A taste of history in our food and drink

Sulky car at the Kilconnell Fair. Pic: Gerry Stronge.
Sulky car at the Kilconnell Fair. Pic: Gerry Stronge.

Lifestyle –  Judy Murphy meets author Margaret Hickey and hears of the saga behind her epic book Ireland’s Green Larder

It would be fair to describe Ireland’s Green Larder, a unique book that explores Irish history through our food and drink, as a slow burner.

Its author Margaret Hickey, a former Deputy Editor with Country Living, was commissioned to write this book in the early 2000s by English publishing company, Hodder Headline.

And write it she did, travelling the length and breadth of the country and delving into historic and contemporary sources to research the role of food in Ireland’s history.

Margaret’s previous book Irish Days, published in 2001, was a collection of living history from people across a spectrum of Irish society. It was praised by broadcasters Gay Byrne and Pat Kenny, while an extract from Irish Days was also included on the Leaving Cert course.

Her latest offering, Ireland’s Green Larder, covers an era from 1,000 years before the pyramids of Egypt up to the present day, with excerpts from diaries, poems, ballads, law texts, folklore, historians and more.

It also includes recipes and beautiful, specially commissioned, line drawings.

“I begin with an introductory chapter, explaining what the book is about and why I’ve written it,” explains English-born Margaret who has lived in Portumna since 1999. Her father’s family came from nearby Woodford and although he spent most of his life in England, Ireland was home.

“It’s a book about what ordinary people did and ate – the plain people of Ireland and how they managed, going back as far as possible,” she says.

Margaret’s research took her to places such as the Ulster Folk Museum outside Belfast as well as Mayo’s prehistoric Céide Fields. She talks enthusiastically about an era when people lived on grains, meat and ‘Bán Bia’ or ‘white food’ made from dairy produce.

There was huge regard for milk in ancient society, with more than 30 terms to describe it, all of them poetic.

“And people liked it better when it was tangy,” she says. “Sweet, or fresh, milk was for children and people who were unwell.”

Grains were plentiful, with oats and barley being used in many ways, including for flatbreads. People also had meat and fish occasionally.

This was hundreds of years before potatoes made an appearance. As for soda bread, it didn’t come in until about the 16th century, explains Margaret.

“Before that, there was a type of sourdough bread which people made using yeast that was in the air. They’d leave the dough out to capture the air,” she says.

Her research into this bread unearthed a letter from the Bishop of Elphin, instructing his housekeeper how to make it. He was also particular about his beer, she says, adding that weak beer was safer to drink than water because water could be contaminated.

Moving along through history, Margaret wrote about other vegetables, meat and fish and says she’s still amazed that for a country that’s surrounded by the sea and filled with rivers and lakes, Irish people never had a ‘grá’ for fish.

“Compared to countries like Portugal or Japan, fish was never loved here.”

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.