If you're taking a trip to the Emerald Isle, don't go before reading our guide to seeking out authentic Irish food.
From lamb in spring, to fish in summer, stews and soups in the winter and, of course, potatoes at almost any time of the year, Irish food is simple, hearty, family cooking that follows the seasons.
Don't leave Ireland without trying...
Every family in Ireland has its own recipe for soda bread, hand-written on flour-crusted note paper and wedged in among the cookery books. Some like it sweet with a spoonful of honey, sugar, or dried fruits, while others prefer sprinkled-in seeds, bran and oats for a health boost, or treacle and Guinness for the opposite effect. The basic ingredients don’t change though; “bread soda” (bicarbonate of soda) and buttermilk form the raising agent, which is mixed in with flour. And nor does the way it’s eaten; sliced and spread liberally with butter.
Visit Ireland outside of summer, and the chance of seeing the sun will go from unlikely to impossible. On the plus side, you can feast on the West coast’s plump native oysters (ostrea edulis) which come into season in September, when the Galway Oyster Festival is held. Shellfish abound in Irish cuisine, from clams in Connemara, to Molly Malone’s famed cockles and mussels, and Dublin Bay prawns (langoustines), which have their own festival in Howth, in April.
Try making your own... Mussels steamed with cider & bacon.
One-pot cooking doesn’t get much simpler than Irish stew, which was traditionally made with mutton, slowly stewed for hours until the meat was tender, with onions, potatoes and some recipes adding carrots to the pot. To avoid the stew being watery (a childhood horror for me and many others), some recipes incorporate pearly barley, a knob of roux, or sliced potatoes in the bottom of the pot, while others reduce down the cooking liquor at the end. These days, you’re more likely to find Irish stew made with lamb (since the more flavourful mutton is so hard to come by), with herbs (thyme, parsley, bay leaves) and stock added for depth of flavour.
Colcannon and champ
Potatoes transformed the Irish diet when they were introduced from the New World in the late 16th century. Ireland’s population boomed with this cheap and plentiful food source, but was later decimated, in the 19th century, when the potato harvests were hit by blight. Potatoes are still a staple at most mealtimes - colcannon is a classic, comforting mash of potatoes, cabbage or kale and butter or cream, flavoured with scallions (spring onions), and the variations are endless. Champ is a similar, mashed potato favourite, flavoured with scallions, milk and butter.
Potato dumpling, potato pancake and potato bread are all ways used to describe boxty, and some say the name originates from the Irish phrase arán bocht tí, meaning "poor-house bread”. The recipe calls for grated raw potato to be mixed with mashed potato and then either; mixed with flour and salt and boiled before being sliced and fried in butter (boxty dumplings), added to a pancake-like batter before being fried (boxty on the pan), or the batter mix baked in a loaf tin and then sliced and fried (boxty in the oven). Whichever way you choose, it’ll end up in a pan of bubbling butter, and can be teamed with just about anything, from humble bacon and eggs to smoked salmon and crème fraîche.
Try making your own... Boxty with bacon, eggs & tomatoes
Boiled bacon and cabbage
Boiled bacon, boiled cabbage and boiled potatoes may not sound all that appetising but it remains a firm family favourite. Traditionally, salted pork – a cut from the shoulder or back of the pig – would have been soaked over night depending on how much desalting was needed, before being boiled, with the cabbage added to the cooking pot in the last ten minutes. A silky, parsley sauce is the classic accompaniment.
Try making your own... Boiled bacon with cabbage & carrots
Irish salmon and smoked salmon
Wild salmon is now a rare treat in Ireland, superior in so many ways to its farmed cousins. If you find it fresh on a menu, snap it up (the best months are April to June); poached and served with a white sauce, new potatoes and spring greens it's simply delicious. Smoked salmon is another must-try – the oak-smoked salmon from the Burren Smokehouse, the beechwood-smoked salmon from the Connemara Smokehouse, and the unusual turf-smoked salmon from The Haven Smokehouse are all worth looking out for.
Black and white pudding
The Irish weren’t the only ones to discover the delights of black pudding – pork meat, fat and blood mixed with barley, suet and oatmeal in an intensely flavoured sausage. White pudding (minus the blood) may be less common around the globe, but no full Irish breakfast would be complete without a slice of each. Beyond breakfast, black pudding is just as likely to appear on the menu of smart Irish restaurants nowadays, served with sautéed scallops, in croquettes, under poached eggs, in salads, risottos and garnishing soups.
Try it for yourself... Celeriac soup with scallops & black pudding
With roots as a working-class Dublin dish, the name coddle comes from the slow simmering or “coddling” of ingredients in a one-pot stew. The leftovers at the end of the week would be slowly stewed in the oven for hours, with slices of pork sausage packed in with bacon rashers or leftover boiled bacon and sliced potatoes and onions. To make a superior version, use the best quality pork sausages and bacon, and serve the coddle with slices of soda bread to mop up the juices.
Try making your own... Irish coddled pork with cider
Enthusiasts make this fruity tea loaf all year round, serving it smothered in butter with a nice cup of tea in the afternoon. It’s at Halloween, however, that you’d find a charm in your slice foretelling the future, be it a rag for bad luck or poverty, a ring to be wed within a year, a pea to avoid tying the knot within a year, a coin to bring wealth and a stick to have quarrels. Raisins, candied peel – which some recipes call to be steeped overnight in black tea and whiskey – and mixed spice all go into the mix.
Are you a fan of Irish cuisine? Do you agree with our selection or have we missed your favourite? Share your must-try dishes below…