Ireland’s recently acquired reputation as a gourmet destination is thoroughly deserved. A host of chefs and producers are leading a foodie revolution that, at its heart, is about bringing to the table the kind of meals that have long been taken for granted on well-run Irish farms.
Coupled with the growing sophistication of the Irish palate – by now well used to the varied flavours of worldwide cuisines – it’s relatively easy to eat well in all budgets. Needless to say, this has been a boon to the tourist industry, who no longer have to explain why so many Irish meals are so memorable for the completely wrong reasons.
Here's a starter guide to Irish food and drink, with some etiquette tips and terminology to get you well on your way to sampling the best the Irish have to offer:
Local specialities: food
Potatoes - It’s a wonder the Irish retain their good humour amid the perpetual potato-baiting they endure. But, despite the stereotyping, potatoes are still paramount here and you’ll see lots of them on your travels. The mashed potato dishes colcannon and champ (with cabbage and spring onion, respectively) are two of the tastiest recipes in the country.
Meat & seafood - Irish meals are usually meat-based, with beef, lamb and pork common options. Seafood, long neglected, is finding a place on the table in Irish homes. It’s widely available in restaurants and is often excellent, especially in the west. Oysters, trout and salmon are delicious, particularly if they’re direct from the sea or a river rather than a fish farm. The famous Dublin Bay prawn isn’t actually a prawn but a lobster. At its best, it’s superlative, but it’s priced accordingly. If you’re going to splurge, do so here – but make sure you choose live Dublin Bay prawns because once these fellas die, they quickly lose their flavour.
Soda bread - The most famous Irish bread, and one of the signature tastes of Ireland. Irish flour is soft and doesn’t take well to yeast as a raising agent, so Irish bakers of the 19th century leavened their bread with bicarbonate of soda. Combined with buttermilk, it makes a superbly tasty bread, and is often on the breakfast menus at B&Bs.
The fry - Perhaps the most feared Irish speciality is the fry – the heart attack on a plate that is the second part of so many B&B deals. In spite of the hysterical health fears, the fry is still one of the most common traditional meals in the country. Who can say no to a plate of fried bacon, sausages, black pudding, white pudding, eggs and tomatoes? For the famous Ulster fry, common throughout the North, simply add fadge (potato bread).
Local specialities: drink
Stout - While Guinness has become synonymous with stout the world over, few outside Ireland realise that there are two other major producers competing for the favour of the Irish drinker: Murphy’s and Beamish & Crawford, both based in Cork City.
Tea - The Irish drink more tea, per capita, than any other nation in the world and you’ll be offered a cup as soon as you cross the threshold of any Irish home. Taken with milk (and sugar, if you want) rather than lemon, preferred blends are very strong, and nothing like the namby-pamby versions that pass for Irish breakfast tea elsewhere.
Whiskey - At last count, there were almost 100 different types of Irish whiskey, brewed by only three distilleries – Jameson’s, Bushmills and Cooley’s. A visit to Ireland reveals a depth of excellence that will make the connoisseur’s palate spin, while winning over many new friends to what the Irish call uisce beatha (water of life).
The Irish aren’t big on restrictive etiquette, preferring friendly informality to any kind of stuffy to-dos. Still, the following are a few tips to dining with the Irish:
Children - All restaurants welcome kids up to 7pm, but pubs and some restaurants don’t allow them in the evening. Family restaurants have children’s menus, others have reduced portions of regular menu items.
Returning a dish - If the food is not to your satisfaction, it’s best to politely explain what’s wrong with it as soon as you can; any respectable restaurant will endeavour to replace the dish immediately.
Paying the bill - If you insist on paying the bill for everyone, be prepared for a first, second and even third refusal to countenance such an exorbitant act of generosity. But don’t be fooled: the Irish will refuse something several times even if they’re delighted with it. Insist gently but firmly and you’ll get your way!
Dare to try…
Ironically, while the Irish palate has become more adventurous, it is the old-fashioned Irish menu that features some fairly challenging dishes. Dare to try the following:
Black pudding - Made from congealed pork blood, suet and other fillings; a ubiquitous part of an Irish cooked breakfast.
Boxty - A Northern Irish starchy potato cake made with a half-and-half mix of cooked mashed potatoes and grated, strained raw potato.
Carrageen - The typical Irish seaweed that can be found in dishes as diverse as salad and ice cream.
Corned beef tongue - Usually accompanied by cabbage, this dish is still found on a traditional Irish menu.
Lough Neagh eel - A speciality of Northern Ireland, typically eaten around Halloween; it’s usually served in chunks and with a white onion sauce.