It never ceases to amaze me; year after year at this time of the season, more and more food related festivals are sprouting all over the country. With more and more interesting producers entering the race. From seaweed cookies to cider, chocolates ( for a small country, there are a lot of chocolatiers on the Island) the craft beer scene is “doing 90” and of course it is a great time to be a cheese lover in Ireland! The other day, a Spanish tourist came to visit, he wanted to try some Irish cheese, anything at all but No Irish Cheddar! The request was straight forward, so I gave him a slice of Hegarty’s, from Cork. He closed his eyes with delight and approved by saying: ” this is good, what is it?” I just said: “Irish Cheddar”. My remark or rather the slight poke at his Ibernian pride made his eyes squint, but the guy took it well. My point is, Ireland when it comes to Artisan food, or whatever you want to call it, is now playing in the big kids’ yard!
But it wasn’t always like this. When I arrived here, over twenty years ago, things were a bit different. All was a bit more generic and straight forward. Traditional existed of course, but under some simpler form, like brown bread, rashers ( bacon), black and white pudding etc… Those were new to me, I enjoyed the novelty. Plus the odd visitors would bring few bits from the continent, like Crême de Cassis for the “aperitifs” and other essentials. I never felt myself under huge withdrawals to be honest. I remember when I found my first decent baguette, Ciabatta and Focaccia while in Galway, and the first cheese I thought was quite nice, called Boilie, little goat’s cheese pearls in oil… Good times.
I moved to Dublin in 1999… The economic boom was in full throttle, the City was buzzing, walking fast, talking fast, everyone had a mobile phone by now, and if you didn’t, you were a looser; everyone bought a house, some two, some three… Nice interesting restaurants were popping out like chanterelles after an Autumn shower, Michelin Stars started to twinkle-twinkle over the fair city. Everybody had money, everybody had a job, some two, some three…Ireland started to win, they beat the French Rugby team in Paris after 24 years, then beat France in Landsdowne Road the year after… A guy coked up to the gills, screamed at me in a near epileptic fit, screamed that France would never win again!!! NEVER! I just winked at him wile toasting my pint to his health… He’ll need it I thought.
People traveled more, and more often, Ryan Air ferried people in and out of Dublin for nothing or next to nothing in other European Countries and Capitals for the weekend! For work even. People ate out, came back, wanted the products available at home, it all happened so fast, it all happened so quickly. The Italians, the French, the Spanish opened shops, wine bars, tapas bars, Polish and Lithuanians had their own food stores… In was nice that way. This mad period of so called economic bliss was candidly named “Celtic Tiger”. It was about to get leveled by the proverbial and predictable asteroid of recession, in an almost biblical crush. Ouch!
The interesting thing is that the people of Ireland fought that recession hard. A lot of us at some stage lost our jobs, some even their homes, it was time to rethink the whole thing, nurse that hungover. Irish consumers started to buy their own, supporting their own producers, and the food sector seemed to have been the place to be. Some had savings and decided to make a go at it. The artisan scene since 2000 has been quite interesting, but the last few years was to become really refreshing, creating a strong, fresh and vibrant platform for any food interested person. It was so significant that on two occasions I have been asked to talk to Food and Gastronomy students from France as the lecturers’ hierarchy had suggested to see what was happening in Ireland; you never know, it might re-kick start something; a country firmly anchored in food tradition is great of course, but it can slow down a demand or even creation for something new.
Whatever happens in the future, I think Ireland has really made its mark in the food world, exciting times are now and ahead of us. It has been an interesting couple of decades, I am really looking forward to the next twenty years!
Keep Well and Eat Happy,