While most people think of Ireland as a nation of “meat and potato” eaters, vegetables and dairy products are also a vital part of the Irish diet.
One of my favorite Irish proverbs concerns Ireland’s most famous vegetable: “Be eating one potato, peeling a second, have a third in your fist, and your eye on a fourth.” For me the adage implies: Always have a back-up plan.
Ireland’s other tremendously popular veggie figures in its own morsel of good advice: “There’s no use boiling your cabbage twice.” The message here seems to be: Do it right the first time.
Odds are, the second saying has been around much longer. Potatoes became a primary staple only after their introduction to the Irish pantry in the mid-16th century. On the other hand, cabbage, which is called brassagh in Irish, has been a documented Irish culinary essential for more than 1,000 years.
Pieces of charred bone and massive shell middens found at archaeological sites evidence the consumption of seafood and meat in ancient Ireland. Even though it is difficult to prove which vegetables were eaten before the 8th century, it is safe to assume that people relied on what they could gather in the wild such as onions, leeks, sorrel, nettles and watercress. The revered hazelnut, capable of bestowing wisdom on whoever ate it (as told in the tale of clever Fionn mac Cumhaill who ate a salmon that had fed on the magical nut), was collected and used in cakes as a ground meal, roasted or eaten raw. Various fruits – sloes, wild cherries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, rowans, whortleberries, crabapples and elderberries – would have been gathered in the summer and either eaten fresh or dried. The only fruit authenticated to have been deliberately cultivated is the apple. A passage in the 8th century Brehon Laws stipulates that a tenant who lost his land for any reason must be compensated for any apple trees he had planted.
Things began to change with the arrival of Christianity and monasteries. Medieval monks nurtured extensive gardens where they grew all manner of edible plants as well as medicinal herbs. From the 9th to 12th century, literature mentions the lubgort or vegetable garden that was fertilized with manure in the autumn and planted in the spring with a variety of vegetables. The onion-like cainenn was widely cultivated, and eaten raw or added to stews. Immus (celery), foltchep (a kind of chive or leek), meacan (carrots), and cerrbacan (parsnips) were also grown.
Peas and beans were introduced by the Normans for thickening stews or mixing with cereals to make a type of bread. After the 12th century, turnips were also planted, plus a type of wild cabbage and kale. Watercress was used as a salad vegetable and added to stews as were several water plant roots, which were also eaten as vegetables. A wild garlic called crem was primarily a flavoring agent but it was also eaten as a vegetable.
In the days of the High Kings, a chieftain’s wealth was measured by his cattle holdings, as illustrated in Táin Bó Cúailgne (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the early 12th century epic in the Ulster Cycle of hero tales that recounts how a war erupted over the theft of a bull. The vast majority of animals in Ireland’s herds were, however, dairy cows that were more prized because they provided a constant and virtually free supply of ‘white meats’ (milk, butter, and cheese). In the 11th century tale Aislinge Meic Con Glinne, the Ardagh scholar Mac Conglinne calls himself “greedy and hungry for white-meats” and visits the court of the Munster king where he finds a wondrous cornucopia of good things to eat. The importance of dairy cows is further illustrated in Odhar Chiarain (St. Ciaran’s Cow), which appears in the 12th century Leabhar na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow).
Although cow’s milk was the most common source of “white meat,” the milk of goats and sheep is also mentioned in early records. Goat’s milk, now known to be more easily digested than cow’s milk due to its low lactose content, was rightly, though serendipitously, believed to be the best food for children and invalids. Sheep’s milk was considered a luxury, possibly because sheep produce much less milk than cows.
From these three milks the Irish made many cheeses: tanach, a hard-pressed skim milk cheese; that, a soft cheese made from warm sour milk curds; gruth, a curdy buttermilk cheese; mulchan, a soft buttermilk cheese that was pressed and molded; and milsean, sweet milk curds that were eaten at the end of a banquet or festival feast. A semi-soft cream cheese made from thick sweet cream with a bit of salt and dry mustard was also popular.
Cheese is even mentioned in accounts of Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid, Ireland’s patrons. Patrick is said to have had a cheese maker in his retinue on his missionary travels. Legend tells that Brigid once made enough cheese to feed all the people of Leinster with just a few cups of milk.
