The Irish Cookbook, review: "A tome of recipes to savour, peppered with the Emerald Isle's food history"

Chef JP McMahon's encyclopaedic ode to Irish cookery is a triumph

The Irish Cookbook 
From traditional Irish boxty potato pancakes to lamb fillets with samphire and cockles, chef JP McMahon explores the past, present and future of Irish cuisine Credit: Maurice Grehan

In The Irish Cookbook (Phaidon, £35), a hefty tome of 500 recipes, Galway chef and restaurateur J P McMahon, of Michelin-starred terroir-based restaurant Aniar, boldly sets out to “reclaim” the history of Irish food and reconnect with the landscape (he offers wild sea lettuce, birch sap wine, razor clams with rosemary), in order to forge a future Irish cuisine.

THE APPROACH

Divided into 15 chapters (such as saltwater fish; lamb, mutton and goat; pickling and preservation), this encyclo-paedic, beautifully bound book provides a lengthy introduction to Irish food history, an index of wild plants and a bibliography for further reading.

From oysters with wild garlic butter to boar brought to Ireland by Neolithic farmers, recipes (marked as to whether they take less than 30 minutes, have fewer than five ingredients, are vegan or one-pot) celebrate Irish produce.

Potatoes cannot be ignored, though they only arrived in the 17th century. Colcannon and potato farls sit alongside modern Irish dishes such as kohlrabi roasted in butter and hay.

THE RECIPES

McMahon treats vegetables “with as much respect as meat or fish”, so as well as shellfish and lamb stew, I also tried a leek dish.

Spelt with leeks

A spelt broth proves to be a humble but filling dinner Credit: Maurice Grehan/Madeleine Howell

Alongside leeks in seaweed butter and an Irish oatmeal leek soup (brotchán roy), McMahon shares this dish of spelt with leek, fragrant bay leaf, cider, stock, peppery parsley and lemony thyme. It turned out to be vegetal, herbaceous and filling, and the grains (suited to the Irish climate, a staple from the Bronze Age to medieval times) had a nice textured bite.

Mussels with tarragon mayonnaise and brown bread

Mussels steamed in cider, mopped up with bread

McMahon calls for less Irish shellfish – scallops, cockles, sea urchins, clams, crab, langoustine and lobster – to be exported. He suggests cooking mussels in stout, saffron broth or in the embers of a beach fire with dillisk (dulse); I opted to steam mine open in the fermented tang of hard cider, served with his aromatic tarragon mayo and good bread. Simple but perfect, my meal was an example of how McMahon allows natural ingredients to speak for themselves.

Traditional lamb stew

A simple yet tender lamb stew Credit: Maurice Grehan/Madeleine Howell

One of Ireland’s best-known folk dishes. “Purist” McMahon doesn’t even put carrots in his, only potatoes, onion, lamb neck, parsley, sea salt and thyme – though he notes that Florence Irwin’s The Cookin’ Woman: Irish Country Recipes (1949) also includes pig’s kidney and pork ribs. Lamb neck is a cheap, gamy cut, but cooked as instructed by McMahon the results are tender and flavoursome.

THE VERDICT

McMahon presents a triumphant vision of the Emerald Isle’s cuisine, sharing history alongside recipes that are a joy to try (though I may give the Tinker’s Chicken, cooked in mud in a hole in the ground, a miss). It’s a book to savour: peppered with personal tales and cultural references.

One dish is inspired by a passage in James Joyce’s Ulysses; others take cues from Darina Allen, founder of the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork.