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FROM FAMINE TO FEAST

IRELAND TODAY – A GOURMET’S PARADISE

The Emerald Isle was a different country by the turn of the Century. The arrival of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, symbolic of Ireland’s new financial prosperity and success, was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, and written on extensively in the local and international media. Affluence reigned everywhere, as never seen before. The Irish had found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.


Part Four

Ireland in the 21st Century – Major Changes
The new ideas and attitudes adopted at official levels, produced phenomenal results, as seen when the Ministry of Tourism published their tourism revenue figures in the Irish Times on December 30th, 1997. Comparisons indicated that the tourism revenues in 1987, amounted to only 731 million Irish Punts; whereas, in 1997, they broke the 2 billion Irish Punts barrier. Bord Bia publicized this information overseas in their Press Release of January 28, 1998. They indicated that Ireland, buoyed by their new prosperity, and the surge in tourism, was in the midst of a Culinary Renaissance. Ireland was acknowledged as a Mecca for tourists, and Irish cuisine was recognized as sophisticated and refined. Furthermore, the views of an Irish Chef, who worked at Harvard Business School in America summarized the picture. Chef Martin Breslin, a native Dubliner, marveled at the dramatic changes he saw on a visit home to Ireland. He admitted that dining out was not part of Irish life in times past, as traditionally, people ate at home. But now, as more Irish people went out to restaurants, maybe three to four times a month, they became accustomed to eating better quality foods, and the demand for good restaurants grew.

The incredible changes in Ireland are reflected on the official Irish web sites of groups such as Enterprise Ireland; FAS (The Training and Employment Authority); Bord Bia; Bord Failte and Tourism Ireland. The FAS web site informs the public that the Irish Government directed Irish embassies and diplomatic missions worldwide, to promote Ireland as a place where good, high quality food is produced. Enterprise Ireland highlights the phenomenal increase in employment figures in the Irish food industry, and its substantial contribution to national wealth. Output from the food industry was valued at over 13 billion Irish pounds in 1997. Furthermore, the web site states that the Irish food industry is based on a major natural resource, and almost exclusively uses native indigenous raw materials. (An ironic statement at this late stage, but better late than never.) Bord Bia regularly updates their web site on Irish culinary activities both at home and overseas, where they have representation in several countries. Their slogan or umbrella under which they operate is both clever and appropriate, Ireland - The Food Island. In September 2002, Bord Failte hosted an elegant Gala Dinner to showcase delicious Irish food. The event was held at Malahide Castle, when the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association members visited Ireland. And, today, Irish travel guides and brochures feature not only a great selection of Tours across Ireland, with enticing themes like ‘Mystical Ireland ’, ‘Irish Heritage’ and ‘Irish Classic’, but include ‘A Taste of Ireland’, and the more exciting ‘Gourmet Tours to Ireland’.

The changes are very welcome, and remarkable too, in view of the complete lack of interest from the powers-that-be in times past. The possibilities and educational opportunities available in the Irish food world today are endless. Prosperity abounds in the Emerald Isle now for several reasons, with high levels of employment in many industries, and especially in the food sector. However, it is very ironic that a hundred and sixty years after the terrible famine that killed thousands of Irish people, and gave thousands more souls only one alternative option….get out in order to survive, food is now the most successful industry in Ireland. The critical elements for great food, as good as any found across the globe, was always on Ireland’s doorstep. Sadly, a wasted half-century and more of time and potential was ignored after Ireland got its independence in 1922; while thousands of unemployed Irish people continued to emigrate to foreign shores, in hopes of finding employment and a better life elsewhere.

The advent of the 21st Century, shows a very different Ireland, beyond recognition to travelers who visited Irish shores in earlier times. Many tourists still view Ireland as a romantic country, and much hype is projected into creating and maintaining this image by Bord Failte, and their associate overseas group, Tourism Ireland. The unshakable faith of the tourists coming to Ireland continues unabated. They come by the millions, and long may it continue, as it adds to the country’s prosperity. In those far off days, people did not come for the dining experience, and resigned themselves to eating the predictable bacon, cabbage and potatoes or Irish stew, and overcooked vegetables. Now, they come, not only to see the scenic beauty and cultural life, but also to experience the unique flavors and textures of superb fresh home produced Irish food, beautifully prepared for the discerning palate. There is a very wide choice of elegant period style country homes, manor houses, Irish castles and excellent hotels everywhere, where visitors are welcome to stay and enjoy a delicious home cooked Irish dinner.

