The rise of Irish food: a world-class cuisine getting the attention it deserves

by Chloë King 10 November 2021

For a long time, Irish food has been somewhat of an under celebrated cuisine but the past couple of decades have seen the island get recognised more and more for its produce, chefs and restaurants. Chloë King takes a closer look at Ireland’s modern culinary landscape.

Writer and illustrator Chloe King is founder of the food lovers’ book club Cook the Books.

Writer and illustrator Chloe King is founder of the food lovers’ book club Cook the Books. A member of the Guild of Food Writers and a Royal College of Art graduate, Chloe is happiest working on projects that combine her love of food and cooking with her interest in art and culture, people and places. Based in East Sussex, Chloe's freelance portfolio spans graphic art, journalism, events management and lecturing.

It isn’t hard to fall in love with modern Irish food. The only trouble is, where do you start? The subject is so huge, with so many diversions and so much deliciousness I might easily get lost. The Irish Cook Book by chef JP McMahon (Phaidon, 2020) makes an essential introduction, and that spans about 10,000 years of history over a whopping 432 pages.

Understandably, McMahon is a great person to ask for a bit of context. Not only is he a Michelin-starred chef but as founder of Food on the Edge, he has done more than most to bring Irish food the global attention it deserves.

Food on the Edge is an annual festival bringing the leading lights of world gastronomy to Galway and most recently Dublin, to discuss and debate the future of food. When I first attended in 2019, it gave me the fast-track I needed. Among much else, I learnt that Irish food culture is integrated, honest, and politically engaged, but it’s also forward-looking, inventive, and almost incredibly modest.

McMahon says a tendency to downplay the quality of Irish food has been and is still, to a degree, commonplace. 'It’s a complex issue and it is a historical issue,' he says. 'I think it’s a legacy of colonisation and a legacy of the famine where we are not as confident as other cultures who possibly in the 19th Century were building their food cultures from scratch, and unfortunately that wasn’t what happened in Ireland…

'I suppose, we felt that we didn’t have our own food culture. And I think when people came to Ireland they would talk about the hospitality, the landscape, the pubs, but the food was never something they would talk about.'

This, however, is changing. Along with organisations such as Good Food Ireland, and events such as Taste the Island, hosted by Fàilte Ireland, Food on the Edge is part of a movement that is challenging the perception and the reality of modern Irish food. Ruth Hegarty is a founding member of Food on the Edge and is somewhat of an unsung hero for the quantity and quality of projects she has worked on - from heading up EuroToques Ireland to establishing the nationwide Chef Network.

She says when Food on the Edge launched seven years ago, Ireland wasn’t really on the radar as a food destination. 'In terms of the global gastronomic community, Food on the Edge has had a huge impact in terms of putting Ireland on the map.'

'To have chefs coming from all over the world, from culinary hotspots like London, Barcelona, New York or whatever, and just say ‘oh my god, I cannot get over the quality of the produce and what we’ve been eating’, that makes all of the hard work worthwhile.'

The success of these efforts is paralleled by a huge rise in the number of Michelin stars being awarded to restaurants all over the island. You might say Irish food is having a bit of a moment, but in fact the work to nurture this goes back a lot further. As Hegarty says, the boom in Michelin stars 'is not because we’ve suddenly got all these amazing new young chefs who have suddenly opened up restaurants'.

'This is twenty or thirty years of work that has gone into developing Irish cuisine and the Irish food and restaurant culture. It definitely started with people like Myrtle Allen [Ballymaloe] and Gerry Galvin [Drimcong House] and Declan Ryan [Arbutus Lodge] who recognised, way back before it was fashionable, that we had our own terroir and we have something really special.'

Produce to be proud of

If you want to understand Irish food, it’s all about the ingredients. No matter where you go, the unifying trend between top chefs and home cooks young and old is an unwavering and justified belief in the quality of Irish produce. Whether you’re shopping at a supermarket or a farmers market, the encouragement to buy Irish is ever present. Meanwhile, the first words spilled from the lips of every Ireland-based chef is what a privilege it is to work with such a rich palette.

The Irish landscape is, after all, as awe-inspiring as it is hard working. First of all, there is the soil, of which about two-thirds is agricultural land. Irish beef, lamb and dairy are the island’s most well-known exports, and yet the seafood travels the widest. There are loughs, fast-flowing rivers, and the ocean. The Atlantic coast is life to oyster farmers and lobster fishermen, as indeed are the eastern shores, where the largest fishing fleet is based in Kilkeel and Portavogie is home to a world-famous prawn.

