Pan-fried fresh mackerel and whole, boiled potatoes – the old favourite, when you can get it.
Mackerel are capricious. Fishers have always known this. From Dinish to Cape Clear and around to Garinish, mackerel have defined the lives of coastal communities for countless centuries.
Stephen Crane, an American writer who visited Cape Clear in the last years of the 1800s, described the life.
The mackerel, beautiful as fire-etched salvers, were passed to a long table. Each woman could clean a fish with two motions of the knife. Then the washers, men who stood over the troughs filled with running water from the brook, soused the fish …
… the fish were carried to a group of girls with knives, who made the cuts that enabled each fish to flatten out in the manner known of the breakfast table. “After the girls came the men and boys, who rubbed each fish thoroughly with great handfuls of coarse salt, whiter than snow, which shone in the daylight, diamond-like.
Last came the packers, drilled in the art of getting neither too few nor too many mackerel into a barrel, sprinkling constantly prodigal layers of brilliant salt.
In the early 1930s the mackerel disappeared completely. When they returned, the knowledge that had been passed down led the fishers to the fish.
‘The old fishermen always knew the best geographical points to go to to get the mackerel,’ says Mitey McNally, a Garinish fisher, recalling the days when they were plenty. ‘If they weren’t there you’d see the fowls in the water and you’d chase over towards them.’
The fishers used fixed nets anchored to stalls on the seabed at specific points up to 30 feet deep. When the mackerel moved they ran straight into these nets, the force of the fish lifting the nets out of the water.
‘It was a great sight in the morning at dawn when the fish would start to move,’ says Mitey. ‘We caught the fish with netting with a three inch mesh, which ensured all the small mackerel went though it so we caught only the prime fish, the big fine fat mackerel.’
An increasing demand for mackerel was soon met by people who wanted to make big money. Unlike the Garinish fishers whose livelihoods depended on the mackerel, entrepreneurs launched large factory ships and sent them in search of the mackerel in the open sea.
‘Two of these super trawlers would catch in one night what would keep a community as large as this whole parish going for the year,’ says Mitey.
The market for mackerel collapsed in the early 1980s.
These days the mackerel come and go and then when they arrive a few intrepid souls around the coast smoke them for local consumption. The days of salting mackerel are long gone. Canned mackerel was never an Irish thing, despite an attempt to get the people to buy it.
During the summer of 2015 Irish Fish Canners of Dungloe in western Donegal launched their smoked mackerel Irish Atlantic range and one of these days we will tell you their story.
In the meantime, if you can find some fresh mackerel and some good floury potatoes, this is the dish!
2 kg potatoes, whole
1.2 kg (8) mackerel, whole, gutted, filleted
80 g butter, for potatoes
80 g butter, for mackerel
Water, for potatoes
Boil potatoes in their skins. Coat the mackerel with butter and grill (on foil), about five minutes each side or pan-fry in butter with a splash of vegetable oil. Serve on warm plates, with a knob of butter on each potato.
Alternatively get hold of some of the Irish Atlantic peppered smoked mackerel in oil, and serve several cans with mashed potatoes.
Ackie Colgan of Ballintoy became the last fisherman of Carrick-a-Rede the day he took over from his uncle Alex McNeill in a boat that had seen better days. He was a young man in his mid-thirties. Fishing was in his blood. It was a natural progression, and it should have continued for another 1000 years, from one generation to the next. Instead in September 2002 the boat was winched up from the sea onto the shore of the rock-island for the last time.
For once the lament became a reality, Ackie Colgan was the last of his kind!
Suspended between ancient basalt, the rope-bridge across to Carrick-a-Rede was a practical solution to a pragmatic problem. The fishers of Ballintoy, the village below the headland, always knew the salmon returning to spawn in the Bush and Bann rivers ran past the rock-island. They just couldn’t get at them, until sometime around the 1750s when Alexander Stewart, the last in a two-hundred year line of colonial Stewarts on the north Antrim coast, provided the means. It is not known whether the fishermen liked the idea. The island was a dangerous place to fish from, in waters that were as treacherous as the times.
An iconic image within a generation of its appearances every spring and summer, hanging in the sky like an abrupt afterthought, the robe-bridge symbolised the romanticism of the causeway coast, attracting artists who produced paintings and sketches that idealised the reality. Thomas Mann Baynes’ 1831 faithful sketch shows the rope-bridge, the extent of the rocky island, the fishermen’s white-washed cottage and the fishermen out on the sea, their drift net cast behind their small boat.
Alexander ‘Ackie’ Colgan quit the fishery after a lifetime of drift net fishing when the authorities in Belfast decided that the declining Atlantic salmon needed a break. Salmon fishing at sea was banned.
Atlantic salmon stocks had gone into a dramatic decline the year after Ackie replaced his uncle Alex in the boat at Carrick-a-Rede. It was 1971. In the north of Ireland the catch fell by one-third from 180,000 tonnes. By the the end of the 1970s the catch was approximately 100,000 tonnes. In the early 1980s the catch peaked at 185,000 tonnes, and then began to fall gradually to below 20,000 tonnes in the early 2000s. The number of north Atlantic salmon at sea in the 1970s was around nine million. Now there are less than three million.
But this story is not really about salmon, it is about the people who fished the salmon and the people who stole land, did deals with the English crown, acquired the best land (and fishing areas) and began to rewrite history because they could not and did not want to understand the indigenous culture.
Greg Toner, professor with Irish and Celtic at Queen’s University in Belfast – writing in the gaelic language studies magazine Ainm, believes it was the first fishermen to use the rope-bridge in the 1750s who named the small rock-island. ‘The bridge must be as old as the name and so the name supports the claim in the Ordnance Survey memoirs that the erection of a rope-bridge on the island goes back to the eighteenth century. It also suggests that the fishermen who erected and used the bridge at this time were Irish-speaking.’
Ackie is not convinced. ‘I don’t believe there was a bridge there before 1750,’ he says. ‘All the rocks around here were named centuries ago … the popular name for it here was the rock of the road but a lot of people said that was not right at all.’
Another clue comes from a 1630 document, which listed the salmon fisheries from the Lagan to the Foyle. ‘There was a meeting at Carrickfergus in 1630 to value the salmon fisheries and Carrick-a-Rede wasn’t mentioned,’ says Ackie knowingly.
It is his assertion that Carrick-a-Rede was one of the last places to be fished. In the early 1600s fishers at Portstewart, Portrush, Portballintrae, Dunseverick, Port Braden, Port Moon, Larrybane, Ballycastle, Tor Head, Cushendun, Cushendall and Carnlough were granted licences to fish for salmon. ‘Larrybane was fished for a long time,’ he says.
Archibald Stewart, a descendant of James Stewart from the isle of Bute in western Scotland, was granted the district of Ballintoy by Randal MacDonnell, who had been given the title of the first Earl of Antrim. The grant included Sheep Island and all the other little islands around Ballintoy. MacDonnell kept for himself the salmon fishery of Portnalarabane (now Larrybane bay).
That was in 1625. Ackie is adamant that the little island that became known as Carrick-a-Rede would have had an Irish name, but there is nothing in the historical documents to indicate what it was. The tenants at that time were ‘Scotch’. The plantation of 1606, which robbed most of the original landowners of their property, left the area barren of native Irish speakers. Ackie believes this is one explanation why the names of the islands and sea rocks are unknown today, because there was no one to pass them down to the next generation.
Following the rebellion of 1641 and the consequent years of conflict, the Stewarts used their power and wealth to increase the Ballintoy estate. A century later, in 1742, it contained 3,505 acres and yielded a modest rent but the Stewarts were in trouble. Alexander Stewart inherited a debt-ridden estate and decided he needed to produce some wealth from the land, and the sea.
Among his first acts was to establish a salmon fishery beyond the rock that towered as high as the cliff edge, east of Ballintoy village. He followed this by building a quay and opening a colliery, attracting grants from the government. Then, inexplicably in 1759, he sold the entire estate to a solicitor in Belfast, who in turn sold it for £20,000 to Alexander Fullerton, a doctor who had made his money in the West Indies and wanted to return to the Antrim coast.
The Ordnance Survey of the 1830s noted that the rope-bridge was established between the mainland and the rock-island ‘around 1750’ but the name of the person who was responsible for this glorious act has been erased from the record. The fact that there was a name (probably an agent or foreman working on behalf of Alexander Stewart) is an indication that there is a record. That name has never been revealed.
Ackie remains nonplussed about the name of the rock-island and is less enamoured about its fame. John Morton, whose father worked the fishery and sold the salmon to John McCann and Sons in Manchester – shipping it from Larne, admits that the tourist numbers were increasing in the 1960s and 1970s. Like Ackie, he is bemused today by the tens of thousands who come to walk across the ‘new’ bridge.
Ackie laughs. ‘When it rained the bridge was heavy and slippery, a devil to cross.’
That last day in October 2002 was celebrated in a series of memorable photos by a local photographer, but Ackie remembers well his first day out at Carrick-a-Rede when he was seven and many days after when he was ’11 or 12’. It was the start of a romance. ‘I had been about Carrick-a-Rede, I helped out weekends, and I could have been at it from when I left school,’ he says. ‘I am forever Ballintoy, my grandfather fished, my uncle fished. My mother, McCoy, was in one of the three fishermans cottages, in those days there was cod and haddock as well as salmon.’
The ‘British’ National Trust bought the rock-island from Derek Fullerton around 1970. A contract was drawn up with the fishermen and the Fisheries Conservatory Board handed out a licence. Ackie knew his place in this arrangement.
‘The fishermen did what they were told. You could not catch a salmon, you could have ended up in gaol. My grandfather, he was a fisherman all my life, my mother’s grandfather, and the salmon would have been jumping thick and they not have dared catch one. They would have been arrested. The landed gentry controlled it, they claimed the rights to fish. There were a lot of places you could get salmon a lot easier than Carrick-a-Rede but you could catch more salmon at Carrick-a-Rede. It was about exploitation. Carrick-a-Rede is a difficult place to fish, it was a difficult place to get into a boat and get out of a boat. Nowadays you would not be allowed to fish like that.’
The sale of Carrick-a-Rede angered some of the local people, who could not understand why Fullerton had sold out. Ackie has his own thoughts, which for now must remain with him, but one day the truth will out.
The irony of the sale to the National Trust is not lost on the people of Ballintoy. They made the rope-bridge with their own hands, erecting it in the spring and dismantling it in the autumn, they made the fishery with their sweat and they created the story. And they probably gave the rock-island its iconic name.
And they have good cause to celebrate the life of a man who will always be known as ‘the last fisherman of Carrick-a-Rede’.
Spare a thought any summertime soon – as you savour your steak and mash with battered onion rings – for young parents with hungry children, and not a mouthwatering burger or delicious nugget or succulent meatball in sight.
