Ireland’s food and drink are delicious and high quality (if you know what to look for).
With its lush and dramatic landscapes, historic castles and houses, and lively music and arts, it’s no surprise that Ireland’s food scene is the big surprise for visitors. Most people just don’t know how fresh and rich and delicious everything is! The cold Atlantic waters of the coastline make it an amazing destination for fish and shellfish, the beer and whiskey are top-notch, and even common dishes like soda bread are wildly better than the versions you’ll find outside of the island. Don’t miss these classics on your visit to Ireland.
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Boxty, a dish typically associated with Ireland’s north midland counties, is a blend of mashed potatoes and raw grated potato bulked up with the addition of ingredients like flour, eggs, and milk. Different counties use different seasonings, and have different versions––including boxty dumplings and boxty loaf––but the version you’re most likely to encounter and love is fried boxty, a chimeric blend of soft-yet-crunchy potatoey goodness that’s so easily delicious it’s become a staple on many restaurant menus.
Long before food trucks were an established trend humble, “chipper” vans roamed the villages of Ireland plying a bounty of fresh, crispy chips (which Americans know as french fries) just begging to be smothered in sauces like curry, or garlic and cheese.
INSIDER TIPYou’ll also hear the “chipper” term used to refer to shops that sell fish and chips. A visit to the humble chipper is a must for visitors to Ireland.
You’ll find smoked salmon, as well as smoked trout and mackerel, all over Ireland, but a visit to Burren Smokehouse gives you a chance to learn about how the process unfolds. Burren’s visitor’s center offers a free hour-long video detailing the smoking process, but you can also buy tickets which give you a more in-depth experience (just send an email to ask for details and to inquire about tickets for specific dates). Burren Smokehouse is also just 15 minutes from the majestic Cliffs of Moher, making it an easy stop on a day of sightseeing.
Ireland’s cold Atlantic waters and rocky shores make it the ideal environment for oysters and you’re lucky to have two varieties to choose from––Pacific oysters and Native Irish Flat oysters. You’ll find oysters all over the country but county Galway––home of the Galway International Oyster and Seafood Festival–– is renowned for its bivalves, with the Native oysters being a particular specialty.
INSIDER TIPPacific oysters are available all year round while Native Irish Flat oysters are available only in the months with “R” in them.
Periwinkles and Seaweed
Cockles and mussels might have been popularized by Molly Malone, but for a true taste of the Irish coast, you should look for periwinkles and seaweed. Periwinkles (also called winkles or willicks) are traditionally boiled in seawater and then eaten out of paper bags using a pin to fish out the meat, while seaweed appears in numerous dishes, such as laverbread. Both are traditional foods and these days are seen as a bit of an untapped resource, as food trends have passed them over. Don’t make the same mistake.
A Full Breakfast
The full Irish breakfast––known in Northern Ireland as the Ulster Fry––takes the best parts of the world-renowned full English breakfast while leaving out the unnecessary nonsense.
Gone is the English insistence on taking a perfectly good fry up and ruining it, Jackson Pollock-style, by blanketing it with a steaming ladle of horrifying baked beans.
Specific items in a full breakfast may vary but core cast members include black and white pudding, browned mushrooms, sausages, eggs, at least one tomato, and either soda bread or a potato farl (a crispy pancake made from leftover mashed potatoes).
It’s hard to say why soda bread in Ireland is so dramatically different from its sad American iteration. One might chalk it up to the organic, “this feels right” act of eating a recipe in its homeland, or it might be the fact that Irish soda bread in the US has probably been produced in a factory somewhere and not actually by a caring baker who knows what they’re doing. Whatever the case, soda bread, with its tender crumb, crusty exterior, and slightly sweet flavor, is better in Ireland.
Tea and Scones
It’s true that taking tea with scones is a ritual with British origins, but it’s also a tradition widely embraced by the Irish. You’ll find that teatime can come with different food options, governed in part by the time of day you’re taking your tea, but it’s hard to pass up a warm, freshly baked scone. This is particularly true if you’re in a setting that lends itself to a leisurely enjoyment of the ceremony, such as a castle or historic home.
In Tunisia it’s called boukha. In Italy, grappa. In the United States, moonshine. Seemingly every culture that produces alcohol has their own version of a clear, generally high octane distilled spirit suitable for times of joy or sorrow (or really any emotion that inspires drinking). In Ireland, this beast is called poitin and––though once illegal––it’s making a comeback.
Jamesons and Bushmills (it’s Northern Irish cousin) are fine examples of Irish whiskey, but don’t get fooled into thinking they’re the only game in town. Ireland has a small but growing number of craft distillers who are producing whiskey and other spirits using traditional equipment like copper stills, but also experimenting with newer techniques such as finishing with different types of casks. Glendalough Distillery, Chapel Gate, and Gortinore Distillers & Co. are worth seeking out.
Irish cider goes beyond Magners and Bulmers with a growing craft cider scene. While you can find cider in a variety of styles, and with varying levels of sweetness and fermented funk, it’s said that the apples of County Armagh are of particularly high quality.
INSIDER TIPThose looking for an insider’s view should check out Armagh Cider Company, which offers tours.
Don’t feel compelled to stick with just Armagh ciders though: Llewellyns Orchard outside of Dublin, Craigies Cider in County Wicklow, and The Cider Mill in County Meath all make their own excellent versions.
Craft beer is finding fans across the globe and Ireland is no exception. Ireland’s craft beer scene is small, but growing interest helps provide a counterpoint to the behemoth that is Guinness. Small breweries need your support and you should drink whatever is local to the area you’re visiting, but Galway Bay Brewery, Whiplash, and Franciscan Well Brewery have all made names for themselves.
Recommending that you drink a pint of the black stuff might seem obvious but there’s a reason the company remains firmly entrenched in the minds (and stomachs) of the Irish. Guinness is ubiquitous, omnipresent, and an easy choice for those disinclined to roll the dice on the undulating flavor wheel that modern craft beer represents.
INSIDER TIPIf you find yourself in Dublin, the Guinness Storehouse has cultivated a sort of “Willy-Wonka-but-for-beer” environment. Make sure to visit the bar with panoramic views of the city.
It may seem like a cliche but visiting Ireland does in fact mean consuming the equivalent of your body weight in potatoes. Colcannon is a traditional dish of mashed potatoes mixed with kale or cabbage. It’s simple, hearty, and a good match for Ireland’s frequently blustery weather.
People tend to think that Irish cheese means cheddar, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, the country’s dairies do have more to offer than just that. Whether it’s funky washed rind cheeses from Gubbeen and Durrus or the squat veined cakes of Cashel Blue, there’s a variety of high-quality cheeses for you to look for and enjoy.