FROM FAMINE TO FEAST
IRELAND TODAY – A GOURMET’S PARADISE
The teenager sat at the table across from her parents and their good friend, who was the best man at their wedding many years previously. Another younger gentleman sat next to the teenager. The conversation was about a ‘Culinary Tour’ of Ireland over the next few days, leaving Dublin that afternoon, after the lunch at the Russell Hotel. The teenager listened intently to her father telling his great friend about the route he had planned, starting in Co. Wicklow. The older man offered some advice about the trip, and the consensus of opinion between the two gentlemen indicated that choices on where to go were very limited. Finally, the teenager interjected.
“Well, I think that Ireland is virgin territory to become a gourmet’s paradise.” She spoke with the authority and knowledge of youth!
Her father’s friend smiled indulgently at the young woman facing him, and with a gesture of gentle laughter and mild skepticism in his voice, he replied.
“Then, why don’t you make it a gourmet’s paradise?”
The young lady was not deterred by the amused tone she heard in his reply. It was not an idle comment, which she had made. Her background from early childhood had involved culinary adventures around the world, thanks to her parents, who were connoisseurs of good food and wine. The ‘Culinary Arts’, a phrase she used whenever she spoke of her interest in good food, played a major part in her life. And, her passport already listed her Profession as Gourmet. She knew what she wanted to do, and had already begun a lifelong culinary odyssey.
The year was 1960. I was the teenager at that momentous luncheon in Dublin. The older gentleman seated across from me at the table was Dr. T.J. ‘Tim’ O’Driscoll, Director General of Bord Failte, the Irish Tourist Board (1956-1971).
The Way We Were
One hundred and sixty years have passed since the disastrous famine in Ireland. For several decades in the twentieth century, no great importance was attached to the food scene. Its’ image was still firmly entrenched in a ‘post’ famine era. The quality and choice of fresh foods available was excellent. However, knowledge was lacking on how to imaginatively, and tastefully prepare superb meals. People settled for some traditional dishes, and it did not seem to matter how they were cooked; or the fact that vegetables were soggy and puddings were stodgy. Apathy had settled on the nation.
Until the mid 1970s, the Irish rarely went out to eat. If they did, perhaps to celebrate a birthday, it was usually to a nearby hotel dining room for Sunday lunch. There was a dearth of decent restaurants, with few exceptions found scattered across the country. Hotels brought in food to prepare traditional Irish meals, mainly for tourists and some local diners. Food was overcooked, in particular the vegetables, and little attempt was made to rectify matters. Irish cooking did not have a good reputation. Consumers bought their meats at the nearby butcher; fish at the local markets; and groceries at the village store. Exports of meat, mushrooms and fish flourished in the 1950s and 1960s with help from government agencies. Otherwise, minimal attention was given to the subject of food, except that the tourist was encouraged to buy a gift package of Irish smoked salmon before leaving Ireland.
The tremendous potential to do something positive, and create a major food industry nationwide, with the scope for extensive employment in the culinary arts field, was virtually ignored on the home front by the Irish Government. The emphasis was on the development of tourism. The Government, together with Bord Failte, the Irish Tourist Board, established in 1955, seemed unable to equate the important connection between food and tourism. The stance taken was that Ireland was rich in natural fresh food resources; with an abundance of tender meats, fish, butter, eggs, and standard vegetables available. Therefore, as everything was satisfactory, it was unnecessary to change the status quo. Clearly, the world of food, and the vast opportunities it offered on the employment front, took last place to other more important things.
This Policy Directive came straight from the top, and was strictly adhered to by Government organizations. It is borne out in a letter I received from the National Development Association in 1976. The letter categorically stated: ‘The government’s special Directive was to concentrate on footwear, clothing, textiles and furniture, with no budget available to develop activities in the food industry.’ However, the letter does admit to the existence of the National Dairy Council, the NDC, and their specific role to help local producers promote sales of dairy products on the home front.