It is a relatively common scenario. The parents, after a long day doing nothing, want a drink in a pub that has an all-day bar menu. Their chosen pub looks promising. There is bacon and cabbage, ham and parsley sauce, fish and chips, stuffed roast pork, lamb shank, Irish stew, roast chicken, beef and Guinness stew, lasagne, stir-fry … with boiled, chipped or mashed potato, and, increasingly ubiquitous these days, the inevitable bowl of chowder with brown soda bread. And that old favourite sirloin steak is available in various sizes.
What is missing is a genuine children’s menu, and what is available is generally a scaled down version of the comfort food that is now part of modern eating. Fried and grilled food dominate the culinary landscape, whether it is an up market pub-restaurant in the centre of town or an all-purpose filling station on the edge of the village. This Americanisation of food looks appealing and is hardly healthy, but given that the world now loves an Irish fry-up for breakfast we cannot complain.
Especially as a slow wind of change is coming, and is being seen in pubs all over the country.
Despite appearances more pubs are chain-owned, and like to give tourists the impression that they are family-owned. Locals know better. In the kitchen these places are hot-houses for the chefs and cooks without a moment to spare in the madness of the school holiday season. Fast food, no matter the circumstances, is never good food, but it is expedient.
Bar food has been with us now for almost 30 years. Before 1990 you would have been thrown out of a city pub for daring to ask for a cup of tea and a sandwich. ‘This is a pub, we sell Guinness and whiskey,’ was the infamous comment made by a Dublin publican to a hungry tourist one afternoon after holy hour. ‘The shop on the corner sells crisps!’
We have come a long way since then, since burger vans on the side of the road and the emerging fast-food culture of chips with everything. Never mind fish on a Friday, what about food on a Sunday?
The Kellys of Tyrone were among the first publicans to realise that bar food was the coming new thing. At their Lobster Pot pub-restaurant in Burtonport, they are once again the future of Irish traditional food – a curious mix of the old favourites, a hint of Americana, fresh local produce and that delicate balance between fast food and slow food – all embodied by a desire to serve good food, fish in particular.
Their signature dish is a giant platter of seafood including shellfish in the shape of crab, lobster and prawn meat decoratively arranged with little gems of delight hidden among the fish. One of these gems is the peppered smoked mackerel from Irish Atlantic, the fish canners up the road in Dungloe.
Before the ban of the fishing of salmon at sea, the Burtonport fleet landed more salmon than any port in Europe. Now a few fishers catch crab and lobster, which go on the menu in the bar now run by Tim Bechtold of Minnesota, who fronts, and Anne Kelly, who cooks, delivering some of the best fish dishes in the country. These include the emerging trend – surf and turf using fresh, local beef and fish.
The Lobster Pot menu is always evolving, and by serving lobster it lives up to its name, but it offers something else – excellent, perfectly cooked seafood and a range of dishes that embrace traditional Irish, genuine Americana and modern European trends – appealing to children as well as adults.
Hidden away in west Donegal, this is a pub that thrives on the tourist trade during the high season and relies on the local trade during dark, cold nights in winter. It is either a feast or a famine for them – the great dilemma. Full to the brim in summer, empty in winter.
‘In the high season if a family with hungry children comes in we tell them they may have to wait for an hour,’ says Tim Bechtold. ‘Everyone comes in at half seven and expects to be served quickly.’
A refrain known to all who have served in a gastro pub, a problem that exists the world over and a frequent complaint on the on-line message boards. ‘Food was great, took too long to come and was cold.’
If seafood chowder was the next big thing throughout 1990s and 2000s, remaining popular, surf and turf or sink and swim is the latest version. It has an American influence, large portions and to the Irish palate an unusual combination, steak and lobster with assorted fish.
Gastro pubs offering a menu filled with beef dishes and fish dishes have been proliferating in recent years. The emphasis is on freshness and quality. Mannings Emporium in Ballylickey in west Cork always offered a sandwich of cheese and salami, and a glass of wine. Now, with a new generation in charge, they have expanded to offer the passing tourist a taste of Ireland.
Their meatballs, made with beef from mature cattle reared on the Beara Peninsula, are probably the best in Ireland. Mouthwatering and succulent, they are an example of what can be served as food in the fast lane of the tourist highway.
Beef, usually from Angus or Hereford cattle, has never lived up to its expectation because it is killed too early. Chefs with a discerning palate realised a long time ago that the best beef comes from cattle that have been allowed to live a little longer.
But back to the chowder, because it is now starting to lose its charm. ‘I wonder,’ says Anne Addicott, co-author of Hibernia | Food Adventures in Ireland, ‘do they buy it ready made?’
This is a pertinent question. She has been on a chowder quest as part of her research for many years and has come to realise that the best chowder is made simply – a strong fish stock, a potato base and chunks of smoked and unsmoked fish added to the hot soup just before serving.
Without question the best seafood chowder is served in Aherne’s of Youghal in east Cork and in O’Dowds of Roundstone in west Galway, with the chowder served in the Fisherman’s Catch at the pier in Clogherhead in Louth a close rival.
Unfortunately, despite the All-Ireland Chowder Championship (which sought to celebrate the quality of this modern traditional dish), the majority of chowder served in gastro pubs and pub-restaurants is made with frozen fillets of smoked fish, farmed salmon and stock not worthy of the name. It is one thing to serve a chowder at a championship play-off and another to serve it to customers who think they are tasting the real thing.
Cheese, chowder and comfort food would make a great name for a food book, but it should not make the basis for a menu, when there are so many people with dietary requirements, children who need healthy food and the discerning who want nothing more than a tasty meal made with fresh, preferably local ingredients.
While pork is still seen as a breakfast product, there has been a general trend to serve stuffed roast pork as a lunchtime dinner, especially in rural pub-restaurants. And this brings us to a question about meatballs, which have never been a traditional Irish dish.
From one end of Europe to the other meatballs feature as national dishes, made with a combination of beef and pork. Meatballs made exclusively with beef rarely feature, making the Ballylickey meatballs a very special product.
Why do our gastro pubs ignore the fact that children in continental Europe consume huge qualities of meatballs served in an aromatic or sweet tomato sauce? Even the Italians, who are not big meatball eaters, serve them to their young ones.
Several years ago Perry Share in Sligo commented on the emergence of the ‘jumbo breakfast roll’ – rashers, sausages, black and white pudding, fried egg, cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes. He described it as a food event ‘that can be placed at the intersection of numerous vectors that criss-cross contemporary Irish society’ and cited the modern convenience store and garage forecourt, which provide hot deli products.
‘Made within the context of a food culture that apparently pays little store by ‘traditional’ notions of when and where or what it is appropriate to eat,’ Perry noted that ‘we have a fluid approach that tends to equate “food” with “fuel” – so it is doubly appropriate that so much of our food is now purchased at outlets that can offer both (and Lotto too!).’
It appears that we no longer have a traditional food culture, if the menus in our pub-restaurants are symptomatic of a trend, and it would be a shame if the ‘convenience culture’ infiltrated the thinking of publicans who offer food to tourists and travellers.
The country is alive with food products yet the majority of our food is imported (we export fresh fish and import frozen fish). The people who make up pub-restaurant menus seem not to consider the type of customer, yet try to be all things to all people, young and old.
The pub-restaurant should be a window into the world of traditional Irish food products, for natives and tourists alike. But we must not forget, especially during the summer months, that children need to be fed and they deserve better than the choice they are being offered now – and not just to keep the parents sane.
It started more than a generation ago in places like Danaghers in Cong, The Dubliner in Dublin, O’Dowds in Roundstone, in numerous cafes and restaurants in Belfast, Cork and Dublin, and in rural areas where there was a demand for a hearty mid-day meal.
Full and plenty only told part of the story. Locals knew where to go to get a mighty feed. It was the tourists and travellers who decided there was nowhere to eat. If asked, “where can I get good traditional Irish food?” the response was enigmatic.
People knew who employed crazy cooks and competent chefs in their premises and as the 1980s descended into drudgery the very idea that Irish society knew how to cater for discerning tastes was left hanging in the air, under sodden skies and soft rain, always more reliable.
And that was the issue. The plates of food served in places that represented the trade were hit and miss, the quality unreliable, the taste insipid. There was nothing organoleptic about the experience.
The majority of people could not afford to eat in hotels, especially in the big houses with their arrogant manners and holier-than-thou attitudes. Occasionally the word got out that a particular hotel had found a great young chef, and forays were made to check out the assertion. Usually it was hyperbole.
It is hard to believe today that the majority of food available in cafes, hotels and restaurants during the 1960s, 70s and early 80s was usually inedible. It was terrible, and the terror did not end there. The emergence of fast-food out-lets in the cities and larger towns depressed those who could see no bright culinary horizons. Comfort food it might have been, rich in minerals and vitamins it was not. Generally it was fatty and starchy.
Food historians, restaurant critics, time-served chefs and zany cooks have blamed everyone and everything for this sad scenario, from bad teachers to lazy proprietors to idiotic government regulations to the second coming, without getting to the root of the problem.
Throughout history the produce of this land has been exported. And with a ruling class disinterested in anything other than their own pathetic, outdated beliefs and traditions, the plain people of the country were never given a chance to develop an indigenous food culture that reflected the geography and landscape, a way of living that had not changed that much over the generations.
Black pudding, one of Europe’s oldest recipes, accompanied bacon and eggs in one form or another for breakfast, the bookies sandwich – steak pressed into two pieces of bread – went with the dispossessed and is now a traditional dish of the Americas, the capricious mackerel of the west and south-west were fished off-shore and served pan-fried anytime of the day, clams, cockles, mussels, oysters and scallops were consumed according to availability and fashion, the fruit cake was boiled long before it was baked, hams were baked and boiled (and hardly ever cured), langoustines (and crawfish) were no longer cooked on the boat (a tradition lost throughout the world, not only in Ireland), liver from various animals was cooked with onions (a tradition that has remained sacrosanct in Venice and the Po Delta in Italy, and in several other places), meat and potato stew with mutton rather than beef was always popular (reinvented in northern England as meat and potato pies), oatmeal found its way into numerous preparations (just as it has done in every food culture dependent on grains for sustenance), potatoes with buttermilk or kale were preferred to potatoes in their skins or potatoes made into cakes, raw-milk cheeses continued a culinary line back to antiquity, sea vegetables like carrageen, dulse and kelp played a big role in baking and cooking, scallions and leeks also spiced up mashed potatoes, but were also essential ingredients in soups, and soda bread! It remains iconic.
Most of all it was fleshy fish – haddock, hake, herring, mackerel, salmon, sole, trout – that defined the food culture until all of it became a commodity and a luxury.
Wild forager food, from berries to mushrooms, always supplemented the diet.
Somewhere along the time-line the tradition of air-cured and air-dried products was lost, while pickled, salted and smoked foods gained prominence.
Most of what existed in the ancient food culture of Ireland began to disappear 800 years ago and what has remained is now contaminated by big house traditions and the remnants of Anglo-Norman, English, French, Norman, Polish and Saxon influences.
