Sunday, 15 May 2011

What I learned from eating only Irish for a week

When I heard that Brendan from Castlemine Farm planned to eat nothing but Irish food for a week, I was intrigued. As someone interested in food security and growing my own vegetables, I wondered if I could survive a week eating only food produced in Ireland. Somewhat naively, I decided to try it out for a week, imagining that all the preparation it would take was the purchase of a few necessaries like Irish organic rapeseed oil and Irish honey. I generally do my utmost to buy Irish vegetables, so I assumed that eating nothing but Irish would be easy, especially for a vegetarian (technically pescaterian). However, I did not take into account the staples that veggies like myself usually depend upon, such as lentils, rice, pasta etc. are sourced hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. Nor did I consider the monstrous caffeine-deprivation headache that I would get on Tuesday, which was embarrassing after my boasts about the virtues of nettle and peppermint tea on Facebook. 

Breakfasts were easy enough to manage, as I usually eat a bowl of Flahavan's Organic Porridge, sweetened with Mileeven Irish Honey. Monday's lunch was a two-egg omelette consisting of Irish Free range eggs, Avonmore Lactose Free Milk, Keoghs' Organic Potatoes, Atlantic Seaweed Salt, Organic Irish Garden Herbs, Organic Irish Rapeseed oil, Nettles. I'd never cooked with nettles before, and I found them surprisingly yummy, despite the few stings I got in the preparation. I also used them in the stuffed pepper I had for Tuesday's lunch.

Dinner on Tuesday night was where I began to stumble into dodgy territory where Irish food was concerned. The rules for Eat Only Irish For a Week stipulate that the produce must come from Irish soil or Irish territorial waters. The hake I had for dinner was sourced from 'N.E. Atlantic' and therefore may not have been caught in Irish waters, but as that was the day I submitted to the aforementioned caffeine deprivation and drank a cup of green tea, I have to confess to not sticking to the letter of the law this week.

To alleviate the sweet cravings I was experiencing, I make some oatcakes with honey and butter, which were rich but delicious. 

Wednesday was where I experienced real problems, but discovered some fascinating insights into cereal production in Ireland. I bought Odlums Plain Flour to make handmade pasta, assuming that because the packet said 'Milled and packed in Ireland', that the wheat was grown in Ireland too. However, on enquiring of Josef Finke of Ballybrado if the wheat they sold was grown in Ireland, I was told the following:

'One needs about 12 – 14% protein to get good baking results. However, the wheat which we produced was always too low in protein, sometimes as low as 7 – 8%. That meant that we had to blend in superior organic wheat from Canada. But after years of unsuccessful trying we eventually gave up. It is my belief that one cannot grow successfully organic baking wheat in Ireland.'

This was a surprise to me, and so I sent an email to Odlums, who said the following:
'Odlums do try to source wheat from Ireland as often as possible, but due to various circumstances such as weather, this is not always the case.'

The reason why the Irish traditionally used soda in bread was that Irish wheat contained low quantities of the gluten which reacts with yeast. Ireland has one of the highest rates of coeliac disease in the world, which would indicate that high-gluten wheat is simply unsuited to the Irish physiology. For this reason, I turned again to the much derided oat, which I believe should become a symbol of Irish cuisine in the same way as maize is redolent of Latin America. It is surprisingly versatile, as I discovered when I ground it in the pestle and mortar to make oat flour for pancakes. It tasted exactly like wheat flour, but I recommend a gluten substitute for ordinary baking.

Aside from this, dinners did not provide me with any major challenge; Wednesday's included honey-baked parsnip and potatoes, and Saturday's consisted of a casserole of garlic, onion, leek, parsnip and carrot.

Friday was when I discovered the wonders of lemonbalm, which I found to be growing in abundance in my back garden. It works as a great citrus replacement in salad dressing, pesto and marinade, but be aware that it has a strong minty aftertaste.

Though my adventures in eating Irish were not as strict as they should have been I made some interesting discoveries regarding food in Ireland and the challenges which ordinary consumers like myself face in sourcing Irish produce. We have a long way to go towards being self-sufficient, or even achieving food security in this country. Hopefully, Eating Only Irish For a Week will get people - both ordinary citizens and policy-makers - thinking about the steps we have to take to reach these goals.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. We enjoyed the process a lot too but just could not stick to the letter of the law either. (Coffee addicts).

    Not having rice/beans/lentils/pasta in our diet for the week was the hardest part of the challenge and we are not vegetarians at all.

    I had emailed Odlums also about the flour and got the same response. Nice to hear about your mortar n' pestle pancakes. Will certainly give that a whirl.

    Looking forward to reading reviews from a few other bloggers to see how they faired out.