A feast, plain and simple

You wait ages for a decent Irish cookbook, then two arrive together, says Melanie McDonagh


This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

When it comes to cook-books, it’s the hardest thing of all to write about simple food. Jane Grigson gave a recipe for cooking kippers which involved putting hot water on a kip- per in a jug. Simple, but all you need. Elizabeth David’s Summer Cooking is a collection mostly of remarkably straightforward dishes (has there ever been anything easier or more delicious than blackcurrant fool?).

Irish cooking is, by and large, simple. Bacon and Cabbage. Soda Bread. Apple Tart. Colcannon. Barm Brack. Potato cakes. Black pudding. Irish stew. Blackberry jam. It’s all easy, given goodwill, a bit of practice and decent ingredients. That excellent thing, the full Irish breakfast, gives poor ingredients nowhere to hide.

The challenge in writing about Irish cooking is to get the simple and familiar things right, while including the interesting elements that have been added through time

Of course, there’s an awful lot of overlap with the rest of the British Isles, though there are differences. You’ll find it easy to buy big cartons of buttermilk in an Irish supermarket because people still make their own soda bread. The pig lives on in the diet, though no longer in the back yard (and he’s often poorly reared): there are joints of ham everywhere at Christmas because people serve up boiled ham alongside the turkey.

You cannot hope to replicate an Irish dinner with English waxy potatoes; in Ireland spuds are, by default, floury — “balls of flour” is a compliment to a decent potato and you identify your favourites by name — Kerr’s Pinks, Roosters, Golden Wonders — not insultingly by colour: white or red.

So, the challenge in writing about Irish cooking is to get the simple and familiar things right, while including the interesting elements that have been added through time, not least during the Big House era of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. If you read Theodora FitzGibbon’s A Taste of Ireland on traditional dishes, you’ll find food for the poor, the gourmet and the gluttonous.

There’s been a flourishing of modern Irish cooking in the last 20 years just as there has been in Britain, with the same emphasis on local ingredients and seasonality. Ingredients that poorer people used once to eat, shellfish, eel and seaweed, are returning to the dinner plate, only in terrifically chichi restaurants. There has also been a real flowering of Irish cheesemaking in recent years, handicapped, alas, by an obsessively interventionist food safety inspectorate which ensures most cheeses are pasteurised.

At exactly the same time there has been the same downward pressure on food quality as in Britain: people who never learned anything at their mother’s knee resorting to pasta as a default staple; bad takeaway pizza replacing fish and chips; tinned tomato bringing its tangy, inescapable and ubiquitous flavour into everything; wraps and sushi replacing sandwiches; international supermarkets such as Tesco and Lidl bringing precisely the same food to my home in Ireland as to my part of London; and no nuns in schools to teach the girls how to make soda bread — we were assured you’d never keep a husband happy without it. These are, then, the challenges for Irish food writers: doing justice to the old traditions as well as to modern Irish cooking and identifying the distinctive excellent elements in the food of the nation.

The Irish Cook Book by J.P. McMahon Phaidon, £35

J.P. McMahon has risen splendidly to that challenge with The Irish Cook Book. Phaidon has an established reputation for these magisterial books on national cuisine. Its captivating Turkish Cookbook by Musa Dagdeviren was the best cookbook published last year. Before that there was Magnus Nilsson’s Nordic Cookbook and Nordic Baking, the best and most opinionated accounts of that
subject. McMahon, like these authors, has his own restaurants; he’s also an art historian, and the book’s introduction about the history of Irish food is sympathetic, comprehensive and lively.

To begin with, I didn’t think I was going to love McMahon. The first thing I look for in an Irish cookbook is soda bread, about which I am a fascist. The ingredients should be: flour, a bit of butter, salt, baking soda and buttermilk. If it’s a sweet version, you may use a bit of sugar and dried fruit. You can, if you must, go for more elaborate versions, with oatmeal and a little treacle.

But McMahon drove a coach and horses through the whole project by adding eggs to the mix. I asked him severely what he was up to when I met him at the publisher’s lunch: “I thought it would be nice,” he said cheerfully. “It made it more cake-like.” And you know what? It was delicious, if not exactly soda bread. To make things worse, he intimated in the book that it was a product not of Irish griddles over centuries but of the nineteenth-century production of bicarbonate of soda.

But I cheered up wonderfully as I cooked my way through the book. Any man who can produce a recipe for egg salad sandwiches, with spring onions and tomatoes, has his feet on the ground. In fact, he gives you a recipe for cultured butter, plus cheffy variants with herbs and seaweeds.

There are excellent discussions about the history of an ingredient or the science behind its use (buttermilk as a marinade for meat and poultry, say). Many recipes are simplicity itself; he suggests, for instance, baking a Milleen’s cheese like a Camembert, but smothering it with roasted hazelnuts. Yum. He gives an account of oats in Irish food — one of the ancient trinity of staples, with leeks and milk; the three are combined here in an old recipe for soup. There’s porridge with sheep’s milk or alongside eel or just with apples and honey. The swede turnip gets its rightful place (it’s woefully underrated) in a mash with potatoes.

Potatoes have a whole section: there’s a potato crisp sandwich as well as colcannon and champ and boxty, the pre-eminent potato dishes. There’s the now fashionable seaweed (with leg of lamb), spring nettle (once an Irish country staple), and wild garlic, here in a pesto with hazelnuts. The Irish stew recipe couldn’t be simpler.

It’s that combination of respect for tradition and ingredients and a capacity to make old things new which makes this author so winning. You get a good standard recipe for fruit crumble, then a variant with hazelnuts and elderflower custard. And he makes sherry trifle, not as Elizabeth David would, but with packet jelly. Fancy! Oh and there’s a recipe for ice-cream made with hay, another with roasted barley. Nothing traditional about these, but fun all the same. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he takes the subject seriously. Good man, good book.

My Wild Atlantic Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections by Maura O’Connell Foley (author and publisher), £30

You wait ages for a decent Irish cookbook, then two arrive together. The second is Maura O’Connell Foley’s My Wild Atlantic Kitchen, published by the author, and named, not after the cuisine (though there’s a good fish section) but after the walking route along the south-west coast of Ireland which was given a genius brand name by the tourist board.

It’s the kind of cooking she’s been doing since 1961 when she set up her cafe in Kenmare to her present hotel and restaurant, Shelburne Lodge. It bears out the fact that there has been very good cooking in Ireland way before the present generation of creative chefs; this is the kind of food I really want to eat. It’s mostly country house cooking, traditional dishes but with occasional modern twists. Did you ever think you’d find Lobster Thermidor in a new cookbook? You do here; the author’s debt to French chefs is unabashed. Mrs Foley’s motto is Julia Child’s: if you’re afraid of butter, use cream. Mousselines, patés and mousses still have a home with her.

It’s proof, I think, that there is more to Irish cooking than ingredients alone; it’s a certain generosity of spirit on the part of the chef, and a goodly greed on the part of the guest.

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