It is easy to say now that, at the same time the stories of legend were being written down, someone should have thought about the oral food tradition, and recorded the habit of passing recipes from mother to daughter. Now the recipes we use are hardly indigenous and native. The arrival of the potato, the change from sheeps to lambs, the gradual giveaway of the Atlantic, Celtic and Irish sea fisheries and the mass migrations changed all that.
Colonisation is not unique to Ireland, but the loss of our food culture is. All the post-Yugoslav and post-Soviet countries and regions have in less than one generation reclaimed their food cultures.
That we started to reclaim ours around the same time means nothing today.
Bord Bia and the new bourgeoise who think they control the pulse of culinary life in modern Ireland will argue that their farmers and street markets, food festivals and tastes events suggest a different reality. They will point to the number of food artisans, gastro-pubs, specialist food shops, themed restaurants and the improvement in the standard of cooking, the quality and skill displayed by chefs who have earnestly learned their trade.
As any of those chefs will tell you working a shift in a busy hotel or restaurant is tough. Good chefs, who know exactly what they are doing, are still thin on the ground. The best ones are coveted, and the really good ones emigrate.
And those who know what they are doing all repeat the same mantra. Ireland has no indigenous food culture, and is a million light years away from the type of new cuisine being practised across continental Europe, where everything must be fresh and local.
Of course these days much of the blame for this is laid at the executive offices of the supermarket chains. Although Supervalu has attempted to introduce local products into its stores, the foreigners we know as Aldi, Lidl and Tesco dominate and control the market, importing vast amounts of produce to the detriment of the home-produced varieties. Sadly local produce always costs more than the imported brands.
It might be argued that this is all we can expect from a free market economy, and that any food industry whether large or small, foreign or native, must compete. Strange that this does not happen in continental Europe, where European Union and non-EU countries have embraced both the concept and the reality of the need to have a strong traditional food culture in every region.
This year saw a very successful Tastes of Donegal event at the same time a similar event for Galway failed to get off the ground, despite the fact that next year Galway will be one of Europe’s gastronomic regions.
To a magician it is all smoke and mirrors, perspectives and unrealities. To those who care about Ireland’s nascent indigenous food culture, never mind its food sovereignty, the reality is pitiful and the future is written.
It is a far cry from the days when The Dubliner opened a lunch-time kitchen to serve bowls of coddle to people who remembered it from their childhood, when Danaghers served large chicken dinners to starving bachelor farmers and hungry young sport heroes and O’Dowds realised that their traditional fish dishes were the talk of the town (and much of the world beyond).
In the 1960s Maura Laverty was cajoling home cooks to take seriously the art of food preparation, baking and cooking. She was ahead of her time, because she recognised what north European and west Asian food cultures have always known – breads (and cakes) are the staff of life.
In her Full and Plenty cookbook she announced that bread-making was her culinary credo. ‘Soda bread is the traditional bread of Ireland,’ she claimed and went on to explain why yeast bakery would take its place. The few bakeries left that still make soda breads of various types are endangered. Factory-made supermarket breads predominate, despite attempts by some bakers to keep old traditions, Irish and other, going. Bakers making breads with sourdough are also few and far between.
She also said that ‘good ingredients are more readily available in Ireland than any other country in the world’. A generation later, those who realised this had begun to change, attempted to revive all that was traditional about the indigenous produce of Ireland. Here we are today, two generations later, and it is hard to see where another food revolution is going to come from.
Not now that you can get a mighty feed of roast meat, chipped or mashed potatoes, sauce and vegetables in almost every pub. Hardly traditional, just full and plenty!
The stone cottage shrouded in greenery at the end of the lonely boreen is picture postcard perfect. Rain drops fall reluctantly from the trees, caught by the rays of sunlight that suddenly appear in the aftermath of another thunder shower. Emerging out of a grassy wall, a woman weeding the verge indicates the modern building behind a white van. ‘Silke is in there,’ she says in a guttral accent.
There is nothing incongruous about this setting in rural Cavan, a few kilometres from the border with Fermanagh. Artisan Ireland requires the European Union stamp of approval and just to prove this point, cheese-maker Silke Cropp explains that an inspector from the department is arriving to take away some cheeses for testing.
Thirty years ago when she started making cheese with the suplus milk from her goats, the state was ambivalent towards cheese-making. There were no specific regulations and no suited visitors, just passing tourists keen to have a unique taste of Ireland.
During the blistering hot summer of 1995 the Sheridan brothers Kevin and Seamus sold Irish cheeses in Galway’s St Nicholas Market on Churchyard Street, not expecting their little venture to last. Two years later they moved off the street into an adjacent shop.
‘There were all these fantastic cheese-makers who had invented their own cheeses,’ says Kevin Sheridan, ‘and we were thinking, are we at a peak, as these people retire are we going to be left with none?’
Now, almost twenty years later Sheridans Cheesemongers operate in Dublin, Galway, Meath and Waterford, and distribute abroad. Far from the nascent industry dying, it came alive. Quality was the key, and the fact that it was hand-made.
Cheese is the traditional food of country living, the way it has always been going back thousands of years to the last ice age.
In the 1950s artisan production in Europe was back in the ascendancy, and cheese, followed by sausages and salamis, breads and pastries, jams and sauces, led the way.
When the Sheridans were selling cheese in the late-1990s a third wave of Irish cheese-makers were beginning to make reputations for themselves, and the second wave, cheese-lovers like Silke Cropp, were established and getting rave reviews. The first wave in the 1970s were already cheese legends, but times were changing.
‘The road to market was the biggest problem,’ Silke Cropp says of the days when transport was painstakingly slow and couriers were city-based. ‘I thought about exporting to Germany but that was too expensive, it only started to work when I joined the food coop in Dublin in 1989 and travelled in our old Morris Minor, getting up at four in the morning, it was a long day.’
Her children got involved, daughter Tina setting up her own stall in the new Temple Bar market in Dublin when she was 15. They sold cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s mature cheeses made with raw milk and vegetarian rennet. At the food coop their cheese appealed to vegetarians who shunned animal rennet made cheese.
‘I felt that I needed direct customers if I wanted to make any money at all, and that hasn’t changed, we sell to restaurants and shops, and still attend the markets. My son Tom goes to Bray and I go to Dublin.’
Ireland’s food artisans are like wandering minstrels, all members of a like-minded troupe without protection to keep the wolves from the door. The wolves in this instance being high running costs, time-consuming bureaucracy, inadequate or costly markets, and no funds for marketing strategies and promotional devices.
Yet the Department of Agriculture, Bord Bia and Teagasc love the idea of artisan producers so much they have included them in Food Harvest 2020 – a ‘smart, green’ programme designed to take Irish food out into the big world and secure jobs.
Bord Bia has been given the task to secure more shelf space for artisan and small producers while the good bureaucrats in Dublin insist that ‘small producers are benefiting from local sourcing policies from the major supermarkets and convenience groups’.
The key to this ‘valuable transition from market and independent sales into multiple retail’ is the capability of small companies to grow and expand into larger companies.
For Silke Cropp the idea of running a small factory defeats the object of artisan production. That and the cost of expansion, not easy when cash flow is paramount.
‘We tried to sell to SuperValu in Cavan, Clones and Ballinamore, their paying policy of 90 days doesn’t work for us.’
Neither does the Artisan Food Market at Bloom run by Bord Bia. It might provide a platform for marketing, promotion and sales and reach over 110,000 consumers, but it requires a cash outlay the Cropps cannot afford.
The authors of Food Harvest 2020 appear to have missed the point about artisan food production.
‘We are an endangered species,’ says Silke Cropp. ‘The artisan is always going to be quite a small producer. Artisan to me means hand-made using raw and first class quality ingredients, putting expensive stuff together to make something as best as you can, that people will talk about as something fabulous you can only get in Cavan or Kerry or Waterford.’
‘Quality is such an obvious thing,’ says Kevin Sheridan in his role as chair of the Taste Council, a Bord Bia initiative. ‘It brings the producer and the customer together in a unique way, especially when people are able to taste the product.
‘One of the first things I organised with the Taste Council was an organoleptic seminar for Irish cheese-makers. We got them together to talk about taste, nobody else was talking about the quality of taste.’
This, he says, is because we do not value our food. ‘We are told we must buy food cheaper, we go for the cheapest food and this is not replicated in other sectors.
‘Our food culture is of utmost importance economically, socially, culturally, so let’s get a coordinated approach to look at it, to grow it. That’s how seriously it needs to be taken because it benefits every area, employment, rural development, tourism, health, the landscape, our environment, it is so important on every level.
‘Somebody needs to say, hold on. If you take Food Harvest 2020 to its conclusion, with its one vision mindset of Irish agriculure and an economic model focused on commodity export, you’ll have twenty landowners owning the whole of Ireland with mass food production … ‘
Aldi, Lidl and Tesco have been actively promoting Irish produce but seem unable to know how to sell artisanal foods.
It is not unusual to see it languishing on the reduced shelf.
The Bord Bia Quality Assurance Scheme with its Origin Ireland logo made little difference, not surprising when imported produce cost less.
When Irish artisanal cheese costs around €30 a kilo only a cheese connoisseur will appreciate the effort to get it into the supermarkets. According to Kevin Sherdian this is a crucial problem. Irish people in general are not being educated to appreciate food of quality, and do not recognise it when they see it. Saying it is Irish and home-made is not enough.
Despite their perceived loyalty to Irish produce, supermarkets are not interested in artisan and small-scale produce. ‘There is no benefit to them selling branded products,’ he says. ‘The only reason they do is to control the supply chain.’
The hand-made, small-scale nature of artisan food production works for and against the consumer. The relatively high cost of artisan cheese compares unfavourably with the mass-produced hard and soft pasteurised cheeses found on supermarket shelves.
The real difference is quality, as anyone who buys continental European artisan and specialist cheeses knows. Another difference is state support and cooperative collectivity. It does not come with caveats about growth and expansion.
In Switzerland 58 dairies of various sizes make the semi-hard raw milk Appenzeller cheese. They benefit from a collective distribution and marketing vehicle appenzeller.ch that sells and promotes the cheese and gives them an adequate livelihood. On top of that Switzerland Cheese Marketing, a state board, targets foreign markets through vigorous promotions, including specialist media trips.
Silke Crupp asks whether artisan food producers should be thought of as artists and be awarded tax exemptions. ‘Artists work tax-free and as a person who doesn’t really make money as such I think the artisan producer should be protected in much the same way to be relaxed to do what we do best because we do something for the image of Ireland … ‘
She knows it will take much more. Thirty years in the business has taught her that.
Critics of Food Harvest 2020 and the direction big business is taking Irish food production are few and far between, and Kevin Sheridan wonders what can be done to raise the profile of genuine small-scale production.