At my local market, Gannet Fishmongers stock a range I’ve only routinely seen on holiday – local salmon and trout, monkfish, hake, squid and Dover sole. In Connemara, you’ll find ropes laden with sweet blue-shell mussels grown by Killary Fjord Shellfish in the shadow of the Mweelrea mountains. An on-land system provides the perfect habitat, and a lifeline, for prized abalone: a delicacy grown by Mungo Murphy Seaweed Co. that is fast-diminishing in the wild. A growing interest in wild and unusual flavours is reflected by the likes of gourmet mushroom growers Ballyhoura and Wild Irish Sea Veg, whose dried kelp, carrageen and dillisk are widely available in shops. There are snail farmers, cheese makers, fermenters, nut growers, goat herders, seaweed harvesters and biodynamic vegetable growers.

Traditional dishes like soda bread, apple tart, barm-brack, porter cake, boxty or black and white puddings are a familiar part of life, but this list is becoming longer. The chicken goujon might indeed be worthy of mention… Add to these a growing number of Irish-made products exploring international flavours and techniques, and you get a rounded idea of what it’s all about. White Mausu Black Bean Rayu is now a mainstay on my kitchen table, and other products such as Harry’s Nut Butter and Gubbeen Chorizo are favourites. Sheridan’s Crackers a solid store-cupboard staple and perfect match with Cashel Blue or Ballylisk, while artisan confectioners like Grà Chocolates create the most painterly treats imaginable using Atlantic sea salt and Irish cream.

But what is modern Irish food?

JP McMahon opened his trailblazing restaurant Aniar ten years ago in Galway City and has held a Michelin star since 2013 for a menu entirely focused on native produce. 'When we opened Aniar,' he explains, 'It sent shockwaves through Irish food culture in the sense that it was a restaurant that started as a small project to see what style of cooking could come out of using just local and indigenous and wild plants.'

The Nordic food revolution was an important influence because it showed a slightly different model says McMahon. 'Of course, it’s still based on restaurants and dining, but it showed that you could revalue indigenous food.'

Aniar therefore offered a new alternative to the French gastronomy that had previously dominated the restaurant scene. It spearheaded a movement that looks to define what Irish food will be known for for years to come. Aimsir, in Kildare, now holds two stars for a menu similarly inspired by Scandinavia and ingredients ‘grown, fished and foraged on the island of Ireland’. Cúán Greene, of NOMA pedigree, is tipped to achieve with his new project Ómós, an apt name meaning ‘homage, duty, and respect’ in Irish.

But that’s not to say international techniques aren’t also being applied to the highest level. In Cork, Ichigo Ichie is wowing customers (and the judges of 50 Best) with chef Miyazaki’s kappou-style fine dining. In Belfast, Steven Toman’s restaurant Ox is scooping every accolade imaginable for tasting its menus that take you on a journey through a list of 30 local ingredients. 'French is always at the basis of our beliefs,' says Toman, '…but we’re developing that into our own style, our own ethos, so to speak. We’re getting young chefs coming and working here and eventually they’ll open their own restaurants and maybe be thinking about the way Ox used to do things. That creates a kind of ecosystem as well.'

While tasting menus will never be for everyone, the influence of this growth in fine dining restaurants is a trickle-down effect. As Hegarty says, 'You have lots of chefs who have the ethos around how they source, who have the skills to do fine dining but they want to do something more accessible, more affordable, and it’s kind of just made really good Irish food accessible to a lot more people.' The result is a growing range of good quality casual dining restaurants, street food trucks and cafes, springing up in city and countryside alike.

‘People will always say to me,’ says McMahon. ‘What is Irish food? Is it not just meat and potatoes and stew?’ and I always say to them, well that’s one aspect of Irish food from one particular time… A lot of them come to Aniar, and they’ll say, this doesn’t look like Irish food, even though all the ingredients we use are Irish, and they’ll say it’s too Nordic, or it looks too Japanese, and I think they’re good questions - it does definitely have parallels with those two cultures because we draw influence from them - but I was trying to say to people, we have to keep more of an open mind about the question ‘What is Irish food?’. It’s many things.’