PARIS -- When I was married to an Irishman, nearly 20 years ago now, we'd fly from Dallas to Ireland once a year to see his parents and his elderly Aunt Mary, who lived in a very small house, warmed by a turf fire, in the tiniest of hamlets (if you could even call three houses and a pub a community of any sort) in soggy, boggy County Roscommon.
The country, as promised, was shamrock green, and the people were as friendly and fun-loving as you'd expect. But the food was awful.
But that was then. Today, Irish food is coming into its own -- largely in part because of Darina Allen, author of Forgotten Skills of Cooking (Kyle Books, $40), who is known as the Alice Waters of Ireland. She is at the forefront of the movement that focuses on what's fresh, in season and local.
"Irish food and British food have had a bad name for a very long time, and justifiably so," says Allen, speaking to me by cellphone while on her way to a farmers market one recent Friday afternoon. "In many parts of the world, there's been a growing renaissance of good products, and we've woken up to the fact that in Ireland we can grow things on our own."
At Allen's Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork, there's a 100-acre organic farm where veggies and herbs are grown year-round.
"Right now, local is the sexiest word in food," she says, laughing. "It's what we've been doing forever, because it seems like the most logical thing to do -- to write a menu every day according to what's in season and what's in the garden -- but now, this whole way of cooking and eating has become almost like a cult. It seems to us the most natural way to go about things, instead of using something imported from another part of the world and tasting like a shadow of what it once was."
Allen says that people now come to Ireland and, to their amazement, find that the food is terrific.
"In Ireland, like other parts of the world, there's been an emergence of the artisan food sector," she says. "People are making things from produce from their own farms. They're reconnecting with place instead of food being anonymous and coming from anywhere."
So, for St. Patrick's Day, the day that the world celebrates all things Irish by wearing green (and pinching those who don't), dying rivers and beer green, and eating green eggs and ham (which I've done), Allen says that she will be going the traditional route.
"I'll be making one of the national dishes, which is bacon and cabbage -- corned beef and cabbage is more the immigrant's celebration of St. Pat's Day -- and perhaps for dessert, the first rhubarb pie of the season," she says. "I just saw rhubarb coming up in the garden, and it looks like it might be ready."
Rhubarb pie? I think I just might be able to fly over for a slice.
Oatmeal soda bread
For this early soda bread, the oatmeal was steeped in buttermilk overnight. It makes a light, pale bread with quite a different flavor and is also absolutely delicious. This recipe was given to me by Honor Moore from Dublin.
2 1/2 cups fine stone-ground oatmeal (I simply ground oatmeal in a food processor)
2 cups buttermilk
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1. Steep oatmeal in buttermilk overnight.
2. The next day, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix the flour, salt and baking soda together, then stir into the oatmeal. If necessary, add a little more milk, but don't make the dough too wet.
3. Put into a large, well-greased loaf pan (we use one that is 5 1/2-by-9 1/2-by-2 1/2 inches) and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 352 calories, 3 grams fat, 66 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams protein, 3 milligrams cholesterol, 475 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber and 9 percent of calories from fat.
-- Adapted from Darina Allen of Ballymaloe Cooking School