‘There is a big fault in this rush to grow,’ he says. ‘We need diversity but instead of trying to make one cheese company ten times bigger, we need ten cheese companies. By its nature small food production is labour intensive and therefore creates more jobs.’
This is obvious in countries like Italy and Switzerland, he says. ‘Countries with strong food cultures value local products because they see it as who they are so there is room for quality produce.
‘To shape our food culture without the supermarkets is not impossible but it can’t be done without them. The biggest problem is not innovation, it is route to market and you need to create demand.’
When distributors want to impose high mark-ups and supermarkets prefer to pay after 90 days, direct selling online and via market stalls relies on reputation, which in turn is influenced by image.
‘There is still a view of farmhouse cheese-makers as being backward,’ says Kevin Sheridan about Irish food policy since the mid-1990s. ‘Raw milk cheese is seen as regressive and not super hygenic.’
Which is an illogical argument when raw milk cheese is as common as grass in continental Europe. ‘It’s not about logic,’ he says. ‘If you look at what has damaged the European food industry over the past ten years the root cause has been mass food production, not small food production.’
Food Harvest 2020 see a small role for artisan food but it is obvious to Sheridan that nothing will happen unless the small producers take the initiative themselves.
‘Probably the hardest people to get to work together unfortunately are the food artisans because they are so individualistic, but it is also hard to see how they could do it on their own.
‘Certainly small coops have to be part of the potential for the growth of this industry, there is plenty of room for development. The food community need to come together because we are looking at only one model for food production.’
Advocates of artisan production agree that a visual infrastructure needs to be built – with advertising, road and street signs, and maps indicating where the food producers, food fairs and markets, food tours and food demonstrations are to be found – allied to promotional campaigns that put artisan food firmly in the public eye.
Easier said than done.
Nevertheless the state is worried about the use of the term ‘artisan’.
‘For small businesses in particular, such terms are a means of communicating the genuine differences between the foods they offer and mainstream commercial foodstuffs.
‘Marketing terms are designed to resonate with consumers. However, when marketing terms are used incorrectly they have the potential to mislead.’
Maybe that is the answer. Send the food harvest abroad and keep the artisan harvest at home, and make sure that large producers and chain retailers know the difference.
You can’t mistake Silke Cropp’s unique cheese as anything but artisanal, it’s as pretty as her idyllic setting in rural Cavan.
First published under a different title in July 2014
Imagine yourself on the road from Clonbur village, travelling south, en route to Cornamona and the Maam Valley in the heart of Connemara, county Galway. If you are a native you will know this road intimately, you will know in your mind what you will see at the sharp bend. Here your eyes will feast on the wondrous vista of Lough Corrib with its tree covered islands. Here you will enter a scene from a celtic vision, a shimmering waterscape with mystical revelations and ecological values, a natural beauty. Here you will reflect. Everything is not what it seems.
You are going out to come back. Your destination is Maam Bridge where the Bealnabrack River is about to be joined by the Failmore River as the flood waters of the Beanna Beola continue their journey to the sea through the lough of Corrib. Here at Maam Bridge you will begin your float around to Cornamona where the lough laps a rocky shore with a forgetfulness that is difficult to fathom, continue past the promontory that ends with the island of Doorus, move through the channel between Inishdoorus and Inchagoill, past small islands of wilderness to the pier at the bridge into Ashford Castle.
You have momentarily crossed the county border into Mayo and now you are going to take a short walk into the village of Cong, where you will meet Tony Waldron at the junction of the dry canal bridge in the townland of Drumsheel above McGrath’s vast limestone quarry where Galway and Mayo draw a line between each other. There was a time when you could have walked the dry canal that linked Lough Corrib and Lough Mask. Today we are going by road, a torturous route along back roads that will bring us to a vista at the south-eastern edge of the Mask, Tony Waldron promised would surpass the view of the Corrib.
Tony Waldron was born in 1937 across the north Galway county border in Claremorris in south Mayo. His father, like many of his contemporaries, fished the western lakes during the fishing season in the war years between 1939 and 1945 when petrol was scare and rationing was in place. They would set off on bicycles, cycling the 15 miles to Caher Bay via Ballinrobe. When they got to Caher Bay they hired boats because they didn’t have boats of their own. They’d fish all day, come back into Ballinrobe in the evening, have a few pints in Luke Higgins’ pub and cycle back to Claremorris. In 1947 when he was ten Tony’s father told him he was old enough to learn how to fish.
‘I was all excited. We drifted out from Caher Bay and the first fish I ever actually rose in the lake I missed. It was a place out from Caher called Taylor Rock. We fished all day. When it was time to go in, Dad said to me, “how many fish?” I opened the linen bag containing the fish and we had 12 brown trout. He said, “let’s make it a baker’s dozen.” I said, I know where I missed a fish when we went out. And I rose a fish. Now it may not have been the same fish. We pulled into Caher and we had 13 trout. We came back in the evening around seven o’clock. That was one day’s fishing. Fishing in those years was no hassle. If people wanted fish they were got. My job on a Monday morning after a day’s fishing was bringing fish around to all the neighbours. They were also sent to relations in Dublin. Today they talk about modern transportation and getting things fast tracked. But the number of fish I brought to Claremorris station as a young lad to send off on the train was very simply done. The fish we caught on a Sunday we’d have them back in Claremorris on a Sunday evening. We would pull up somewhere along the road on the way back to Claremorris and I would have to go in and pull a bundle of rushes. When we got back to Claremorris we went out into the back kitchen where it was cool and placed the fish on plates with the rushes. The following morning the first thing we did was get the fish ready for relations in Dublin. They were simply wrapped in a layer of rushes from head to tail and bound with twine. A label was put on them. My job was to get them down to the train and then go to the post office and my father would have the telegram wording made out.’
In the late 1950s this rite of passage ended for the young Waldron when he left home, for Dublin, then England. He was away for five years. He came home in 1962. The father told him he was delighted to have him back. They went fishing. ‘It was like the first day I had ever fished with him, when I was ten. The beauty of the lakes only really came home to me then – what really was there. I had to go away from it, and then come back to see it in all its glory. Before that I had taken it for granted – the lake and the mountains, the peace and the quiet.’
Tony felt the full range of emotions that day, ‘like adrenalin going through my system’. While they were on the lake he began to cry. His father asked him why he was crying.
‘I don’t know,’ replied Tony.
‘Why did I ever leave this?’ he asked his father.
Tony knew then that he never wanted to leave the west of Ireland again. ‘It’s all that matters to me. It was not the fishing or the catching of fish, it’s something engrained in us, I don’t know what it is.’
It’s hard to imagine in our synthetic world what the west of Ireland must have looked like through the eyes of the 10-year-old Anthony Waldron. ‘Although times were different then we knew we were living in paradise. Thinking back down all those many years, the only things I can recollect impacting on this paradise were days when there was too much wind or rain or not enough wind but too much light and blue skies to coax the wild brown trout to the fly. I can truthfully say that I can never remember my dad utter the word pollution or express concern about water quality. It was not until the late 1980s-early 1990s that I and the majority of anglers really began to ask, firstly of ourselves and then of others, what on earth is happening to our lakes and rivers, what changes are going on, what are the causes?’
During the latter decades of the 20th century intensive agriculture, conifer forestry and waste disposal began to alter the fabric of these unique ecosystems. Sheep populations increased well beyond the capacity of the environment to sustain them. Overgrazing eroded the vegetation of the hills and mountains. Sitka spruce, the chosen conifer species for tree plantations, allow very little symbiotic life. There is no flora and fauna in conifer plantations. The pine needles acidify the soil. When the acid soil is washed into streams and rivers and eventually into lakes, trout, in particular, cannot tolerate the increased acidity. Conifer plantations became a threat to native biodiversity. The lakes also received untreated sewage and toxic leachate from domestic waste dumps. Fish are susceptible to the heavy metals contained in sewage. Tony Waldron could not believe his eyes and wanted to cup his ears when he heard that had happened.
Tony Waldron was a tireless environmental campaigner during the 1990s. A thin wiry man, his seemingly emaciated gait was at odds with his indefatigable energy and eternal optimism. As public relations officer for the Carra-Mask Angling Federation, entrusted with the task of highlighting the concerns of local fishing groups, acting subconsciously for environmentalists and local communities on the wider ecological issues, he had a mandate to save the Great Western Lakes – Corrib, Mask, Carra and Conn.
‘Sadly time and increasing pressures from both our modern human life-styles and intensive farming practices and animal production have finally caught up with us. Our lakes and rivers now appear to be the innocent victims of our “we’re as good as the rest” progressive Ireland. Our rush to catch up with the rest of the world, both in the quality of the way we live and the quantity of food and livestock we produce, has inevitably impacted on what is or should still be our most valuable resource, namely clean water. Twenty five years ago we had clean water in our wells, streams, rivers and lakes. Although many fears and doubts were expressed over the years as to what was actually happening, the weight of opinion (including government) was to “plough ahead, keep going” and everything will be alright once we get there. We may have got there in terms of improved urban and rural living standards and in far higher yields and outputs from farming but in the process we have seriously damaged our once clean waters, although we still proclaim and live with the illusion that they are in “pristine” condition.’
It was a deja vu moment. Tony Waldron wanted to show me that particular vista, a remnant of a childhood memory, and I want to show it to you. We are on the Mask shore, further south from Caher Bay, standing on slabs of pock-marked limestone rock, the edge of a geological anomaly. Waves risen by a gentle breeze lap the lough shoreline. Pools of rust-coloured liquid bubble and froth. The rock pools are coated in algae. Deep crevices and sharp edges divide and separate the jagged hexagonal rocks. This is a landscape defined by erosion, the lesser evil.
Have you ever wondered what would have happened here if we had not got the potato?’
‘We’ve had it a long time. I heard tell it was the Basques who brought it here to this shore when they landed to dry their cod in the summer months.’
‘When was that then?’
‘Oh I don’t know, a long time ago.’
‘You don’t know?’
‘Of course I don’t know, I wasn’t around in them days.’
‘Ah, is that the sixteenth century you are talking about?’
‘I heard tell the potato was brought here by workers from Lancashire in England in sixteenth ten or other.’
‘Raleigh, he brought the potato to Youghal, did he not, in fifteen something or other.’
‘The Basque and the Spaniard knew the potato long before Raleigh, even a man as ignorant as myself knows that.’
‘When your great ancestor arrived here the potato was well established?’
‘Oh, I don’t know, the people here have always been fishers. They would not have relied on it.’
‘Did they not?’
‘As far back as I can remember our staples were mackerel, fresh and salted, potatoes, milk, eggs, kale, cabbage, scallions, carrots, beet. We fed most of the vegetables to the animals. We would have kept the onions but they were not easy to grow. Someone would kill a sheep so there was always a bit of mutton to be had. There were always hens running around, and plenty of eggs. We got a pig between us once a year at Samhain and made salted bacon from what was left after we had a big feast. I never saw garlic until I went to the city.’