The letter was one of several I received during the 1970s, while I was actively trying to get Irish government organizations and other groups interested in developing the Irish food industry. I spoke from the floor at many seminars, and questioned government ministers and various guest speakers about their plans to promote and create interest in Ireland’s natural food resources. I emphasized the vast potential to develop a food processing industry, which I maintained, could bring about major employment opportunities. They paid lip service in their answers, but nothing much happened. Everywhere, existing attitudes prevailed – there was no reason for changes. Bacon, cabbage and potatoes or Irish Stew ‘were just fine’. There was no need for a ‘blow-in’ to tell them to change their cuisine. That is the popular expression used in Ireland, for people who come from overseas. Occasionally, I encountered outright hostility, and was told: ‘Why don’t you go back to where you belong?’ Yes, some people thought I was English. I had the dreaded unacceptable English accent. They did not want to hear that my parents came from Cork and Bantry, or that my family is Irish. I found myself hitting my head against a brick wall; and personally encountered some threatening situations, to put a stop to my work, and silence my voice on the public stage. This happened when some well-established organizations, who openly and wholeheartedly supported my activities on the food scene, were threatened with major loss of business, if they did not disassociate themselves from my efforts to create and promote a new Irish cuisine. One group succumbed to the threats, but wrote to me assuring me of the goodwill that existed between us. However, their hands were tied. I understood, but was very disappointed as they were already an integral part of the development of the new Irish cuisine. Another more powerful group did not give in, beat the trouble makers at their own game, and continued to support my work for several more years. Friends explained the political situation, and told me that ‘American Irish’ returning to the old sod, are greeted with open arms. Whereas the ‘English Irish’ returning home, are viewed with suspicion, and not welcomed so readily. It was an issue written about by some journalists at a later date, when attitudes eased somewhat towards ‘foreigners’!
In 1976, Bord Failte revised their book ‘Ireland Guide’, and reprinted it in 1982, without further changes. In the book, they acknowledged that the basic foods in Ireland were of the highest quality, such as mutton, lamb, Limerick ham, Irish stew, bacon and cabbage; plus an abundance of excellent seafood, and game when in season. The book stated that the keynote to native Irish cooking was simplicity; and made brief mention also of a move towards international Haute Cuisine, found in some hotels and restaurants. Thereafter, the subject was dismissed with a statement, that it was unnecessary to use appetizing sauces or elaborate presentations. It is clear that the Tourist Board felt there was little need to change the Irish culinary scene. No further interest was shown on the subject of food other than a mere single line ‘listing’ of the very traditional cookbook by Theodora Fitzgibbon, titled ‘A Taste of Ireland’, published in 1968. Likewise, another book ‘Traditional Irish Recipes’ by John Murphy, was also listed. These items were relegated to the back of the Guide, under a sub heading ‘Domestic Arts’. The entire discussion about Irish food was covered in the ‘Ireland Guide’ on 1 (one) page, in a book that ran to 140 pages, promoting Ireland to the foreign tourists and the Irish. Such was the lack of interest shown at official levels, in Ireland’s best natural resources – its’ food. In the meantime, emigration in large numbers continued throughout the 1950s, and reached new heights by the 1980s, as people left Ireland in search of their livelihoods in other lands.
The mistaken belief prevailed in Europe at the time, that only complicated food, rich in creams and wines was good food, referred to as Haute Cuisine. It was also a time when classical training was very restricted to a very specific format. Chefs were not allowed or expected to side step from the chosen path. As a result, classically trained Chefs would make better or worse versions of Sole, or prepare their hams with a coating of aspic or gelatin, as if they were suitably embalmed in wax! Such were the guidelines observed by Chefs everywhere. Few dared to be different and expand their horizons, or incorporate originality into their cookery. That was the scene too in the Emerald Isle during the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.
The Mavericks: The Irish Culinary Scene in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s
There was minimal culinary activity in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s in Ireland, and cooking training was virtually nil. St. Mary’s College of Domestic Science opened in 1941 in Dublin, and held home economic courses. However, due to the expansion of the tourism industry, the emphasis changed in 1951. St. Mary’s college was transferred to Sligo. In its place at Cathal Brugha Street, the College of Catering began. These students would then take jobs in hotels across the country. At the same time, The Shannon School of Hotel Management (1951) trained hotel staff, but did not provide culinary training. The long established group of elegant Victorian style hotels, many dating from the early 1800s, catered to the surge in tourism during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Two castles had opened as hotels. Ashford Castle in the West of Ireland was refurbished into a hotel as far back as 1939, and Killiney Castle south of Dublin, opened its doors in 1952. Standard Irish food, sometimes called comfort food, was served at lunch time in hotel dining rooms, which closed their kitchens by 3:00 PM. Three country manor houses Ballylickey Manor House, Currarevagh House and Newport House opened their dining rooms to the public in 1946 and 1947. They were the alternative to the old fashioned hotels; and were the forerunners to the bed and breakfast tourist route.
The ‘fast food’ type of establishments of the post war era existed in places like Dublin and Cork, but had a very different connotation to what the term means today. They catered to people with minimal time on their hands (even in those far off days). Owned by the Savoy Cinema group, the Savoy restaurants served lunches to shoppers on the move, and high teas to cinema-goers. In those times, lunch was called ‘dinner’ locally, and high teas, served at 6:00 PM, included mixed grills or cold meats, served with lettuce, tomato, sliced Cheddar cheese or sliced egg, and freshly made Irish soda bread. Delicious fresh cream cakes rounded off the meal, which was always accompanied by a generous pot of Barry’s Irish tea. Supper was a late night ‘cuppa’ with cake or a sandwich, served at home. Coffee shops were popular in the cities. People, mostly women, met for mid morning coffee, fresh cream cakes and a good gossip. The best known one was Bewleys in Dublin, where ‘dinner’ (lunch) was also served. Cork had Thompsons Café in Patrick Street, the main road that ran through the center of the city. A handful of public houses ‘Pubs, provided homemade soup and sandwiches, but most people went home at midday for their main meal of the day.
