If you thought Irish food was just corned beef and potatoes, you’ve clearly never met award-winning, Dublin-born chef, and author of My Irish Table, Cathal Armstrong. He knows a thing or 12 about Irish food, from where to get it to what to do with it, and even who eulogized it best. If he made you corned beef and potatoes, they’d be delicious.
Look as native as a river-dancing Pierce Brosnan by munching on a packet of dulse – a traditional seaweed snack food. “Dulse is a seaweed harvested off the northern shores of Ireland and many chefs are now using it as an ingredient. Because of its natural saltiness, it’s a lovely flavor enhancer.”
Cathal’s tip: Take a break from cool ranches, pick up some dulse, and snack your way to health. “It is a great source of vitamins and minerals.”
Sure, you’ve had salmon before, but have you had it smoked over the world’s northernmost oak trees, in a place where salmon is synonymous with knowledge in ancient folklore? Thought not. “Traditional oak-smoked salmon is one of the great culinary treasures of Ireland. There are many consistent producers and great competitions annually.”
Cathal’s tip: Burren Smokehouse, Co. Clare. Get your prize-winning smokies here.
Don’t make that face, especially if you’ve ever eaten sausage -- which you have. “No Irish breakfast is complete without black pudding. It has a rich, earthy flavor, which takes a little getting used to. A lot of modern Irish restaurants have been experimenting with this ingredient beyond the breakfast table, to great success. Try it with foie gras and apples.”
Cathal’s Tip:Clonakilty Blackpudding Co., Cork. When you’ve been making something since 1880, you nail it every time.
When driving in Ireland, keep your eyes on the road. “Watch out for the sheep. They are everywhere, grazing on the wild fescue, heather and gorse. The meat has a distinctive sweetness that is second to none.” Probably thanks to the… gorse?
Cathal’s tip:Comeragh Mountain Lamb, Waterford. The flocks free range over a broader, more varied terrain than lowland varieties, which results in through-the-roof-amounts of healthy omega-3 fatty acids in the meat.
A Surprising Amount of Beef
All that green serves a greater, more delicious, purpose than as a backdrop for pan pipe-sound-tracked movies. “Beef production is one of Irish farming’s greatest strengths – about 1.1. million acres of grass are farmed by small family farms.”
Cathal’s tip: Keep your eyes peeled. “Irish beef was banned by the USDA because of a BSE scare in Europe, but it was just recently approved for reintroduction to the American market. We will soon be able to taste this elegant beef on these shores again.”
Ireland’s cows have it good; its dairy fans have it even better. “The winds, rain and warming influence of the Gulf Stream all contribute to the lush grass our cows feed on year-round. They produce the richest, sweetest milk in the world, which makes our butter taste so sweet and creamy and glow a healthy, golden yellow.”
Cathal’s tip: Cook with it. “The grass-fed cow’s milk flavor elevates your dishes.”
The Irish countryside is awash with blackberries, if you can see them through all those sheep. “People are always amazed by the blackberries growing by the sides of the roads. In the Autumn, when they are ripe, we would pick them by the bucketful and bring them to our mother to make apple and blackberry pie.”
Cathal’s tip: Pick up a Seamus Heaney anthology. “One of my favorite poems is ‘Blackberry Picking’ – you can almost taste the berries while reading it.”
That’s the oddly non-geographically correct nickname for Dublin Bay prawns, which warrant their own festival in April. “This incredible shellfish is one of the true luxury foods of Ireland – revered among culinary experts as much as any truffle or caviar. For me they are much superior to lobster.”
Cathal’s tip: The prawns are not to be missed, but Irish oysters also have their own festival, so get yourself to Galway on the last weekend of September. “It’s the world’s longest-running oyster festival and they are sweet, briny and delicious.”
Many, Many Types of Potatoes/Spuds/Murphys
There’s much to consider about the Irish potato beyond “baked or boiled?” You could, in fact, nerd out on the subject. “Nowadays, many varieties are grown, from Kerrs Pinks to the versatile Golden Wonder. When new potatoes come on the market in Ireland, we know that summer is near and some of the best harvest is at hand.”
Cathal’s tip: Remember that butter? “One of the best things I have ever eaten is freshly dug spuds with salt and Kerrygold.”
Irish food 101. Accept no imitations. “It was originally a peasant dish, made from available ingredients, so there are many variations, however the essentials are mutton (nowadays, more likely lamb), potatoes, onions, carrot and herbs – usually thyme. The cut of meat is usually the cheaper part of the animal, like the shoulder, lap or neck.”
Cathal’s tip: When is Irish stew just… stew? “Many places serve beef stew and call it Irish stew but the real deal is always made with lamb.”
Long before the first foodie graduated to solids, the Irish cooked with kale on the regular in the traditional side dish, colcannon. This hearty mix of mashed potatoes, kale or cabbage, onion, milk and butter is a year-round staple, but it is particularly necessary at Halloween, when it may contain another, potentially incisor-destroying ingredient -- foil-wrapped coins.
Cathal's tip: "It's a great incentive for kids to eat kale. As kids, we'd leave the table with 53 pence, thinking we were rich as hell!"
Irish Whiskey (you can probably drop the “Irish” part by baggage claim)
The Scotch vs. Irish whiskey debate is vast (and that’s leaving bourbon alone), but speaking broadly in terms of personal preference, Irish whiskey tends to have a lighter mouth feel – for a couple of key reasons. “While most others are distilled twice, Irish whiskey is distilled three times. And unlike Scotch, peat is rarely used in the distilling process.”
Cathal’s tip: Be that guy by regaling the bar with the roots of the word “whiskey”: “It’s an Anglicisation of uisce beatha, or uisge beatha, a phrase from the Goidelic branch of languages (Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx), meaning ‘water of life.’” So. There.