The bed and breakfast route has come into its’ own, with a multitude of listings available in a book one can obtain at the local tourist offices. Everywhere, one hears about the famous Irish breakfast. Cereals, followed by eggs, bacon, sausages, black pudding, tomatoes, toast and Irish marmalade, it is a feast in itself to start off the day on the right foot. I love it, and never gave it a negative thought until I came across an American lady recently, who has visited Ireland twice. She has a very different opinion on the Irish breakfast. “They seem to forget that it’s the same breakfast, served day in and day out wherever one stays. It gets pretty boring as there is no variety.” She speaks with authority, and runs a popular guest house here in the States, where she makes a point of varying her breakfasts day to day. Perhaps it needs to be addressed, and I have passed on the comments to Bord Bia in Ireland.

Between 1999 and 2001, several Honorary Conferrings took place at University College Cork – UCC. Denis Brosnan, Chief Executive of the Kerry Group, returned to his former college campus to receive a Doctorate. As the driving force and visionary, who transformed a local Cooperative into a global giant, it was a very well deserved honor. And, Myrtle Allen, called the Matriarch of the Allen dynasty at Ballymaloe, returned to the Alma Mater of her father, who previously taught architecture at UCC. She is now Dr. Myrtle Allen, and received the honor for her extensive work towards taking the Irish culinary scene onto the world stage. The Allen dynasty continues into the next couple of generations, whereby her many children and grand children have also become very involved in the food business.

In the new century, culinary activities continue to expand throughout Ireland. The Blue Book and the Kinsale Gourmet Festival have celebrated their 25th anniversaries. The newest cooking school, Belle Isle, opened in July 2003, at the Duke of Abercorn’s estate, and caters to the ever increasing number of tourists, who like to spend a holiday in a beautiful land, and combine it with cooking classes. Ireland has over twenty trade publications, and as many trade associations too in the food and drink industry. The Irish monthly consumer magazine ‘Food and Wine’ is widely read across Ireland and overseas. Dine Quick and the Irish Examiner teamed up to provide an Internet service, whereby folk can make restaurant reservations anywhere in Ireland.

Bord Bia continues to introduce new ideas to promote food on the home front, and exports to overseas markets. Two years ago, they initiated Feile Bia, a program designed to handle a quality assurance scheme. Members in the group range from restaurants, caterers and producers of Irish food products. They agree to provide specific information to the public; whereby they will list on their menus or printed material, the origins of their foods, and whether these are Irish and organically produced goods.

A niche that began in the early '80s, producing specialty foods, has expanded extensively, opening the doors to many entrepreneurs. Their efforts are reaping major rewards today. The Irish market place has opened its arms to embrace their efforts. Exports of Irish specialty foods is big business today, with full support from Bord Bia, the Media and other Irish interest groups.

Irish cuisine has reached a plateau, but there are still opportunities for further improvements. Although the choice of foods now available in Ireland are global, and the variety of restaurants nowadays include Indian, Chinese, Thai and Sushi; there is a strong move for Ireland to remember its roots. Journalists call for the return of traditional Irish cuisine. They want the country to remember its culinary heritage. An effort is underway to retain classic Irish dishes before they get lost in the mists of time. Greater attention is also given to the methods used, whereby, the wonderful fresh foods of Ireland are produced. Good old-fashioned farming is back in vogue, now widely hyped under the fashionable name - 'Organic'. Vegetarian restaurants and Farmers Markets are extremely popular throughout the land. The Slow Food movement, begun in Italy in 1985, and launched internationally from Paris in 1989, is developing a great following in Ireland. Back to basics is the objective. Eliminate all aspects of fast convenience foods, and emphasize the true flavors of home grown, freshly prepared meals. In a manner of speaking, the scene is turning full cycle.

The New Irish Cuisine
In 2001, an article appeared in the American press. It questioned the definition of new Irish cuisine. The article maintained that for all the talk about a new Irish cuisine, it’s difficult to define it, because Irish food today is as varied as the cooks, and restaurants that serve the new cuisine. I agreed with the journalist, and notified her that as the Founder and Pioneer of the new Irish cuisine movement, I gave it a definition in 1995. Conscious of the fact that French cuisine is associated with Cordon Bleu – Blue Ribbon; and aware of the extremely high standards Irish cuisine had attained in the 90’s decade, I had defined Irish cuisine with Cordon d’Or-Gold Ribbon in 1995. This was publicly announced at the launch of a new project ‘Cordon d’Or – Gold Ribbon’ – The Accolade of the 21st Century, at the Times Festival of Reading held at Eckerd College, Florida, in 1995. And, a cookbook, ‘Cordon d’Or – Gold Ribbon Cuisine’, with a slant on the new Irish cuisine, was published at the time.