The icon that stood the test of time was the Oyster Tavern in Cork City. It opened its doors in 1792, and bar food was served. After Woodford Bourne (a local wine distributor) purchased it in 1943, they opened a magnificent elegant wood paneled dining room for lunches. Soon, the Oyster Tavern became the ‘in’ place for dining out in the evenings. Many of its earlier customers combined a shopping trip to the famous 200 year-old open air English market next door to the Oyster Tavern. (The market was renovated and got a roof during the ‘70s.) In the ‘50s, everyone who was anyone walked through the Oyster Tavern’s doors, and reservations for a meal were essential by the early ‘60s. There was great consternation in 1969 when a fire broke out in an upper section of the premises. Restoration work commenced immediately. In record time (sixteen weeks), the dining room was re-opened in all its traditional former glory, much to the relief of the regular patrons, including my parents.
The Annual Oyster Festivals began in Clarinbridge and nearby Galway City in 1954 and 1955 respectively. Oysters have been a popular seafood eaten in Ireland for more than 200 years; and Moran’s Oyster Cottage, which opened in the West of Ireland in the 1800s, is always packed with diners. Reservations made a couple of days ahead were the only way to guarantee a table.
Television came to Ireland in 1961, with one channel. Between 1962 and 1965, Radio Telefis Eireann – RTE, featured a cooking show (black ‘n’ white) with ‘finger licking’ Monica Sheridan who prepared traditional Irish food, and horrified or amused everyone when she kept licking her fingers, then dipped them into the food again! In 1963 Bunratty Castle began serving medieval banquets to visitors, followed by Knappogue in 1967. CERT, (Council for Education and Recruitment Training) opened in Dublin in 1963, to provide a trained workforce for the burgeoning tourism industry. The City and Guild of London programs were introduced, and included cooking courses for Chefs (men) and Cooks (women). These were held at hotels across the country, and were transferred to the Regional Colleges when they opened in the 1970s. In the early 1960s, several more country homes opened their dining rooms to the public; Rathmullen House (1961), Tinakilly (1962) and Ballymaloe (1964), joined the group of early Culinary Entrepreneurs, who were already very successful in this line of work. Like their predecessors, they too established a home based business, catering mainly to the increasing tourist trade . One rarely heard an Irish accent at these places until the late ‘70s, as very few Irish people ventured out on long drives, to try out an eating establishment.
Following in the footsteps of the famous Oyster Tavern in Cork, a new trend began during the 1950s. Beaufield Mews, a licensed premises in Dublin, started an afternoon tea and cakes café in 1951, and later began serving meals. The Abbey Tavern in Howth, Co. Dublin, which opened in 1945, added a restaurant in 1956. By the early ‘60s, a handful of new restaurants could be found on the Irish scene. Arbutus Lodge opened in Cork in 1961, and in the ‘70s, went on to become Ireland’s first restaurant to achieve Michelin Awards. Lord Edward’s, Dublin’s oldest seafood restaurant began in 1963. Jammets was a popular choice too in Dublin. In 1962, in the very picturesque seaside town of Kinsale, Co. Cork, Heidle MacNeice owned the only restaurant in the area - the Spinnaker. She served seafood, brought ashore in trawlers that docked at the nearby Trident hotel. A year later, Peter Barry returned to Kinsale, after completing hospitality training in Switzerland. He opened the Man Friday restaurant, and served steaks. Soon, Gino joined their ranks, and opened an Italian restaurant – Ginos. This trio, popularly called ‘the trinity’ locally, proved to be the forerunners of greater things to come on the Irish culinary scene a decade later. Chez Hans, a very popular Dutch owned restaurant opened its doors on the tourist route in Cashel, Co. Tipperary in 1968.
The Bed & Breakfast Scene
By the late ‘60s, many more country homes followed the popular growing trend to cater to the tourism market. Assolas House (1966); Coopershill (1967); Rosleague Manor (1968), Cashel House (1968), Longueville House (1969) and West Lodge joined the ranks of the existing group. Country homes that had previously opened their dining rooms to the public, now opened their homes to the Bed & Breakfast trade. Among these was Ballymaloe, who began to accept overnight guests in 1967. Opening one’s beautiful home and estate to the public was the way to go, to earn a livelihood, in an otherwise depressed market with mass unemployment. It had become big business by this stage, and was growing by the year. However, this new trend catered to the tourism market (again mostly Americans), as the Irish did not travel out of the cities and towns in those times, and the majority of the population still did not own a car. If they wanted to go out for a meal, they went to their local hotel for lunch, and the hotels still closed their dining rooms by 3 PM in the afternoons. That trend only began to change slowly by the mid to late 1970s.
