When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing.
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
From “Spring” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1877
Short and sweet February is gone, and long, energetic March is here! March is the month when the Earth turns green again, with the first crocuses pushing through the snow, new leaves emerging on the trees and deep green grass returning to the once frozen ground. Our favorite green herbs and vegetables arrive in March also, and many of them remain throughout the summer. And as Hopkins points out in the first eight lines of his exuberant sonnet, birds return and sing again!
In all the places where I have traveled or lived, I think spring in Ireland, rightly dubbed the Emerald Isle, is most glorious. Ireland truly is green, green and more green. And the big celebration in March this year is St. Patrick’s Day. Next month, we will celebrate Passover and Easter which arrive in early April. But now, let’s find out a little about this ancient Saint who inspires such enthusiastic celebrations world-wide and take a look at luscious, healthy Irish food. And by the way, all my haiku which accompany this discussion were written on St. Patrick’s Day, in different years and in various places.
St. Patrick is not one of those legendary or perhaps even imaginary saints. He was a real person who left written documents about his life, and ironically, he was not born in Ireland. Patrick was born in the Fourth Century in Britain or Scotland to Roman parents when the British Isles were part of the Roman Empire. His father, Calpurnius, was apparently a wealthy man and a deacon in the Roman Christian faith. There is not historic agreement about Patrick’s original name, but he changed his name to the Latin Patricius when he became a priest. Prior to that, he experienced a life-changing event when he was kidnapped at the age of sixteen and taken to Ireland as a slave. He served for six years as a herdsman and suffered various deprivations. However, during his time of enslavement, Patrick developed his spiritual life and survived through faith and prayer. Though he nearly starved in the process, he was able to escape from slavery and return to Britain by boat. Ever attentive to the spiritual power of dreams, Patrick dreamed of returning to Ireland as a Christian missionary, and as a result he entered the priesthood. His spiritual autobiography, Confessio, describes the dramatic story of Patrick’s (Padraig in Irish) physical and spiritual journey that culminated in his successful efforts to bring Christianity to Ireland. Critics of the Confessio accuse Patrick of being poorly educated and lacking in literary skills but grudgingly admit that he was a man of humility and authentic faith. The critic D.A. Binchy observed, “The moral and spiritual greatness of the man shines through every stumbling sentence of his rustic Latin.”
The second and final document attributed to Patrick is Letter to Coroticus, a statement of moral outrage accusing Coroticus, probably a British Roman living in Ireland or Britain, of capturing some of Patrick’s Irish converts into slavery. This theme was no doubt close to Patrick’s heart, having been the victim of slave raiding himself. Patrick’s primary achievements as a missionary to Ireland included baptizing thousands of converts to Christianity and establishing churches, monasteries and schools. Historians also believe that Patrick brought Christianity to the Picts and Anglo Saxons of Britain and Scotland. Patrick did in fact, use the shamrock, the national flower of Ireland, as a teaching tool to help explain the theological concept of the Trinity to the Irish. However, scientists have confirmed that the legend giving Patrick credit for chasing the snakes out of Ireland has no basis in fact. Geologists have proven that Ireland’s environment has never been hospitable to snakes and no snakes have ever lived in post glacial Ireland.
When Patrick arrived in Ireland as a teenaged slave, he entered an ancient culture filled with powerful spiritual energy and a deep reverence for the numinous natural world and all the plants and animals that inhabit it. To this day, the Irish imagination is alive and well, and Ireland remains a country that appreciates and encourages creative expression in poetry, music, dance and many other art forms and crafts. Today, the Guinness Storehouse is the number one tourist destination in Ireland, and Waterford Crystal and Belleek Pottery are famous throughout the world. In Patrick’s day, Irish poetry was exclusively oral, but his missionary efforts helped to bring new life to Irish literature as a written art form. As the late Irish poet, Thomas Kinsella, editor of The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse pointed out in the introduction, “Christianity, from its beginnings in Ireland, worked intimately with poetry, and it was due largely to Christian literacy that so much of early Ireland’s non-Christian literature survived.” Kinsella himself, a major figure in contemporary Irish poetry, died in Dublin in 2021 at the age of 93. I love his little poem, “Wyncote, Pennsylvania: A Gloss,” as it gives us a glimpse into the Irish imagination and its enduring reverence for the natural world:
A mocking-bird on a branch
Outside the window, where I write,
Gulps down a wet crimson berry,
Shakes off a few bright drops
From his wing and is gone
Into a thundery sky.