‘Mostly mackerel and potatoes?’
‘I don’t know, we ate well. There was always food on the table, even salmon and trout despite the bailiffs.’
‘Did your mother bake soda bread?’
‘And her grandmother … a hard wheaten bread.’
‘I remember my mother talking about that once when I was very young. She said this place was a paradise because there was always fish and loaves and potatoes and milk and eggs in abundance.’
‘Is that why your ancestor moved here?’
‘He was a Basque named Ortz, he was a buyer who came to the town to snap up the cod. He must have taken a shine to Mary O’Sullivan from the hill above the town, she worked in one of the kitchens, where no doubt he took his meals and lodged when he was waiting for the catch. She was my great grandmother, so my family does go back a long way, but not here. I don’t know how it came about but they moved from the town out here. He was a fisherman, that’s all he knew, and he did what we are doing today. That’s all he did. I knew him when I was very young and he was very old, not that his age stopped him from going out in this. He was a master fisherman and he could handle a boat. Three of us went out, Arty I called him, my grandfather, his son Anthony, I’m named after him and sometimes we were a four when Art came out but he wasn’t a man of the sea, he was afraid of the sea, unlike the old men, Arty and Anthony, they were tough, boy they were tough.’
‘I never remember your father going fishing, he was more fond of his prize cattle wasn’t he.’
‘Well maybe my memory is playing tricks, but I remember those days. I’ll tell you why I remember. There we were, myself the youngest, my father, his father, my grandfather and my great grandfather, on a day like this, flat, like the calm before the storm and my father, being nervous, said something that I never thought about until many years later. “Boys, the women will not like this one bit,” he said. “If we go down we’ll all be taken.” Later I heard there was a superstition about all the males in a family going out together. Come to think about it I don’t remember the four of us going out again after that, you know what time is to you when you’re young.’
‘I don’t believe I was ever in that boat with your great grandfather, I was with your grandfather and Seanie, you remember him?’
‘I couldn’t forget him could I, he pulled me out more times than I can remember, I was always falling in.’
A POTATO POSTSCRIPT
A native of the canton Glarus, Johann Jakob Strub was a lieutenant in the English army and according to Swiss legend returned home with a bag of seed potatoes from Ireland. They were cultivated in Glarus in 1697.
Domesticated and cultivated in the highlands of Peru thousands of years ago, the potato (papa in the local dialect) appeared in Spain in 1539 without fanfare. Forty years later it was cultivated in Andalusia and Galicia and sold as a root vegetable in Seville and Madrid. It quickly spread throughout western and northern Europe (Ireland, Britain, France, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Russia, Scandinavia) to become a field crop despite resistance from the peasantry in Germany and Russia, where potato production would eventually become the highest in the world. The potato replaced grain, especially during the 1700s when bad harvests pushed up the price of barley, oats, rye and wheat. A protein package high in carbohydrates plus vitamins and minerals including iron, it became the staple in Ireland, Scotland, England, Flanders, the Rhineland and Switzerland. Eventually it became the base ingredient to make alcohol – potín (poteen) in Ireland, vodka in Russia – and that made it irresistible.
Potatoes became an essential ingredient in ‘field’ and ‘fish’ cauldron soups and stews. The chaudière tradition re-crossed the Atlantic to Newfoundland where it became chaudrée, anglicised as chowder, in many recipes without potatoes. Chowder is now an Irish national dish – made with potatoes.
The Irish tradition of boiling potatoes whole in their skins and serving them with butter or buttermilk is gradually dying out. Potatoes were also combined with buttermilk to make a hearty meal called the Stiffner. Kale became a companion of the potato along the Atlantic Fringe, a meal known as Colcannon in Ireland.
French fries (chips) appeared on Paris streets in the 1800s and soon became synonymous with street fried fish. In England the two were combined to become fish and chips.
In Italy they were prepared pureed with flour and blanched in hot water to make dumplings that were served with grated cheese. In eastern Europe and Russia potatoes were boiled and roasted in animal fats.
In Switzerland the tradition of grating raw potatoes or boiled and peeled potatoes grated and baking them on hot griddles can be traced to Zürich shortly after they were grown in Glarus.
In 1840s an American fungus spread through European potato fields, millions perished and tens of thousands emigrated.
A Mulligans barman was pulling pints in the lounge when a mature mid-west American man came in. ‘Excuse me sir where is your bathroom?’ Directions were given. Off the American went. Then he was back. ‘Excuse me sir there is no lock on the door.’
The barman was finishing a pint of Guinness. His mind was on the job so, without looking at the American, he said, ‘As long as I’ve been here, no one ever tried to rob a shite.’
Stories like these are the stuff of legend about this public house a few minutes walk from the river Liffey in the heart of Dublin city. For Gary Cusack, who owns and runs the pub with his brother Gerry, the real stuff of legend in Mulligans is the pint of Guinness.
‘You get people coming in, and they go, you’re in Mulligans now, you’ll have to have a Guinness. Guinness is our bread and butter, so you have to have it right. We are firm believers in letting Guinness settle. When it gets to Mulligans it goes into the front cellar, sits there for a day or two, goes into the cold room, it’s there for another two or three days, it would be a week before we use it. It is coming in fresh anyway so you don’t mind it being a little bit more mature, and it seems to work.’
Gary has long wondered why Mulligans became so famous. People say, ‘what’s special about Mulligans?’ The question becomes a quest. There’s the Guinness, the barstaff, the craic, the Old Dublin feel and much more besides. ‘You have to be here a while, to appreciate the customers, the barstaff, you have to blend in. Then you realise it’s not the first pint or the second pint [laughs], it takes about eight pints to enjoy the place, to get a feel of the place.’
Mulligans is not a flashing, bleeping, singing, dancing, happening sort of place. There’s banter, craic, conversation and drink. ‘What you see is what you get. Mulligans is a little rough around the edges,’ says Gary, knowing that is the way he and his regular customers like it.
It’s the morning of an All-Ireland Senior Football quarter-final. Barmen Damien and Jeff are moving tables, chairs and stools out of the pub into the store room. Gary and Gerry know from experience that it will be standing room only. For decades, for the supporters of Cork and Kerry, Galway and Wexford, Mayo and Clare, and especially Cavan and Dublin, Mulligans is home from home – a country pub in the city. ‘If the weather is good,’ says Gary, ‘you’ll have a crowd outside but that’s changing, the guards are clamping down. Our days of having crowds outside are numbered.’
That would be a big change of tradition. On a day like this manyyears ago a seemingly serendipitous event took place. All of Cavan was in Dublin on August 20, 1944. For the 13th time in 14 years, since 1931, Cavan were in the semi-final of the All Ireland Football Championship. Their opponents were Roscommon, who had cruelly denied them a third title the previous year, winning a replay that had stretched the resources of the Cavan and Roscommon people, almost 120,000 attending the two games.
Among the Cavan supporters was 14-year-old Tommy Cusack – father of Gary and Gerry. Tommy’s uncle Mick Smith bossed the house. Smith was the connection to the last John Mulligan, who passed away in 1928.
‘There was a big matchday,’ says Gary, ‘and my grandfather was outside having a drink and he said to the brother-in-law, “this young lad wants a start”. The brother said, “Ah yeah, bring him in now,” and he went in behind the counter and he was there ever since.”
A few years later Tommy was joined in Mulligans by his brother Con. ‘For my Da it was a job,’ says Gary. ‘He came up, got a job and that was it.’
Tommy and Con Cusack lived on the premises in a room at the top of the house. Mick Smith, even though he owned the place, slept in the smallest room on the top floor. A quarter of a century later the Cusacks took it over, after Smith passed, buying it with head barman Paddy Flynn in 1970.
Being Cavanmen, Tommy and Con each had a sharp wit. Colloquially closer to Belfast than Dublin, their wit cut deep into the sensibilities of the sensitive. Once they got to know their regular customers and more importantly once the regulars got to know them, their acerbic observations became the stuff of Mulligans legend. They were followed by Tommy McDonald and Mick McGovern from the same part of the country, though McGovern, who was born on the Cavan-Longford border, would get mad if he was called a Cavanman. The two Tommys, Con and Mick became the benchmarks of Mulligans’ standards.
It wasn’t for nothing that even the hardened hacks from the building next door that once housed the Irish Press newspapers called Mulligans the pub where it’s ‘the barstaff that insult the customers’ and not the other way round. The Cusacks and their barmen never suffered fools gladly. Their house was a drinking establishment and as long as you kept your head when the drink was flowing, everyone got along fine. Their regulars were painted onto the barstools.
‘A lot of people in those days thought they were being insulted,’ says Gary, ‘because the barmen were grumpy. There was a breed of barman that was either mad or had a way about them. It’s changed since,’ he adds with a knowing smile.
Mulligans has remained a country pub in the heart of the city but it has changed over the years, more than many would admit. Con Houlihan, who once wrote a legendary column for the Evening Press, was known to pen it occasionally in Mulligans while sipping brandy and milk. ‘He’d cash his cheque,’ says Gary, ‘and leave it behind the bar, then he’d ring up and say, “I’ll take fifty today”.’
‘That was a facility that was available to a lot of people. There was always a slate and if somebody came in and said, “any chance of a few quid” it was available. The cheques had to be cashed here because they had to clear their slates. It was, “Tommy whatever I owe you take it out of that”. That’s the way it was done in those days, now it’s cash customers only.’
‘I said that to John Kelly [a former Irish Press journalist] in front of Da. Kelly says, “what are you going to do with yourselves now that the Irish Press is going?” and I says, “ah sure it’s cash customers only now, John,” and Da laughed. John Kelly didn’t look happy.’
Those days have gone and for a while after the Irish Press closed in the mid-1990s, Gary was worried about Mulligans’ future. Tommy told him not to, reminded him that it hadn’t been so good in the 1950s and 1960s when the only customers they got were dockers and printers.
‘Da will tell you, it was hard work and he put a lot of hours in, himself and Con. They spent their lives in here. I remember Da telling me [when the Press went], he said there’s always something to replace it. There was the docks closing, then the Theatre Royal and the Irish Press and there was a bit of a lull for a while, but the civil servants kept us going and now there are office blocks everywhere. There’s always something to replace what has passed on. We just have to keep ourselves the same.’
This, Gary believes, is one of the reasons why Mulligans has endured. “People have come up to me,” he says, “and say they knew Tommy and Con from 20, 30 years ago. People like that, they like that there was no change as such.”
Guinness, says Gary, is also aware what rustic pubs like Mulligans do for the stout business. ‘Guinness’s over the last ten years have more control over the product than they ever did. They have dropped the temperature. When I started here [in 1988] Guinness was officially between eight and ten degrees. It had a thicker, creamier head. Now it is six to eight degrees and the head is a little whiter.’
The end product became a science for Guinness, but for Mulligans it was something they had always done, the way they cleaned the glasses, the shortness of the draw between the keg and the tap – with never more than two pints in the line. Nowadays Guinness go to see how pubs store and wash their glasses.
