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.
Once upon a time travellers on Norwegian Railways sleeper trains were handed special tickets by the train chief. ‘These are for your breakfast, go to the hotel across from the station,’ the chief would explain to bemused travellers. The sight on arrival in the grand hall of the grand hotel was a grand breakfast, an assortment of hot and cold foods that had no rival anywhere in the world. Sadly this tradition has lapsed. On the sleeper trains between Oslo, the capital of Norway, and Bergen, Stavanger and Trondheim and between Trondheim and Bodø in the far north, a modest breakfast is served onboard. The grandiose buffet breakfasts are becoming a thing of the past, but some hotels are clinging to tradition by presenting modest grand buffets. Think of every possible breakfast food that is served across Europe, add the Norwegian love for loaves and fishes, cheeses and crispbreads, bacon and eggs, pickles and potatoes, and then something you never imagined.
Fishes – Klippfisk (cod), Lutefisk (lyed cod or ling), Sild (herring)
Leverpostej (liver paste)
Lefse (potato flatbreads)
Smoked bacon, grilled to a crisp
Smoked salmon, with lefse or toast
2 Welsh Breakfast
Bacon and eggs are a traditional breakfast throughout Europe, cockels and laverbread less so. In south Wales the sands stretch the length of the Gower peninsula. This is the cockel shore – a place of the laver. Laver is a soft purplish sea vegetable found at Atlantic shores, picked from rocks at low tide. It is thoroughly washed in two changes of water, drained, cooked and sold dried or fresh.
8 slices smoked back bacon
400 g laver pulp
100 g oatmeal
Combine laver pulp and oatmeal, shape into 5 cm wide, 2 cm thick cakes. Fry bacon, remove, allowing fat to drip into the frying pan, keep warm. Bring heat up, wait until the bacon fat is starting to smoke, then fry the laver cakes, two minutes each side. Serve with bacon, sausages and poached (or fried) eggs … And fresh cockles.
3 Irish Breakfast
4 mackerel, filleted
90 g butter
Boil the potatoes in their skins. Pan-fry the mackerel in half of the butter, skin-side down first. Serve with the potatoes, split in half, a little butter in each.
4 Sicilian Breakfast
2 squid, cleaned, cut into small pieces
2 lemons, juiced
45 ml olive oil
5 g chilli flakes
Water, for boiling
Bring water to the boil, heat oil in a deep frying pan. Place squid in the boiling water, boil for 90 seconds, then transfer it to the frying pan. Flash fry squid, about three minutes, adding the chilli after two minutes. Deglaze pan with lemon juice, pour over squid, serve.
5 French Breakfast
4 slices thick country bread
4-6 slices streaky bacon
1 lemon, juiced
15 ml anchovy sauce
Pepper, large pinch
4 wooden skewers
Shell the oysters, soak in the anchovy sauce and lemon juice. Season, wrap a piece of bacon around the oyster, skewer, four to each stick. Toast the bread and place the oyster wraps under a hot grill for two minutes.
6 English and Scottish Breakfast
600 g haddock / smoked haddock, cut into chunks
500 ml chicken stock
350 g long grain rice
2 eggs, hard-boiled
75 g onion, chopped
25 g butter
5 g parsley, chopped
5 cardamoms, crushed
3 g cinnamon
Turmeric powder, very large pinch
Water, for boiling
Sauté onion in butter in a large frying pan for ten minutes, add bay leaf, spices and seasonings. Stir rice into the onion mixture, add stock, bring to the boil, reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Simmer haddock in water for five minutes, flake and set aside. Chop eggs into small pieces. Stir the eggs, fish and parsley into the rice, heat through, season.
7 Swedish Breakfast
2 litres water
250 g smoked salmon, sliced thin
4 slices wholewheat bread
10 g salt
Black peppercorns, crushed
Salt the water and bring to the boil. Break an egg into a small bowl, carefully let it slip into the water, reduce heat and poach for three minutes, remove with a slotted spoon onto kitchen paper. Repeat with remaining eggs. Toast bread, place a poached egg on each slice, garnish with equal amounts of the salmon and a sprinkling of black pepper.
8 Turkish Breakfast
1 kg Black Sea anchovy fillets
250 g corn / maize flour
4 lemons, juiced
Pour flour into a large bowl, dredge anchovies through flour, place side by side on plates. Heat oil, fry anchovies until crisp, drain. Serve with lemon juice.
9 Greek Breakfast
The art of preparing octopus for the grill has consumed the time of Greeks for centuries. The tenderising process alternates between pounding, freezing, baking, marinating and slow cooking. Yet the one method that remains infallible is drying the whole fish under a hot sun in a light breeze.
1 kg octopus, sun dried
60 ml olive oil
30 ml vinegar
2 lemons, juiced
1 tbsp oregano
Blend the oil and vinegar, cut the octopus into pieces. Marinade in this mixture for an hour. Grill under a high heat for three or four minutes until the flesh is tender. Serve with vinaigrette of lemon juice and oregano.