Another storm coming.
Under that copper light
My papers seem luminous.
And over them I will take
Ever more painstaking care.
Thomas Kinsella from The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, 1989
St. Patrick’s legacy lives on in the United States and Canada, and indeed the whole world. Patrick died on March 17, probably in 461, though some scholars argue that he lived until 492, to the age of 120! What we do know is that Patrick is one of the Patron Saints of Ireland and his Feast Day is celebrated in all kinds of unexpected places with raucous Irish dancing, singing, fiddle playing, bagpiping, poetry, parades with marching bands, feasting and copious mounts of drinking, mostly Irish whiskey and Guinness Extra Stout. There are even polite St. Patrick’s Day celebrations involving Afternoon Tea!
Irish immigrants to the United States began celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Boston in 1737, and the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in the U.S. took place in New York City in 1766. Approximately 25 percent of Americans have some Irish ancestry, including more than fifteen of our Presidents. Of course, we know that Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy came from Irish American families, but Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, both George HW and George W Bush, Barak Obama and Joe Biden also have some Irish ancestry. At 34.5 million, the Irish American population is seven times larger than the population of Ireland, which is only 4.68 million people. Here in America, many families of Irish ancestry are keeping not only Irish art and culture alive, but also Irish food.
Irish food is delightfully healthy as well as tasty and memorable. Irish cuisine includes a wide variety of vegetables, herbs and fruits, including the first green vegetables that arrive in March. A study conducted in the European Union found that the Irish eat a wider variety of vegetables and fruits in their daily meals than any other country in the EU. The Irish are famous for potatoes and cabbage and for special preparations such as Colcannon, a mix of mashed potatoes and cabbage, and Champ, which is mashed potatoes mixed with whole milk, butter and green onions. But it might be surprising to learn that Ireland’s number one vegetable is the humble carrot! And Ireland’s favorite fruit is raspberries! Almost every imaginable vegetable finds its way into Irish food, including fresh green peas, onions, leeks, chives, wild garlic, watercress, parsley, tarragon, celery, turnips, parsnips, kale, dill, chervil, cucumbers, cauliflower and all kinds of greens. While raspberries are hugely popular with the Irish, so are strawberries and apples. I was amazed by the number of times I was served Apple Pie as a visitor in Ireland.
Kathleen and I have provided you with an introduction to Irish food on our website and in our blogs. We encourage you to review our St. Patrick’s Day Irish Tea in the March calendar section of the Tea Book. Several of the items in the menu of our St. Patrick’s Day Tea have characteristically Irish names, which, like Colcannon and Champ give a non-Irish reader no clue as to what this food item might be. Barm Brack, for example, is a tea bread intended to be served with Irish butter. It contains raisins and fruits soaked in strong Irish Breakfast Tea. Parkins are little gingerbread oat cakes. This menu also features the recipe for my sister Margaret Murdock’s Irish Soda Bread, a staple of Irish cuisine.
For an example of a simple but fresh and elegant daily Irish lunch, you will find the recipes for Irish Brown Bread and Irish Vegetable Soup, containing both potatoes and carrots, in my March 2021 Blog. Two Irish desserts from previous March blogs would be perfect for your St. Patrick’s Day party this year—Brown Sugar Oatmeal Cake in my March 2022 blog and Buttermilk Irish Whiskey Apple Pie in Kathleen’s March 2021 blog. For the adventurous among you, I am happy to share the recipe for Irish American St. Patrick’s Day Cake, an over-the-top chocolate layer cake that contains both Guinness Irish Stout and Bailey’s Irish Cream. I doubt that St. Patrick ever tasted chocolate, but I think he would love this cake!
