Today, across the globe from New York to Sydney, glasses are being raised to Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.
This feast day never really struck a chord with me until I lived in America. When I was a student in Providence, Rhode Island, the whole city was a sea of green on March 17th with people drinking pints of lager (dyed green of course) and eating corned beef and cabbage.
If I had a pound for everytime someone said to me: “You probably eat corned beef and cabbage every day of the year back home on the old sod?” I’d be retired in my villa on Lake Como around now.
To my younger self, corned beef came in a tin and my taste buds were still recovering from the reek of school cabbage. Corned beef got its name from the corn kernel sized nuggets of salt used to cure the meat.
My first recipe is one that I picked up at university in the States for this spice-infused dish. You need to start brining it a couple of days before cooking. I’m completely over my cabbage reticence and I’ve paired the beef with a cabbage and potato gratin that will convert the most ardent naysayers.
It’s only in recent times that we as a nation have embraced our traditional foods. We also realise that when visitors come here they want to eat Irish stew made from local lamb, chowder filled with our fabulous seafood and savour indigenous wheaten bread and soda farls.
Lough Neagh Pollan have a short season that’s in full swing now. In an ideal world, restaurants would shun factory produced chicken, swimming in pepper sauce and topped with onions, in favour of this local treasure. The reality is that only a handful of establishments serve it and the rest is exported mainly to Switzerland where it is rightly cherished.
Pollan were herrings trapped in the lough during the last ice age. They’re glittering silver fish that have the taste qualities of a river fish. When I was young my granny would buy them from fishermen who did a brisk business on the main street in Cookstown. She fried the fish in butter and we ate them with wheaten bread – to me that epitomises what’s best about the food from this country.
A couple of years ago I cooked them in Brussels for politicians from across Europe and they were stunned by the taste – like the Frenchman St Patrick, these sublime fish, aren’t prophets in their own land. Because they’re mainly exported you’ll have to source these delicious treats from a fishmonger or directly from the fishery at Toome.
My other recipe is for pollan cooked in the pan in bacon fat and finished with crispy bacon, oats and scallions.