• Ali Isaac

junk food past and present | the diet of our ancient irish ancestors

Updated: Jul 5, 2020

What is the first thing which springs to mind when we think of Irish food? Yep, the potato! It appears in everything: Colcannon, Irish Stew, Boxty, Champ, Shepherd’s Pie, to name but a few. There’s no getting away from it, the Irish love their spuds. But the potato didn’t make its appearance until the 17th century, so how on earth did we manage before?

Well, it seems the Irish diet did not change much from Neolithic times until the potato.

By Len Rizzi (photographer, original image), reprocessed by Off-shell - File:NCI Visuals Food Hamburger.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56736132

By Len Rizzi Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56736132

To anyone who’s ever read any Irish mythology, there are two huge clues as to their diet; their fondness for hunting, and the value they placed on their cattle.

We know that they chose to hunt on foot with their beloved wolf hounds; they were after deer, maybe even the giant Irish elk, and wild boar. These animals would be roasted on spits made from peeled and pointed hazel rods, or butchered and boiled in their outdoor cooking troughs known as fullacht fiadh.

They also hunted and ate animals we wouldn’t dream of eating today, such as badgers and seals.

As for the cattle, in the mythology of the Ulster Cycle, Queen Medb  famously went to war over ownership of the great bull Donn Cúailnge , to disastrous consequence. The Tuatha de Danann were renowned for their graceful milk-white cattle, and even in historical times, the various clans often invaded their neighbours’ territories to steal their herds, or demand cattle-tribute for previous wrongdoings.

Why were cattle so highly prized? Undoubtedly, they were a sign of wealth, but more than that, they ensured survival.

How so? Well, they were a readily available meat source, of course, but in actual fact, if something is precious to you, you are unlikely to kill and eat it. No, it was all about their produce.

In other words, banbidh, or ‘white foods’. They ate a lot of dairy. Butter was highly prized, especially fresh unsalted butter. Sometimes, they flavoured it with onions or wild garlic.

They even had the strange tradition of burying it in bogs, some say to develop the flavour, some say for storage; the true reason is not clear, but examples of ‘bog-butter’ have been recovered, and may be seen in the National Museum in Dublin.

They drank milk, sometimes fresh or mixed with honey, sometimes soured, even something they called bainne clabair, meaning ‘thick milk’, which was a cross between regular milk and thick sour cream.

They mixed it with grains to form porridge, and used it in the baking of bread. They also made many varieties of cheese. They also consumed the colustrum produced by cows after calving.

Another strange practice was that of bleeding the cattle, then mixing the blood with barley and seasoning to make black puddings.

Soup cooking in medieval pot

The Neolithic people were great farmers. As well as keeping livestock, mainly sheep, goats and pigs in addition to cattle, they cultivated their own crops. Wheat was difficult to grow in the damp Irish climate, but barley and oats were more successful.

All grains were ground by hand on quern stones, and then sifted through nets to produce finer flours for baking. It was back breaking and time consuming work.

There were no ovens, so flat cakes and breads were cooked on flag stones heated up in the fireplace. These grains did not make very good bread, so they were used in porridge mostly. Barley, however, had a more popular use; it brewed a fairly acceptable ale. called cuirm.

Honey was a very important food, as it was their only source of sweetness. It was taken so seriously, that it had a whole Brehon Law devoted to it, called bechbretha. meaning ‘bee judgements’. It concerned such rules as, if a hive swarmed onto another man’s land, what portion of the honey produced should be allotted to each man, and was quite detailed and complicated.

Honey was used to sweeten porridge, in baking, to baste roasting meats and fish, and to flavour drinks. It was also used to produce the alcoholic beverage mead, known as mid in Irish (mee).

Apart from apples, fruit and vegetables were not cultivated in Ireland before the 8th century. Much of their fresh foods were gathered in on a regular basis, such as wild berries of all kinds, nuts, watercress, garlic, seaweed such as dulse in coastal areas, about which there were also serious laws, kale, onions and strawberries. Later on, they grew cabbages, carrots, leeks, parsnips and turnips.

The hazel nut was particularly prized for its nutritional qualities. In mythology, Fintan, the Salmon of Knowledge became so wise and highly sought after from eating the hazel nuts which fell into the river from the nine sacred hazel bushes.

He swam down the Boyne and was caught by Fionn mac Cumhall for his mentor, the druid Finegas, yet burned his thumb while cooking it. Although warned not to eat the fish by Finegas, he put his burned thumb into his mouth to cool it, thereby accidentally ingesting the morsel of flesh which clung there, so cheating poor old Finegas out of the knowledge he so desperately craved.

Many types of fish and shellfish were eaten, including salmon. Fionn mac Cumhall and his Fianna were said to have regularly visited Belleek in the autumn to feast on the annual salmon run, and sharpen their weapons there. He is also associated with the River Finn in Co. Monaghan, where he caught bream, roach and pike.

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Bog butter still in its wooden container on display in the County Cavan Museum.

Various condiments, known as annlann in Irish, were used to flavour their foods, such as lard, olar ( a rich gravy), inmar (dripping), butter, salt, honey, herbs, in fact, anything not considered the main constituent of the meal was called annlann.

Producing food and then cooking it was not a quick and easy task in ancient Ireland. There were no convenience foods, no junk foods. Interestingly, they seem to have been a fairly healthy bunch, on the whole; as far as we can tell, there seems to have been relatively little evidence of obesity and other lifestyle/diet related illnesses.

Perhaps we could learn more from the people of ancient Ireland than stone masonry and star gazing… and by the way, it took me half a pack of salt & vinegar stackers  and two glasses of prosecco to write this post!

Oh well, tomorrow is another day…

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