Brown Bread and Ham Overload

A majority of the meals that I have had in Ireland have incorporated pieces of meat.  Sausage for breakfast, ham for lunch, and many options for dinner. I’ve noticed that ham is one of the most popular meats and is considered “bacon” on menus.  When we were at Madden’s in Westport, the caesar salad said that there was also parmesan cheese and bacon included. So, when my caesar salad came out and there were pieces of ham in it I was curious.  I asked the waiter if there was supposed to be bacon in the salad and he said, “that is the bacon” while pointing to the pieces of ham. A majority of the items on our menus have options of ham and when the menu doesn’t include ham, it’s still incorporated into dishes.  While in Inis Oirr, I ordered a chicken caesar salad wrap. The menu didn’t say anything about ham in the wrap. I took my first bite and immediately tasted ham. I took another look at my wrap and there were pieces of chicken and ham in my wrap. I had a delicious plate of stuffed turkey and ham in Inis Oirr that reminded me of Thanksgiving dinner.  The only time that I have ham at home is for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a few other holidays. I have never seen or eaten so much ham until I came here.

Turkey Club Salad with Brown Bread on the side.

The same goes for bread and in particular, Brown Bread.  I didn’t know what brown bread was until we left Cloughjordan.  I have had aleast one piece of brown bread ever since we left Cloughjordan.  It can be served at every meal. It goes great with a cup of tea in the morning or before bed and wonderfully with a cup of soup at lunch.  When we stopped at the Rock Shop for a quick bite to eat, I was served soup and an open-faced ham sandwich. I wasn’t surprised when I bit into the ham sandwich and discovered that the bread was brown bread.  Just when I thought I couldn’t have brown bread with anything else, I had lunch in Ennis. I ordered a salad and it was served with brown bread on the side. I have enjoyed all of the food that I have had while being here, but when I get home I think I’ll need a ham and bread detox!

Food for Thought

It was clear to me from the beginning of my time in Ireland that the Irish have a different relationship with food than Americans. The food isn’t much different on the surface, chicken wings, seafood, red meat and similar snacks. While we may share many of the same things there are a lot of small differences that make a large impact on the culture around food.

People here seem to value fresh and clean food more than America does. The majority of food in markets and grocery stores that I have been to are fresh. One store even had only fresh bread crumbs, after searching the entire store for pre-packaged recognizable bread crumbs we asked an employee who directed us to the fresh ones in just a plastic bag with no label or brand name, which is why we missed it. We are used to packaged foods with recognizable brand names that have traveled far to reach our grocery store shelves, and the difference in the taste and quality of the food is obvious. It is a regulation in the EU that the food be labeled with what is in it and allergens printed in bold so that you don’t have to go searching for it, so it’s easier to know exactly what you’re eating. Overall there is a general feeling of respect and attention to the quality of food throughout rural Ireland.

I gained an appreciation for where food comes from when I had the opportunity to see food being grown at the eco-village in Cloughjordan, where one resident in particular, Bruce, grows vegetables and puts them out for other members of the community to take. He told us that he saw a ‘knowledge gap’ in people knowing how to grow their own food and is doing research to try and fill some of that gap. He grows vegetables in multiple plots of land on the eco-village, experimenting with different foods and growing styles, and publishes his work on a youtube channel called Red Gardens.

In places outside of the eco-village, general eating habits have slight differences from what I am used to in America, and these are evident in stores. When in search of breakfast foods and snacks I became excited because I saw many familiar brands, logos, and foods, even finding my favorite cereal, Frosted Flakes, although called Frostys here in Ireland. But when it came to snacks, I found it was difficult to find those brands I love to eat back home, and in general found that there are much less snack selections here. It is overall a cultural difference between what people prefer and are used to eating, and things seem healthier here in Ireland with fresher food, clearer ingredients and more of an appreciation for what is being consumed. 

A Small Snack Aisle in a Grocery Store 

Homegrown Tastes Better

The first stop of the trip was made in Cloughjordan and our hostel was located in the Eco-Village. I had never experienced anything like it but it was an amazing learning opportunity. It resulted in an eye-opening experience for me on the topic of food. Being eco-friendly, the village strives to keep and maintain a vast array of locally grown food (Cloughjordan Community Farm).
The farm, spread across 40 acres, was established in 2008. When Pa (owner of hostel) took myself and eight others on a tour of the eco-village, he described the style of farming was based on CSA (community supported agriculture.)A few of the items that grow on the farm are potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, broccoli, beets, kale, turnips, parsnips, pumpkins, tomatoes, grapes, berries, melons and so much more. I came to realize since eating all of the naturally grown foods at the eco-village, that the sweetness and fresh taste is like none other. The farm is 100% organic which simply refers to no artificial fertilizers or pesticides as opposed to a lot of American grown foods on farms which have additives to make them last longer or grow quicker. Bruce whom is the lead gardner was asked with the question of what the main purpose of establishing such a large eco-friendly farm was and he responded with “we want to provide our community and those around the best produce, grown in the healthiest, most nutrient rich soil.”
Ireland as a whole relating to naturally grown food, is much healthier and fresher. Shopping for food and groceries, I immediately realized the fruits, and vegetables just looked so much more aesthetically pleasing than in the states. That assumption was confirmed when I was able to try them. I also realized there is not as nearly as much farmland in America as there is in Ireland. I noticed that supermarkets in Ireland seem to run out of produce much quicker than American supermarkets. America buys produce in bulk because they can. Ireland supermarkets depends on local farms (such as the Eco Village) to supply, and they do, until they run out. It is important to keep in mind that this observation is the result of 16 college students cleaning out a small local supermarket which usually does not happen every day.

