Ireland’s Green Larder by Margaret Hickey (Unbound)
“The island of Ireland is so small you can drive across it in a few hours…yet it became the cradle of literature, music and dance, of politicians and soldiers, of philosophers and saints, of boozers and brawlers, and managed to be world class in all categories.”
THE extraordinary feat and joy in this book is the sheer arching rainbow span it covers, a bridge between not just centuries but millenia. Margaret Hickey follows the story of Ireland from the Neolithic bones found by archeologists, triads being very ancient three part poems/ sayings, legends such the hermit Earc of Slane who prayed all day up to his armpits in the River Boyne, travellers’ tales from the well known such as Jonathan Swift to the less so, diary entries from Mrs Delany of June 1750, recipes and advises from the first published cooks right up to the present day where we meet the likes of Anita Hayes of the Irish Seed Savers Association: The whole of the known world, or the known Ireland at least. And she has a further advantage in that the Gaelic language speaks without using the empire’s tongue, so welcome to a world of shebeen (moonshine) and sloke (seawed) and spailpins (labourers). That she manages to condense all this into a mere 314 breathlessly enchanting, elegant pages is some achievement of the story telling.
Old academics might raise an eyebrow that you can have a food history like this, or not at least for a country with no reputation for food or cooking, but Hickey will have dismantled all such thoughts in a few pages. For me, I prefer my history like this rather than the faction of Hilary Mantel.
The role model if you like for this kind of book was the totemic Food in England by Dorothy Hartley, first published in 1954 although 30 years in the compiling and quoted here…in similar vein Hickey paints an enlightening vision of how ordinary folk survived and in some cases thrived on that small island.
Here are some old cheeses you may not have heard about: tanag, tanach, meathal milsean, grus and mullahawn. And she postulates that it was maybe Irish monks who first brought cheesemaking to more familiar names like Appenzell in Switzerland in AD 620. And even Munster. An Irishman called Walton, she tells us, was shipwrecked off La Rochelle in 1235 and hung his pole out in the waters to which mussels attached, a form of aquaculture still used today, if you follow the blarney.
She goes back further than most textbooks. Sometimes dropping into Latin or old Gaelic texts. This is from 9th century legend:
“Mac Datho’s pig is supposed to have been fed on the milk of 60 cows for seven years culminating in a bulk so huge that 40 oxen are needed to drag its carcass into the feasting hall and nine men are required to hold up its belly.”
There is the Ireland of popular imagination held dear by émigrés and there is the one they left behind which is what we have here. A nation built on bog butter, barley loaves and cabbage, forests once so dense the above pigs grazed on the mast of acorns and nuts like the fabled jamon d’iberico of southern Spain. When the forest was cleared it was for the cattle to fatten on the lush grazing. At this stage the people counted their wealth in terms of beef, a habit that had been passed down by custom and law since 200 BC, but the arriving Normans had other ideas. They counted richness in terms of acres and land. The troubles you might think had already begun.
Hickey also has another advantage in that she knows her way around a kitchen as her recipes show. I am heading off to do my cabbage and bacon forthwith. Get my boxty on the griddle.
Somewhere between the 11th and 12th century, the hermit Marban is looking forward to his dinner with this poem that is almost a haiku, albeit rather superior in form:
All at evening
The day’s first meal
Since dawn’s bread:
Trapped trout, sweet sloes
And honey, haws
Beer and herbs
Hickey covers most things edible but also finds room for essays on the notion of hospitality as much as on the famine – by when the Irishman was counting his wealth in potatoes not beef – and fairies. Here is a an immortal one liner from someone who knows:
“A potato is judged to be cooked when its skin has just split, when it is said be smiling or laughing.”
Well that is sorted once ,and for all, then.
Published by the friend funding team at Unbound, but there will be a few Irish publishing houses that surely would have wanted to carry this fine feather in their hats.