From stews to spicebags
Blasta aims to preserve our food heritage – and a taste of our history, writes Peter McGuire
What is Irish food and drink? Is it your dad’s recipe for Irish stew – or does your aunt hold the only real recipe? Is it the Limerick staple of crubeens, a deep- fried pig’s trotter? Dublin coddle, anyone? Or is it a simple nettle soup with brown bread?
It is these, and more: Irish food is also spiceburgers and spicebags, it’s Tayto crisps and red lemonade or the peculiar Donegal drink known as McDaid’s Football Special, as well as more high- end products like Donal Creedon’s traditionally made Macroom Oatmeal.
Chef Darina Allen is one of a group of Irish food champions lending her support to a new project which aims to preserve Ireland’s food heritage.
Blasta is a new all- island archive of recipes and food traditions being collated by the National Folklore Collection in UCD, and its recipes and stories form the basis of a new series, Blasta, on TG4.
Blasta is asking members of the public to submit their old cookbooks, utensils, stories and information about food traditions.
“I was a child at the end of a certain era for Irish food,” says Allen. “We used to visit my great aunt Lil in Tipperary and she was still cooking over an open fire. This was a time before people had ovens.
“I learned how to make apple tarts and bread in a bastible. She taught us to make butter and how to kill a pig. I’m the eldest of nine children and we used to go home from school for lunch, although we called it dinner then.
“Our mother would have a stew or col- cannon for us, and we always had dessert – perhaps stewed apple or rhubarb, steamed pudding or gooseberry tart. We picked damsons, sloes, hazelnuts and blackberries in season. We gathered watercress and chopped it up to serve in a sandwich with butter; this is a nutritious green and people knew it.”
Jonny Dillon, archivist at the National Folklore Collection, says it is vital that we preserve these food traditions.
“We’re looking at handwritten recipes passed from parent to child or neighbour to neighbour, as well as proverbs, rhymes and stories about food, and information on household implements and items.
“We see the ingenuity of our ancestors in how they used every bit of an animal and their intimate knowledge of plants. We see how people on the Blasket Islands collected seabirds and their eggs to survive, and the challenges they faced were so different to the Golden Vale in Munster.
“We’re collecting historic traditions, yes, but this is also about contemporary practices. We’ve collected information on how food plays a central role in calendar customs including Halloween, Christmas and Lent.”
Our food culture shows how we preserve and break with the past. “The Christmas meal and its key components have traditional elements in the ham and turkey, but the dinner varies from home to home and year to year,” says Dillon. “Until recently, the food we ate changed depending on the seasons. Báirín breac, berries and apples are common at this time of year. Halloween was traditionally a day of abstinence from meat so colcannon was popular. There was a sense that the boundaries between this and the other world were thinner at this time, breac wasn’t just a cake but an item that could be used to divine the future, so we put rings and coins in it. These are playful practices but they carry huge symbolic meaning.”
New traditions emerge all the time, and they’re often influenced by other cultures. Today, the spice bag is a popular Asian- inspired dish that started in a Chinese takeaway in Templeogue, and it’s taking its place in the pantheon of Irish food alongside stew and porter cake.
It’s a hangover- friendly mix of chips, crispy chicken or chicken balls, red and green peppers, chilli, onions and spices. “We put our own spin on food,” says Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire, lecturer at the School of Culinary Arts in DIT. “It’s why Supermac’s offers an Irish version of fast food, with cheesy coleslaw chips and bacon and cheese burgers among i ts menu items.”