The snack aisle in a market

The Universal Brown Bread

A side of brown bread, with butter packets

Brown bread is an important element of the meals in Ireland. A slice of brown bread will be served with nearly every meal, particularly lunch and dinner. We visited several towns and ate at several different restaurants or hostels, and each location incorporated brown bread into the meal. At the Valley House in Achill, slices of brown bread were served as an appetizer before the meal. The bread was put out in bowls along the table, alongside salads, and butter was placed beside them. We also ate lunch at several places where a slice of brown bread would be served alongside a bowl of soup. A vegetable soup could be purchased at the hotel restaurant on Inis Oirr, and this included brown bread and butter. Brown bread would also be used for sandwiches, as O’Brien’s shop in Ennis used brown bread for their turkey sandwiches.

Sandwich with brown bread, purchased in Ennis

When we visited Cnoc Suain, our host Dearbhail demonstrated how brown bread is made. It is different from regular white bread because it is not made with yeast. The ingredients include whole wheat and white flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. The baking soda mixing with the buttermilk is what causes the dough to rise. Dearbhail explained the baking technique which causes the bread to be so fluffy and light: you must lift up the flour while it’s the bowl. You mix together the flours, soda, and salt, then create a well to pour in the buttermilk. Dearbhail recommended using your hands to mix the dough together in order to use less dishes, but you have to be sure not to knead or handle the dough too much. You then shape the dough into a circular form and cut a cross into it so the bread bakes all the way through. Other ingredients can also be added to the dough before it is mixed together. For example, Dearbhail explained that pieces of seaweed can be added to the bread in order to increase its nutritious value.

This type of bread is relatively simple to make, and judging by its frequent appearance at multiple pubs and restaurants, brown bread is a very versatile food.

Locally Sourced

Unfortunately, I am a very picky eater. Coming to Ireland has really forced me out of my comfort zone. First of all, I do not eat a lot. I am a snacker. My biggest challenge was filling my stomach up enough to last me until the next meal. After many different meals here, I have noticed that, surprisingly, the food options are pretty much the same to the food back home. Those differences I have noticed are the words used to describe the food.


For instance, when ordering food, you must be clear on exactly what you want. Asking for “chips” means you are asking for french fries. If you ask for “crisps” you will receive potato chips. What we think of as ham could be “bacon” on the menu, while what we think is bacon is a rasher. It took time adjusting to these differences, but I still learn something new each day.

Fresh Vegetable Spring Rolls

Food here, also, is locally grown. The Eco-village took pride in their community garden. Each morning, the people who lived in the community were able to pick out the freshly grow vegetables. Johanna, the wonderful woman who cooked for us 16 students each day during our stay in Cloughjordan, used the vegetables she picked out that morning in her meals. One lunch she made us a lasagna with all of the home-grown veggies, such as carrots. Even all the salads I have come across are fresh. The salads here are not just bowls of leaves, they incorporate tomatoes, carrots, onion, beets, cucumbers, and anything else desirable.  The fresh food goes past just the vegetables, it goes to the meats as well. The beef here is “organically grown” or like our bus driver Joe said, “at least here you know what your cows are eating before you eat them.” The cattle are mainly pasture fed which gives the beef that amazingly flavorful, and “clean” taste. The fresh taste of the food is wonderful, something I will not forget. 


Mother Nature’s Meal

“What’s the most Irish food there is?” Megan asks our bus driver and human-knowledge-bank Desmond, or Des as we fondly refer to him. “Oh, well, let’s see.” Des pauses, then gives a sly smile, “Black pudding.” “What’s black pudding?” I ask. “Blood sausage!” Des responds happily, then upon seeing my grimace states, “Oh come now, there are foods in America that are a lot less appetizing.” I think for for a moment, then slowly utter, “Well I suppose that blood sausage isn’t nearly as unappealing as a processed McDonald’s Happy Meal or ballpark hot dog.” “Exactly!” Desmond exclaims, “Now you’re thinking.”