While most people think of Ireland as a nation with a “meat and potatoes” culinary tradition, vegetables and dairy products have always played key roles in everyone’s diet. Meat appeared frequently at meals only on the wealthiest tables, with the general population experiencing such culinary delight solely on special occasions, if at all.
It should be no surprise, then, that there has been strong interest in a “vegetarian” diet in Ireland for more than 130 years. The Belfast Vegetarian Association was formed in 1878 as a branch of England’s Vegetarian Society, and by 1890, the movement had spread to Dublin. The present Vegetarian Society of Ireland was founded in 1978. Its primary aim is to advance education, and to promote the positive aspects of vegetarianism in relation to health, animal welfare and environmental issues. To that end, the Society publishes a quarterly magazine entitled The Irish Vegetarian and a cookbook titled Simply Vegetarian, organizes vegetarian-themed meet-ups all around the country, sponsors the annual World Vegetarian Day fair in Dublin, promotes “Meat Free Monday” as a way for people to transition to alternative proteins other than meat, and offers dozens of easy international vegetarian recipes on its website, vegetarian.ie.
Ireland’s most famous vegetarian was the acclaimed playwright and politically active Nobel laureate George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). A staunch vegetarian for 70 years, he is said to have stated: “Animals are my friends, and I don’t eat my friends.”
Perhaps this too will become an Irish proverb someday. Something to think about. Sláinte! ♦
3-Cheese Broccoli Flan
1 medium broccoli crown, steamed & chopped roughly
2⁄3 cup crumbled feta cheese
2⁄3 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1⁄2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
3 eggs, beaten
2 1⁄2 cups milk
Preheat oven to 350F. Butter a 9-inch glass pie pan. Sprinkle with chopped broccoli, feta, cheddar and half of the parmesan. Mix beaten eggs with milk and then pour slowly over the broccoli and cheese until it almost reaches the top edge of the pie pan. Sprinkle remaining parmesan cheese over the surface. Place the pie pan on a rimmed cookie sheet (in case the flan bubbles over during cooking). Bake for approx. 45 minutes or until a knife slipped into the flan can be withdrawn without any milky custard adhering to it. Makes 6-8 servings.
1 1⁄2 pound potatoes, peeled and cut in eighths
1 bunch scallions, minced
1⁄2 cup milk
Place potatoes in pot with water to cover, bring to a boil and cook until fork tender, then drain. While potatoes cook, put minced scallions in a small saucepan with milk and heat, but don’t boil. Mash drained potatoes, scoop scallions from milk and stir into mashed potatoes. Add enough milk to make the mixture creamy. Serves 4. (Note: if any champ is left over, mix in a few tablespoons of flour the next day and fry in patties to make Fadge – yumm!)
12 medium size leeks
1 cup milk
1⁄2 cup cream
1 egg yolk, beaten
salt and pepper
Clean the leeks well and trim them, leaving some green. Cook them whole in the milk for about 20 minutes or until tender. Drain and place in a serving dish, reserving the hot milk. Combine the egg yolk with the cream and stir this mixture into the hot milk; season to taste with salt and pepper. Then heat gently, stirring until it thickens but do not boil. Pour the cream sauce over the leeks and serve. Makes 2-4 servings.
(Irish Traditional Food / Theodora Fitzgibbons)
A Few Recipes from The Vegetarian Society of Ireland
Arabic: Pita or Arabic bread heated with humus. Make a salad of sliced red onion, lettuce and sweet tomatoes with mint leaves, parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice. Serve with olives and sundried tomatoes.
British/Irish: Baked beans on wholemeal toast with chicory (or lettuce), walnuts, apple slices, dollop of egg-free mayonnaise, some salad leaves with dressing.
Italian: Ciabatta or other Italian bread served with cooked French lentils, sliced tomato with balsamic vinegar, dried oregano and olive oil sprinkled over. Add some basil leaves, sorrel and chopped pecans.
Mexican: A can of refried beans heated, spread on heated wholemeal tortilla. Add some chopped onion, toasted pine nuts, corn, chopped cherry tomatoes, salsa, chopped jalapenos, sliced avocado and a squeeze of lime juice.