‘There’s a little water test,’ says Gary. ‘You fill the glass with a pint of water and you pour it out. If there’s any sort of water hanging around the top it means the glass is contaminated. If grease is on the glass [from a pub that does food] and the glass goes into the glasswasher, the machine gets contaminated, so every glass that goes in afterwards gets contaminated. [Guinness] have spent so much money you should not get a bad pint in this town, everywhere should be pretty much the same.’
Yet Mulligans is known as ‘the home of the pint’ in Dublin and not just by the Cusack brothers. As well as being a haunt for the workers of the area, it is also a landmark pub. ‘Because Mulligans is a touristy pub, a famous pub, you get journalists from other parts of the world that want to find out what is going on in Dublin.’
It was the persistence of one customer, a Dub called Joyce, against all good literary advice, that has led tourists to Mulligans. The specific mention in his books of Dublin establishments and personalities, like Mulligans and its regulars – namely O’Halloran, Leonard and Farrington, turned James Joyce into a literary icon. Gary admits the tourists come to Mulligans to soak up the flavour of Joycean Dublin.
‘Tourists who come down here, they’ve come out of their way to find Mulligans – the best pint of Guinness in Dublin, the usual spiel we get off them. We’re off the beaten track, which is a good thing. We’re not mainstream, yet we are famous. You get people coming from all over the world saying Mulligans this, Mulligans that. They come down, take in the place and some of them don’t know how to handle Mulligans, asking what’s so special about it.’
Traditionally boxty was made on the griddle, with the starch from raw potatoes, mash from boiled potatoes and salt. Gradually the method changed to boxty boiled in a pot, boxty fried on a griddle or in a pan, and boxty baked in the oven.
Flour was added to pan boxty, then milk and bicarbonate of soda to form a batter that could be cooked like a pancake.
Flour was also added to baked boxty along with butter or lard or bacon fat, seasoned, and shaped into farls.
Drummully Boxty is made with potatoes and salt, and boiled.
It is cut and fried, baked or grilled.
500 g rooster potatoes, peeled, grated and squeezed to release liquid
500 g rooster potatoes, boiled, skinned, mashed
10 g salt
Water, for boiling
When the hard starch has separated, pour away the clear liquid, and quickly add to the mashed potatoes, season. Shape into large dumplings, 8 cm in diameter at the round end, and boil for 20 minutes
The bookies sandwich got its name a long time after it was established as a packed lunch eaten by workers in various labouring jobs and people involved with hunt and race meetings.
In England it was a thick seasoned sirloin steak grilled and placed between thick loaf crusts spread with horseradish and mustard condiments.
In Ireland it was a thick seasoned rump steak grilled and placed between white soda farls spread with caramelised onions.
The English version was wrapped in paper and cold pressed for 30 minutes. By the middle of the 20th century the ‘bookmakers sandwich’ was a pub food in Britain and Ireland, and in Irish pubs across Europe and America.
The Vienna loaf replaced the batch loaf crusts and soda bread, then the ciabatta replaced the Vienna. In Ireland the Waterford blaa is used to hold the steak, because it is seen as the ideal bread bun for soaking up the juices from the meat and the flavourings from the condiments and seasonings.
Elsewhere the condiments betray its origins, and the meat will be beef or veal tenderloins, the latter in continental Europe.
Batch Loaf Version
700 g (4 x 175 g) dexter beef sirloin steaks, thick)
8 (4 cm) thick bread crusts
100 g creamed horseradish
100 g English smooth mustard
15 g black pepper, freshly ground
10 g salt
Spread four crusts with horseradish and four with mustard, according to taste. Season steaks, heavy with pepper for a spicy flavouring, grill according to preference. Place a steak and juices between each set of crusts, wrap in greaseproof paper, leave each sandwich under a heavy weight for an hour. Eat cold.
Vienna / Ciabatta Version
700 g (4 x 175 g beef / veal tenderloin steaks, thick)
2 breads, side cut along length, halved
100 g Dijon coarse mustard
25 g soft butter
15 g black pepper, freshly ground
10 g salt
Spread four pieces of bread with mustard, and four with butter, according to taste. Season steaks, heavy with pepper for a spicy flavouring, grill according to preference. Place a steak and juices on buttered breads, top with mustard breads, wrap in greaseproof paper, leave each sandwich under a heavy weight for an hour. Eat cold.
Blaa / Huffa Version
700 g (4 x 175 g dexter beef rump steaks, thick)
4 Waterford blaas / huffas, side cut along length
500 g onions, halved, sliced
25 g soft butter
15 g black pepper, freshly ground
10 g salt
Oil, for frying
Sauté onions in oil over a low heat for an hour, until they are brown and almost crispy. Spread four bread halves with butter, four with onions. Season steaks, heavy with pepper for a spicy flavouring, grill according to preference. Place a steak and juices on onion breads, top with buttered breads, press down with hands, leave to cool. Eat cold.
Nuala Hickey is comfortable with the Anglo-Norman origin for the speckled bread known as báirín breac in Ireland and bara brith in Wales.
Brought to prominence in the 1800s, when baking ingredients became commonplace in Irish and Welsh homes, the fruit brack assumed a new identity everywhere it was known. It slipped into folklore as a genuine traditional food without a thought about provenance.
Now its origins are shrouded in the lost time of oral folklore. No written or printed recipes survived in Ireland or Wales until the emergence of the modern cookbook in the late 1800s when recipes passed down began to appear in print. Everything about this enriched yeast bread before the 1900s suggested a conundrum.
Hickey’s Bakery sits outside the west gate of the old walled town of Clonmel in the county of Tipperary. Every morning Nuala’s bakers produce a batch of báirín breac, the authentic barm brack of Ireland. With every passing day the conundrum is heightened by the presence of this bread in the food culture of the region because Nuala and other bakers like her would like to see it recognised as a geographic specific food product. She is the fourth generation of Hickey bakers to maintain the ascendency of the brack.
The brack has an unbroken line back into the 1800s when rustic recipes began to appear. They indicated an older tradition that suggested the bread was made with natural yeast, possibly with yeast from the beer-making process — the barm. In Wales that line divided to create two versions – a yeasted fruit bread and an unyeasted fruit cake – with countless subtle variations. In Ireland the line already had two distinct branches, the báirín breac made with dried fruit with a ring inserted during Hallowe’en and the tea brack made with dried fruit soaked in tea, the former with yeast, the latter with baking powder. The Hickey báirín breac is traditional, a dense loaf packed with fruit and made with modern yeast. It is one of its kind.
Fruit breads are products of Celtic, Etruscan, Gothic, Nordic and Roman ingenuity. They show fidelity to dried fruit – currants, raisins and sultanas – and to spices such as cardamon, clove, cinnamon, fennel, ginger, nutmeg and pomegranate, to nuts like almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts, to lemon and orange peel and zest, to sweetners like honey and molassas and to fats like butter and lard. Before yeasted bread became a daily event and the loaf became a symbol of town and village life, fruit breads made with sourdoughs were ceremonial events.
Only one type of yeasted fruit bread has survived with an authentic history. This is the fruit bread known as stollen in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. A yeasted loaf with a high butter and fruit content, stollen is associated with the German city of Dresden but is found in the months up to the end of year festivities throughout Germany and Switzerland where it is known as stollen fest. Free-formed by hand and shaped into loaves, stollen come in several sizes.
Dresdner Stollen is also known as Dresdner Christstollen. In 1490 Pope Innocent VIII exempted Dresden’s bakers from the 1450 ban on baking with butter during Advent (then a period of fasting). This ‘butter’ letter’ allowed the city’s modern bakers to make a case for stollen to be recognised as a traditional product and in June 2008 the European Union granted protected geographical indicator status to Dresden’s iconic fruit bread.
A Dresdener stollen has a light aerated crumb with a strong aroma and depth of flavour. It is not as light as the panettone although it will compare to some versions of the gugelhupf but it is not as heavy as the hutzelbrot, the pligätsch and the poffert, and nowhere near as dense as the modern speckled bread of Clonmel. The fact that stollen now has a symbol is good news for Nuala Hickey and her báirín breac and for those bakers in Wales who specialise in the original bara brith.
This brings us to the Anglo-Normans who came to the Irish south-east from the Welsh south-west in the 1100s and 1200s. They made their way up the Suir river and established settlements along the river, Clonmel among them. While no one is convinced that báirín breac is a product of the big house tradition in Ireland, equally there is no proof that the Anglo-Normans carried a fruit bread tradition over from Wales or from their distant cousins in Normandy.
Whether the Hugenots, who brought the fluffy white bread rolls known as blaa, also brought a version of the speckled bread is damaged by the argument that there was no speckled bread tradition in France outside the royal courts. The gugelhupf, a fruit cake baked in a mould that resembles the rotating sun, has origins that pre-date the Romans, continue through the monastaries and end up in the French courts via Austrian royalty. It was associated with childbirths, festivals, harvests and weddings. Early versions suggest it was also a yeasted bread with a tradition in bierbrot, the bread made with the yeast from beer-making. The currants and raisins that went into a gugelhupf were soaked in tea.
In France pain aux fruits secs and pain moucheté always refer to the bara brith and never to the báirín breac, an equally appealing argument that there is a coincidence here and no connection. It is also possible that both bracks have nothing in common, and that báirín breac is an Irish Celtic product, known before the Anglo-Normans arrived in Ireland.
If so where did the Celts get the dried fruit? Who imported it into the country? There is a train of thought on this. After the fall of Rome, Irish monks ‘saved’ christianity by, among other things, creating monastries across Europe. These monastic communities grew grapes, made wine and dried the fruit. They made breads and confections, especially spiced breads (gingerbreads) and fruit breads. Unfortunately, with the exception of Abbess Hildegard von Bingen of Rupertsberg and a few others, they hardly ever put recipes on parchment.
The speckled breads of Ireland and Wales share similarities with ingredients, differing in the methods from bakery to home, from village to town, for countless variations. The primary ingredients are dried fruit, white wheat flour, butter or lard, brown sugar, eggs, yeast and spices. Both countries also share the tradition of soaking the fruit in sugar and tea (and in Ireland in whiskey) overnight. This changes it into a tea brack with baking powder the preferred raising agent.
Traditionally the yeasted fruit bread was made with lard, spices were optional (as was the ring often put in the dough at Hallowe’en), brown sugar was used instead of white sugar and butter or lard and eggs varied ridiculously from recipe to recipe.
The Irish method generally favoured a dough kneaded before the fruit was added, the Welsh kneaded everything together. This latter method is tough on the arms but it does produce a different bread, because the kneading allows the fruit to permeate the dough.
Some methods called for a long bake in a slow oven, others a short high bake.
Nowadays strong white wheat flour, farmhouse butter and fresh organic eggs make the real difference between a good speckled bread and a bad one, that and the kneading. While the tea brack is still around, it would appear that the yeasted fruit bread is more popular.
