After guiding me through the 18th century Strokestown Park House, a Georgian Palladian mansion 144km from Dublin, estate manager John O’Driscoll led me to the adjoining Irish National Famine Museum, one of the several across Ireland. It constituted a depressing look back to the 1840s, when Gorta Mór, or the Great Hunger, gripped Ireland, leading to mass starvation, emigration and a drop of around 25% in population.

“Potato blight devastated crops across Europe, but the impact of the famine was felt much more in Ireland, since potato (especially the Irish Lumper variety) was the mainstay of Irish cuisine," said O’Driscoll.

Less than an hour later, in the museum’s cafeteria, I was contemplating a large grilled chicken breast, lots of vegetables and a heap of mashed potato—more food than I would normally consume in a single sitting. With the stark scenes of hunger still vivid in my mind, though, I dutifully cleaned up my plate.

Over my two weeks in Ireland—split over the west coast (known as the Wild Atlantic Way), Dublin and Cork—it was also impossible to ignore that the potato continues to be a culinary lynchpin for the island: Hardly a meal went by without potatoes in some form or the other, be it luscious wedges or herb-roasted or softly mashed with lashings of butter.

But Irish cuisine is more than just po-tay-to po-tah-to. “We don’t have a well-defined cuisine as, say, France or Italy do, but what we do have here is very good, clean produce. Our soil is still the cleanest in Europe and our cattle is grass-fed all year round," said Eveleen Coyle, who runs Fabulous Food Trails, a company that offers food walks in Dublin, Cork and Kilkenny.

Vast swathes of farmland in Ireland are used for raising livestock; no surprise, then, that beef and pork are consumed in large quantities. It was an uncharacteristically cold spring when I visited Ireland, and big bowls of Irish beef stew, cooked with generous quantities of Guinness, kept me warm. Irish stew is usually made with lamb or mutton, but my vote goes to the tender beef in a stout-spiked stew, with its smoky flavour and creamy gravy. Bacon and cabbage in a white sauce was another regular, but I didn’t particularly take to this dish, mostly because of the boiled cabbage.

The meat-heavy Irish breakfast, on the other hand, was more to my taste, especially the black pudding. One bite was all it took for me to overcome my initial squeamishness (I was only too aware that the sausage contained pig or cattle blood) but the grain—usually oatmeal or barley—gave it a very addictive nuttiness. Before potato farming took off in the 16th century, the Irish were cattle herders and farmers and practised nose-to-tail dining as a matter of course. Farmers would bleed cattle, mix the blood with grain, fat and seasoning, and stuff it into sausage casing. So robust are the flavours that the white pudding (which contains grain, but no blood) seemed a bit insipid; a few days in, I found myself skipping it for an extra helping of the black.

In Cork’s two-century-old English Market, I got a taste of another Irish classic. “Corned beef was simply beef that was salted for preservation and sent to feed the British troops," said Kay Harte, who has been running the Farmgate Café at the market for 21 years. Cork was a major producer of corned beef in the 1600s-1800s and, being a British colony, exported large amounts of it to sustain the army during the Napoleonic wars of the early 1800s. Farmgate Café still makes corned beef the traditional way, poaching it slowly in water and serving it with local potatoes and cabbage.

While meat is a staple of Irish cuisine, the country’s long, stunning coastline means there’s an abundant supply of seafood as well. The cooking equipment most commonly associated with the Irish is the large, three-legged cauldron: In the olden days, most houses had a continuously simmering pot rigged over the fire. This explains their fondness for slow-cooked soups, stews, broths and chowders.

Of all these, the seafood chowder was my favourite, with all kinds of Atlantic seafood (salmon, haddock, cod, mussels), some vegetables and potatoes in a creamy base, served with bread and a little pot of the famed Irish butter.

Many families still churn butter by hand, though most commercially available butter is now made mechanically. However, the milk that goes into it is still summer milk, collected from small farms and cooperatives where cows have been grass-fed on Ireland’s rich, “clean" soil.

Soda bread
Soda bread

“The bread was usually baked on griddles or in large iron pots over turf fires, giving it a hard crust and a tender crumb," said Standún (turf refers to peat blocks cut from the bog, dried in the sun and then used as fuel).

Talking about fuel, the Irish guzzle millions of pints of stout every year, and nearly half of them are of Guinness—the Irish dry stout, first brewed by Arthur Guinness in 1759, and today one of the most successful beer brands in the world. Guinness is now brewed in 60 countries, but the Irish one stands apart for its slightly burnt flavour (derived from roasted barley) and a thick, creamy head. In pub after pub, I waited impatiently as the bartenders pulled the perfect pint—a “double pour", where three-fourths of the glass is filled up, allowed to rest and then topped up to get the distinctive thick, domed head. There’s also an official time for pulling the pint—119.5 seconds. It may be a clever marketing technique, but as the Guinness tag line goes, “Good things come to those who wait", and I would always be rewarded for the wait with a tall glass of the black stuff: smooth and tangy, with underlying notes of chocolate and caramel.

Guinness may be the best-selling alcoholic beverage in Ireland, but whiskey is not far behind. The recently opened Irish Whiskey Museum in Dublin offers a fascinating tour of the history of Irish whiskey—called uisce beatha (pronounced ish-k baa-haa), which means “water of life", by the Irish monks who distilled it in the Middle Ages. On a cold, windy and rainy day on Achill Island (County Mayo), on the Wild Atlantic Way, I truly understood the “water of life" moniker—in a pub, by a crackling fire, while contemplating a glass of proper Irish coffee. It is just whiskey, sugar and coffee, with a thick layer of whipped cream on the top. Do not stir, but drink up and let the Irish warmth wash over you.

WHERE TO EAT

Markets

† The weekly Temple Bar Food Market has something for all tastes, from organic produce to oysters.

Every Saturday, 10am-4.30pm, at the Meeting House Square, Dublin.

† The English Market is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in Ireland. It’s great for meats and seafood. The Farmgate Café is known for traditional and seasonal Irish fare.

The English Market, Monday-Saturday, 8am-6pm, on Princes Street in Cork. The Farmgate Café, Monday-Friday, 8.30am- 4.30pm (till 5pm on Saturday).

Pubs

† O’Neill’s Pub & Kitchen (Suffolk Street, Dublin 2): Genuine old Irish pub. Go for the Irish breakfast. Or a pint of Guinness, accompanied by traditional Irish music every night.

† The Lotts Café Bar (9 Lower Liffey Street, Dublin 1): Houses The Lotts Snug, the smallest bar in Dublin. Known for its steaks and Thursday Quiz Nights.

† Tí Joe Watty’s Bar (Kilronan, Inis Mór, Co. Galway): Located on the largest of the Aran Islands, Joe Watty’s is a lively pub with good seafood and traditional music.

Food walks

Fabulous Food Trails (www.fabfoodtrails.ie/) is a great way to experience Irish food.

Tasting trails start at €55 (around 4,150).

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