Connemara Diet

Connemara is now widely recognised as a source of some of the finest ingredients available for modern cooking. Many are part of a long culinary tradition.

The Irish diet, before the introduction of the potato was varied and seasonal. Large amounts of meat, fish, milk products, eggs and wild game / vegetables were eaten.   For the first 8,000 years the people who inhabited Ireland are believed to have been predominately hunter / gathers of food. 

The quantity of food available varied greatly from season to season and from year to year. From approximately 5000 ago the domestication of animals, forest clearance and the continued collection of wild foods provided the major source of food. It was around this time that the cultivation of a variety of edible grass seed and leaf plants began. The management of domestic animals and the long term storage of food became common as did settled communities. There is pollen evidence that for periods up to 200 years the level of agricultural activity seemed to fluctuate. During low periods the consumption of meat and dairy products increased as the inhabitants returned to a greater reliance on livestock, hunting and gathering. These fluctuations continued until the 3rd century AD when a permanent expansion of agriculture occurred.

Milk, cheese, meat, cereals and some vegetables formed the main part of the Irish diet from prehistoric times up until the introduction of the potato. The types of food eaten depended on whether a community was inland or on the coast. 

Coastal communities collected a variety of shellfish (razorfish, cockles, clams, oysters, limpets, periwinkles, mussels, prawns and crabs) added seaweed, some herbs and vegetables to make a soup/stew, which was left simmering for hours then eaten with Oat bread. Fish, was usually cooked by spit roasting, and basted with honey.

Cattle dominated the rural economy. The number of cattle that a man had showed his wealth. They were mainly kept for blood and milk.  . Analysis of the animal bones found at Dun Alinnne, County Kildare showed that 54% were from cattle, 36% from pigs, 7% from sheep and goats and 2.5% from horses . The majority of the cattle bones were from calves or elderly cows indicating that cattle were kept mainly for milk and blood. Beef (salted and was known as winter food in Brehon Law), pork, wild deer (venison) and mutton were the most common meats consumed up. 

Venison in the diet declined from the 8th century on due to over hunting. There is also evidence that horse was used as a source of meat. Cattle blood was also used in the production of food. Healthy cattle were bled from the neck, the blood was then mixed with meal, and it was then cooked to produce black pudding. This was salted or dried for use as protein in the winter months. Pork was very popular and is often the main meat recorded as being eaten at feasts in major houses. Venison, beef, goat, and salmon were also popular. 

Other meats mentioned are Badger which was considered a delicacy, seal and porpoise. Porpoise (sea pig) was reported to have been preferred to pork by coastal communities. Hare was a common meat dish in Ireland. Rabbit (introduced by the Normans) also became a major meat consumed in Ireland. A popular way of preparing Hare and rabbit was to boil them in a pot of rancid butter.

Fowl, without plucking or removal of the intestine, were cooked by covering them with mud or blue clay and put into a hot fire. When cooked the clay casing was broken open. The feathers and skin came away with the clay. Hedgehogs were also cooked like this.

Milk in various forms was consumed in large quantities. Fresh milk, curds (?white meats   were known as summer foods), cheeses and butter were the main milk foodstuffs. Butter was allowed to go rancid and was stored in barrels in bogs. Sheeps milk cheese was also a key foodstuff.  Milk was also boiled with seaweed (carrageen). This made the milk thicken. Honey and seasonal fruits were used to add flavour.

Fish was an important part of Irish diet. Atlantic salmon was considered to be the best fish of all. Trout, pike, perch, ells and roach were also popular fresh water fish. Sea fish such as cod, hake, whiting, mackerel and skate as well as shellfish were also eaten. Herrings and mackerel were caught, salted / dried and then stored for winter use. They were also traded with inland communities. Fish were usually cooked over an open fire. Apple wood was a favoured wood for cooking fish. Fish stew was also popular. The fish was put in a pot and cooked with vegetables, seaweed and herbs. 

Eggs were eaten in large quantities. The most popular were those of ducks and wild sea birds. Goose eggs were a delicacy. They were usually eaten on special occasions like Easter and mid summer s day. Eggs were cooked by frying them on hot stones with butter or boiled / poached in a hot water with salt and fermented fruit juice.

