pronounced “chag-usc”) has a geographical breakdown of vegetable production – they call it a Census! – at http://www.teagasc.ie/horticulture/advisory/vegetable/field_veg_census_2009.pdf

  8. Maya says:

    The produce available in Ireland is making me rethink what I want to make on the daily basis. More importantly, how do I incorporate these delicious local ingredients you mentioned. I’m loving Irish butter and cheeses too!

  9. Pingback: The Flavor Of Home | An American in Dublin

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  11. Potatoes basted in Duck Fat! YUMMMMM.

  12. Re sausages, you are correct that good sausage is not widely available here, but there are some quality providers

    O Flynn’s of the English Market in Cork, Their sausages are available in other outlets but not in Dublin as yet, and while they deliver, the extra cost makes that a non-runner. http://oflynnsgourmetsausages.ie/buy-gourmet-sausages/

    Pru and Simons sausages can be had in Dublin Spar outlets and the pepper and Thyme flavoured you might like. Pru and Simon Rudd are a mother and son team from Co. Offaly. The family originally started Rudd’s Sausages but they are no longer involved in that business, Pru and her husband David are themseves immigrants – they moved to Offaly back in the 70s from London and started a piggery. Prior to that David had worked in the advertising business so it was quite a change. After a few years they started to make their own meat products and Rudd’s sausage, pudding and rashers came on the market.

    My connection is that my dad’s general store in Toomevara, Co. Tipperary, was where the Rudd’s used to shop for hardware and the odd bottle of wine.

  13. Clodagh says:

    Regarding the point you made about sausages; I’m sure you’re sick of people telling you that you’re “wrong”, but, perhaps it’s because you’re living in Dublin.
    In my experience, the quality of country food compared to city food in Ireland is much higher. This may be in part owed to the fact that Irish meat suppliers (where I’m from anyway) mostly deal locally. The sausage that you are buying in Dublin, I assume is from a Dublin-based butchers. I have never bought sausages in Dublin so all I’m going on here is assumption. My theory is that whilst these are mostly Irish meats, perhaps they are different to their wholesome and tasty countryside contemporaries.

    If you have time for a trip some weekend, I advise you to journey south. Leave Dublin and go to Waterford and Cork, where you will find the most delectable pork meats. Personally, I can’t eat sausages from anywhere else except my local deli/butcher in Dungarvan, Co.Waterford.
    Having been to the states four times, it is safe to say that US sausages have nothing on Irish sausages – true Irish sausages anyway.
    While you are there, please do yourself the favour and visit the Cork Mart. I’m not sure when it convenes but there you will find dry spiced beef and lamb that you will never want to put down, if you will excuse the carnivorous image. It’s a pity that the Christmas Cork Mart is over but that’s Murphy’s Law.

    Perhaps it may seem ludicrous to you that Irish people went bananas over your “ass-whooping” of Irish sausages but I surmise that that is mostly because we never receive less than the highest of praise for our meats. They aren’t injected with hormones like some American and European meats and with spice or without spice, they are truly the tastiest, least-processed and most organic meats around. Though I’m sure Tesco would disagree after that horse and pig DNA fiasco!

    Regardless, don’t assume that you have tasted all there is to taste in Irish meat. You say that you have tasted Irish sausages over and over and that your opinion is solidly the same. Perhaps, my dear travel writer, this is due to your eating the same sausages over and over again. Every country is entitled to one or two bad batches of home-grown trophies!

    If I may continue and make this long comment even ridiculously longer, it is to say that you should visit the Waterford Festival of Food in August. In Dungarvan, local food suppliers of every vein from miles around convene in the streets to sell their wares and believe me, you won’t be disappointed.

    From,

    A faithful blog viewer

  14. Liz says:

    My husband and I will be visiting Ireland for the first time next month and I LOVED this post! Thank you for sharing! Any suggestions for American treats we can bring that arent found in Ireland?

    • HI Liz,

      YOu’ll love it here.

      Ireland, being sort of the 51st state has most things American. And the things we can’t get tend to be down to individual taste. For me it’s hot sauce and a particular type of dental floss. Go figure.

      So it’s kind of hard to plan ahead for those things. bu if there’s anything really unique you like/need. It pays to pack it just in case. Or you could look online at SuperValu and Tesco ( the big local stores) and see if they list your items.

      Hope that helps.

      -Glenn

  15. Just found your blog – really interesting read from an Irish person’s POV. I lived in the south and then in Dublin for almost a decade. It’s making me feel a bit sad and homesick actually!
    One thing though – who told you Irish women weren’t welcome in pubs? That’s a mid 20th century attitude that was well gone when the Celtic Tiger era rolled in.

    • Well, Drivel (may I call you Drivel),

      You’re right, that’s “mostly” gone now. But you’ll notice I wrote:

      “Women and families are made to feel welcome these days. This was not the case in the not-so-distant past.”

      That too is true. If you talk to publicans you’ll hear that one of the things that has draw women in is better food and an effort to take wine seriously. That came about because of the celtic Tiger. so before the mid to late 1990s, pubs were not so inviting.

      nd, frankly, even today, when there’s no stigma for women going into a pub, for many, it’s still not their preferred venue. Just because they “can” go doesn’t mean they feel welcome.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

      Cheers,
      GK

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