After the Great Famine there was a gradual increased prosperity in Ireland and while the potato remained a staple in the diet, an emphasis on hygiene and new ingredients and methods altered foods served in the Irish cottage.
The common variety of potato was the ‘Lumper’ a waxy, flavoursome type that was however, prone to blight. Until the Famine Irish peasants were seen as better nourished than other Europeans due to their potato and buttermilk diet. Potatoes were cheap, easy to grow and contained vitamins and fibre. They were versatile, they could be boiled in their skins; mashed with butter and milk, made into potato bread; potato cakes or colcannon. Potatoes were boiled and drained in a large round wicker basket known as a skiob, and in some homes the family ate directly from this, sitting around the fire. Cottage dwellers from the 1860s, discussed here, would have been marginally better off than their poorer fellow country people and would have been able to afford to supplement their diet with a little more than just potatoes. Toward the end of the century more cottage dwellers dined using dinner plates and the common addition to those plates was bacon and cabbage.
Mealtimes and preparation: In an Irish house there were usually three meals a day, breakfast, dinner and supper. The ethos was that food be made fresh every day particularly bread. Food was prepared at the kitchen table and cooked over the open turf fire in the hearth using a ‘crane’ to hoist iron cauldrons and the kettle. The diet was simple: oatmeal, vegetables, dairy and bacon. Other meat and fowl featured on special occasions.
Dairy products: Ireland has excellent grass pastures suitable for beef production, yet beef was not historically a feature of the Irish diet, instead dairy products are. There were many variations of milk to drink, including buttermilk, fresh curds, old curds and ‘real curds’. There was "thick milk," which was milk that went solid, which was sliced and eaten. From medieval times Irish butter was a notable export to Europe and the churning of butter, a laborious task, was governed by Fairy superstitions. If you got on the bad side of the ‘Good People’ your butter might not churn, and it was considered a good idea to leave milk out to appease the Fairies at night.
Seafood: Fish did not feature hugely in the Irish diet which is surprising as Ireland is surrounded by vast fishing waters. Some coastal farmers in the late nineteenth-century merely supplemented their income and diet by fishing and used fish (such as salted herrings) when other foods were out of season. Much harvested seaweed was burned as a fertiliser and exported. Historically large-scale sea-fishing boats, nets and piers were an expensive outlay so fishing remained a hand-to-mouth exercise. Britain failed to significantly develop Ireland’s fisheries although there were some attempts to build and repair existing piers as famine-relief projects. The culture of fishing was never embedded in a Roman Catholic nation that saw fish as a ‘fasting’ food. However, in some seaside areas shellfish were harvested sand eels were caught using a hook, and boiled or fried. Seaweed, dillisk and Irish moss (carrageen) were also used.
Oats: Oatmeal was prominent in the Irish diet. Rolled oats were cooked as porridge and taken with a little sugar or salt (salt deterred Fairies). Oat cakes were baked on a griddle. Porridge could also be served as a watered-down gruel taken as a light supper. In one dish, cold porridge was allowed to harden, then sliced and wrapped in cabbage leaves, and baked.
Bread: Bread soda or baking soda made its appearance in Irish homes from the mid nineteenth-century. It was used as a raising agent for ‘soda bread’ which is still made using wholemeal flour, salt and buttermilk. ‘Soda cake’ was a sweetened version with dried sultanas. There was no time spent kneading or waiting for the bread to rise thus it could be baked quickly, in a bastable pot on the turf fire. It tended to go stale very quickly in comparison with the mass manufacture bread of today, so was made fresh each day.
Tea: Strong black loose leaf tea, left to ‘draw’ in the pot and served with milk, also became popular and remains a national favourite. Tea suppliers to this day chose stronger blends for the Irish market, as a dairy nation we tend to flood our strong tea with milk.
Foraged foods: Cottage dwellers had their own vegetable plots which contained the family’s supply of potatoes. They included cabbage, kale, turnips and onions, which were easy to grow in the climate. Vegetables were simply boiled or made into soups or stews. Some foods were foraged and nettles were a useful addition to the diet in Spring when other vegetables were scarce. Nettles were a rich source of iron and vitamins in Spring and added to food or made into soup. Children in Ireland today often feed garden birds in colder weather yet in the past children were given the job of trapping blackbirds, which provided an additional source of food in winter.
Pork and bacon: Many families raised and slaughtered a single pig every year allowing them to have a meat product quite regularly in the diet. The family pig therefore was a valuable asset to be treated well and special meals were sometimes made for the pig to fatten them up. Pigs were frequently taken into the home to allow them to thrive in the heat and shelter. In the nineteenth-century many saw this as further evidence that the Irish were ‘savages’: having a ‘pig in the parlour’ was a saying used to denigrate Irish people and contextualise them as animal-like. To the Irish however the nickname for the pig was ‘the gentleman who pays the rent’ a way of describing the value this animal had for families. By the end of the nineteenth century having a pig indoors became associated with a general lack of hygiene (and civilised manners) and sheds were built to accommodate livestock and fowl.
Salting and preserving the pig meat was essential in a time without fridges or freezers. Salted bacon, rashers, sausages and black pudding could be made and sides of meat could be obtained. All parts of the animal were used with nothing wasted. Bacon fat was preserved and ‘crubeens’ (pigs’ trotters) were eaten. The intestines were washed out with clear water to make cases for black pudding. This was made with blood, suet and oatmeal and was rich in iron.
Conclusion: The Irish diet discussed in this blog was monotonous. It revolved around soda bread, buttermilk, potatoes, bacon and porridge. Yet our ancestors did make many variations of these ingredients for meals, grew and made their food and wasted nothing. Cottages did not have the bins or waste collection services of modern times – livestock ate leftovers and anything else was composted. Until recently this diet was little changed for most Irish people although largely historic it is familiar to us today. The cottage dwellers’ diet was moderate, healthy, home-grown and full of organic produce, something that is espoused by dieticians and food experts today.
The painting (above): Aloysius O'Kelly (1853-1936) 'Expectation' West of Ireland.