'Often Irish food is pigeon-holed as being secondary to classical French or Italian tradition. I think that's not the case at all'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 13th March 2020

Jp McMahon is proud to have finally published The Irish Cookbook.

Written over three years, it is the result of extensive research into the country's culinary history, in all its cultural, economic and even political dimensions, tracing back 10,000 years.

Win a signed copy of The Irish Cookbook by chef JP McMahon

 

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Adapting and modernising some of the older recipes - from the 17th and 18th centuries - for the sake of practicality and flavour, he joked: "Some of the recipes just said boil. Boil boil boil."

How modern-day concerns about food mirror those of the past

Initially the chef admits that he was a bit daunted by the idea of writing an Irish cookbook, as, he says, there are many great examples already out there.

"I suppose that by taking the position we've been taking, trying to put my own spin on it and putting family archive recipes - I asked my aunts and my uncles for recipes that they had from their grannies - so just a few of them to give it a more personal touch."

But not just for the home cooks, Jp hopes that chefs will gain a greater insight into the products of Ireland and the country's wide range of cooking.

"Often Irish food is pigeon-holed - as I'm sure that British food is as well - as being secondary to classical French or Italian tradition. I think that's not the case at all."

Jp has a background in history and research, with a degree in art history and studied for a PhD during which he spent a lot of time trawling through old archives. "It was nice to apply that to food."

What the chef finds most attractive about delving into pre-written records, is that as compared to current, and namely terroir cooking, drawing on local and part of the environment mirrors necessities that people had in the past.

"Five or ten thousand years ago, when you take an oyster and seaweed, salt, lamb and vegetables, you're going back to a time when you didn't have access to imports or possibly to different grains or anything like that."

A lot of contemporary concerns, he said, mirror ones which occurred in the past.

"I'm not saying 10,000 years ago everything was great, I'm sure it wasn't, but I think we can learn from that, possibly about ways in which fish stocks were managed, the ways in which veals were managed because people were much more reliant on the land in front of them as opposed to having access to a global market, possibly we need to balance those concerns."

Migration has always had a big influence on the food we eat

The Irish Cookbook is a story of cultural exchanges; Jp was aghast to discover that curries have been in Ireland since the 17th and 18th century.

Very much influenced by Nordic cuisine, he said: "It's something I struggled with, initially coming from a perspective of Aniar, where we don't use any spices and we don't use any pepper - we limit ourselves to what we can get locally."

"What I realised writing this book is that that's just one aspect of Irish food." "Local is just one aspect of it."

The chef found many more surprises in his research, which his book is intent on sharing, again to challenge misconceptions about Irish food cultures. (fun facts: spices like saffron were used by the upper classes to dye their clothes centuries ago, Irish people ate Italian food in the 1910s and dishes like corned beef and cabbage actually originate from the US, speaking to the Irish-American immigrant experience rather than the native Irish).

In an age which is so pre-occupied with migration, the chef sees it as primordial to show how far back these exchanges date to. "When we look at national food, they do harbour so much migration - it's constantly letting things in, letting things out."

"It points to a larger sense of people's intelligence around cooking; rather than saying: 'well 200 years ago they must've been awful cooks. I think there was just as much sophistication in cooking and in growing stuff."

A touch of Aniar

The book includes a section about seaweed and wild food, which he hopes will showcase the work he and his team have accomplished at Aniar.

He said:"It was important to get that index of stuff that we've been doing over the last ten years, around contemporary Irish food and I wanted chefs and cooks to have a record of that."

"I wanted to try and take stock of what we've been doing for ten years and to try and fall that into the book." "I suppose that's the new dimension that people will enjoy."

The chef isn't ruling out another cookbook - having painstakingly whittled down the number of recipes from 900.

"There were a few repetitions, but for me every recipe was different; the size of the book was dictated how much we could put in it."

If it does come around, the chef's next book will focus solely on fish and shellfish, honing down in much more detail - but in an ideal world, Jp would like to make it a series.

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 13th March 2020

'Often Irish food is pigeon-holed as being secondary to classical French or Italian tradition. I think that's not the case at all'