Nuala Hickey will attest to that notion and to the theory that Strongbow’s chefs produced speckled breads among the wedding banquet to delight Aoife, his celtic bride.
This is the old recipe, for a dense Irish báirín breac. Replacing the lard with milk produces a lighter loaf. The lard can also be replaced with butter.
500 g strong white flour
500 g white wheat flour, t550
250 g brown sugar
250 g currants
250 g raisins
250 g sultanas
225 ml whole milk
4 eggs (240 g), beaten
125 g butter
125 g lard
50 g candied fruit / peel, chopped small
25 g yeast
10 g cinnamon ground (optional)
10 g nutmeg, grated (optional)
1 tsp white sugar
Salt, large pinch
Dissolve yeast in the milk with white sugar.
Sieve flours into a large bowl, add salt, rub in the butter and lard. Work in the brown sugar, fruit and, if using, the spices.
Make a well in the middle, carefully fold eggs and yeast mixture into the flour, sugar and fruit. Use hands to knead mixture in the bowl. Turn out onto a clean surface, knead for 15 minutes.
Cover, leave to rise for an hour, degas, leave for a second hour. Divide in two, place in greased loaf tins, leave for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 150°C.
Bake for two hours, test centre of each loaf with skewer, if very moist give another 10 minutes.
The loaves can be glazed with a thin sugar syrup, and put back in for ten minutes.
The similarities between gugelhupf and other continental European fruit breads are obvious, whereas the familiarity between gugelhupf and the speckled breads of Ireland and Wales is startling. The difference is in the method. The báirín breac is a dough, the gugelhupf is a batter. The bara brith and the gugelhupf are both made with yeast and with baking powder, although this is an expedient consequence.
The bara brith changed because of the arrival of baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and self-raising flour into Welsh homes. The older tradition of adding dried fruit to the last bread dough of the day to make a sweet product was simply a variation. Of more significance was the change of method in the 1900s. Home bakers in north Wales soaked the fruit in tea and used yeast as the raising agent whereas in south Wales baking agents were utilised and the fruit was not reconstituted. The use of butter, dripping or lard became a personal choice.
This is the traditional yeast version of bara brith.
1 kg white wheat flour, t550 + 65 g white wheat flour
350 ml water, for tea
350 ml whole milk, lukewarm
200 g butter
175 g raisins
175 g sultanas
120 g brown sugar
2 eggs, beaten
90 g currants
60 g candied peel
30 g yeast
15 ml honey, warmed, for glaze
3 tsp strong tea leaves
1 tsp mixed ground spice
1 tsp salt
1 tsp white sugar
Make tea, brew for 15 minutes. Soak the dried fruit in the tea overnight.
Combine the yeast in warm milk with a teaspoon of white sugar, leave for 10 minutes.
Rub the butter into the flour, add the peel, brown sugar, drained dried fruit, spices and salt.
Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture, add the yeast mixture and eggs. Form into a soft dough, cover and leave to rise for about two hours, until dough has doubled in size.
Turn out onto a board dusted with a tablespoon of flour, work 50 grams of flour into the dough, knead for 15 minutes into a smooth dough.
Place in greased loaf tins, cover again and leave for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 200ºC.
Place tins in the oven, bake for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 160ºC and bake for 75 minutes.
Put loaves on a rack, turn and and glaze the tops with honey.
There is a coherent argument for báirín breac and bara brith to be given protected geographical status. Both breads have an unsullied history rooted in folklore and food tradition. The issue is with the ingredients. Dried fruit is not indigenous to Ireland and Welsh viticulture is a modern activity. Strong wheat, lemons and oranges, cinnamon and nutmeg are not indigenious either. And that is the conundrum.
Some of this text will appear in the books Hibernia | Food Travels in Ireland and Eureka Europa | Traditional Food Travels, to be published in 2021.
The combination of green cabbage, buttermilk or cream, potatoes and spring onions or leeks is believed to be one of the oldest dishes in northern Europe. In Ireland it is known as colcannon and is made with kale, not cabbage, because kale survived the harsh winter, especially in coastal areas. Kale has made a comeback in recent years, largely because it continues to survive the inclement and unpredictable weather. In some areas it thrives, improving its flavour.
1 kg potatoes, whole
500 g kale
10 spring onions (scallions) / green leeks, chopped
150 ml cream
100 g buttermilk
30 g butter
Soak the kale in cold then warm water to remove dirt and chase away the small spiders that love to weave their webs among its leaves. Leave to drain for half an hour. Remove stems, cut into leaves into strips. Bring to the boil in a little water, reduce heat and cook until al dente. Drain and retain water. Boil the potatoes in their skins in the kale liquid. Cook the spring onions in the cream over a low heat. In a heavy based saucepan mash potatoes with the spring onion mixture over a low heat. Add kale, seasonings and the buttermilk, blend with a wooden spoon until the mash assumes the colour of the greens. Serve heaped with a large knob of butter.
In the Auld Dubliner, where they served coddle and colcannon at half twelve on the dot and not a second before, the women got ready in the serving area, a room to the right of the side door at Fleet Street. The quiet one was long in the tooth, a culinary veteran of the Liberties’ traditional food. The noisy one was much younger, much to learn but keen to learn, that was obvious. ‘Right,’ she said. ‘We’re right so.’
We gradually moved into the room and hovered. Six water-heated containers confronted us, held in a long basin resting on two oblong tables pushed together. The younger woman lifted the lid of the first three containers for our convenience, saying nothing, leaving the explanation to my friend Seán Dove, for it was sure that she had knowledge of him, at least that is what I saw when I watched them exchange eyes.
‘Coddle,’ Dove said, ‘sausage, bacon, onion, potato, like a stew,’ leaning over to sniff the aromatic steam that lingered.
‘This one?’ I asked, pointing to the middle container.
‘Cabbage and mash and scallions,’ he said, looking into the container. ‘Should be made from curly kale, that is summer cabbage there.’ He winked at the woman.
I didn’t need to ask what was in the third last container. Steaming in the container were about six pig trotters covered in parsley, sage and thyme, smelling of stewed carrot and onion. Dove looked hard at the young woman. She had long auburn hair tied up in a bun under a yellow head scarf. Her bosom was flattened under a tight-fitting apron. If he had bothered to make small talk with her, and it appeared that he did, being attracted by her rustic appearance, he would have discovered he knew her. When she wasn’t working in the kitchen of the Auld Dubliner making coddle, colcannon and cruibíns from her mother’s recipes, she was a cleaner in the college where he taught food anthropology. The words he would normally have used in the seduction of a young girl were beyond the capacity of his brain in that moment. All he could do was stare at her. Food was his only priority. In a sudden upward movement of her long neck she eye-balled him. ‘What are ye staring at?’ she said in an abrupt tone. ‘Have I got horns or what?’
‘Yes,’ he stuttered. ‘No, I mean, no, sorry, I didn’t mean to stare at you.’ He cleared his throat, coughing gently. ‘I beg your pardon,’ he said in a nervous tentative voice.
‘I will have some cabbage mash with a pig’s … ah … foot please,’ I said. ‘And some of the stew … the coddle.’
‘Are you not eating?’ I asked him.
‘I can’t decide,’ he replied.
‘We’re closing the kitchen at one,’ the woman said, pulling a face at him. He missed the wit behind the irony. ‘This is the only serving. When it’s gone, it’s gone.’
‘Right,’ said Dove. ‘I’ll bear that in mind.’
Out of nowhere, silence hovered in the space between them.
The habit butchers had of over salting their pork sausages used to work in favour of this traditional stew, which relied on a stock made from the hock and root vegetables and all the flavour you could get out of the bacon, gammon and sausages.
Sadly no longer an essential aspect of Dublin life, its revival as a tasty lunchtime pub snack in the 1980s at the Auld Dubliner was short-lived. Few cafes, pubs and restaurants bothered with it in those and none bother with it now.
In the Liberties in Dublin’s south inner-city, fish and chips gradually usurped coddle for Saturday night supper. Butchers stopped featuring the ingredients on their counters, knowing the demand was gone.
The earliest coddles were flavoured with bacon bones and leeks, thickened with barley or oatmeal and served with various types of sausage.
Onions and potatoes changed the nature of coddle, transforming it into an iconic Dublin dish of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The classic coddle contained bacon, sausage, onion, potatoes and parsley in a flavoured soup.
These days coddle can be anything from a plate of bacon bits, grilled sausages and cubed potatoes in a thin seasoned soup to an elaborate vegetable stew made with bacon and sausage pieces in a herb-cider stock.
A genuine coddle should have Irish ingredients – bacon, gammon, onions, potatoes and sausages with more meat than fat and minimal salt.
On no account boil the bacon and sausages to extract a stock, use a stock cube or a teaspoon of bouillon if you haven’t time to make a stock from ham bones, herbs and vegetables.
This is a modern interpretation.
Ham Hock, boiled for stock with 2 bay leaves, 2 carrots chopped, a quarter of a whole celeriac root sliced, 2 kale leaves cut into thin strips, 2 onions chopped, seasoned with ground black pepper, one tablespoon of chopped lovage and one teaspoon of vegetable bouillion
750 onions, sliced
750 potatoes waxy, sliced thinly
650 g (4) large pork sausages, each cut into thick pieces
350 g gammon, cut into 8 slices
200 g kale, coarsely cut, steamed
60 g black pudding, cubed (optional)
15 g black peppercorns
30 g parsley, chopped
4 slices streaky bacon, grilled until crispy, crushed
Layer the base of an ovenproof dish with onions and peppercorns, arrange the gammon, sausages and sprinkle with herbs of your choice. If using add the black pudding at this stage. Finish with overlapped rows of the sliced potatoes. Pour in the stock until it covers the potatoes.
Wrap foil over the dish, put on the lid and bake slowly in a 180°C oven.
Test the potatoes after an hour. If still uncooked bake uncovered until they brown at the edges.
Garnish each serving with parsley and crushed bacon. Serve with steamed kale.
With its 15th anniversary in sight, Carlow’s food marketeers have cause to celebrate. During its short existence it has presented a strong image to town and country, at its height attracting a turnover of half a million euros.
Founded in August 2004 as the direct result of a local enterprise scheme to energise the community, John Hayden, the local rural resource worker put in charge of the project, had posed the question: ‘Would you be interested in a food-only / producer-only market, with handicrafts once a month?’
Consumers and producers alike said they would.
It was agreed there should be two stallholders each of bread, fish, meat and vegetables – for variety and competition – because these foods were seen to be essential to the success of a food market. There were 16 stallholders.
It got off to a good start. The town council adopted a hands-off approach. The original stallholders became Carlow Farmers Community Market, took out collective and individual insurance to indemnify the town council against claims (there have been none).