In March 2003, The St. Petersburg Times in Florida, featured an article about my work as the Founder of the new Irish cuisine, which began more than 30 years ago. The article reiterates the question as to whether there is such a thing as Irish cuisine. The journalist states that despite all the work I did, followed by the efforts of Irish chefs, food writers and the government, to bring Ireland out of the ‘Potatoes Era’, there are still misconceptions about Irish cuisine. The article also features Margaret M. Johnson, whose recent cookbooks feature the Irish culinary scene today. Margaret Johnson acknowledged my early culinary efforts, and admits that it took a long time for my ideas to take hold. The article recognizes my delight at the changes today, and notes that I told people in Ireland what was possible way back in time.

A Gourmet’s Paradise?
Irish food has received the recognition it deserves, both at home and on the world stage; but, has Ireland become a gourmet’s paradise? It is a question I asked several Irish journalists earlier this year. The angry retorts surprised me. “Depends on whether you can afford it.” When I questioned this further, I discovered another surprise. Many people equate the word ‘gourmet’ with ‘money’, and not with ‘quality’. Looking into the subject in greater depth, I found the reasons for this line of thinking.

It has always been very expensive to eat out in Ireland. In 1989, dinner for two people at a well known restaurant in Kinsale cost between 50 – 60 Irish Punts, for Hors d’oeuvre, Entrée, Dessert and a glass of wine. At the time, that would translate into US $75 - $90. Throughout the ‘80s, on frequent trips to the USA, I enjoyed many an excellent meal in Florida for around $15 a head, including a glass of house wine. Now that the Euro and Cents have replaced the Irish Punt (Pound) and Pence, there has been an incredible increase in food costs, causing a tremendous outcry in Ireland, where people are bitterly complaining about what has happened. There are 100 Cents to one Euro, and formerly 100 Pence to one Punt. The current value of one former Irish Punt equals approximately 67 - 70 Cents in the new European currency. However, following the change from Punt to Euro, the trend everywhere was to translate costs in such a way, whereby the existence of Cents was ignored, and prices for goods were leveled off to the nearest Euro. Something that previously cost one Irish Punt, was priced at one Euro instead of 67-70 Cents. So, to all intent and purposes, costs for items have jumped by an average of 30% and more. In the food arena, costs have gone up by 100%, and in many instances, as much as 300%. Today, you can quite easily pay out 100 Euro per person for a good evening meal in a top Irish restaurant or 5 Star Hotel. The approximate rate is US $1.16 to one Euro. Tourists are complaining, and the fear now is the potential loss of considerable tourism revenue. The Celtic Tiger and prosperity in Ireland during the last ten years, has allowed many people to eat out regularly, and restaurants have taken full advantage of the situation, to rake in the cash while the good times last. In their defense, they claim that basic costs, especially insurance is so prohibitive, that their high charges to consumers is legitimate. However, not only is it so expensive to eat out in a restaurant; the same trend is seen in the supermarkets, (stores), where people go to buy their weekly groceries. A family with four children, who a few years ago prior to the monetary changes, had a weekly grocery bill of 160 Punts, nowadays can pay out closer to 400 Euro for that same weekly shopping expedition.

Sunday lunch is a popular outing in Ireland. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, costs were always very reasonable, and restaurants were booked out solidly. In the latter part of the ‘90s, on a visit to Ireland, I took a party of 16 to lunch at a very popular restaurant overlooking the Atlantic in South Co. Cork, close to where we formerly lived. It is always packed to the hilt, so I made the reservation two months before leaving the States. The 3 course meal (several choices offered), was priced at 6.50 Irish Punts ahead, plus drinks. Today, Sunday lunch at another very well known restaurant in East Co. Cork, costs 51 Euro ahead for their buffet, excluding drinks and tax.

People in Ireland are outraged about the cost of food today. It is a topic discussed daily in the media, through radio, TV and the newspapers. Recently, the RAI (Restaurant Association) introduced a plan to try damage control. They have recommended that restaurants provide a three-tier price list for set menus. This allows the customer to choose 2 Courses - Hors d’oeuvre and an Entrée, or an Entrée and a Dessert. And, depending on the menu chosen, one can pay 30 Euro, 60 Euro, or 90 Euro for the meal. Drinks are extra. It may work, but watch out for the places that tell you they do not serve wine by the glass. “I can open a bottle and pour a glass for you” two diners were told recently in a restaurant in West Cork. “But I’ll have to charge you for the bottle, which you can take home with you.” This was relayed to me very recently in a phone call from colleagues in Ireland, who availed of the new idea, and tried a 2 Course lunch at 30 Euro. “Sounds like another scam to get more money out of the customer”, they said. I have passed the information on to Bord Bia, and the Restaurant Association.

