In early times Ireland was woodland. The inhabitants relied on the native mammals, birds, fishes and vegetation for subsistence. Eventually the land was cleared and cultivation began. Domestic animals were also introduced and the animals that were raised provided a new source of food. Today Ireland has a vibrant agricultural economy. This is reflected in the fine fare that Ireland has to offer today.
By the 17th Century there was a diversity of culinary traditions along with social status. The peasantry relied mostly on diary products and oats for their nourishment, while the well to do, relied more on meats and alcoholic beverages. By the 18th Century the cuisine of the wealthy became more varied with a greater French influence. As the 19th Century approached, the potato was the main staple of one third of the population.
After the Great Hunger, potatoes and oats were still the main staples of the Irish diet. Toward the end of the century, the first processed foods where introduced. Although the food in Ireland at this time was nourishing, it was mediocre in taste and presentation. Restaurants and eating-houses were on the increase in the cities. However, their menus often shied away from traditional dishes because they were thought as 'famine foods'.
In the latter part of the 20th Century, the food in Ireland became markedly better. A new generation, of chefs emerged in Ireland making rapid advancement in the Culinary Arts. They brought back and air of confidence, a realm of creativity and established themselves in the world their marvelous preparation and presentation of food. Today, the cuisine in Ireland is often fresh, creative, and tastefully presented. Gone are the days of the unimaginative, bland, overcooked meat and potatoes. Fresh seafood, such as, salmon, trout and shellfish, and many others are locally caught and prepared fresh to the table. In addition there is a bountiful supply of fresh locally produced vegetables and meats.
A Full Irish Breakfast is very hearty and delicious. It can often sustain you throughout the day. This meal generally consists of eggs, rashers (bacon), bangers (sausage), baked fresh tomatoes, fresh mushrooms, white pudding, black pudding, fresh fruit, brown bread, or toast, or scones, with a bit of butter and marmalade. Add some juice, a pot of tea or freshly brewed coffee with cream and a bit of brown sugar and you truly have a meal. In Northern Ireland, the fully cooked breakfast is called an 'Ulster Fry' and includes the addition of a fried potato farl. Did you know bacon and eggs are of Irish origin?
Soups and sandwiches are a favorite for lunch. Many of the soups are a puree of sorts or a broth, served piping hot, and delicious. Broths were used in early times in Ireland, some included oatmeal and vegetables. Along the coastal areas seaweeds were included. Many hotels and restaurants offer a Carvery Lunch. This is a hot meal, served cafeteria style, usually including hot potatoes, vegetables, a couple of choices of meats with gravy, a selection of breads, and deserts.
The mid day meal in rural Ireland is generally the largest meal of the day. People living and working in the cities, follow a 9 to 5 routine, making dinner the more substantive meal.
Dining in Ireland can be an Epicurean delight. Often the food is fresh in all respects. The seafood can especially wonderful. Naturally raised lamb is used in many recipes from Irish Stew to Roast Leg of Lamb. Beef is the traditional Sunday roast, and is still prepared in many homes to this day. Potatoes are still an important part of the Irish diet. Potato in Irish is 'pratai', translated as praties.
The hospitality of the Irish is unsurpassed. This custom goes back to ancient times the Brehon Laws declared you must share hospitality with the bard or stranger who knocks on your door. If you did not, you were shamed and could be punished. The custom is still prevalent in Irish society today. Often times when visiting with family or soon to be friends, you are treated to 'a taste of Ireland' with a slice of homemade Brown Bread or Soda Bread. There are a multitude of recipes for both breads, which are relatively easy to make. There is nothing quite like enjoying a slice of hot baked bread with creamy butter and a dollop of marmalade, washed down with a delicious cup of piping hot tea.
In the earliest of times, the Irish enjoyed home brewed beverages. The favorite was Mead, a honey wine that was both potent and delicious. Ales were also brewed. The Brehon Laws established rules for the sales and operation of the Ale Houses.
In the late 17th Century, tea was introduced in Ireland and became very popular, but expensive. In rural Ireland in the mid 1800s, there was a major increase of tea drinking. Small shops of grocers were established in the towns and villages. The grocers exchanged butter and eggs for tea and sugar. Today, the Irish drink more tea per capita than any other nation.
Whiskey in Ireland dates back to the 12th Century. When the Normans invaded, they could not pronounce the Gaelic 'Uisce Beatha' 'Water of Life'. Instead, they used the word 'fuisce' which became whiskey. Whiskey has been an Irish drink for centuries. It is thought that the Monks brought the distilling techniques from Europe.
The first commercial whiskey distilleries were established in Ireland during the 18th Century. Kilbeggan Distillery was founded in 1757. Jameson was founded in 1780, Bushmills in 1784 and Powers in 1791. During this time a formal distillery licensing was introduced and taxes were levied. Irish distilleries declined over the years through acquisition or failure. By the early 1960s only four distilleries were still in operation and distilling in Dublin had ceased altogether. In 1988 Pernod Ricard of France acquired Irish Distillers, the largest producer in Ireland. Eight centuries of tradition were gone. The only Irish-owned, independent, Irish whiskey distillery established in the 20th century is Cooley Distillery.
Although some whiskeys are stilled made in Ireland, many of the companies are no longer Irish owned. However, the whiskey in Ireland still flows. Stop at any Pub along your journey and there will be a whiskey bottle on the top shelf just waiting for you to take a dram.
Beer is still a favorite beverage for the mass population. There are ales, stout and microbrews. Irish Breweries are located throughout the Republic of Ireland with most being in Dublin. Northern Ireland also has a few. The most popular beer in Ireland is Guinness, brewed at St. James Gate, Dublin. It is often said 'the closer you get to Dublin the better the Guinness' and there is probably some truth this. Other noteworthy malt beverages include Smithwicks, Kilkenny, Murphy's and Beamish. Ciders are also popular.
So, no matter what your preference may be, there is something for almost everyone from a nice cup of tea to a wonderful pint!