Food for Thought... The Real Reason Why Those Irish Eyes are Smiling...

Posted by Cindy Clarke on 9/10/2015
Posted in: Tauck’s Travelogue
Tags: Dining, Food, Food and Wine, Tauck, Travel Tips, Travel, history, tradition, Ireland

intro_foodFrance has escargot, chocolate and baguettes. In Italy, it’s pasta and pizza perfection. Burgers and shakes are famous in the US. Spain has paella. Argentina has steaks… but Ireland? If you asked me when I was a college student living in Ireland on a semester abroad decades ago, I would have said potatoes, scones and Guinness in that order, without hesitation. And while Irish landscapes have little changed since then, the culinary landscape has experienced a renaissance of taste and flavor that celebrates a growing movement of fresh farm to table, artfully prepared and deliciously “season-ed,” fare.

Are potatoes still included on today’s fashionable food plates? Of course! They’ve been an Irish staple since the second half of the 16th century, at that time herding beef out of the running as the dominant food source for Irish gentry, and its by-products of milk, butter, cheese and offal supplemented with oats and barley, for the peasants. Easily grown, they enabled a population explosion — as Irish food writer Darina Allen writes, “With only an acre or two of land a farmer could grow enough potatoes to support his whole family.” The abundance of potatoes influenced Ireland’s cuisine and representative dishes like Irish stew, bacon and cabbage, boxty, coddle and colcannon became traditional favorites. The great potato famine of the mid 1840s changed Ireland from a land of plenty to a famine stricken one, a time when the greater population had to survive on native ingredients alone. Experts say that in the aftermath, a kind of pall was cast over Irish attitudes toward food, and it temporarily lost its footing in the culinary competition its neighbors and world cities heartily engaged in.

potato_fieldWhile not the mealtime stars they once were, spuds are not considered duds when it comes to regional cooking today, only instead of being either boiled, fried or mashed like the ones I feasted on in days long gone, they’re blanketing savory cottage pies, transformed into traditional pancakes called boxty, and scalloped and dolloped with cream or headlining in casseroles like colcannon (mixed with kale, onions and lots of butter), coddle (a typical supper dish of sausages, bacon, onions and potatoes, reputed to be Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift’s favorite meal) and champ (a combination of mashed potatoes and chopped scallions with butter and milk), all with a modern-day flair at the skilled hands of innovative artisan chefs.

kids_cooking_schoolCookery schools, like Ballymaloe where Tauck Bridges’ great family vacations take family travelers on Ireland Forever, have opened their kitchens to foodies who want to taste and learn to make a home-cooked Irish dinner that’s 100% organic, naturally delicious and sourced from the immediate locality. Think mackerel, oysters and scallops from the nearby bay, beef and lamb from neighboring farms, ducks and geese from “up the road,” freshly picked apples, carrots, watercress, parsnips, cucumbers – and potatoes – grown on its own 100-acre organic farm. Irish cooks are taking their lead all over Ireland as they honor their long-underestimated culinary heritage with contemporary twists.

guinnessCorner pubs awash with pints of lager, dark ale and stout like Harp and Guinness and a sure bet for meat pies, bangers (sausages) and mash (potatoes), were a large part of my Irish experience as a college student. But Tauck travelers like Jennifer Kelly told me that gastro pubs – intimate, high-end bistros that double as pubs and gourmet eateries – are all the rage now. You may find traditional black pudding on the menu (it’s not a dessert; it’s a sausage made from blood, meat, fat, oatmeal, and bread or potato fillers) but with a gourmet twist. You can still order the usual array of “tipples,” although you may want to wet your whistle with a seductive selection of craft beers (how about a dry Irish stout with hints of caramel?) and hard-to-find malt whiskeys. However tempting, visitors to Ireland will not want to miss the opportunity to drink a pint of the national beer, “the black stuff,” at its source in Dublin, learning its history, how it’s made and the strictly adhered to correct way to “pull a proper pint of Guinness” at the Guinness Storehouse Museum. (This is a very much enjoyed inclusion on Tauck’s new-for-2016 two-week Ireland & Great Britain trip in the event you want to book it now!)

irish_food_1Irish soda bread and blaa (a bread roll, crispy, flaky and oh so soft, that used to be exclusively made in Waterford, home to the famous cut crystal, and dates back to the 17th century) added unmentionable girth to my waistline during my year in Ireland. Soda bread is typically served as a side dish for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and Jennifer Kelly told me her family couldn’t get enough of the sweetened soda bread (many versions include raisins or currants, sugar, whiskey, and other fruits and nuts). I didn’t ask if their waistlines expanded…

irish_food_2What can you expect when you sit down for meals? Well, breakfasts are hearty and usually consist of bacon, eggs, sausages, fried tomatoes and potato slices, along with the requisite black or white (without blood) pudding, soda bread and sometimes a boxty. Comfort food affairs, lunch and dinner can be similarly rich and filling, with lots of potato and cabbage-based dishes, Irish stews with local meat, and fresh seafood, depending on the seasonal ingredients available at the time of your visit. If you have dietary restrictions or want gluten-free choices, you’ll find that most requests are readily accommodated throughout Ireland.

sheep_farmTravel with Tauck on A Week In… Ireland and you’ll be treated to a royal banquet in Dromoland Castle, a private Teeling Whiskey tasting, and dinner in a choice of local restaurants in Cork and Dublin popular for their great food and ambiance. Experience The Best of Ireland and have a light lunch with local farmers at a working dairy farm and feast on a sumptuous 9-course Titanic tasting dinner recalling the fine dining that the magnificent ship promised its guests. Enjoy a fun-filled family vacation on Ireland Forever, like the Kellys did, and have a barbecue, cook your own dinner at Ballymaloe, cruise Killarney Lake with a hot chocolate or Irish Coffee in hand, and end your trip at an Irish sheep farm, where wooly flocks, sheep dogs, lamb feeding and story telling make your Irish dinner party a memorable family affair!

Food notwithstanding, one of the best parts about dining in Ireland, says Jennifer Kelly, was connecting with the locals, sharing stories, telling tales and laughing… a lot! “They are charming and engaging with a great wit. We heard about life for generations past and present and enjoyed lively conversations that somehow made our meals richer for the experience.” If there is any doubt as to why those “Irish eyes are smiling,” I think it has a lot to do with the accompanying smiles that play across the lips of people who just enjoyed an Irish meal with their local hosts!


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