It is a sad reflection on what is happening on the Irish culinary scene today at a commercial level. After all the incredible efforts and hard work done by so many people over 40 to 60 years, to transform the food scene completely in Ireland – from a post famine era to feast; whereby it can strictly speaking, be classified as a gourmet’s paradise today; Ireland is now ironically overshadowed by these very unexpected developments, that may well destroy everything, if the bubble were to burst. Someone in Ireland voiced it very recently to me in one word. Dare I repeat it? Greed!

UPDATE (September 2004)

It is good to see that the problem about food being outrageously priced in Ireland has not had an adverse effect on its tourism. A Report on Irish Tourism, released in August 2004, indicates that more tourists have visited the Emerald Isle in the earlier part of the year than at the same time last year. The bulk appear to have come from Continental Europe, while the transatlantic traffic also recovered after set backs in former years due to 9/11. Interesting too, to see that Irish folk are traveling far and wide, with more than a third of the population going abroad between April and June of this year.

On the home front, the organic food scene has become the rage, with more emphasis being placed on restaurants featuring the source of the ingredients, preferably Irish,  used in their food. Home grown, home produced Irish products are very much to the fore. And, aside from this, the Slow Food Movement, is gaining more and more attention across Ireland.

Fast foods and convenience foods are loosing ground, as more people are encouraged to return to basics and cook fresh homegrown Irish food.

UPDATE (June 2008)

In recent years, Noreen encouraged Bord Bia, the Irish Government Food Board, to associate themselves with the new Culinary Accolade to describe the Irish Cuisine in the 21st Century. In 2004, Noreen visited Ireland in 2004, and  Bord Bia arranged a luncheon for her. They invited the Irish Press members to attend. Noreen told them about the Culinary Accolade of the 21st Century, and the Cordon d Or Gold Ribbon Culinary Academy Awards  Program. At the lunch, she announced plans to bring several Culinarians to Ireland on a Culinary Tour.

In 2005, Ireland won the Cordon d Or Gold Ribbon Cuisine of the Year Culinary Academy Award presented either to a Country or a Culinarian. The Award was presented to Bord Bia, who sent their representative James O Donnell to Florida to accept the Award on their behalf. The Culinary Life Achievement Award was won by Irish Journalist Georgina Gampbell. Georgina was one of the journalists who back in the 1970s wrote on Noreen's work on the Irish scene, and her newly published cookbook on the New Irish Cuisine.  Her article expressed Noreen's beliefs that Ireland was ready to embrace a New Irish Cuisine, and was virgin territory to become a gourmet's paradise.

 

Baileys Irish Cream was presented with the Cordon d' Or - Gold Ribbon President's Award in 2006. It was accepted in Florida by Peter O' Connor on behalf of Baileys.          

In 2006, Noreen returned to Ireland with a group of Culinarians from the USA, Canada and the UK. Through Cordon d Or Gold Ribbon, she organized an Eight-Day Culinary Tour of Ireland and arranged many Sponsorships for the tour. It was a phenomenal success. Sponsors included Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board;  BIM Bord Iascaigh Mhara, the Irish Fisheries Board;  the Irish Dairy Board/Kerrygold;  Baileys Irish Cream; Irish Distillers;  Guinness;  Cashel Blue Cheese;  Molaga Honey, Brooks Hotel (Dublin) and Actons Hotel (Kinsale, Co,. Cork).  The Tour was a Celebration of the 21st Anniversary of Cordon d Or Gold Ribbon, and can be reviewed via the Emerald Isle Jewel in the Culinary Crown.  There, one can see photographs taken by the participants, and their individual   testimonials;   tour reviews and itinerary. One can also read copy of an article in the Irish Examiner, Irelands leading daily newspaper. Formerly called the Cork Examiner, it is the paper where Noreen was commissioned for six years to write  articles weekly for a double page feature, titled Out and About with Noreen.  The Culinary Tour was a celebration of the 21st Anniversary of Cordon d Or Gold Ribbon, and while the group were guests of Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board on their first day in Ireland, Noreen told their hosts at Bord Bia, that to reflect the changing times, she no longer called the former New Irish Cuisine by that name, but now referred to it as the

21st CENTURY IRISH CUISINE

Noreen plans another Culinary Tour of Ireland in September 2009. Several Culinarians who went on the previous tour in 2006, plan to join her again for the Taste Ireland 2009 Tour.

 

 

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