PDO's, PGI's and TSG's, in a nutshell, are special status symbols awarded by the EU to quality, speciality foods exclusive to particular regions. Newcastle Brown Ale, for example. Parmigiano Reggiano, Parma Ham etc. Ireland has four approved products; Imokilly Regato Cheese, Clare Island Organic Salmon, Connemara Hill Lamb and Timoleague Brown Pudding. Sorry, that was my stomach rumbling.
Ireland is food heaven these days. Waterford's Gourmet Festival kicks off this weekend; Jamie Oliver launches the Taste of Dublin in June – event listings all over the country are all about food, food, food. There is so much good stuff out there that we should have fifty of those EU accolades. So why don't we?
Two words. Irish Stew.
Not only is the oil-slick-with-chunks that is our so-called national dish a problem; there's also that other national offence: Boiled Bacon and Cabbage. A vegetable that smells like a stuffy classroom full of nine year olds accompanied by a meat the colour and consistency of human gums.
Think of Italy. Picture pastas, sauces, pizza. The USA – steaks, burgers, ribs. Even the UK - ploughman's lunches, yorkshire puds. Though the realities of menus overseas can differ somewhat from the expectations – Tuscan boar anyone? Tripe and Onions? - it's all about perception. The French eat only snails, of course! Not amazing breads and cheeses, wines and champagne, then? Ireland's in the same boat - except no one can think of the good stuff. Our image abroad is as boozers who slurp down a plate of slop for soakage before resuming with a dip in the whiskey barrel. That's really getting old. But whose fault is it?
A quick straw poll on Facebook reveals that when people of Irish origin are asked what they think is classic traditional Irish food, they automatically respond with stew followed closely by bacon and cabbage and trailed drastically by stuff that might actually taste good - soda bread, white pudding, barmbrack, coddle, colcannon and Tayto sandwiches for example. “Red or brown meat and fish on Fridays” was the response from one food-traumatised respondent. Irish people abroad responded with nostalgia. “Irish Breakfast, egg, sausage, rashers & white & black pud, brown soda bread with Kerrygold butter” came the rote response of someone who has lived in the States for many years. I fancy she was salivating as she wrote it.
Before you accuse me of being a food snob, I've hated stew for longer than I knew any better. (When the alternative was Marietta biscuits bound with an inch of butter to ensure butter worms when you squeezed). Look at this recipe from an early Canadian cookbook - “Take the feet and legs of a pig... Singe off the hair and ... remove the toes by scorching. Put down in cold water and cook slowly for three hours...cut up nine or ten good sized potatoes and add to your stew...stir frequently with a spoon. What remains...pour into a mould and it will become a jelly, which is nice eaten cold for breakfast”.
Yum yum, pigs bum. This is what we've exported! This explains why there is no reputation for Irish cuisine, for heavens sakes! And don't tell me it's 'rustic and traditional'. That only works in Italy when it conjures up images of Monica Bellucci nibbling seductively on a hare. Not in Ireland. It just makes me think of drawings from Punch magazine in the C19th. Old tractor parts are rustic and traditional. I don't see anyone wanting to eat them.
Swiss Tony might say that Irish food is like a beautiful woman. Like a Seoige. Except no one can see her because someone's put June Rodgers in front. A quick scan today through some of Ireland's Bridgestone restaurant menus show that only a handful carry stew, and bacon is rarely served with its heinous co-dependent, cabbage. It's true that these traditional foods have a place. There's nothing like a hang sandwich on crusty bread after all, it's time that they stopped defining us. Not when there is so much more to offer.
Irish food needs to get sexy. Kirsty Allsopp tweeted last week that she loves Barry's Tea, for example. Now there's a golden moment. Maybe An Bord Bia could plan a calendar for 2013? Michael Fassbender and Clonakilty Sausages? Bressie with a Blaa? Although I draw a line, with the utmost respect, through Brendan Gleeson and some artfully placed smoked salmon.
Here comes another summer of food festivals. Let's make the most of everything that's amazing about Irish food and who knows, it might be the year that really standout grub takes centre stage and we can finally put corned beef back in the corner where it belongs.