From stews to spice­bags

Blasta aims to pre­serve our food her­itage – and a taste of our his­tory, writes Peter McGuire

The Irish Times Magazine - - INTERVIEW -

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.”

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