Irish American St. Patrick’s Day Cake
This rich, double chocolate cake has little to do with Irish cooking other than the inclusion of three ingredients produced in Ireland, Guinness Irish Stout Beer, Bailey’s Irish Cream Liqueur and Kerrygold Butter. However, Americans have embraced St. Patrick’s Day and are ready to party every March 17. I think your guests will appreciate this luscious chocolate cake, iced with buttery Bailey’s butter cream and topped with bittersweet chocolate ganache. Although this suggestion may sound odd, for those of you who prefer to stay away from alcohol in your cooking, you could try substituting Dr. Pepper for both the Guinness and the Bailey’s. Just make sure to use Irish butter in the cake batter, the icing and the ganache topping. I recommend Kerrygold. You will need to buy a pound of butter.
For the Cake Layers:
- 1 cup Guinness Irish Stout Beer (from an 11.4-ounce bottle)
- 1 cup unsalted Kerrygold Irish butter (2 sticks) cut into pieces
- ¾ cup unsweetened Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate cocoa powder
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 2/3 cup sour cream, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
- ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
- Baking spray with flour for the pans
For the Irish Cream Icing
- 3 cups powdered sugar
- ½ cup (1 stick) Kerrygold butter, at room temperature
- 3 tablespoons Bailey’s Irish Cream Liqueur
- Green food coloring gel (optional)
For the Ganache Topping
- 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, such as Ghirardelli’s, chopped into small pieces
- 2/3 cup heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons Kerrygold butter at room temperature.
2 (9-inch) cake pans, parchment paper, medium saucepan, whisk, 2 large mixing bowls, hand-held electric mixer, flour sifter or sieve, rubber spatula, 2 wire cooling racks, medium sized mixing bowl, quart sized glass measuring cup, bamboo skewers, 10-11-inch rimmed decorative platter, cake pedestal
Preheat the Oven to 350 degrees F
- Spray 2 (9-inch) cake pans with cooking spray with flour. Cut 2 rounds of parchment to fit the bottoms of the pans. Add a parchment round to each pan and spray again. Set aside. Pour the beer into a saucepan and add the butter. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-low heat. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the dark cocoa powder until the mixture is smooth and no lumps appear. Set aside to cool.
- In a large mixing bowl, using a hand-held electric mixer, beat the eggs, sour cream and vanilla extract until smooth. Stir in the cooled beer mixture and beat briefly at low speed to form a smooth, thick liquid. In another large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Pour the beer mixture into the flour mixture and gently combine with a rubber spatula until no flour is visible.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake in the pre-heated 350-degree oven until a bamboo skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool on wire racks for 10-15 minutes. Invert the cakes onto the wire racks, removing the parchment paper, and finish cooling.
- To prepare the icing, combine the powdered sugar, butter and Irish Cream in a medium sized mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer until a smooth and spreadable icing forms. Add a few drops of green food coloring if desired and beat until the icing is a uniform green color. Spread half of the icing evenly over the top of each cake. Place one cake layer, icing facing upward, on a decorative platter. Stack the other cake, also icing side up, on top of the first cake to form a round layer cake, adjusting to make sure that the sides are evenly aligned. Refrigerate the cake while you prepare the Ganache Topping. If you are the least bit nervous about the icing slipping and the cakes becoming misaligned, just insert a bamboo skewer into the middle of the cake and cut it off with scissors so it is not visible.
- Place the chopped bittersweet chocolate, heavy cream and butter in a quart sized glass measuring cup and microwave at 30 second intervals, stirring with a rubber spatula between intervals until all the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. This process will take about 1 ½ minutes. Allow the ganache to cool for about 15 minutes until the ganache is pourable but not too thin or runny.
- Remove the layer cake from the refrigerator and pour the Ganache Topping slowly and carefully over the top of the cake, covering the entire top and allowing it to drip attractively over the sides of the cake. Some of the ganache may drip onto the platter. Refrigerate the cake before serving to firm up the icing and ganache topping but allow the cake to stand for about 15 minutes to come to room temperature before slicing. To create a more dramatic effect, place the platter on a cake pedestal before serving. Refrigerate any leftovers.