A lazy fishing boat catches the eye on the approach to Roundstone village in Connemara in the west of Ireland. The road rises past the pier. Opposite is O’Dowd’s seafood bar. The doors that front the ocean blue facade are narrow and tight. A squeeze gets you in.
Inside, the rustic brown space is just as narrow. A wooden bar stretches along the wall. Shelves display optics, bottles in a row. Taps hang down above the counter.
In a corner two tourists are consumed by a sensual experience. Slowly they eat small pieces of succulent fish from a bowl of hearty soup.
This activity is replicated throughout the country. Seafood chowder is ubiquitous, regarded as an old traditional dish, strange considering that it didn’t exist until the 1970s.
Fish merchant Pat O’Connell in Cork’s English Market remembers it being made at their stall in the 1980s for a television programme.
It was a quick and simple dish to prepare, with one exception.
The base for the soup was a fish stock, usually made from shellfish and assorted bones and skin – an overnight job.
That stock was unique to the individual cook. The fish and vegetables were always seasonal. Shellfish were preferred in many pubs and restaurants. White fish were usual ingredients. Smoked fish gave chowder an unforgettable flavour. Seasonings included fruit, herbs, spices and vegetables.
Suddenly a modern Irish fish dish that was popular, always evolving with thousands of variations, astounded everyone who tasted it.
It went by the name of chowder but it was different to the American tradition, which used salt pork, potatoes and hard biscuits in the recipe.
American chowder originated in Newfoundland, gradually making its way south, where it became popular in New England, New York and New Orleans, where it morphed into a tomato soup with fish and vegetables, significantly different to the Atlantic version.
American historians trace chowder to the Bretons and their method of cooking fish and vegetables in large cauldrons, but admit that Basque, Icelandic and Irish fishermen were also known to frequent the seas around Newfoundland and trade with the native communities. Ideas on how to make good fish and vegetable stew made easy conversation.
Chaudrée comes from ‘cooking in a cauldron’ – the large iron pot used by fishermen along the north Atlantic fringe, chaudière in French. Chowder is the anglicisation of chaudière and possibly chaudumel, the name given to the earliest fish stews in Gaul. In France it is associated with the traditional food of the Vendée and Charente coast in the west but it is also a tradition in the Côte d’Opale in the north.
The classic chaudrée contained variations of the seafood known as the small fry – cuttlefish, eel, gurnet, skate, sole. It was generally made with garlic, onions, potatoes and white wine with butter, cream, milk, herbs and seasonings. While variations of this basic recipe have persisted, the modern chaudrée is just as likely to contain cockles and clams, such as the chaudrée of the Côte d’Opale, or haddock and plaice, such as the chaudrée of La Rochelle or combinations from brill, conger eel, gurnard, monkfish and turbot that make chaudrée charentaise such a sumptuous feast, closer to the fish soup of Brittany called cotriade, another influence on American chowder.
Success depends on the amount of time the fish pieces are cooked. If they are overcooked the flavour is destroyed.
This is a clue to its beginnings in Ireland.
Pheno O’Boyle joined the Irish Seafood board in 1969 and was immediately set to work researching and testing fish recipes. Her job was uncomplicated. Promote seafood.
She covered every corner of the country demonstrating recipes to home and pub cooks, and restaurant chefs. Chowder was her signature dish. ‘It was based on everything possible. Fresh local vegetables, onions, leeks, carrots, economical fish – smoked cod and pollack, rock salmon, sole and whiting, juices from the fish stock. Carrageen instead of flour thickened the chowder.’
Then Guinness realised that food would attract new customers into pubs. ‘They decided to push bar food. They put courses on, attracting the women of the pubs. They started competitions, the best seafood bar, the best chowder. The accent was on fresh ingredients.’
Coastal pubs like O’Dowd’s grasped the challenge and now chowder is the crowd puller. O’Boyle isn’t surprised. ‘Something that started in the 1970s is now traditional because we went everywhere.’
Irish seafood chowder compares with the best fish soups of the continent. O’Boyle’s only fear is that some chefs will forget that fresh, local ingredients and a stock made from fish bones are the secret to its success.