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Emerald city

Categories: Features

As Borough Market’s Market Hall hosts a celebration of the produce of Northern Ireland, Clare Finney explores how Irish ingredients are making their presence felt on London’s food and drink scene

Think of a drink inextricably associated with Ireland. No, not that one—think again. No, not whiskey either. Think of a drink steeped in Irish prose and poetry—one that, for much of its colourful and potent history, was outlawed, confined to remote rural areas or subterranean dives. Still struggling? Then ask Irish chef Simon Whiteside what he uses to bring a little pep to his grey mullet ceviche.

“A lot of people haven’t heard of poitin,” Simon says. “Unless they’re Irish.” Pronounced ‘potcheen’, the clear, flavourful spirit once known as Irish moonshine has been experiencing a small but strong resurgence among chefs and bartenders both on the Emerald Isle and on this side of the Irish sea. It’s no Guinness—not yet, at least—but it is one of a number of the island’s products currently making their presence felt on London’s food and drink scene.

“We’ve always had good raw materials,” says Jane of Harnett’s Oils, one of several Irish producers at Taste the Greatness of Northern Ireland, a showcase of Northern Irish produce taking place in Borough Market’s Market Hall this week. The agri-food sector is Ireland’s largest industry, employing 8.4 per cent of the working population, she continues, “and the majority of that is small-scale farms and industries”. The rapeseed the Harnetts grow to make oil “has not changed in hundreds of years. We’re still producing using the same traditional methods”, and the quality of their rapeseed is so good because Ireland has long daylight hours, “which the seed needs to develop flavour and colour”. What’s changed, she continues, is that “great young Irish chefs are coming up through London kitchens, and making more accessible our good, wholesome food”.

Beautiful, cold and clear
As well as rapeseed oil, traders have come to the Taste the Greatness event bearing oysters, gin, oats, bacon, black butter, craft beers—and that’s all from just Northern Ireland. Look beyond the border to the wild coastlines of Galway or Kerry, and you’ll find seafood of a quality akin to that of Michelin star-studded San Sebastian, says Dublin-born chef Robin Gill. “Oysters, mussels, sea snails—even razor clams!” he exclaims. “The Kenmare Estuary in Kerry is just beautiful, cold and clear—it produces the most stunning, consistent seafood. The quality of seaweed in Ireland is particularly impressive, as well. I recently came across this product called sea truffle, with an incredible bite like asparagus, but with umami, white truffle flavours and the taste of the sea.”

Though Robin trained under Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc and spent the first few years of his career in French and Mediterranean kitchens, in recent years he has felt more confident championing where he comes from in his restaurants. “There’s been a renaissance in the produce coming out of Ireland, and I want to support it,” he says. “The Irish recession in 2008 forced a lot of young, aspiring chefs to leave the country for better opportunities. Now they’ve worked in some of the best restaurants in the world, they’re returning to Ireland, or London, as it’s closer to home.”

Their techniques might be global—French, Japanese, Scandinavian, Italian—but their idea of what good quality produce should look like is Irish at heart. “It’s more about the produce than the cuisine,” agrees Simon Whiteside. “We’re known for fantastic beef, but now we’ve a lot more seafood coming over, and people are really understanding what we have over there.” His is not an Irish restaurant. Nor are Robin’s. “I like to have Irish influences,” says Simon, “but only subtly. Only if it makes sense.”

A fragile monoculture
The relationship between English and Irish food cultures has not always been positive. Far from it. Stuart of White’s Oats, another guest trader at Borough Market, is diplomatic when he describes how this venerable oat milling company started, 167 years ago. “Prior to the potato famine, oats weren’t for human consumption. The crop was for horse feed. Then when the potato crops failed, our founder Thomas White pioneered the rolled oat flake, so humans could cook and eat them.” What remains implicit is that the potato famine itself stemmed from a fragile monoculture being imposed on Ireland, while its exceptional dairy products and grain were mainly exported to England.

The irony of London’s now insatiable appetite for oats in all their forms—porridge, granola, oat bars, biscuits—is not lost on me. “Ten years ago, they were a fairly niche Irish and Scottish product. Now they are everywhere—I guess because oats have such a balanced nutritional value,” he observes. Robin’s bartender at The Dairy has released a new cocktail, coupling an Irish gin with potatoes and whiskey. “We infused the gin into the potatoes and made a potato sour,” he laughs. “It’s delicious: rich and creamy and tangy.” It is also, in its blend of Irish skill, produce and irreverence, somehow symbolic of a country whose food culture is at long last turning our outdated perceptions on their heads, and having a laugh while it does so.