Celtic cuisine and the tastes that unite nations
PUBLISHED: 13:02 08 September 2017 | UPDATED: 14:12 08 September 2017
Celts share a fierce pride and independence that has shaped their food and drink, says JOSH BARRIE
There is, across westerly lands, where Europe meets the only thing separating it from the misery of Donald Trump – and his dastardly chlorinated chicken – a Celtic stretch.
It veers from Scotland southward, through the Isle of Man, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany.
These regions are proudly Celtic; hills left vastly untouched by Roman intrusion, and scores of other invaders thereafter. Celts are historically entwined.
It doesn’t take long to spot the similarities between Cornwall and Brittany, for example – two areas with arguably far more in common with one another than their respective nations to which they are part. This relationship is no better emulated than their seafaring pasts – communities largely built on fishing and sailing.
Look north, to Wales, the southern clutches of Ireland, and to Scotland, a country whose coastline is filled with bobbing boats, and you see the same: kilts, pipes, fish, strong beer; cider in Cornwall and Brittany; white and black puddings in Ireland and Scotland. Heady stews, such as Welsh cawl, always have potatoes.
Summer arrives and outsiders visit these isolated regions, enticed by sun and sea. It is the food and drink taken away inland come autumn. Pots of jams for grandmothers; pasties for long train journeys; fine meats from the farm shops that introduce inland dwellers to authenticity. In London, we see these things in restaurants that celebrate them. It’s romantic, sure.
“Celtic food is making use of the land and existing from season to season,” Andy Waugh, a Hebridean and owner of Mac & Wild restaurant in London, tells me.
“Living in the corners of rural Scotland isn’t easy, and certainly wasn’t any easier 400 years ago. My family gatherings are based on food, namely game. Lots has changed, but one thing hasn’t quivered – quality ingredients. As a youngster, my nan used to make jams, chutneys and sorbets from produce that was available.
“Celts, across these countries, share lots in common – from climate, to botanicals, to preserving techniques. We have a sense of small community, a lack of outside influence, positive trust in strangers, making and drinking of alcohol and fine produce.
“I love my home and my whole existence around my upbringing. I think Celtic food, earthy, rugged and wholesome, is one of the greatest cuisines in the world – too many people just don’t know it yet. It’s not refined. But what’s not to love about stews, pies and pasties?”
And fish of course, a huge financial plus shared by all four nations. Ross Bryant, the new head chef at Corrigan’s in Mayfair, London, is a Scottish chef in an Irishman’s restaurant. He adds his own flourishes to the flagstones laid by Richard Corrigan.
Corrigan told me: “The Celtic nations all share a common theme: tradition. For such small areas, geographically speaking, they haul such cultural relevance and importance – and the food is a huge part of that.
“The Celts around the British Isles were known to eat salmon, mackerel and trout. Look at the countries the Celts are associated to, arguably northern Spain (Galicia) also. These places are food destinations. They cure, smoke, forage, they make and treasure butter.
“The Celts domesticated animals in Britain and Ireland such as pigs, sheep and chicken, providing both meat and eggs. They ate local plants and flowers and worshipped the elements – everything that leading chefs of the world practise and preach about today. Seasonality and local produce, the Celts worked and ate the land.”
Corrigan mentioned butter – it is a common thread. Tom Simmons, a Welsh chef who’s just opened a namesake restaurant in London, sees butter as a main event. He churns his with leek.
Indeed, there seems no end to cultural similarities between these nations. My knowledge is rooted in Cornwall and Brittany, two parts of the world in which I’ve spent so much time. Both proudly display their black and white flags, different in design but similar in essence; both boast their own languages, Kernewek and Brezhoneg. Many within the two areas support increased devolution – a liberation of sorts. Mebyon Kernow and The Breton Party passionately vie for more representation or even independence, emancipation justified by potential self-sufficiency, individuality and heritage. The Kernow-Breizh friendship is strong. It’s best enjoyed over a pint of cider – a tipple enjoyed equally in the quaint pubs of Cornwall as well as over the sea in the cosy tabacs of Brittany.
When I lived in Penzance, in the far west of Cornwall, I often preceded a fillet of hake with a pint of scrumpy. And for a week or two in summer, I’d ferry over to Guemene-Sur-Scorff, where an annual sausage festival – the fete du andouille – sees 30,000 or so flock to the tiny village to celebrate a humble sausage of innards and history. There, the dress, the music, the culinary joy and sense of pride that plays such an integral role for Celtic nations is no better showcased. It is much like the Newlyn Fish Festival on the August bank holiday.
At my favourite bar in the world, Aux Sabots Rouge in Guemene, a fillet of cod sets you back no more than 12 euros, a glass of Viognier three or four. And aside from the accompaniment of ratatouille rather than Cornish earlies, the flavour is the same – that telltale Atlantic freshness, it seems, which you can only find by the sea.
Bruce Rennie knows a thing or two about fillets of cod. He’s Scottish chef with serious Celtic pedigree. He’s worked, among others spots, at the Michelin-starred Shanks in Northern Ireland (now closed), and the also starred Restaurant Martin Wishart in Edinburgh. He now has his own place in Penzance, Cornwall, called The Shore.
“The Celts have a strong sense of identity and common thread through language, music, landscape and rugged coastlines. It’s barren and rainy. We rely on the produce around us to inspire what we eat,” he said.
“The biggest connection is seafood ... from the islands of Scotland to Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany, there is a passion for heritage which drives everything. It’s the same with the booze – Calvados in Brittany, cider in the West Country, whisky and whiskey from Scotland and Ireland.
“I think too that prosperity was never a reality. Using the entire animal was important ... resulting in foods such as stews, haggis, sausages and pastry. We’re lucky we get to show it off when the visitors flood in.”
Summer is nearly over. Many of us will have visited one of these regions in the height of it. We’re lucky to have them. They are, tellingly, testament to an ideal of togetherness across lands – British and Irish lands. Things well worth cherishing over a pint of cider and a bowl of stew.
Josh Barrie writes for Mirror Online, among others. Follow him on Twitter @joshbythesea