In the “old days” (say fifty years and before) farmers used to keep a proportion of the flocks of their sheep for several years. They would produce several lambs in this time. After which they would be killed and eaten as “Mutton” (any animal of more than one year qualifies for this definition). This was tasty, but tough and often with a good leavening of fat. Hence “slow cooking”, either by boiling (as in Ireland and the UK) or slow pot-roasting (as in Kleftiko) was customary, to tenderize and break down some of the fibres of the meat. Those with lesser incomes opted for the cheaper, tougher parts and slow-cooked.
In earlier times, Ireland was poverty-stricken and ridden with starvation – hence the emigration of a large number of its people to the United States and other countries. Ordinary people often had very little and sometimes no meat in their diets. What there was was often tough and fatty and, chopped up in small quantities, used to “extend” the quantity of stews or casseroles. One recipe became the generic “Irish Stew” and known around the world, wherever the Irish went.
The lines below are a parody from the British humorous magazine, Punch (circa 1860) which would have been sung to the tune of a very popular Victorian song, or “air”, called "Happy Land”. They are also the virtually complete recipe.
Irish stew, Irish stew!
Whatever else my dinner be, Once again, once again,
I’d have a dish of thee.
Mutton chops, and onion slice,
Let the water cover,
With potatoes, fresh and nice;
Boil, but not quite over,
Irish stew, Irish stew!
Ne’er from thee, my taste will stray.
I could eat Such a treat Nearly every day.
Classic Irish stew! Perfect for a winter’s day.
IRISH STEW RECIPE
Ingredients for 4 – 6 servings
800g stewing lamb (ask the butcher to cut off the bone and into pieces, or use cutlets with bones removed)
2tbsp vegetable oil
500g potatoes, more if you like, peeled and cut into chunks
2 medium onions
150g carrots, chopped
2 leeks, sliced Seasonal ingredient
100g pearl barley
750ml lamb stock
¼ of cabbage, sliced
Freshly ground pepper
1. Pre-heat the oven to 160 C.
2. In a large frying pan heat a tablespoon of the oil over a moderate heat.
3. Add the lamb, and fry until brown, turning it over from time to time.
5. Add the stock and cook in the oven with the lid on for one hour.
6. Add the cabbage and cook for a further hour adding more stock, if required. Serve hot.
7. Some cook books recommended drinking Guinness or other dark beer with it. Me, I’ll take a glass or two of a good young Cyprus red.
IRISH HOT POT
To transform this recipe into an Irish hot-pot, you add a couple of the lamb’s kidneys, and remove the lid for the last half hour of cooking. You bring the potatoes to the top of the stew, and put them back in the hot oven to brown the edges. I like to add a couple of dumplings per person to this stew (put into the pot 45 minutes before serving)
Fennel Braised with Tomatoes
Plainly braised or turned in a little butter our Cyprus fennel is delicious as a side dish to roast meat, or even fried fish. Add another flavour with tomatoes and, with some fresh bread and a glass of wine you have a lovely light lunch.
Ingredients for four servings
2 Fennel bulbs, leaves, tops and choggy bits removed.
2 Sprigs of flat-leaf parsley.
2 Small garlic cloves
Half can (400g size) of tomatoes, drained and chopped (Or two or three fresh, ripe tomatoes, skins removed. I don’t mind the pips, but remove these, too, if you like)
60 ml (half cup) of extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
1. Cut each fennel bulb in half, from top to bottom, then slice each half length-wise, 1 cm thick.
2. On your chopping board, combine parsley and garlic
3. Chop finely.
4. Place mixture in a medium-size heavy flame-proof casserole.
5. Add the fennel, tomatoes, and olive oil.
6. Season with salt and pepper to taste and pour in 125 ml of water. 7. Cover and simmer over low heat for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the fennel is tender.