Irish chefs return to their roots
When the Irish first became prosperous, they turned their backs on traditional food. Now it's making a comeback.
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Thornton isn't surprised by this disconnect among his countrymen: "Back when the Irish started becoming more secular, a lot of people stopped eating fish because they associated it with the Catholic Church. Ireland never had much economic success, so as soon as people got some money in their pockets, they wanted to forget everything from the 'poor old days,' including the food."Skip to next paragraph
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Likewise, ever since Ireland became a destination, rather than a departure point, for immigrants, the availability of new and tantalizing ethnic foods has only accelerated the shift away from traditional cuisine. Without a renewed appreciation of the "old ways," Thornton worries that the dishes he enjoyed as a child may be forgotten in a generation or two.
"I contemplated opening a cafe that would serve only traditional Irish food," he says, "but I don't think locals would be interested."
One place that's trying to turn back the clock on appreciation for Irish food is the cooking school at Castle Leslie, about 80 miles north of Dublin in Glaslough, County Monaghan, near the border with Northern Ireland.
Students here don't just learn about classic Irish cooking, they live it: The school is located in the basement of an actual 19th-century castle, converted into a luxury (if quirky) hotel and still owned by members of the aristocratic Leslie family, who have lived in the area since the 1600s.
I enjoyed a private afternoon lesson at Castle Leslie, instructed by the head chef, Gerard Molloy.
Like Thornton, Mr. Molloy is a proponent of stripped-down cooking with fresh local ingredients. It's a concept he strives to impart to his mostly Irish students, many of whom have tasted, but never actually made classic dishes, whether Irish stew or soda bread (referred to as wheaten bread here as in Northern Ireland.)
"When I first began cooking at a restaurant in Dublin, we imported most of our produce from abroad, which made me believe that Irish produce was inferior," he says, emphasizing how common this notion was until recently.
"In time, I've learned that our green fields and lush meadows are home to the finest beef, meat, poultry, and game, and the rivers, lakes, and coastlines abound with fresh seafood," he says. "The key to good cooking is to use the best of these ingredients and to prepare them simply."
In addition to teaching students about Irish food, Molloy says that his ultimate goal is to get them to enjoy cooking and to develop their skills, at whatever level they may be. "People should express themselves within their cooking."
In the classroom, he says, "After each dish is prepared, students sit down to taste and discuss what they have prepared. [I hope] they'll take certain elements home with them and go on developing and creating their own dishes for family and friends."