Eight types of cereals (were cultivated by the Irish. The four most common ones were Oats, barley, Rye and Wheat. , Their use varied from place to place and the social status of a person also mattered. Bread does not seem to have been eaten in large quantities. Oats and barley the most common grains used in bread. Rye and wheat were usually mixed to produce a flour used in a staple Celtic bread called Maslin. 

White bread made of only wheat flour was produced on special occasions. White bread is mentioned in Brehon Laws.  The womans cake (bairgin banfuine) should only be half the size or thickness of the man?s cake (bairgin ferfuine ). The mans cake should only be half the size of the guest?s cake (bairgan indriud). Scones were also made. These used wheat flour and burned seaweed, sour milk. As a raising agent acid extracted from fruit was added.  Lumps of the mixture were wrapped in wild cabbage leaves and then baked. 

Bread was also cooked in the cauldron over the cooling embers without a lid. The cauldron was greased and the loaf placed inside to cook overnight on the cooling embers of the fire. This was common practice across rural Ireland up to the late 20th century. 

Porridge was a common use for oats. It was made either thick or liquid and would be eaten hot or cold.

Fruit and vegetables were generally gathered in the wild. Wild onions, garlic, wild leeks, sorrel, nettles, and watercress were some of the vegetables most common in the ancient Irish diet. Seasonal fruits and nuts were also important. Sloe, wild cherry, raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, rowan, whortleberries, crab apples, Hazel nuts, and elderberries were widely eaten when available. Edible fungus (mushrooms) were gathered and either eaten fresh or dried for use in the winter. 

Potatoes were introduced in the 16th century and rapidly became an Irish dietary staple. The availability of a high energy, high volume crop such as the potato led to a rapid growth in population and also to its decimation when blight caused the potato crops to fail especially in 1845 to 1847 (the great famine)

Apples seem to have been the widely cultivated fruit. Brehon Law said that any tenant who lost his land had to be compensated for any apple trees he had planted. From the 8th century on vegetables were cultivated in the lubgort or vegetable garden. 

A vegetable called cainenn, a type of onion was popular. Its bulbs and stem were eaten raw or cooked. Immus (celery) and Foltchep (a kind of onion / chive / leek) were also widely cultivated. Meacan and cerrbacan (carrots and parsnips) were common root vegetables. A type of wild cabbage and kale were also cultivated. 

The Norman introduced peas and beans and these were widely grown all over Ireland. Turnips first appear in the 12th century. Hazelnuts were collected and used in cakes as a ground meal, or eaten raw. (Salaman 1949). Crem  a wild garlic was used in most dishes and as a vegetable.  

Alcoholic drinks were also known to the Irish. Mead which is made by fermented honey and water with herbs and spices was a key drink of the ancient Irish. It was drunk before the start and after a feast. Metheglin, was a special form of mead made with honey, thyme, rosemary and sweet briar. Sloe wine was made by mashing sloe berries, boiling them in water. The mix was then left for one day at room temperature for yeasts to settle. Honey was then added. The mix was buried for 6 weeks underground in an airtight container.  It was then removed, strained through straw and drunk as wine.

The diet of poor people was varied. The main meat they ate was salted pork. This was the cheapest of the meats to purchase and was eaten all year round. Pigs blood was made into puddings and stored. 

Up to the arrival of the Normans ordinary people also hunted. This added venison, hedgehogs, wild goats, wild boar, wild fowl and river / sea fish to their diet. Later, in areas controlled by the Normans such hunting was largely forbidden.

In Connemara Porpoise (sea pig) was preferred over other meats as the main dish at feasts.

19th century improvements in the roads and rail system in Connemara allowed the introduction of new products into the local diet. The arrival of modern food logistics, supermarkets and the entry to the EU in 1972 greatly expanded the variety of ingredients available to the local chefs and cooks.  

A recent trend has been in foraging and using unconventional, forgotten and Organic ingredients in new and exciting recipes available form the many excellent restaurants across Connemara.