Not long after I’d moved from central London to a house beside the Shannon, I decided to write Ireland’s Green Larder, a history of Ireland seen through the prism of food and drink. My previous job had involved commissioning cookery writers and chefs, visiting restaurants and writing about food and drink, so naturally my antennae were wiggling about when I landed in Co Galway.
I found that every small town still had a butcher’s – often more than one, sometimes charmingly called victualler’s. The quality of the beef was superb. Even in my local supermarket, the mince was worth buying, with no sign of that pale pink stuff on offer in many British supermarkets, ominously called Economy Mince. The bread was wonderful. In my local greengrocer’s (another shop well in decline back in Britain) they discussed the variety of potato you’d want, and they sold golden country butter, wrapped simply in greaseproof paper and made ten miles away.
On the minus side, you had to travel some distance to find exotic foodstuffs. No, not lemongrass or yams. I mean such weird vegetables as leeks or watercress. When they first stocked it, the woman at the checkout asked me what you’d do with asparagus. And, brought up in the north of England, as I was, I couldn’t understand the lack of savoury pastries. Where were the pork pies?
It became obvious to me that the food of a nation tells you a great deal – what is plentiful, what is absent, what is valued. Never mind battles and soldiers, politicians and laws – the history of a nation is, at its very core, an examination of what is of daily and utmost importance – food and drink. There is no history without the staff of life. Brillat-Savarin sums it up – we are what we eat. And in Ireland’s case, the story of food thrums with significance – sometimes triumphant, often tragic.
And so I began my researches for Ireland’s Green Larder, which will be published next year. Around the country I buzzed, from west Cork to Antrim, interviewing food producers, poring over folklore archives, inspecting a fulachta fiadh (ancient cooking pit) at Craggaunowen in Co Clare, visiting the Ceide Fields, the site of the oldest field system in the world (a thousand years older than the Pyramids) and much more. I read extensively and I conducted culinary experiments with the crane that swung out over the turf fire in my cottage. I even made bull’s milk. (You might have to get your hands on my book to learn what that is!)
When it was written, I had an uphill battle to find a publisher. At the time, the industry was feeling beleaguered and was only interested in sure-fire hits, even though I had a track record – my first book, Irish Days, had been well received and had gone from hardback to paperback.
As these things go, it was by talking to a fellow writer, Paul Kingsnorth, that I found a solution. His first novel, The Wake, had been published by Unbound in London and had gone on to be long listed for the Booker Prize. I submitted my synopsis and a sample chapter, bracing myself for a lengthy wait or worse. I’d been listening to The Messiah, and the words He was despisèd, rejected were ringing in my ears. But in no time they came back to me and they not only liked it, they thought it was – ahem! – wonderful.
Thereafter followed an intense period of crowd funding. Unbound operates in a way that seems new, and yet turns out to be long established. Before production begins, the writer needs to reach a financial target by urging people to select one of a range of pledges. Once that target is reached, the profits are split evenly. While this notion of crowd funding is part of the zeitgeist of our age, a similar method was employed by Charles Dickens, though in his day it was known as subscription.
In my (typical) case, a short video was made and put up on the Unbound website. In it I talk about Ireland’s Green Larder – a history, not a cookbook, although recipes are dotted here and there. I wrote it for the general public and laced it with accounts of miracles, poems, extracts from diaries, letters and much more. Details of the ultra-strict diet of the Culdee monastic communities contrast strikingly with an account of the lavish dinner given by a Mrs Delany in the 18th century, the first course alone consisting of a large joint of beef ‘tremblante’, garnished with small patés, two soups, pigeon pie, stuffed veal with parsley and cream, and casserole with vin de Bourgogne. (She wished to pique her guests’ appetite before the following two courses were brought on.)
Since I arrived in Ireland I have spent more time writing poetry than prose, and I hope that the sensitivity to language that poetry demands will have passed osmotically into my prose. Despite following the adventures of Mrs Delany, as mentioned above, my major concern was for the rural poor. I wanted to learn what they grew, what they caught, on land and on water, and I was fascinated to study the ways in which they dealt with food. I can promise you that even in relatively good times, nothing was wasted. And in lean times, the bean an tí would find ingenious ways to make a meal from scraps. I recognise the same impulse in the urban poor, too, who made a satisfying dish of Dublin Coddle out of odds and ends.
I’ve dotted a few recipes in the book here and there, and tested them all, too. Do you fancy Grunt Soup? No, I don’t blame you, although it’s nicer than it sounds. But you can’t go wrong with a tea brack or a porter cake. If you are feeling the Christmas spirit of generosity, you could always offer someone (and that includes yourself) a pledge for my book by visiting here.
(c) Margaret Hickey
About Ireland’s Green Larder:
Margaret Hickey’s book, Ireland’s Green Larder, tells for the first time the story of food and drink in Ireland from the ancient field system of the Ceide Fields, established a thousand years before the Pyramids were built, right up to today’s thriving food scene. Rather than focusing on battles and rulers, she digs down to what has formed the day-to-day life of the people. It’s a glorious ramble down the centuries, drawing on diaries, letters, legal texts, ballads, government records, folklore and more. The story of how Queen Maeve died after being hit by a piece of hard cheese sits alongside a contemporary interview with one of Ireland’s magnificent cheese makers, and Jonathan Swift’s complaint about dubiously fresh salmon is countered by the tale of the writer’s day trip on the wild Atlantic coast, collecting the world’s freshest native oysters.
Recipes are dotted throughout the book and there’s a chapter on the Irish rituals and superstitions associated with food and drink. In no country has the contrast between feast and famine been greater than in Ireland. Margaret Hickey has written a lively, stimulating book with the daily human experience at its heart – in it you’ll find a larderful of food for thought.
Pre-order your copy online here.