Irish Food Challenge – sounds daunting, but the fact is that with these simple tips you’ll be eating home-grown, and healthier.

In last week’s Irish Times, an article came to our attention. Lisa Fingelton, a multi media artist and small holder who lives on a little farm in Ballybunnion, North Kerry, decided to take up a 30 day Irish food challenge, where she ate nothing but Irish locally produced foods for the month of September. This was inspired by a book from author Barbara Kingsolver,  who recorded her experience of eating nothing but food from her local region in the United States for a year.

Lisa started her 30 day local food challenge  on the first day of September, a time when her own garden was plentiful with homegrown vegetables. It wasn’t the sourcing of local produce that proved difficult – Kerry is prolific in local produce from meat and fresh fish to homegrown vegetables, handmade breads and cheeses – but the adaption to leaving out all the usuals we include regularly in our diets. Everything from pasta and rice, chocolates to spices,  were removed in Lisa’s challenge, although she allowed herself to drink anything she wanted, so says the article.

Her sugar addiction proved a test, with neighbours getting into the spirit of helping by making her flapjacks with Irish oats and honey and giving her homegrown sweet and ripe Ballybunnion grapes to sample. It got us thinking about choosing Irish on a regular basis and making a conscious decision to do so. Which as Lisa says in this news piece, is very important if we want to create a sustainable Ireland that can provide everything we need in food terms. We know a little bit about that here at Good Food Ireland, where we promote an Irish ingredient led experience at every establishment we approve.

One chef who has succeeded in using only local foods for his menu is Kevin Aherne of Sage Restaurant in Midleton, Co. Cork. Kevin’s 12 mile ethos means all the ingredients he uses are sourced from within a twelve mile radius of the restaurant. He has removed spices completely from his kitchen, preferring instead to use fresh homegrown herbs to enhance the flavours of best quality lamb, free range pork and beef sourced from local farms, and the freshest fish and seafood from nearby Ballycotton. Yes he is a chef and should be able to rise to this task with gusto, which involves being more creative with how we cook and eat.  

Kevin is not the only chef in our ranks who sources as close to home as possible. Siobhan O’Callaghan at Kalbos in Skibbereen, Robbie Burns at Essence in Swords, Peter Ward at Country Choice in Nenagh, Co.Tipperary,  and many others, whilst they have not given up on using international ingredients in their recipes, rely totally on their locality for the main ingredients of every meal and allow the seasons to dicate what they use.   

For the everyday home cook, this can also be done. We are not advocating that you go through your larders and storecupboards and toss out everything that isn’t Irish right now. That would be wasteful. But we do have a few ideas that will hopefully make it easier to take on the challenge in your own homes and progress to being a full supporter of Irish foods in the future.

  • Firstly, mindset is everything. Like any new challenge, eating only or mostly Irish must be embraced wholeheartedly,  rather than starting with the attitude that you won’t succeed.  
  • Every journey starts with a small step. Begin by being conscious of what you are eating and whether the ingredient you are using, or something similar,  is available here. For example, olive oil can be replaced by Irish rapeseed oil, and do you know what? It’s equally delicious, if not more so.
  • Good dairy and cheese is easy to source in Ireland – We have some of the best grazing pasture in the world. Look to the likes of Killowen or Glenilen for farm made yogurts and Glenilen and Abernethy for Irish butter. Irish cheeses are many and varied – something to suit every taste. Find a list of farmhouse cheesemakers here. Look in your local supermarket for Irish creamery cheeses which fit the bill for everyday cooking and eating. There is absolutely no need to buy imported cheese. We have equal and better,  produced right here in this country
  • Don’t be too hard on getting rid of the pasta and rice from the cupboard. You won’t replace these convenience items very easily. But you can use them as a base for Irish ingredient led dishes – great Irish mince and good farmhouse cheese for a classic Spaghetti Bolognaise. Fresh Irish fish and shellfish or seasonal veggies for a risotto. Primarily Irish doesn’t always have to be a meat and two veg experience! Home made pasta can also be an option for really enthusiastic cooks – the flour will probably not be Irish but the free range eggs can be. Same with pizza. Irish cheeses and charcuterie are readily available for topping homemade pizzas.  
  • Most people love chocolate. Of course it isn’t grown here. But we do have some top class chocolatiers in Ireland who handcraft chocolate treats from quality ingredients. So that is a better choice than buying an imported bar from a global brand. You will be supporting small Irish producers, which will make your chocolate a special occasion food rather than a quick fix, cheap  ‘every day to fill a gap’ item, which is no bad thing!
  • Use your local butcher. He has worked hard to learn his skills so make the most of them. He will know where his meat is sourced, down to the very farm in some cases. Don’t be afraid to ask questions on sourcing policy and cooking tips for more unusual or slow cook cuts.  Most butchers worth their salt will know exactly where their produce has come from. If not, move on to a butcher who does.
  • Fish is also important in the diet. Irish fishermen who use sustainable methods and stay in local waters are worth supporting. These are the day boats and shellish potting boats you will find in the many little harbours around Ireland. Good quality Irish caught fish from these boats is the freshest it can be, and usually available in your local fishmonger. Like the butcher, the fishmonger is a valuable resource for any cook.
  • Use your local farm shops and  farmers markets. These will be packed with local produce,  and in markets you may even get to meet the people who made, farmed or grew them. Vitally important when you are making a decision to eat Irish food that you strike up relationships with the people involved at grass roots level. In this way, we make links that reconnect us to the food we eat, rather than remain divorced from the plastic covered offerings we get in the multinationals.
  • Last but not least, always be prepared to change your menu plan if what you wanted to cook isn’t available. This is the joy of eating local and seasonal. Start out with an idea and be prepared to adapt, which adds creativity in the kitchen and makes for a way more interesting every day dining experience. Eating good food should be as much about the enjoyment as the nourishment. 

Food is an exciting adventure and one of the main ways to keep a family bonded and grounded. A gathering round the table may be considered a humdrum happening in most homes, with families preferring to eat separately or have meals that can be reheated as people come and go. But when family members regularly eat together, the table can soon become the place where all the worries of the day come out, and who did what to whom in school is discussed and deliberated. If we wish to have a real  food culture where Irish food is on top of the menu every day – we must start at home and bring the food message and its values to the next generation.