Friday, September 25, 2009

Water of Life.

I wind up my time here in Dublin with some ‘Irish’ recipes – by which I mean those named ‘Irish’ by cookbook writers of the past. They may or may not be authentically Irish – but what does that mean anyway? A griddle cake made from potatoes may be called boxty in Ireland (as was discussed in yesterday’s post), but there are potato cakes of some form or another wherever there are potatoes, so perhaps after all it is only the name that is authentically Irish.

It seems that the Irish may have invented whisky, although we will never know for sure, as the art of distillation is very ancient. It does seem however that we must certainly give them credit for the name. The word ‘whisky’ apparently derives from the Irish Gaelic ‘Uisge Beatha’, which translates as ‘water of life’ – or aqua vitae, or eau de vie, if you like. Strong ‘waters’, or ‘cordials’ were popular once upon a time for their perceived medicinal value. Here is a recipe, purporting to be Irish, for Water of Life.

Prime Irish Usquebaugh.
Put into a large glass or stone bottle three pints of brandy: half an ounce each of saffron, liquorice, jujubes, and raisins of the sun; and a quarter of an ounce each of coriander seeds and cinnamon. Then melt a pound and a half of sugar in a pint of water, put it to the rest, and let the whole infuse three weeks; after which time, pour off the clear liquor. This is an excellent cordial, and much esteemed by the Parisians, to whom it was originally introduced by a celebrated general officer in the Irish brigade.
A Modern System of Domestic Cookery, M. Radcliffe, 1839

What else is intrinsically Irish? ‘Irish Stew’ seems to be a relatively modern phrase, and the dish is, after all, merely one version of pot au feu, or a hot pot, or some other nation’s one-pot dinner. Perhaps it is Irish because it contains sheep and potatoes, two ingredients strongly identified with Ireland? I have never been clear on the quintessential difference between Irish Stew and Lancashire Hot Pot (also usually mutton and potatoes), and suspect there is none. There are an infinite number of interpretations of ‘Irish Stew’, and we have had several in previous posts (here, here, and here), so I will forbear from giving you another one today.

The beverage and main courses being settled, here are the ‘Irish’ dessert options for you.

Irish Cream Cheese
Take a quart of very thick cream, and stir well into it two spoonfuls of salt. Double a napkin in two, and lay it in a punchbowl. Pour the cream into it; turn the four corners over the cream, and let it stand for two days. Put it into a dry cloth within a little wooden cheese vat; turn it into dry cloths twice a day until it is quite dry, and it will be fit to eat in a few days. Keep it in clean cloths in a cool place.
The Lady’s Own Cookery Book, and New Dinner Table Directory, Lady Charlotte Campbell Bury, 1844.

Irish Pancakes.
Beat eight yolks and four whites of eggs, strain them into a pint of cream, sweeten with sugar, and add a grated nutmeg. Stir three ounces of butter over the fire,, and as it melts pour it to the cream, which should be warm when the eggs are put to it. Mix it smooth with nearly half a pint of flour; and fry the pancakes very thin the first with a bit of butter but not the others. Serve up several at a time one upon another.
The cook and housekeeper's complete and universal dictionary, Mary Eaton, 1822

Quotation for the Day.

Uisce Beatha: an Irish or Erse word for the Water of Life. It is a compounded and distilled spirit, being drawn on aromaticks, and the Irish sort is particularly distinguished for its pleasant and mild flavor. In Scotland it is somewhat hotter, and by corruption in Scottish they call it Whisky.
Dr Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary of 1750.


Anonymous said...

Good morning! I was waiting for your post, too much coffee too late and couldn't sleep. Hope you are enjoying your trip!

Gigi Little said...

Being a child of the Seventies, I was quite curious about the jujubes. Since I'm very sure you don't make the water of life using hard pellets of movie theater candy that gets stuck in your teeth, I was wondering what actual jujubes are.

Lovely post, as always!

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Gigi-Little: I did a post a long time ago on jujubes (the original ones) - it is here
Have fun

Gigi Little said...

I keep forgetting to thank you for this response and link - so interesting, as always!