by Jp McMahon
I’ve always struggled to answer the question ‘What sort of food do you have in Ireland’. I worked in multinational settings for a number of years and it was something that came up fairly often. Soda Bread? Irish Stew? Bacon and Cabbage? I’m not actually sure I’ve ever eaten Irish Stew, I’m a fairly recent convert to Soda Bread; Bacon and Cabbage are an occasional weekday family dinner. I wish I had read this book sooner – then I might have had a better idea of the right way to respond.
In the early part of the book Jp explores the history of food (and drink) on this island, from the time when it wasn’t yet an island, right up to today. I said in a recent review that if a cookbook is heavy with prose I like to learn something, or enjoy a food journey with the author. This book ticks both those boxes.
Look and Feel
It’s a heavyweight book, literally and figuratively. Beautiful photography and styling from Anita Murphy and Zania Koppe enhance an elegant, clean layout. If you invest in this book please take the time to read the history and introductions – it will make it easier to see how it all hangs together. The chapters are laid out by food groups – eggs and dairy, vegetables, shellfish, boar and pork, cakes, stocks and sauces etc. Each chapter is introduced comprehensively – worth taking time over.
There’s a good guide to help you with wild plants, seaweed and fungi, a bibliography that may tempt you to look further into the history of Irish Food, and a comprehensive index.
What sort of food is it?
You could flick through this book and, depending on which pages your eye fell on, decide there was nothing you would want to cook. However, if you did that you would be missing a huge collection of very accessible recipes.
The range of recipes in this book is staggering. Everything from A Potato Crisp Sandwich (pg 74) to Boar’s Head with Pistachios (pg 227). In some cases the recipes feel like ‘how to’ instructions – for example the Making Your Own Chips recipe on page 75 (which is now the only way I will ever cook chips ever again), or how to Smoke an Eel (pg 146) or Making Your Own Sausages (pg 244). But there are lots of regular recipes to get on with too. So far I have made Venison Pies (pg 204), Beef and Stout Stew (pg 282), and the fabulous Stout and Treacle Bread (pg 298 – my effort pictured).
Obscure equipment needed?
If you classify turf and hay as equipment then yes, on occasion (can you use petshop hay to cook with – must check!). In terms of pots and pans I didn’t see anything that would be a problem.
Ingredients easy to find?
One of the first things I noticed was that the list of ingredients in most recipes is relatively short, especially compared to the Indian recipes I have tried in the last few months. Short or not – you are going to need more than a corner shop to source some of the ingredients.
As a city dweller I would struggle to find many of the ingredients that come from the wild – I have limited opportunity to forage. I am out of doors regularly, but parks and golf courses are not suitable places to forage for food (spraying reasons). Roadside hedges are few and far between in the burbs, and not especially suitable because of traffic pollution anyway. All the same, there are suppliers of very niche foodstuffs and fantastic butchers and fishmongers opening up in many large towns so it’s not a dealbreaker!
Some recipes feature ingredients I know I will never use (see boar’s head above). But that’s okay actually – there are so many recipes and ideas in this book that you can easily pass a few by without feeling cheated.
Who is it for?
The history bits will be of interest to anyone who eats; the recipes themselves are wide ranging and everyone will find loads worth trying. Spoiler alert – there’s a bit of rigour missing in some of the recipes I tried (ingredient not mentioned in the method, quantity of pastry not enough to achieve the final dish) but an experienced cook will figure it out easily enough. Top tip for any book you’re getting to know is, of course, to do a dress-rehearsal before going curtain-up to friends.
I loved the reminders of the food of my childhood, not in any sentimental way, just as a hilarious reminder of how bad it actually was. Scrawny whiting floured and fried in something called cookeen, over-boiled veg, lumpy soup made from powder, stews dished at least an hour before the meat would have been tender, coleslaw and potato salad from tins (I kid you not, it was posh).
I will go back to this book again and again, for information and ideas as well as to try new recipes.
Published by: Phaidon Press
ISBN: 978 183866 0567