The all-too-often overlooked food scene in Ireland's capital has something to prove.
If your knowledge of "Irish cuisine" is limited, you’re probably not to blame—years of clichés about potatoes have made it difficult to understand what the phrase even means. Irish cuisine might conjure images of dishes that don’t exactly excite the palate, either: cabbage, beef stew, shepherd’s pie, soda bread and Guinness. These dishes were designed for a singular purpose—to sustain farmers, to warm the body and to keep it strong. In the fraught history of Ireland—one that is marked by civil war and colonization—there has hardly been a moment to innovate in the kitchen. In the last decade, however, Dublin has been slowly cultivating a culinary movement that is worth watching, thanks in large part to a recent wave of immigration and a new appreciation for the ingredients that have been abundant on land and in the ocean for centuries.
“Food was what could help you plow the fields, so it was a lot of meat and potatoes,” Liam Campbell, the Manager of International Publicity at Failte Ireland, the country’s tourism board, tells me over dinner at The Pig’s Ear, a restaurant in the city serving dishes that embrace Ireland's natural resources—cod, salmon, goat cheese, Irish beef. “As a colonized country, our cuisine didn’t develop.”
Those ingredients—especially the seafood and beef—that make Irish cuisine so dynamic and interesting these days have always been abundant, though. They just weren’t being used. It took an immigration boom over the past couple decades for the country to begin experimenting with these foods. In 2004, Ireland (along with the United Kingdom and Switzerland) relaxed its immigration laws, allowing people from the ten countries that joined that EU that May to work in the country. A wave of new immigrants from Eastern Europe, and Poland in particular, rushed into Ireland to find work.
“Immigrants are bringing their skill set and using them to cook with our raw materials,” Campbell explains.
Those dishes that historically define Irish cuisine are no longer what makes the food in Dublin stand out—it’s those “raw materials” that are being manipulated by chefs, many of them not originally from Ireland, who can see the ingredients with fresh eyes.
“What epitomizes Irish cuisine is the quality of ingredients,” Martin Mangan, the general manager of the Conrad Dublin hotel, explains. The hotel’s restaurant, The Coburg Brasserie, which works with locally sourced ingredients as often as possible, has found a new executive chef in Marcin Kolnierzak.
Mangan uses the example of caviar to point out just how the far the country’s cuisine has come in the past decade. He says that Irish people would have been “skeptical” about trying caviar or even sushi back then. Ireland’s seafood is some of the most sought after in the world—the country’s seafood industry is expected to reach €1 billion in sales by 2020—and yet, no one was eating it. Today, Ireland has its first (and for the moment, only) caviar producer, Goatsbridge trout caviar. Mangan calls the mindset of Irish diners “much more open now.”
While Kolnierzak agrees that what makes Irish cuisine so intriguing right now is ingredients, he also sees one of it’s staple characteristics—that it sustains and nourishes the body and soul—as one of its central strengths.
“To me, ‘Irish cuisine’ is the exciting new culinary infusion prepared from the best Irish produce: from tasty lamb in spring, fresh fish and seafood in summer, to beef and venison stews and soups in winter," he says. "It’s also hearty, tasty and filling.”
That return to the foundations of Irish cuisine is a recurring theme among chefs and diners. For all that is new in the Dublin food scene, the ingredient that draws the most praise is a traditional standard: the beef.
“When you live in Ireland, you fall in love with beef,” Kolnierzak says.
His colleague, Dmitry Stroykov, who served as the chef at the Coburg for 18 years before moving to the front of the house, insists that Irish beef is the “best in the world" (he says the same about the lamb).
“The amount of rain we get—it’s a curse and a blessing. The blessing is rich grasslands,” he says. These grasslands are the main source of sustenance for the cattle, resulting in steaks that are thick, juicy, tender, and as is the case with so much Irish cuisine, fresh tasting, as though the cow in question had just wandered off the farm and onto your plate mere hours ago.
The result of this turn toward Irish ingredients and a reimagining of traditional dishes? In Mangan's opinion, a city that is outpacing London as a food destination, calling it a “leading culinary city in Europe.” No matter how delicious and plentiful the country’s ingredients are, however, at the core of Ireland’s culinary renaissance is the city’s newfound diversity.
“Over the past decade this country has become a home to so many different nationalities: Polish, Spanish, Brazilian, Italian, Chinese…Each brings their influences to the table,” says Kolnierzak. “You are spoiled for choice.”