We braved the rainy afternoon weather as we pulled up into the driveway of the Dingle Cookery School in Ireland. Once inside, it was toasty warm. Chef Mark, who runs the school, greeted us just as warmly. He immediately served some hot tea and fresh oatmeal bars as he launched into his discussion of traditional Irish cooking.
And this is what I was most interested in during our visit to the Dingle Cookery School. After all, the word cookery, to me, symbolizes fancy cooking. But, traditional Irish cooking, in my experience, is, well, just that, traditional. It’s Aunt Theresa’s cooking. It’s roast beef and potatoes. Fish and chips. It’s really anything that involves a meat and at least one potato. In fact, the Irish family was also intrigued to learn what we would be cooking during our traditional Irish cooking class. I was expected to report back.
Dingle Cookery School – Tradition and Basics
As someone of Irish heritage, there are times where I feel like I know so little about Irish history. This was true before we toured Northern Ireland. It was also true as Chef Mark condensed thousands of years of Irish history, and more interesting Irish food history, into about thirty minutes. It was all the more impressive because he was demo cooking at the same time. He walked through the Druids, the Vikings, the British, the Spanish, and what was most interesting me – the focus on very local ingredients, and a renaissance of artisan food producers.
After our history lesson, though, we got to work, on the basics. It’s important to Chef Mark to not only send students of the Dingle Cookery School off with a few interesting, traditional Irish recipes to try at home, but to also teach techniques that can be used to cook all cuisines. We started with knife skills as we chopped vegetables for our Dingle Pies. It was something I always wanted to learn, and was happy to receive my lesson from Chef Mark. The chopping skills, although helpful, was not really the core of our traditional Irish cooking lesson. We moved quickly, though, through each of our recipes, cooking three courses, plus Irish brown bread.
Hake With Seasonal Greens
What I loved about making this stunningly gorgeous fish dish at the Dingle Cookery School was how easy it was to execute. This would be a dish that I would definitely offer to guests for a dinner, which would wow guests despite its relative simplicity. This is what I was learning to love about the concept of modern Irish cuisine, traditional local ingredients don’t mean simply meat and potatoes, but can end up in a lovely contemporary dish.
I finally learned how to property cook a piece of fish, something that has evaded me to the point that I am often hesitant to buy fish to cook. Chef Mark shared his secrets. The fish was surrounded by fresh greens, simply prepared, blended beetroot, and a simple dressing of lemon, oil, and thyme. There was a purity of ingredients, and a feeling that I could actually recreate this dish at home, after learning some of the simple techniques from Chef Marc. Moreover, it was traditional Irish cooking without being fish and chips!
When I think about traditional Irish pub food I think of fish and chips and Shepherd’s Pie. Although I realized during this trip that I am not sure I have ever eaten a Shepherd’s Pie in Ireland. A discussion with family revealed the meat pie to be more British than Irish. The Dingle Cookery School’s Dingle Pies were probably the closest I’ve had in Ireland, but were very different.
Made with simple, traditional Irish ingredients, we cooked up some local West Kerry lamb with sautéed onion, carrot, celery, and leek. After allowing the mixture to cook, we added it to a pastry crust, which I hand kneaded myself. We used a muffin pan to make the individual party-sized pies. After baking for thirty minutes, Chef Mark ladled a light lamb broth over the top.
The result? Not a thing like a Shepherd’s Pie, the Dingle Pies had a character all their own. The pies had a subtle flavor, but felt warm in the belly on a rainy afternoon in Dingle.
Carrageen Moss Pudding
Cooking with seaweed? Yeah, I was skeptical. When we first arrived at the Dingle Cookery School, though, Chef Mark had laid out at least 6 different kinds of seaweed and moss. It’s becoming a trend to use the vast amounts of fresh, and clean, seaweed along the entire Wild Atlantic Way. Not only is the seaweed plentiful, and free, but it is loaded with nutrition and serves as one of the most traditional Irish ingredients.
Chef Mark cleaned and soaked the carrageen moss ahead of time, so that it was brown and beige in color, rather than the expected green. We watched as Chef Mark cooked the moss in a pan of milk, flavored with vanilla pod seeds. It simmered for about ten minutes, until the milk was thick and warm, and the moss softened.
He whisked egg yolk and sugar, and added in the moss-flavored milk, while excluding the moss itself from the final mixture. After topping the pudding with heavy cream, Chef Mark placed the dessert into the refrigerator to set. Yes, this moss was used in our traditional Irish dessert!
We made the carrageen moss pudding as soon as we arrived, while we drank tea, and learned the ancient history of Irish food. It needed time to set into a full pudding. Although I was pretty stuffed from the rest of our meal, I did my best to finish the pudding. It was creamy and tinged with vanilla. There was no moss or seaweed flavoring, but there was a thick, almost gelatinous texture to it. Certainly one of the most unique desserts I’ve ever tried.
So, What IS Traditional Irish Cooking
I was happy to report back to the family what we learned at the Dingle Cookery School. The school itself seems to be at the epicenter of a new Irish food tourism movement. There is a focus on local ingredients, and modernizing traditional recipes. Similar to our meal at the Global Village Restaurant in Dingle, what we learned at the cookery school is that there, in fact, is more to Irish cooking than traditional stews and fish and chips. And, it all starts with fresh, local ingredients.
The Dingle Cookery School
The Dingle Cookery School is just to the west of the center of Dingle, near the Aquarium. Look out for a white sign on the right side of the street heading out of town. The Cookery School offers regularly scheduled Traditional Irish cooking classes, and also schedules special cooking events.
We were hosted by Failte Ireland during our food tour of the Wild Atlantic Way, but all opinions are my own.