New look at Irish cuisine
Q. You’ve written books about Catalan cuisine and the cooking of the Riviera, among others. Ireland is not known for its food in the way Spain, France, and Italy are. Should it be?
A. The Irish themselves make as many jokes as anyone about Irish food. But historically, if you read the old legends and accounts of travelers and so forth, there was a very strong culture of food in Ireland. More recently, the Irish got largely divorced from their land, and the food culture faltered. When the economy went wild in Ireland 10 years or so ago — and now it’s gone in the other direction again, unfortunately — the Irish looked around and said, “We have all this really great stuff we grow and raise here and ship off to the English and French and everyone else, and we should take advantage of it ourselves.’’ That was the beginning of [a focus on] artisanal food. People started making cheese, smoking salmon, making sausages by hand, and curing meats. It went along with the invention of modern Irish cooking.
Q. What is the restaurant scene like now?
A. There are more and more good restaurants every time I go back to Ireland. There are a lot of chefs cooking with French influence or whatever else, but they are really cooking pretty simple food that lets the ingredients show through, which is the greatest strength of Irish cooking. The restaurant I always tell people I like best in Dublin is a place called Chapter One. The chef, Ross Lewis, is from Cork. He cooks very sophisticated food without being silly about it. He really showcases the best things he can buy in Ireland. He has started to have an influence on other people. Garrett Byrne, a chef who used to work for him, has gone off to where he comes from in Kilkenny and opened a restaurant [Campagne] doing similar things down there. Donegal, way in the north, is an area that was never known for restaurants, and all of a sudden there’s all kinds of interesting places there. Little by little, it’s going to happen all over the country. It’s very exciting to watch.
Q. What destination would you most recommend to a food-loving traveler visiting Ireland?
A. You have to go to Dublin, but beyond Dublin, I would say the city of Cork and the surrounding county of Cork. It’s in the south and the climate is a little warmer, so there’s more variety of things grown. Historically, it has a reputation for being rebellious and not fitting in with the rest of Ireland. One artisanal sausage maker told me, “We consider ourselves the California of Ireland.’’ It’s more innovative. County Cork produced the single most important figure in the modern revival of serious Irish food — Myrtle Allen of [restaurant and hotel] Ballymaloe House. And her daughter-in-law Darina Allen has the Ballymaloe Cookery School. Those two places are the center of what happened.
Q. Everyone in the United States makes corned beef for Saint Patrick’s Day. What else should we be cooking?
A. Corned beef and cabbage is not as much of an Irish-American invention as people think. They do it in Ireland. But the really, really traditional dish is bacon and cabbage. What the Irish call bacon is a big hunk of cured pork loin. You buy it as “boiling bacon’’ in this country. So you take this 3 1/2- to 4-pound boneless pork loin, which is really salty, and boil it for about an hour with aromatics. Then you bake it like a ham, with breadcrumbs and mustard, and serve it with cabbage and potatoes. It’s a very typical Irish meal.
Q. Does that require potatoes?
A. You almost can’t have a meal without them, breakfast included. Ireland is the only country I’ve ever been to where you go to the Chinese restaurant and they have French fries on the menu. One of the big surprises to me in researching this book is that you think the poor Irish, all they had to eat is potatoes, that’s not very healthy. But if you had to eat one vegetable in your life, the potato is probably the best you could choose. It’s very high in vitamins and minerals and dietary fiber. If they’d had to live on lettuce, they probably wouldn’t have been as healthy as they were.
Interview was condensed and edited. Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.