Today's Irish fare: so different from Grandma's day

The Baltimore Sun

I was happy to hear that Irish chefs are headed our way. Starting next Wednesday, a contingent of four Northern Ireland chefs will be cooking on the National Mall in Washington as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. A makeshift pub will be set up to dispense food and drink.

Until recently, this was not news that would excite me. I thought I knew Irish food. My grandmother was born in County Kerry and lived with us until I was a teenager. Every St. Patrick's Day, our house would fill with celebrants, many of them monsignors. There would be music, song and stories. But the food? Well, it was much like the fare I found on my first visit to Ireland 24 years ago - cooked to within an inch of its life and a bit bland.

However, two recent trips improved my opinion of Irish food. One was a journey to Dublin in April. It was a business trip for my wife and a pleasure trip for me. I ate and drank well. Lots of pub fare, good beer, fresh ingredients and storied history.

Dublin struck me as a spirited city, its economy fired up by its membership in the European Union. Now, judging by letters to the editor of the Dublin newspapers, the worries are inflation and sprawl. Dublin is also a pricey place. A glass - not a pint - of stout cost the equivalent of $4. That, as the Irish say, is "dear."

My second journey was a jaunt to Northern Virginia. One spring night, I made my way to Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, where a cadre of visiting chefs from Northern Ireland prepared a variety of dishes showing off their native cuisine.

Northern Ireland is a separate political entity from the Republic of Ireland. It, too, is a member of the European Union, and while it has not prospered as quickly as the Republic, it seems to be catching up quickly, especially since "the troubles" between Protestants and Catholics have quieted.

My first taste of Northern Ireland fare was a slice of delicately smoked salmon topped with an artful mixture of whole-grain mustard and horseradish cream. This was salmon from waters near Donegal Bay, and that meant, I was told, it was not as oily as fish from other waters. Next came a leek-and-potato soup topped with buttermilk froth, a dish that was both light on the tongue and rich on flavor. This was much different from the Irish fare I grew up eating.

The entree, seared loin of lamb, was accompanied by an adroit blend of cabbage and bacon, and a serving of "champ," a potato dish that has many names and many ingredients.

In some locales in Northern Ireland, "champ" is called "poundies," said Sean Owens, chef of Gardiners Restaurant in Magherafelt. Liz Moore, another Northern Ireland chef, told me that the ingredients in champ change from region to region in Ireland.

"If the champ has poached onions or scallions in it, then it is from the North," said Moore. But in the South, she said, the champ is likely to come not just with onions, but also with nettles.

Moore, who runs a cookery school in County Fermanagh, is one of the chefs cooking on the National Mall next week. She told me that a key component of this newly enlivened cooking is its reliance on locally grown ingredients.

Ireland, Moore pointed out, has a lot of farmland, and it gets a lot of rain. These conditions provide chefs with an abundance of local goods, from vegetables, to beef and pork, to fresh seafood. Even dulse, a raw edible seaweed grown off the Northern Ireland coast, is finding its way onto menus. I ate some served with homemade ice cream as an unusual dessert at the Restaurant Eve gathering. While I wasn't wild about the dish, it was the best seaweed I have ever eaten.

Pride is another element of Irish fare. When I dined in Dublin and when I sampled the dishes of the Northern Ireland chefs, I was struck by the way local ingredients and the native names of the dishes were stressed.

At the Old Stand pub near Trinity College, I had a lovely "Evening Gammon," or ham steak. At the Old Jameson Distillery, I feasted on sweet corn boxty, a savory potato pancake. At Guinness Storehouse, the most visited site in Dublin, both the bread and black pudding served in the brewery restaurant were named after a central ingredient, Guinness.

"We've got such good land and such good animals," Moore said, "that we don't need to disguise our food with French names. We call it as it is."

I knew the Irish were incredibly proud of their potatoes; some 150 varieties have been grown there. But I wasn't ready for the high regard they held for their buttermilk. In historic tour after historic tour that I took in Dublin, I heard that a diet of potatoes and buttermilk was all an Irishman needed for good health.

And Nick Price, proprietor of Nick's Warehouse in Belfast, told me in no uncertain terms that Irish buttermilk was superior to that found in United States.

The Irish buttermilk has more tang, he said. American buttermilk is too mild for his tastes.

That is a switch, I told myself. The Irish now are calling our food bland.

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