Food and cuisine in Ireland takes its influence from the crops grown and animals farmed in the island’s temperate climate and from the social and political circumstances of Irish history.
For example, whilst from the Middle Ages until the arrival of the potato in the 16th century the dominant feature of the Irish economy was the herding of cattle, the number of cattle a person owned was equated to their social standing. Thus herders would avoid slaughtering a milk-producing cow.
For this reason, pork and white meat were more common than beef and a thick fatty strips of salted bacon (or rashers) and the eating of salted butter (i.e. a dairy product rather than beef itself) have been a central feature of the diet in Ireland since the Middle Ages. The practice of bleeding cattle and mixing the blood with milk and butter (not unlike the practice of the Maasai) was common and black pudding, made from blood, grain (usually barley) and seasoning, remains a breakfast staple in Ireland. All of these influences can be seen today in the phenomenon of the ‘breakfast roll’.
The introduction of the potato in the second half of the 16th century heavily influenced cuisine thereafter. Great poverty encouraged a subsistence approach to food and by the mid-19th century the vast majority of the population sufficed with a diet of potatoes and milk. A typical family, consisting of a man, woman and four children, would eat 18 stone (110 kg) of potatoes a week. Consequently, dishes that are considered as national dishes represent a fundamental unsophistication to cooking, such as the Irish stew, bacon and cabbage, boxty, a type of potato pancake, or colcannon, a dish of mashed potatoes and kale or cabbage.
Since the last quarter of the 20th century, with a re-emergence of wealth in Ireland, a “New Irish Cuisine” based on traditional ingredients incorporating international influences has emerged. This cuisine is based on fresh vegetables, fish (especially salmon, trout, oysters, mussels and other shellfish), as well as traditional soda breads and the wide range of hand-made cheeses that are now being produced across the country.
The potato remains however a fundamental feature of this cuisine and the Irish remain the highest per capita consumers of potatoes in Europe. An example of this new cuisine is ‘Dublin Lawyer’, which is lobster cooked in whiskey and cream. Traditional regional foods can be found throughout the country – coddle in Dublin for example or drisheen in Cork – both a type of sausage, or blaa, a doughy white bread particular to Waterford.
Ireland once dominated the world’s market for whiskey, producing 90% of the world’s whiskey at the start of the 20th century. However, as a consequence of bootleggers during the prohibition in the United States (who sold poor-quality whiskey bearing Irish-sounding names thus eroding the pre-prohibition popularity for Irish brands) and tariffs on Irish whiskey across British Empire during the Anglo-Irish Trade War of the 1930s, sales of Irish whiskey worldwide fell to a mere 2% by the mid-20th century. In 1953, an Irish government survey, found that 50 per cent of whiskey drinkers in the United States had never heard of Irish whiskey.
Irish whiskey, however, remained popular domestically and in recent decades has grown in popularity again internationally. Typically, Irish whiskey is not as smoky as a Scotch whisky, but not as sweet as American or Canadian whiskies. Whiskey forms the basis of traditional cream liqueurs, such as Baileys, and the ‘Irish ‘(a cocktail of coffee and whiskey reputedly invented at Foynes flying-boat station) is probably the best-known Irish cocktail.
Stout, a kind of porter beer, particularly Guinness, is typically associated with Ireland, although originally being more closely associated with London. Porter remains very popular, although it has lost sales since the mid-20th century to lager. Cider, particularly Magners (marketed in the Republic of Ireland as Bulmers), is also a popular drink. Red lemonade, a soft-drink, is consumed on its own and as a mixer, particularly with whiskey.