Ireland's Best Food: More Than Just the Potato
Ireland: The land of meat and potatoes. Hearty dishes like lamb stew and fish and chips may be what the Emerald Isle is known for, but that's just the tip of its culinary iceberg. In the last decade especially, Ireland has had a culinary resurgence. Reconnecting with indigenous ingredients in thoughtful and exciting new ways, Irish chefs have re-established the island nation as a force to be reckoned with on the gastronomic stage. During our recent trip to Ireland, we got in touch with our Irish roots and enjoyed some truly delectable dishes. From shots of Jameson to shots of oysters, we got up to our ears in Irish cuisine -- and now you can too. Prepare your palates, it's time to dig into Ireland. Sláinte!
Ok, So It's Still A Lot About The Potato
Ireland may have grown up a lot in the last decade when it comes to cooking, but that doesn't mean that the potato is just going to disappear over the Cliffs of Moher. The versatile root vegetable has been a staple of Irish cooking since the 1500s, served alongside meat stews, in casseroles and soups, and all by its lonesome in simple but nonetheless exquisite dishes. Champ (an Irish take on mashed potatoes) and Dublin coddle (a hearty dish with bacon, sausage, and onions) are both staples.
But one of the most delicious ways to eat a potato is in a boxty. These traditional potato pancakes, delicious in their own right, are elevated to a whole other level when stuffed with either fish, meat or vegetables. Legend has it that this well-loved dish will even help you snag a brogue-wielding fella, for as the Irish say, "Boxty on the griddle / Boxty in the pan, / If you can't make boxty, / You'll never get a man."
Fresh Seafood Reigns Supreme
Seafood often isn't the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Irish cuisine. But the nation is, after all, an isle. That means fresh seafood is available year-round. Local favorites include smoked wild Atlantic salmon, plump native oysters, seared scallops, Dublin Bay prawns and grilled black sole -- all of which can be delivered fresh from boat to plate in hours. At The Shelbourne, one of Dublin's most famous and historic hotels, fresh Irish oysters are put on display at the No. 27 Bar & Lounge. Selections from a raw bar are available, as are sandwiches and traditional pub fare.
Locally-Sourced Gourmet Fare
You've heard it a million times, but let's just reiterate: Locally-sourced cuisine is simply better. Why would you want something that's been frozen, flown-in and fudged-up to resemble native flavors when you can take a delicious bite into the real McCoy? Restaurants and farms across Ireland are opening the gates to their gardens, offering diners a chance to experience all that this rich country's landscape has to offer. In fact, many working farms -- often attached to inns or hotels -- welcome travelers to try their hand at cooking. Various cookeries host classes on the herbs and vegetables that grow in Ireland, while others introduce visitors to the cooking techniques and traditions of the Emerald Isle.
At Ballynahinch Castle in County Galway, Chef Xin Sun strives to use meat, fish and other ingredients sourced from the Connemara region whenever possible at both on-site restaurants. Sun makes use of ingredients, such as mushrooms, grown in the on-site garden, as well as the wealth of fresh fish and game available on Ireland's west coast. The delicious and artfully presented selection of seafood, seen above, is just one example of the hotel's culinary prowess. And at The Merrion, gourmet charcuterie made with local ingredients rubs shoulders with traditional dishes on the hotel restaurant's impressive menu.
Tea Time Traditions
As of 2012, the Irish consume more tea per capita than any other nation in the world (Yep, England, you've got some work to do). Most individuals drink four cups of tea -- referred to locally as cha -- per day, with some drinking upwards of six cuppas every 24 hours. While many today are sipping to soak up tea's bountiful health benefits, the traditions associated with tea date back to the early 1800s. Tea here is usually taken with a lot milk and sugar, and is slightly spicier and stronger than the traditional English blend. High tea has become a formal affair, with decadent desserts and fine china. The tea service at The Merrion, seen above, is a perfect example of such extravagantly satisfying meals.
Sticky and Sweet: Irish Desserts
Irish desserts are as unique as they are scrumptious. Staples include Donegal Oatmeal Cream (a rich oatmeal cream topped with a sweet and tangy berry sauce), chocolate potato cake (the potato is everywhere in Ireland), and whiskey pie (whiskey's pretty common, too). Another favorite is Dean Swift's burnt oranges -- a buttery, sweet and crunchy creation with caramelized sugar and Irish whiskey.
The restaurant at the Bushmills Inn serves some of the best gourmet cuisine in Northern Ireland, and its toffee pudding (seen above) is a delicious example of Irish sweets. Served with a rich toffee sauce and fresh cream, the sticky and warm pudding is a staple on dessert menus in Ireland, and many locals are divided on which pub makes the best incarnation of the dessert. [Ed. note: If anyone can top the Bushmill Inn's rendition, we'll be extremely impressed.]
Guinness, Guinness, Jameson, and More Guinness
Did you honestly think we'd forget the booze? The Irish seem to drink the heavenly (and admittedly heavy) Guinness as most people do water. It's still the most popular alcoholic beverage in Ireland -- despite the onslaught of foreign beers introduced to the island -- and with good reason. Its distinctive flavor (a slightly burnt tang accounted for by the unmalted barley used in production) and creamy texture make it a classic with the Irish at home and abroad.
The inclusion of Guinness in various dishes is a given. Slow-cooked stews benefit from the rich stout's complex flavor, while honey (which the Irish have been cultivating for centuries) has been known to receive its own Guinness infusions. And trust us, there's nothing better than a hearty slice of sweet brown bread dipped in warm Guinness-infused honey. Except maybe following it up with a shot of Jameson. Visitors to the Emerald Isle should be sure to check out both the Guinness Storehouse and the Old Jameson Distillery during their travels -- free samples are available at both!
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