In celebration of St Patrick’s Day, Paula McIntyre, regular Borough Market demo chef and director for Northern Ireland on the Slow Food UK board, talks about corned beef, Italian fiestas, and the evolution of Ireland’s culinary identity
On 17th March, from Boston to Brisbane, everyone’s a wee bit Irish for the day. Across the globe, Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland is celebrated in increasingly spectacular style. Show stopping, flamboyant parades are held in major cities across the world, rivers are dyed green and thousands march and dance to a Celtic beat.
As a child of the sixties and from rural Ireland, I never experienced this phenomenon until 1988, as a very green-round-the-edges culinary exchange student at Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island. Providence, the capital city of America’s smallest state, became a Mecca for emerald-clad residents of all ages, each declaring Irish ancestry, on this holy of holy days.
During the three years I lived in the US, one of the most amusing questions I got asked, was “Do you eat corned beef and cabbage all the time?” To my younger self this was an affront. Corned beef came in a tin and had nothing to do with cooking. I had worked in a trendy restaurant on the north coast of Ireland where the chef/owner had spent time in Le Caprice restaurant in London and trained with the legendary Michael Smith in his eponymous restaurant. Cabbage was something we sneered at then, in favour of imported mange tout, baby sweetcorn and oak leaf lettuce. The cheek of being accused of eating such peasant food.
Green dyed lager
Regardless, I embraced the green dyed lager, drowned my shamrock and partook of the corned beef. It was a revelation: flavoursome, brined, lightly spiced and falling apart. Why didn’t we eat this at home?
When I returned to Ireland in the late 1990s, things were completely different—a second ceasefire resulted in an influx of visitors, and grants from America and Europe made for inclusive and diverse St Patrick’s Day festivals.
As well as embracing our traditional music, dancing and storytelling, there was a real appetite from tourists to discover our food culture. They wanted authentic, local food, so we began to take pride in it and develop a unique culinary identity. Irish stew made with mutton neck, potatoes and carrots reappeared on menus alongside champ (mash with spring onions), colcannon, soda bread, simply cooked shellfish, raw oysters, handmade butter and tea brack, a traditional Irish fruit cake.
Brogue-infused Italian accent
Some of these dishes might well feature on the menu of a bar in the tiny village of Casalattico, in the Frosinone region of Italy where, invariably, a brogue-infused Italian accent provides the welcome on the mat. Over generations, Morellis, Fuscos, Borzas and many other families moved to Ireland to make their fortunes, running chip shops or making ice cream.
St Patrick’s Day is a huge fiesta in the village and surrounding area. A celebratory mass is followed by feasting, dancing and a toot of the black stuff in the shadow of the Abruzzi mountains, from where every journey to Ireland began on foot more than 100 years ago.
With an exciting and internationally respected food scene in Ireland now, this of all days is the perfect one to embrace your inner Celt. Enjoy a Galway oyster with a glass of stout and a slice of warm soda bread with the butter dripping down your chin... Slainte!