He’s got a point. While traveling through rural Ireland, I have not seen a single fast food chain. The food seems fresher here and somehow more… present: mussels are harvested straight from Killary Harbor, greens are picked from the communal garden at Cloughjordan Ecovillage, and milk comes from grass pasture-fed Irish cows. Thus far, I have been able to trace the majority of my meals back to the earth.

Back home, many people I’ve talked to do not know where canned olives come from and how broccoli grows. Food consumed by college students is often packaged and preprocessed. In contrast, when I was walking through the Cloughjordan minimarket, I learned that eggs on the mainland need no refrigeration due to their freshness and there is a law against selling milk from cows on antibiotics. Upon acquiring this knowledge, my mind briefly flashed back to Michael Pollan’s descriptions of U.S. factory farm feedlots in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The juxtaposition of his gruesome illustration of cows and chickens wallowing in confined filth with the animals here, wandering contentedly through luminescent green pastures, is absolutely striking.

Yesterday the staff at Killary Harbour made me the most delicious salad after learning that I was a vegetarian. I could taste the freshness of the vibrant beets, greens, and red raspberries. And I savored each flavor, grateful for the earth, which we often forget is the provider and nurturer of all species. Mother Nature lets us grow the foods that bring us together—from the grains grown to make Guinness enjoyed during pub gatherings, to the oysters my peers happily slurped as we crowded around a picnic table, telling stories about our days.

When contemplating American processed foods, I found it immensely troubling when Des informed us that McDonalds and KFCs are cropping up in Dublin, Limerick, and Cork. As he alluded, McDonald’s Happy Meals are, indeed, not happy meals at all. Rather, the smiles I see on my peer’s faces during dinner times here—while biting into freshly caught salmon fillet and homemade mashed potatoes—speak to what a happy meal actually is: the closeness and contentment we feel, conversing over food grown from the ground and raised on the fertile land, vibrant with well-respected life.

No Corned Beef and Cabbage?

If one were to ask anyone back home what the most traditional Irish food is, they would most likely say corned beef and cabbage. This is a meal most often cooked and sought after by many Irish Americans especially on Saint Patrick’s Day and on Sundays. However, this is not actually the case in Ireland.

I was not aware of this until my first Sunday in Ireland while staying at the Valley House Hostel in Spiddal. At this hostel we were served traditional Irish meals by chefs for the two nights we stayed at this place. I was warned that the meal was “Ireland’s version of what Americans call corned beef and cabbage” by one of the ladies who was serving and cooking us our meals. Instead of corn beef and cabbage I was given what the Irish call bacon and cabbage.

As an American, bacon is most commonly thought of as a greasy, fatty breakfast food that many people tend to over indulge in. I may have just excited many Americans thinking that they could replace corned beef with bacon to have more of a traditional meal, but bacon is not the same in Ireland. It is simply ham that tends to be grilled yet is still just as delicious.

When my plate was placed in front of me I was confronted with a juicy piece of ham with a side of mashed potatoes and a greener looking cabbage, that had been cut into strips and of course, brown bread. Contrary to what many may think due to the potato famine, potatoes and bread are served at basically every meal. The meal was not what I was expecting but was quite satisfying.

It is impressive that almost all of America has been deceived by this meal, thinking that the Irish eat corned beef. Prior to coming to Ireland, I truly believed that I would be served more corned beef and cabbage than I could eat. Instead I was pleasantly surprised with the outcome of the variety and simple differences of each meal I ate.

Sugar Tax Already Included

Since the moment I landed in Ireland, I noticed a difference between the food in Ireland and the food in the United States. In Ireland, the food at the market is fresher and healthier than food in America. I first noticed the difference in the food when I went to the grocery store in Cloughjordan. What stood out to me the most was that the eggs were not refrigerated. Instead, they were on a regular shelf just like cereal or chips. The worker told me the eggs were not refrigerated because they do not have added hormones and are treated differently than eggs in the United States. In America, eggs are refrigerated because they are specially washed to prevent Salmonella. After they are washed, they must be chilled until they are eaten. In Europe, chickens are given a vaccination to prevent this so they are not required to be washed like in America. Also in this grocery store, I noticed they only had 2 packets of fresh chicken breasts left. When I asked the worker if they had more she explained, they get a fresh shipment to the store every morning and that the 2 packets were all they had left for the day. At my local Stop and Shop, when the display is low on chicken, they go to the back freezer and restock the chicken. These are just two examples of why food is fresher in Ireland than America. 