10 Russian Breakfast
Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat describes caviar as ‘the last legendary food of modern times’. Traditionally caviar was made from the roe of wild sturgeon in the nutrient rich Caspian Sea.
It came in four varieties: –
Beluga (pale to dark grey eggs from the larger fish, up to 1000 kg).
Oscietra (various coloured eggs from the smaller fish, 300 kg).
Sevruga (dark grey to black eggs from the smallest fish, 60 kg).
Sterlet (a very small sturgeon that is almost extinct).
Seruga is thought to be too strong for a breakfast caviar, beluga too rich, which leaves oscietra, a light nutty caviar. Because of its flavour, roe from the Icelandic capelin is accepted as caviar and suitable for breakfast.
80 g oscietra caviar / black capelin caviar
45 ml kefir
45 g flour
10 g sugar
Baking soda, large pinch
Oil, for frying
Whisk the kefir into the eggs, season, add flour and soda to make a smooth batter, leave to froth. Heat some oil in a hot frying pan, pour a tablespoon of the batter into the centre of the pan, remove from heat. When holes form on the surface, flip over, and after a few seconds press with a spatula into the pan, putting it back on the heat for a minute. Repeat with remaining batter. Serve with the caviar.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Every year between May and October, DHL ship boxes of live eels packed in ice from Belfast International Airport to Heathrow and Schipol, sent by the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative Society in Toome.
It’s mid-morning and the fish shop on West-Kruiskade in the centre of Rotterdam is selling out of smoked eels. The demand these days always seems to exceed the supply. Lovers of this treat are worried.
Pat Close of the Lough Neagh Fishers insists they have nothing to worry about. He sends the same message out to those who have been predicting the end of the Lough Neagh eel fishery and others like it.
Toome-born into a farming background, Close gave up a good job as an advisor in the Department of Argiculture, accepting the call of the eels.
They needed help and he was ready to give it.
Like everyone in the area of Lough Neagh he knew about the crash. Two years before he joined the coop, the young eels migrating along the Gulf Stream from the Sargasso Sea off the coast of Florida didn’t turn up.
After years of between eight and fifteen million eels coming into the Bann at Coleraine every year, the number was down to 726,000. It was a global problem. Every estuary in Europe that attracted eels saw a decline.
To alleviate the problems caused by the crash, the coop started buying young eels from other fisheries. ‘Lough Neagh is a commercial fishery being exploited, not over exploited, and in order to maintain the intensity we need to maintain that stock, not only would that affect our business it would have an impact on the eels stock of Europe.
‘If we weren’t here the eels would be depleted, this is a finite resource and needs to be managed. We let 40% go back to the Sargasso Sea.’
The real issue, Close insists, is local. No new fishing licences have been issued for 20 years and this presents Close with a conundrum. At its peak there were 200 boats licenced to go out on the lough, now there are 113. A hundred on the lough is the limit and will remain so while eel stocks are low.
Because the costs of running a boat is high, the fishing has remained with the families who have the tradition, passing from father to son. This knowledge base and the skills that go with it, Close acknowledges, are the key to the future of eel fishing on Lough Neagh.
With a turnover of £3m a year, the vast majority going into the communities around the lough, he knows the fishers and the fish must be sustained. And with the fishers getting older, Close wants to see younger people involved but fears the seasonal nature of the work and the long days are a deterent.
‘They go out after 4am, all out together, they look after each other, a couple of hours to lift the lines, grade out the young eels, back in for 7-7.30, into the coop at 8.30, and go out at midday again, to continue a couple of hours, running lines, quite a long day, and I would like to see more young people in it.’
In the Netherlands they hope so too. They know what Close knows.
‘Lough Neagh eels are unique, the flesh is perfect for smoking, which is why they are regarded as the best in Europe.’
An oily fish rich with omega 3, the Dutch eat more smoked eel than fresh eel. Dutch eel-smokers only smoke the fatter fish, because it tastes better. This is a typical dressing for smoked eel.
The stone cottage shrouded in greenery at the end of the lonely boreen is picture postcard perfect. Raindrops 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 guttural accent.
There is nothing incongruous about this setting in rural Cavan, a few kilometres from the border with Fermanagh. Artisan Ireland requires the EU stamp of approval and, just to prove this point, cheesemaker Silke Cropp explains that an inspector from ‘the department’ is arriving to take away some cheeses for testing.
In the 1950s, artisanal production in Europe was back in the ascendancy, and cheese – followed by sausages and salami, breads and pastries, jams and sauces – led the way.
Ireland was an exception. Artisanal cheese production did not become established until the 1970s. When cheese-lovers like Silke Cropp arrived from Germany in the 1980s it seemed the industry had a future. Suddenly it got harder and Corleggy Cheese had to make a name for themselves.
Silke Cropp is an artisan cheese maker in Ireland
‘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 Co-op 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 Co-op their cheese had a strong appeal for 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.’
‘We are an endangered species,’ she adds sanguinely. ‘The artisan is always going to be quite a small producer. Artisan to me means handmade 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.’