Seeing the World and Eating Like a Local
Interview by Ann Flood
I recently caught up with Chicagoans and food travel experts Susan Gillato and Claudia Royston in between their global adventures. Both love to travel the world in search of cultures where local, fresh and seasonal foods are a way of life—much like the focus of our work in the pages of Edible Chicago. Susan has worked in the travel industry for more than 25 years embracing her passion for food and travel. Her business partner, Claudia is a marketing professional with 23 years of experience under her belt, sharing a love of travel and global cuisine. Together they formed a partnership where their common grounds meet—their love of local cuisine. Global Gourmands offers unique food tours all over the world. Coming up this spring: Ireland.
AF: When we think about Irish cuisine, we visualize (and taste) hearty, rustic and filling traditional faire such as Irish stew, a diet rich in potatoes, of course, and richer meats such as lamb and venison. How has Irish cuisine evolved in the past couple of decades without necessarily changing its integrity for tradition?
SG: The Irish have always had a close relationship with food, starting with family focused life around the hearth of the kitchen. People sang, cooked, told stories and ate around the hearth. But as the food movement progressed in Ireland, a real passion for sustainable, local and seasonal produce emerged. I would add, though that up until the last 30-40 years, that was the only way of life traditional Irish families knew and it connected them to the land.
As time went on, modern farming methods and requirements took hold and some in the older generation always kept an eye to traditional methods. Today’s dynamic chefs are definitely interested in international cuisine, but traditional meals are still important—and better than ever.
AF: Agriculturally speaking, is there still a major focus on sourcing from local farms or artisans for dairy, meats, sea food and higher quality fresh ingredient cooking, and do a majority of farmers maintain organic or sustainable practices?
CR: The smaller farms are certainly sustainable. There is a limited landmass in Ireland so there is a universal understanding that they need to take care of it.
As for sustainable fishing, that really relates mostly to European Union regulations about quotas. There are problems with the laws that are being widely discussed. One of them is that if they catch haddock and the quota is already filled, they have to put the fish back in the ocean—by which time they are already dead.
The other side of sustainable fishing is farmed fish. Demand for food is greater than supply so the Irish realize that they need to embrace fish farming, but the way it’s done is still evolving.
AF: The artisan craft beer movement in Ireland is taking off. Can you share more?
SG: It’s grown rapidly in the last ten years. The natural or “slow food” movement kind of overflowed to beer—no pun intended! Traditionally, every town and city had its own beer (actually “porter” —a form of stout beer, a.k.a. Guinness). Artisan brewers were able to draw on the historical production of beer in their area—including the buildings as in the case for The Walled City Brewery in Derry, Northern Ireland.
In addition to the growth in microbreweries, hard cider and artisan whiskey are also experiencing a renaissance, but that’s a longer story, best discussed over a pint.
AF: The Slow Food movement has originated in Italy to my understanding but there are deep roots also in Ireland’s food movement. Can you share more about the history?
CR: After independence (from England) in 1922, Ireland struggled to find its feet financially for several decades, in farming especially. Farms that couldn’t make it were bought out by larger farms, which were more efficient.
These larger farms were also gearing up for Ireland’s entry into the EU. Ireland thought it would become the “farm of Europe” thereby bringing it out of the decades-long recession.
Many small farmers turned to selling their produce and meat locally, and this was especially true in the case of Ballymaloe, a small restaurant in a farmhouse, which was started by Myrtle Allen, a farmer’s wife, in 1964. Myrtle had been the “cookery correspondent” for the Irish Farming Journal. The green movement was evolving, and there were at least two generations of people who remembered and appreciated more natural farming methods.
Her restaurant became wildly popular because everything was cooked with local and seasonal food—she decided on her evening menu based on what was delivered to her that day. One tour we are putting together, Culinary Treasures of the Emerald Isle, spends two days at Ballymaloe House Hotel. The itinerary includes dinner at the restaurant and a custom cooking class.
Long before the Slow Food movement took hold in Italy in 1986, Myrtle Allen was laying the groundwork for an Irish food renaissance from her farmhouse kitchen.
AF: Favorite memory that is food culture related based from a recent visit?
SG: I think I realized that Ireland was a food destination when I had smoked salmon on Irish soda bread with chive butter a few years ago. It completely wiped clean my original culinary experience in 1975 of a greasy parcel of fish and chips wrapped in newspaper.
AF: Any additional comments you’d like to include – that stand out to you about Ireland and their food culture.
CR: The Irish have always had a strong, emotional connection to the land, and equally their food—whether it’s bacon and cabbage, a fresh loaf of bread or a poteen (traditional Irish moonshine made from potatoes). One chef told us it’s a relationship similar to how Native American Indians feel about the land. The enduring philosophy of seasonal, sustainable and local, which Myrtle Allan brought to life in the 1960s, is still at the forefront of Slow Food.
The other interesting thing is how diverse and sophisticated its cuisine has become, in large part as a result of chefs returning from internships overseas. And, as more and more Irish began to travel, expectations of food have also gone up exponentially, but the love of traditional food continues.
And why not? They have some of the best farmland in the world, which is fed by the rain and kept temperate by the mild jet stream, and, they have the beautiful, wild Atlantic coast with some of the best fish in the world.