Monday, March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day and regardless of nationality many people will don their greenest outfit and celebrate with a pint of green beer. Some may even enjoy a meal of corned beef and cabbage with potatoes, a traditional Irish feast. However, if you want to celebrate in a truly authentic Irish way, throw out the green beer, ignore those potatoes and have some ancient Irish food. The fact is, although the potato is often associated with Ireland, it is actually Peruvian and only came to Ireland in the early 1600s. And green food coloring in your beer won’t bring you any closer to the heart of the Irish. Enjoy some oatcakes with butter and a tall glass of milk and you’ll be sitting down to a meal the Irish have eaten for thousands of years.
Prior to the introduction of the potato, grains and milk were the mainstays of the Irish diet. The ancient Irish were extremely proud of their milk and consumed it in a variety of ways including “drinking milk, and buttermilk, and fresh curds, and old curds, and something called ‘real curds,’ and whey mixed with water to make a refreshing sour drink.” But perhaps the most important use of milk was in the making of Irish butter, which continues to be a proud tradition to this day.
Of course, a delicious glass of cold milk and some creamy homemade butter are nothing without a warm, toasty accompaniment and the ancient Irish agreed. Of the grains that were grown in ancient Ireland, oats were almost certainly the most abundant. In Irish Food Before the Potato, A.T. Lucas writes,
Within the historic period, as at present, climatic conditions over most of the country favoured the growing of oats and barley rather than of wheat and there can be little doubt that during the greater part of that period oats has been the most important crop.
After the oats had been dried and ground into a meal and then a flour, the women would make them into cakes. “The dough was kneaded in a trough (losad) and baked on a griddle (lann) of some kind, or a baking flag (lec). This appears to have been a type of work reserved specifically for women and no intrusion of men into the baking process would be tolerated.
Much as we do today, the ancient Irish enjoyed butter with their bread and it was always served with the oatcakes. In fact, it was considered an “outrage” to serve oatcakes, or any type of bread, without butter. An obituary from 1486 demonstrates how this kind of impropriety could follow one to the grave:
Neidhe O’Mulconry, head of the inhospitality of Ireland, died. It was he who solemnly swore that he would never give bread and butter together to guests.
So this St. Patrick’s Day, use the recipe below to fry up some delicious ancient Irish oatcakes. Then fill up some glasses with cold, creamy milk and slather on the butter (unless you want people to still be talking about you in 500 years as with poor butterless Neidhe). Just to be safe, click here for a recipe to make your own homemade butter.
*Recipe from Darina Allen’s Irish Traditional Cooking: Over 300 Recipes from Ireland’s Heritage (Kyle Books; 2012).
- 1½ cups of fine oatmeal
- 1–2 tablespoons of butter or lard
- Pinch of salt
- Put the oatmeal into a bowl. Put the butter or lard and salt into a measuring cup, pour ¾ cup boiling water onto it and stir until melted and dissolved. Pour this into the oatmeal and mix to a pliable dough. You may need a little more liquid to obtain the right consistency.
- Press the dough out with your fingers into a 10 × 9-inch pan. You may not manage to get it quite that thin on your first attempt, because the dough is rather difficult to handle.
- Leave it to dry for another hour or two before you bake it. Bake at 250°F for 3–4 hours. The more slowly it cooks, the better the flavor will be. Oatcakes keep for ages in a tin and can be reheated. Eat with butter or butter and jam.
2. Lucas, A.T., “Irish Food Before the Potato”, Gwerin: A Half-Yearly Journal of Folk Life, Volume III, No. 2, 1960(p. 3-43). 1960
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