Net top fayre from the Emerald Isle
What did people eat for dinner 10,000 years ago?
It’s a question Irish chef Jp McMahon considers a lot.
“I’m always thinking about that period in time,” says the author and food writer.
He finds himself endlessly intrigued as to whether the food then was “any more Irish than what we eat now”, and says he’s fascinated with how ‘terroir’ cooking (using indigenous ingredients) now would compare.
You can see why the Galway-based restaurateur was tasked with compiling new recipe compendium, The Irish Cookbook.
The weighty collection investigates the “peasant tradition” presumption, explores historical and contemporary cooking (McMahon went deep into Irish recipe archives), and champions the produce Ireland naturally offers up.
And it turns out, 10,000 years ago, Ireland’s first settlements were busy with people scoffing stuff you’d still recognise today. “The three pinnacle foods would’ve been salmon, trout and eel,” explains McMahon.
“You also had a lot of wild game, duck – particularly mallard – pigeon and woodcock, and then a whole host of indigenous plants, such as wild garlic, nettles.”
People would have also been cracking open oysters and scallops, mussels, cockles and clams, not to mention cooking up dishes of seal, puffin, squirrel and bear. The bears are of course all gone now though. “I don’t think we ate them all...,” McMahon notes wryly.
When people think about Irish food though – your lamb and barley, beef and Guinness stews – McMahon says “they’re really thinking about it in the last 200 years.
“Alot of these recipes only date to the 19th century, and once you go back beyond that point, it gets very, very messy,” he adds.
McMahon would particularly like Ireland to be associated with “two very elemental foods” – seafood and seaweed.
“They’ve been here a long, long time,” he explains, but the tradition of seaweed is very small.
“How did Japan turn this stuff into gold and then we literally just use it – other than for coastal reasons – as fertiliser?” he asks, dumbfounded.
“Seaweed for me is just such an important foodstuff. There’s so much we can do with it,” he adds, listing everything from desserts to stews.
“It is really, really nutritious, it’s full of flavour and natural monosodium glutamate, it has that umami characteristic.”
Game is another thing that, for some reason, people don’t “treasure enough in Ireland”.
“It’s still something we don’t really embrace,” says McMahon. “In this age of climate change, it’s a very sustainable meat. It’s literally killed and eaten, it’s not intensely farmed, and there’s a [need for] culls.”