They registered as a group with the revenue commissioners, acquired licences from the Health Service Executive to trade in the space provided by the council in the centre of the town. In turn the council passed a bye-law to allow the group to trade on a Saturday between 9 am and 2 pm. Local businesses supported the market.
Then the mood changed.
The market has an ageing population and hardly any young blood coming through. There is a shortage of bread and pastry makers, vegetable growers and artisanal producers.
And the group is shrinking. There are now only ten stallholders.
There is a strong feeling in Carlow and in the country in general that the attitude of the state towards small-scale producers who are not interested in the export market must be challenged, for the sake of local, seasonal food production.
Vegetable growers Charles and James Ryan had their growers license withdrawn by the Department of Agriculture over an auditing issue with new guidelines by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland that got blown out of proportion when arbitration would have resolved the problem.
The fact that they have been closed down and ordered off the market for an issue that has nothing to do with food safety angered market goers. A petition in support of the Ryans was signed by over 100 people on one morning of a cold January day.
There is a constant fear that more stallholders will be lost. Jimmy Mulhall, who sells organic meat and meat products, has been researching food markets, travelling to France to see their models and looking at the closed markets in Dublin. If he decides to move his business indoors there is a possibility he will not bring his truck to town for the open market.
Raw-milk cheese-maker Elizabeth Bradley has been under investigation by the authorities and is determined not to be forced out of business or out of the market, where she sells cheeses from Ireland, France and other countries.
Other threats to the market include the town council’s plans for the space the stalls presently occupy, the lack of a manager to deal with bureaucratic problems (like the Ryans), logistical issues (like new stallholders) and marketing issues (like the website and general awareness).
Nadja Saralam, an Australian who works at the cheese stall, says Carlow needs its food market. ‘It is a growers / producers only market. So everything is grown and produced locally, and you can talk to the vendors about their growing methods and environmental values, and be comfortable in what you’re buying. You’re dealing with the people who really do produce what they sell, and know the food terrain.’
‘I love grabbing a bunch of carrots, and knowing they were pulled from the ground only a few hours previously. You certainly can’t beat the quality of the food you buy there, and prices compare to supermarkets. I no longer bother to shop anywhere else.’
Saralam is full of praise for the local producers. ‘I believe one of the best things you can do for the planet is to buy locally from responsible producers, and primarily eat seasonal, non-imported foods. Despite Ireland having lost its cheese culture, there is still a really good selection of Irish cheeses on the market. The stall at the Carlow market is run by a cheese maker who farms and produces cheese just four kilometres from my house – you can’t get better than that!’
Tim Mason called his restaurant Out of the Blue for the obvious reason. While blue skies are not a regular feature of Ireland’s wild Atlantic coast, every now and then a fish restaurant appears that is radically ‘out of the blue’ and is a surprising success. The fish is fresh, perfectly cooked and served imaginatively, as you would expect of chefs who know their fish. Then the chefs move on and take their reputation and skill with them.
Jean-Marie Vaireaux is one such chef. Born in Lyon, trained in Thonon-les-Bains and educated in the Beaujolais, he found himself in the west coast of Ireland at the end of the century, content to go fishing with a French friend. Fish as fresh as it comes has always been the mantra of clever fish chefs.
The arrival of the Dublin-born stockbroker gave the Lyon-born chef the opportunity he craved, the chance to stay in Dingle and cook fresh fish. That he would do this in a cramped kitchen with two other chefs did not faze him.
In the summer of 2001 the fish restaurant that would become known as OOTB opened. It was a revelation from the start.
We are sitting on the wooden benches at the tables on the veranda adjacent the tiny restaurant on Dingle’s waterfront. OOTB’s French chefs explain why they are masters of fish cuisine. There are no secrets, they say, it is all about experience and knowledge. And, Eric Maillard from Brittany is quick to affirm, the tricks of the trade.
Inevitably the conversation drifted to the secret of the perfectly cooked pan-fried fish. The backbone should come away from the flesh clear and clean. Like the cartoon cat with the cartoon fish bone? Exactly. Later, when we sample the secrets of their success, we get that affirmation. At a nearby table a diner lifts the backbone clear of the fish. All we can do is giggle.
Tim Mason did not know what he wanted to do when he arrived in Dingle at the turn of the century. He drove around the seaside town, found himself – like Jean-Marie before him – on the waterfront, and there it was, the stuff of dreams. A ramshackle house that over-looked the bay.
He found a local fisherman and persuaded him not to retire his licence, instead to catch fish for him. He found Eric Maillard, and he found a supporting cast. He found his mission, to see whether a fish cafe with five tables and a fresh fish shop could succeed. ‘We used to sort the fish outside – we had no room inside – everyone could see how fresh the fish was.’
This was the true secret of their success. As the years rolled by and the small cafe morphed into a small restaurant, the word crept out. OOTB was something unusual, it was a fish-only restaurant that served seafood caught the same day.
OOTB is the epitome of ‘catch of the day’. The chefs see what they have, come to conclusions and chalk their ideas on the blackboard that is the menu, as original as the fish. They have their favourites, dishes that are typical of the fish cuisine of their homeland, where the accompaniments including sauces are designed to compliment the fish, another secret to their success.
Their smoked fish chowder is as good as anything served anywhere but it is their smoked mackerel pâté that is arguably the best in the country.
How does OOTB compare with other restaurants that specialise in fresh fish? Aherne’s in Youghal should always maintain its reputation, the Fish Kitchen and O’Connors in Bantry should always serve a good plate, the Anchor Bar in Liscannor should be hard to beat, the Lobster Pot in Burtonport will always be a personal favourite of the Fricot Project and we will always have a soft spot for O’Dowd’s Seafood Bar in Roundstone. There are surprises around the country, not least among the myriad ‘fish and chip’ shops. Of these McClements in Millisle serve the best scampi. Fusciardi’s in Dublin used to serve a delicious smoked cod. We hope they continue with that treat.
If OOTB can maintain its standards and its modus operandi it will remain the best fish restaurant not only in Ireland but among the best across the European continent.
Another dish of the poor, traditionally made with cheaper cuts, usually the neck (scrag-end) of mutton or kid.
When the recipe made its way into the big house and as a consequence into cook books in the 19th century it was transformed into a generic stock pot with other root vegetables, herb and spice flavourings (especially pepper), and meat from the better cuts of the animal.
In her book A Taste of Ireland Theodora Fitzgibbon had this to say. ‘It was originally made with mutton or kid (no farmer would be so foolhardy as to use his lambs for it), potatoes and onions. The pure flavour is spoilt if carrots, turnips or pearl barley are added, or if it is too liquid. A good Irish stew should be thick and creamy, not swimming in juice like soup.’
Irish stew changed dramatically during the 1800s when the blackface breed were brought from Scotland to graze hill habitats. A smaller animal than its lowland cousin, the blackface produced a sweeter tasting meat, prominent in the neck bones and meat.
Connemara hill lambs, which are slaughtered between 10 and 14 weeks, now give Irish stew a distinctive taste, especially if the better cuts of meat are combined with the neck bones.
This is the original traditional recipe tweaked to include more meat than bone, with herbs and pepper.
3 kg waxy potatoes, peeled, quartered
2 kg onions, chopped
1.5 litres water
1 kg hill lamb neck chops
1 kg hill lamb shoulder meat
30 g black pepper, freshly ground
25 g salt
1 tbsp parsley and thyme, chopped (optional)
Arrange neck bones in a large pot, turn heat to medium and allow fat to run out of the bones. Stack potatoes on top of the bones, then the onions and seasoning, more pepper than salt. Fill the pot with water three-quarters up to the level of the onions, bring to the boil. Cover, turn heat to lowest setting and cook for three hours. The result should be a thick potato stew containing pieces of meat and bones, with the onions completely melted.
The chocolatiers of hazel mountain on the edge of the Burren in north Clare in the west of Ireland have every reason to celebrate their first year in business. They are heading a trend that is seeing the art of chocolate-making move out of its traditional centres in Belgium and Switzerland, and setting a trend that has been the preserve of large-scale factories for far too long – cocoa bean roasting!
Dara Conboy, a 25-year-old from county Sligo with a background in coffee bean roasting, is the head roaster on hazel mountain. Recruited by John and Kasia Connolly to get the flavour out of the beans they import from Madagascar and other tropical cocoa growing regions, Conboy is an Irish chocolate expert. He can talk chocolate all day long.
Accompanied by Anna Murphy, a young pastry chef employed to make confections with their chocolate, the Connollys and Conboy are a unique team in rural Ireland.
But they are not alone in Europe. The idea that artisan chocolatiers can roast their own cocoa beans and make their own distinctive chocolate has been seeping into the creative consciousness among European food artisans for several years.
This is not about the mass production of an homogenised product, it is about the flavour and taste that can be coaxed out of cocoa beans with their own delicate aromas, then transferred into artisanal chocolate of quality.
Chocolate Whiskey Coffee
1 square Hazel Mountain chocolate, chopped small
1 shot blended Irish whiskey, eg Tullamore Dew
Melt chocolate in hot coffee, stir add whiskey and a pinch of sugar, stir again.
In rural Ireland during the construction boom of the 1990s food counters in convenience stores (many in fuel stations) started to offer baguettes, buns, flatbreads and rolls filled with a combination of bacon, black and white puddings, fried egg, mushrooms, sausages and sliced tomatoes.
It caught on and is now seen as a traditional habit. There was an earlier tradition.
The traditional Ulster fry is still a favourite with tourists and travellers but in the early and mid mornings the worker’s breakfast is a filled farl.
Generally made with commercial white soda farls, this is fried bacon, fried egg and fried beef sausage (also known as the steak sausage because of the lower fat content) in an easy-to-eat package, in or out of the café.
It tastes better with freshly made soda bread, grilled bacon and sausage and poached egg.
Traditionally soda bread was made on a griddle over a smouldering turf fire or on the far side of the fire box on a wood fire slow burner or range.
This allowed the dough to heat gently, rising and forming a crust. Some homes continued this tradition by baking the bread in a cast-iron frying pan over the lowest possible heat on an electric or gas cooker. These days it is just as easy baking the bread in an oven with medium heat.
750 g white wheat flour, t550
475 ml buttermilk
5 g bicarbonate of soda
5 g salt
Sieve flour into a large bowl with the salt and soda, add buttermilk, stir with a wooden spoon to form a slack semi-sticky dough.
Fold onto a floured surface, knead dough into a large round. Place on a greased baking tray, cut a deep cross in the dough.
Bake at 160°C for 50 minutes.
Alternatively place the dough on a floured cast-iron frying pan, bake over a very low flame or lowest setting on an electric hob for two and a half hours.
8 beef (steak) sausages, grilled, each sliced along length
8 back bacon (rasher) slices, grilled
4 eggs, poached
Black pepper, pinch
Slice farls along their length, butter (or not) both halves, place two slices of bacon on one half, arrange four pieces of sausage followed by the poached egg, season, top with remaining half.
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.