Thursday, 5 May 2011

An introduction to food culture in Ireland

What is food culture? Even with the wealth of knowledge which the world wide web can bring, it is extremely hard to find a definition of this concept. You would think that with something so fundamental and basic to human life, food culture would be something that would be easy to define. A general definition would be the types of food eaten in a certain place, but this does not give an idea of how deeply food culture impacts on our identities within the society in which we live.

Here in Ireland, we do not have a very sophisticated food culture. You only have to ask the average person what type of food is most redolent of Ireland - by and large their answer will be the potato. Ireland's uncomfortable relationship with the tuber only began in 1589 when it was introduced into the country by Walter Raleigh. Because it was cheap and easy to grow, the dirt poor and dispossessed population became dependent on it as a staple crop. This lead to disaster when a series of blights lead to the deaths of at least one million and the emigration of another million during the Great Famine of 1845-52.

This was not the only disaster which stunted the development of the Irish cuisine. There had been a series of famines in Ireland throughout the ages, such as one which devastated Munster in the aftermath of the 16th century Desmond Rebellions. Plantations dispossessed the native population of their land and English efforts to eliminate the indigenous culture meant that food culture never developed in the same manner as it did in Europe. This was also partially due to the country's remote position from the rest of Europe, but can mainly be attributed to the deliberate way in which the English establishment attempted to control the Irish by destroying their food sources. While history cannot be blamed entirely for our lack of control over our food production, it is important not to underestimate its psychological impact.

One only has to look at the sophisticated cuisine developed by the poor of France, Spain, Italy and the whole of the Mediterranean to see that even food from the most humble of sources can still be delicious. Ireland's climate means that we are ideally located to produce a variety of foods, ideal for both vegetarians and meat-eaters. Historically, the population of Ireland subsisted on a varied diet. In the early Christian period, many lived on dairy products, cereals such as oats and barley, fish, vegetables and ocassionally a fletch of salted pork. Beef was not as common a food as it is today. Because of the economic importance of the cow in early times, milk, butter and cheese were a large part of the diet and bulls were generally slaughtered when too old for draught work.

In Ireland, despite our huge production capabilities, we are extremely vulnerable to any collapse in the food supply chain. The Sustainability Institute, a Mayo-based organisation, predicts that in the event of any such collapse it would take 5-7 years to re-build its food growing capability to a level compatible with feeding its population. 

This is why organisations such as Grow Your Own Ireland and Out of Our Own Back Yard are important, but they will not make the comprehensive changes we will need to face the challenges in food supply that are inevitable in the years to come. Droughts and famines are becoming more frequent due to climate change, supplies of petrochemicals - on which the production and transportation of many of our supermarket vegetables depend - are reaching crisis levels. It is high time we faced these issues before disaster strikes. Cuba was forced to face their loss of the Soviet oil supply and entirely transformed its food production in the process, wheras North Korea suffered a devastating famine in which 3 million people died.

A raising of consciousness is required, by both the government and the population at large. Becoming more self-sufficient is not a hippy dream or a yuppy fad but something that each family should take as a personal responsibility. Movements such as Food Sovereignty will help the growth of community solidarity in a country ravaged by the economic collapse, but will also encourage tourism and promote employment in the food industry.
Eat Only Irish week 9th-15th May is a great way of raising consciousness of our dependence on foreign imports. While returning to locally-produced, seasonal, organic vegetables is a great start to increasing our self-sufficiency, what is required is a government-led push to rethink land use in Ireland. Something like 167,000 hectares of land is dedicated to barley growth, which is used almost exclusively for animal feed and for use in the malting and brewing industry. This is a short-sighted waste of a delicious grain that can be used as a replacement for the rice which we import from thousands of miles away. With some imaginative thinking, we could lead the way in developing a sustainable, self-sufficient food-growth policy in Ireland. 

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