Co-operatives in Ireland started to develop their activities on the local dairy scene, with help from Bord Bainne, the Irish Dairy Board (1961). Perhaps the best known at the time was the Mitchelstown Creameries in Co. Cork. The CBF Meat Board began in 1969. More Bars (Pubs), followed the food trend started earlier by Beaufield Mews in Dublin, and the Abbey Tavern in Howth, Co. Dublin. The Purple Heather Bar in Kenmare, Co. Kerry, opened a tea and cakes shop in 1964, and by 1966, started serving lunches.
One of the most interesting aspects of life in Ireland in the ‘60s decade, was the age old custom whereby travelers could find a drink anywhere, at any time. When the Pubs closed the doors at night, one only had to drive seven miles distance from one’s residence, knock on a beleaguered Pub owner’s door, and request a drink. According to the law, they could not refuse to serve you. Surprisingly, it was not taken advantage of widely, (as mentioned previously, many folk did not own a car) and people stayed close to home. However, it was useful at times for those who needed an excuse to continue drinking behind locked doors! Pub life and horseracing were the prime interests in the country. Food, while a necessary part of life, was of secondary importance. More interest was shown in what happened at the Curragh (Ireland’s premier Racing Center) in Co. Kildare. The most famous horse in those days was Arkle. Born, bred and trained in Ireland, Arkle was owned by the Duchess of Westminister. Arkle won twenty nine major trophies at races in Ireland and England; but his name lives on forever, as the only horse to have won the prestigious Gold Cup at Cheltenham, England, three years in a row – 1964, 1965 and 1966.
During the ‘60s, I lived in Rome, Italy, and Kensington, London; continued my culinary education; married my American husband, and we had two daughters. London was the ideal base from which to travel to Ireland three times a year. It was an opportunity to visit my parents, who had retired and returned to live in Ireland, and keep abreast of Irish food activities. On average, I spent three months every year in Ireland, initiating and promoting ideas to develop a new image of Irish cuisine. There was no interest shown whatsoever anywhere in Ireland to change and improve the food scene in those days. It was a depressed market, and people were more concerned in trying to keep body and soul together, to survive, and the unemployment levels were still very high. Other travels were frequent trips to France, Italy, Belgium and Germany; and visits to other parts of Europe, Asia and the Pacific; plus an eight-month stay in Australia and New Zealand. One had golden opportunities to study national and international cuisine first hand from the culinary experts everywhere. Perhaps the greatest influence on my future culinary work came from a neighbor in London, Elizabeth David, whose knowledge on French and Italian cuisine was renowned. It was Elizabeth, who taught me the use of olive oil in cooking, and I have never used any other oil since. In time, I passed on this knowledge at the culinary tours, which I began in Ireland at the start of the 1970s. Olive oil at that time came in tiny bottles, sold only at the Chemists shop, (both in England and Ireland), and was used for beauty and medicinal purposes.
In 1969, the Irish Government made a momentous decision. They decided to turn Ireland into tax-free haven for writers and artists.
My husband and I decided to leave our beautiful Regency house in Holland Park, London, and we moved with our two daughters to live in Co.Cork, Ireland. Immediately, I established myself as a ‘Culinary Artiste’. I felt the timing was right to move full speed ahead with ideas to launch and establish a new Irish cuisine. I was fed up with the snide remarks made constantly by ignorant people overseas, that ‘the Irish lived on a diet of potatoes’. Something needed to be done. It was time to make people across the world aware of the wonderful natural fresh food resources available on Ireland's’ door step; and make them realize that there was a great deal more to Irish food, than Irish stew, or bacon, cabbage and potatoes. It would require an educational process, whereby at grass roots level, one could impart knowledge and new ideas on the entire concept of a new updated modern Irish cuisine. How to do it in an appealing and entertaining fashion led to my establishing the ‘Culinary Tours’ throughout the Emerald Isle.
In another part of Ireland, before the ‘60s decade ended, a young lady whose family ran a pub and grocery shop in Co. Laois, received a diploma at the Cathal Brugha Street College of Catering. She got wind of a country house farming family in Shanagarry in East Cork, where the dining room was open to the public, and they were now taking in B & B overnight guests too. She applied for a job in their kitchen. The job offer led to her meeting her future husband. In 1970, Darina O’Connell married Tim Allen, son of Myrtle and Ivan Allen of Ballymaloe House.The stage was set for changes.
Continued in Part 2 >>
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