In addition to the freshness of food in Ireland compared to in America, the food is also healthier in Ireland than in America. One day, I was sitting at a cafe reading the menu and noticed at the bottom a note stating “sugar tax already included in prices.” I had never heard of the sugar tax so I asked our bus driver Des about the tax. Des explained the sugar tax was implemented “to prevent mothers from giving their children drinks with added sugars.” He further explained that since the drinks with added sugars are more expensive, people are more likely to buy the less expensive options which subsequently has less sugar. On the contrary, in America, only certain cities and states have a “soda tax” which is similar to Ireland’s sugar tax, showing Ireland’s better attempt to be healthier. Likewise, in both the small and large grocery stores, I noticed significantly fewer snack aisles than in America. In a small grocery store, they only had half of a snack aisle and in large grocery stores, they had only one aisle. In America, small grocery stores have a whole snack aisle and large grocery stores have 2 to 3 full snack aisles. This also displays Ireland’s healthier eating habits. Through observing these differences between food in Ireland and food in America, it was clear that food in Ireland was more fresh and healthy than food in America. 

Soup, Soup and More Soup!

Coming into this trip, I didn’t know what to expect considering the topic of food. Their food customs and traditions are a little different from how we do things in the United States. The first thing that stood out to me after having a few meals in Ireland was the amount of soup that we had. Soup seems to be a large part of meal, included in either lunch or dinner. The soups are normally made with lots of vegetables and are the starters to meals. Coming from the U.S., having soup as a major staple for meals is new to me. At lunch they usually serve a soup with a sandwich and oftentimes have a few greens on the side. Here in Ireland, the soups are mostly vegetable based as I have seen throughout most of the meals. For example, I have had leek and potato soup, vegetable soup, butternut squash soup, and tomato soup. These soups are made by purreying multiple vegetables with a food processor into a thick substance that is sometimes creamy and sometimes chunky. Vegetable based soups are nutritious, less costly and a food product that almost anyone can eat-reaching a larger audience than some other meals, especially when made without gluten ingredients.

Another common staple for the meals here in Ireland is the bread. Bread comes with almost every meal and when we were able to cook our own meal in a group we bought two loaves of ciabatta bread from the local store. There are a lot of healthy choices for meals, as I have seen so far in our couple days. Vegetables, grains, starches and meats are the top four categories of food that we have experienced a lot of, which creates very balanced meals. The vegetables here are all very local which is better for both the consumers and the environment because there is a farm-to-table aspect and freshness. The woman that cooked for us at the ecovillage hostel, Johanna, explained to us that most of the vegetables she used for our lunches were from the community garden and that she always “checks the farm stand” before going to the market.

Soup, soup, soup and a side of bread was the main meal here in Ireland. I can’t complain because I love both of these foods, but sometimes it did get a little repetitive. Having an abundance of vegetable being grown locally in most of the villages that we ate was definitely to our advantage because of how unprocessed and fresh the food was. It also was helpful to us travelers to really get a grasp on the types of food that are popular here and definitely made sure that we got our recommended serving of vegetables every day!

Brown bread with a view of the Killary Fjord
A shift from our normal meals…fresh mussels and clams


A Valid Salad

American diets feature high sugar, fat, and salt because people are constantly surrounded by overly processed food. People in the States expect their chips to be salty, burgers to be cheesy, and ice cream to be sugary. Even when it comes to salad, Americans find a way to incorporate the cheese, sugar, fat, and salt they crave. In Ireland, I have noticed the sweet treats are less sugary, the burgers are not as loaded with cheese, and the chips are less salty.

What really impressed me was the side salad I ordered at Birr Castle. When I initially ordered my sandwich at the counter, the waitress told me that my sandwich would come with a “fresh side salad.” 

My first experience with side salads in Ireland.

In terms of first acquiring salads, I noticed a difference between Ireland and the States. In America, if a person orders a lunch sandwich, chances are that sandwich comes with a heap of fries. If an American does go out of their way to order a side salad, the salad portion would be much larger than what I experienced at Birr Castle. All of the lunch sandwiches at Birr Castle came with side salads. The portions of the salads were much smaller than portions of side salads in the States. Also, American salads tend to be drenched in a thick ranch dressing but at Birr Castle, the salad was coated with a light, simple oil dressing. In terms of the majority content of the salad, American salads usually include iceberg lettuce which is essentially all water and drastically lacks in nutrients when compared to other collard greens. The content of the salad at Birr Castle consisted of dark nutrient-rich greens, cucumbers, carrots, and onions. The toppings in American salads are often times coated with shredded cheese and garlic croutons. These toppings are obviously not nearly as healthy as the additions of vegetables in the Irish salad.

Even the prawn salad I had for lunch on Inis Oirr was modest and appropriate. It had dark, leafy greens, plump tomatoes, a fresh lemon and a healthy amount of dressing.

My first experience having a Prawn salad as a lunch meal in Ireland.

Both the salads I tried in Ireland were much healthier in terms of content and portion size when compared to American salads.

My overall observation in terms of Irish food compared to American food is: Ireland offers more healthy and fresh dietary options than America.