With so much talk these days of Paleo diets and eating how your ancestors ate, I was struck by the realisation that I had no idea what Irish people ate before the introduction of the potato into Ireland. What did the Irish subsist on? Was it primarily meat or vegetables? And when did the potato first come to the Green Isles? These were just some of the questions I wanted to answer in today’s post. And who knows, maybe the next fad diet will be the If the Irish Ate It (ITIAI) diet?
So how far back can we trace the Irish diet?
Well very far back it seems. As early as the 1st century BC, Greek writers such as Athenaus were describing the eating habits of the Gaels for those in mainland Europe. Athenaus wrote of the Irish dining habits and cuisine, “the Celts place dried grass on the floor when they eat their meals, using tables which are raised slightly off the ground.” He would later write that the typical Irish feast centered an abundance of roasted and boiled meat, which were eaten with bare hands. Delicious. As the Celts began to fade away and the Normans took their place, the Irish cuisine expanded to include a vast array of dairy products, grains and vegetables. Interestingly, scholars still maintain that from the time of the Celts to the introduction of the potato centuries later the Irish diet remained relatively the same, revolving around dairy, grain, meat and vegetables.
Ireland: A Nation of Dairy Lovers
It’s fair to say that dairy played a large role in the Irish diet. Indeed, almost every account of what the Irish ate from prehistoric times until the introduction of the potato involves some description of dairy. Unsurprisingly given the vast green spaces, Irish farmers prided themselves on cattle. Something that interestingly can be found in many of the Ancient Irish Epics in which to steal another tribes cattle was a grievous sin. It was, banbidh, or “white foods” that the Irish of old seemed to live off of. Depending on the time of year, and in many cases, the disposition of their employer, Irish families chose from drinking milk, fresh curds, old curds, buttermilk, ‘real curds’ and a sour drink made by mixing whey with water (did the Irish invent the world’s first protein shake?).
Drinking milk was almost a national pastime at times. In 1690, one visitor from England noted that the native Irish consumed milk “above twenty several sorts of ways and what is strangest for the most part love it best when sourest.” The sour milk the visitor was most likely referring to was bainne clabair or “thick milk”, which many people postulate was either old milk and sour cream. Aside from milk, the Irish had a real fondness for butter as well. This was humorously discussed by Irish historian A. T. Lucas who in 1960 wrote that
Recent international statistics show that the consumption of butter per head of the population is higher in Ireland than almost anywhere else in the world and the writer believes that the history of butter in the country can be summed by saying that, were comparable figures available, the position would be found to be the same in any year from at least as early as the beginning of the historic period down to 1700.
Similar to their milk fondness, the Irish found a way to produce a variety of different products. From the 12th century onwards, records exist detailing onion butters, garlic butters, sour butters and so on. A favorite style for many natives seems to have been ‘bog butter’ for want of a better word. Butter would be buried in a bog for a long time, allowing the butter to absorb a bog flavour. Dairy wasn’t the only mainstay in the Irish diet however…
Grains, Glorious Grains…
Whereas today’s Irish consumers can choose anything from quinoa to couscous, the Irish of old contented themselves primarily with oats and barley. This had as much to do with convenience as it did with the temperamental Irish weather. Oats could be stored for long periods of time and could also be used to thicken soups and stews. Porridge was possibly the most popular grain staple food. According to Danachair, porridge was made very thick as a morning meal or almost liquid. In the liquid state it was usually eaten at nigh and was consumed either hot and cold. Breads were also made from either oats or barely. Interestingly, ‘traditional’ Irish soda bread didn’t exist until at least the latter half of the 19th century when baking soda was first created. Other grain meals included sowens, a jelly like drink made from fermented wheat husks and boiled sowens.
Protein Power: Meat, Fish and Eggs
It appears that right up until the introduction of the potato into Ireland that the rural economy was focused on the rearing of cattle. In the pre-Christian era, the number of cattle in a man’s possession depicted his wealth and holding cattle meant an unlimited supple of dairy products, which as we have learned were a mainstay in the Irish diet. The importance of the cow with regards dairy production, meant that beef was only eaten in the winter time as a means of culling the non-breeding and older animals. For this reason beef became known during Brehon times as ‘winter food’. Cows would be slaughtered in the winter months and the beef preserved using salt. Up until the eighth century, beef, pork, venison and mutton were the meat options of choice.
Following a relative drop in the number of deers in Ireland from the eight century onwards, beef, pork and mutton became the go to options. There are some accounts of horses being eaten but it is difficult to ascertain if that was out of necessity and to what extent it happened. Of course being an island nation, the Irish also partook in fishing. As late as the 17th century, English explorers such as Sir William Perry would note the abundance of fish in the rivers and lakes in Ireland. The variety of fish caught and eaten was something special. The Irish had access to a variety of shellfish, white fish and of course salmon. As anyone with a knowledge of Irish mythology knows, salmon held a special place in Irish hearts. It was said to have magical powers and for many years wishing someone the health of the salmon meant to bestow on them long life, strength, and good fortune. Similar to beef, fatty fish and white fish would be salted, dried and stored for future months. Eggs were also used. Primarily those from ducks and sea-birds. Occasionally goose eggs were eaten on special occasions.
Fruit and Vegetables
So what was a traditional Irish vegetable? It appears that for many centuries, the vegetables of choice included cabbages, onions, garlic and parsnip alongside wild herbs and greens. Eventually kale and carrots would also be added to the Irish plate with greater regularity. In the summer months, a variety of fruits were available such as sloe, wild cherries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, rowan berries, whortleberries, crabapples and elderberries. It is interesting to note that such fruits were grown wild and that the only fruit that appears to have been grown deliberately were apples.
It wouldn’t be an accurate portrayal of the traditional Irish diet without a conversation about alcohol. Guinness propaganda aside, for many centuries, the traditional drink of Ireland was ale made from corn and flavored with herbs, plants, honey and spices. It was drunk hot or cold by the whole family. The strength of this drink is difficult to ascertain as some scholars such as O’Brien have argued that this ale may have been very low in alcohol content due to a quick fermentation process. Aside from corn ale, mead, the oldest drink in the world, was drunk by the higher echelons of ancient Irish society. In later centuries, sloe wine, a wine made by boiling mashed sloe berries, found it’s way into Irish cups. And in case you’re wondering, Guinness wasn’t invented until the 1700s!
Despite it’s popularity in today’s Irish cuisine, the potato is a relatively new import into the Irish diet. The starchy carb was first sold in Spain in 1573 and by the 1590s had spread throughout Europe. Whilst the exact date of its arrival in Ireland is unknown, by the mid-1600s, it was the cornerstone of Irish diets. In the time before the Potato famine in the 1800s, a diet of oats and potatoes helped sustain the Irish peasantry. The change in the Irish diet after the introduction of the potato cannot be underestimated. Take for example, a menu plan from an Irish workhouse in the 1800s
Breakfast Dinner Supper
|Men||4lbs potatoes, 1 pint skimmed milk.||The same, with herring instead of milk in Winter.||Not always provided.|
|Women||3 lbs potatoes, 1/2-1 pint skimmed milk||The same.|
|Men||5lbs potatoes, 1 pint sour milk||The same. Herring when milk cannot be had.||The same|
|Women||3lbs potatoes, 1 pint milk||The same||The same|
So how can one eat like their Irish ancestor? Quite simply. Eat real, unprocessed food with a good balance of meat, vegetables and carbohydrates alongside generous amounts of dairy. If you want to go more modern add in potatoes. If you want to go super modern just head to your local take away!