In the culinary world, the Irish have been hand making their food for centuries, but the modern Irish artisan movement is relatively new. In the first half of the 20th century, after the famine and Irish Independence, hand-made food was associated with poverty, and so it’s only since 1980 that a new generation of Irish people have reconnected with their land, their sea, and put their hands and minds to making their bounty unique. The result is that Irish artisan is new and fresh, and all of the artisan businesses are still small. Every wheel of cheese, every keg of beer, every slice of smoked fish, has been massaged, fermented, and seasoned by an actual human being as opposed to a machine – and most likely it is by the owner. You can truly call Irish artisan food a personal art.
If you love food in Ireland (and you will), then there is nothing more gratifying than meeting the people who make it. In Ireland, you’ll be visiting more of a household, and not a business. Go help Jack McCarthy make black pudding; take a class with Darina Allen at Ballymaloe, pop into Sally Barnes and watch her filet a fish. Stay a while, play with their dogs, and, in doing so, get a taste of this country at its truest.
Below are some of our favourite producers.
Since 1981, Sally Barnes in West Cork has been smoking fish and even now, she is the only fish smoker in this country to use exclusively wild caught fish, which includes her salmon. Sally’s sorcery of salt, sugar, and smoke results in the most luxuriant salmon; it’s distinct from other cold smoked salmons because it is firmer in texture, ruby red rather than pale pink, and satiny on the tongue. Woodcock also smokes heavenly kippers (a nod to Sally’s Scottish heritage), buttery tuna, and also the very best mackerel in the world, fat and dazzling in flavor, and smoked soon after they are pulled from the sea.
The very first modern Irish farmhouse cheese. The first wheel was made in Beara, Cork, in 1978, from the milk of a one-horned cow named Brisket. Milleens is a semi-soft cheese with a washed orange rind, the taste is complicated, the texture oozing, and the flavor is reminiscent of mushrooms and hazelnuts. It has a distinct French flavor, and not what one would expect from the grandmother of all Irish farmhouse cheeses. (Most would expect something that tasted more of cheddar.) Yet the cheese is what one might expect from Veronica Steele—a former Wittgenstein scholar known for her idiosyncratic and buoyant personality. Veronica sadly passed away early this year, but her son Quinlan has taken over the business, and doing the cheeses, as she did, by hand, and making his own stamp in the process. To taste Milleens is to sample Ireland at its most playful, complicated, luxuriant, and surprising.
Eyeries Beara Cork Co. Cork
The Fergusons of Gubbeen are the most famously comprehensive Irish artisan food family. They operate from what they call their own green, pastoral “mouthful” of Cork country paradise. It started when Giana Ferguson bought a herd of cows to make the milk that produced the organic, washed-rind, butter yellow cheese that is justly famous. From their dairy herd came the beef steer, grazing on the Gubbeen grass, and also the mineral, earthy Gubbeen greens. From the cheese-making, there came gorgeous, organic whey, which went to feeding this country’s most pampered pigs, whose sweet flesh, in turn, has been seasoned, cured, and smoked by Giana and Tom’s son Fingal, into bacon, and Irish, French, Italian, and Spanish style sausages. Gubbeen cheese with Gubbeen chorizo is a morsel of an Irish multi-generational pastoral family. Come mornings, Tom still goes out to herd and milk the cows, and Giana collects the eggs from their chickens, which if you are lucky, you might be able to obtain in the West Cork markets.
Schull, Co. Cork.
00 353 (0)28 28231
00 353 (0)28 27824
McCarthy’s of Kanturk
Don’t knock the black pudding until you have tried it, this savory, salty concoction of grain, bacon, and most importantly, blood, which is what lends it its umami. In Ireland, the black pudding is king, and amongst black puddings, Jack McCarthy is the lord. The McCarthy family has been butchers since 1890, but Jack was arguably its first, true artist, introducing ingredients like whiskey and cedar smoke, and for roasting pig’s heads for days in a slow, low oven. In this country, Jack McCarthy is famed for his flamboyance and flair. Jack’s black pudding is unctuous, velvety and the nutty flavor comes from the fact that he uses fresh blood, rather than the dried that is used by so many pudding makers nowadays. His black pudding was dubbed first place by the French order of all blood sausages, La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Goûte Boudin. The black pudding that Jack made Queen Elizabeth was an opulent masterpiece of cream, apples, sweetbreads, and chestnuts. Never a man to rest, Jack and his son Tom continue to invent, stretching one of this country’s best commodities – its meat – to more succulent heights.
McCarthys of Kanturk
Telephone: (029) 50178
Irish yogurt, the full-fat kind, not the skimmed, is made from milk and cream from Irish cows, which graze on rain-drenched, green grass all year round. Glenilen yogurt, which originates from content cows in the extremely fertile West Cork, is the best Irish yogurt we have tried. Packaged in tiny, sweetly shaped glass pots, the yogurt is thick and sinful, which makes a perfect contrast to the slightly tart compotes (rhubarb, plum, strawberry) underneath. The best thing about Glenilen yogurt is that it tastes not good for you at all and exactly like dessert.
Glenilen Farm, Drimoleague, Co. Cork, Ireland.
+353 (0) 28 31179.
Since the poet Yeats wrote of “the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun,” the apple has been a romantic and radiant symbol of this country. From a 17th century Kilkenny farm, Ross and Julie Calder-Potts grow apples, sweet, dessert varieties that are organically reared. From this fruit, they make apple ciders, apple gin, and an apple brandy in delightful, apple-shaped bottles, and an apple balsamic vinegar that is distinctive and delicious. However, the star of the Irish apple circuit is the Highbank apple syrup. Caramel in texture and tawny in hue, the syrup is made from apples alone, and called Ireland’s maple syrup. Pour Highbank syrup on your ice cream, pancakes, and oatmeal, have it give dimension to your roast meats or cocktails, or lick it from a spoon. Highbank syrup is the gloriously sticky, pure emanation of an orchard in Eire.
Highbank Organic Farm
Murphy’s Ice Cream
Sean and Kieran Murphy was early to the Irish artisan movement when, in 2000, they decided to quit their New York City birthplace, settle in Dingle, and crank out not only the best ice cream in Ireland, but the greatest anywhere. The Murphy boys, whose father was from Cork, combined glorious Irish cream with local flavours like sea salt and Irish childhood standards like honeycomb candy. Today, Murphy’s ice cream shops are dotted throughout the country, and it remains the best. Our favourite flavors are brown bread (nuanced, rich, with hints of molasses), sea salt caramel, lemon curd, and Dingle gin.
Murphy’s Ice Cream
In various locations, including Dingle, Killarney, and Dublin.
There is Ballymaloe House, which was begun by Myrtle Allen in 1963, and recognized as the first Irish restaurant and later hotel, that united culinary refinement with locally grown produce. Now there is also Ballymaloe Cookery school, which was opened by Myrtle’s daughter-in-law, Darina Allen. The Ballymaloe grounds are spectacular, the kitchen gardens worth a wander, and the Allen women, which now include Darina’s daughter-in-law Rachel – talented in both cooking and writing – have continue to coordinate and nurture local talent. Darina Allen may not herself be an artisanal producer, per se, but she united the Irish artisan producers, coordinated them, spotlighted their products, and emphasized their importance. And while there may be an overtly commercial element to Ballymaloe (posters announcing family members’ television shows and books, the prevalent Ballymaloe relish on sale throughout the estate), Ballymaloe – which is Gaelic for “stew” — remains the working, breathing heart of all things Irish, culinary and handmade.
Written by Mei Chin