Hello, again. After a few weeks of not writing, during which I was preparing for an extended visit to Ireland, I’m now situated in County Kerry and inspired, once again, by the culture surrounding Irish cuisine. Here’s what this post has in store:
- Why I tend to eat vegan
- Why I rarely eat vegan in Ireland
- The story of a traditional Irish food tainted by industrialization
Most of the time I follow a vegan diet. Not because I consciously impose such restrictions on myself as much as veganism is my default setting for cooking and eating. When cooking, I feel surges of creativity when plant-based fats, interesting vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes are at my disposal. In restaurants I often go vegan because it’s less tiresome than checking off the numerous stipulations I require to be fulfilled before I put a piece of animal protein in my mouth. For example, here are a few of the questions that run through my head when confronted with cheese on a restaurant-made salad:
- Did the milk come from free-range/pasture-raised animals? (Thus supporting healthy–and hopefully happy– lives and reducing the illnesses that call for antibiotics)
- Are the cows, goats or sheep from this farm grass-fed all their lives or does genetically modified corn and soy slip into their feed?
- Are the cows treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) to increase milk production? (No thanks, if either is affirmed)
- Is the cheese made from raw milk? (Raw milk is easier to digest than pasteurized)
- Was vegetarian rennet or animal rennet used to culture the cheese? (I prefer vegetarian)
… I have the potential to embody every server’s worst nightmare. These are only my cheese queries; my meat and fish questions are exceedingly more complicated. So it’s easier for everyone involved if I choose to order vegan.
But then, just when I become complacent with my vegan diet, I return to Ireland. That’s not to say Ireland isn’t vegan-friendly, it’s more that I’m not vegan-friendly when I’m in Ireland. It’s the dairy (particularly cheese), the soda bread made with egg and buttermilk, and the pork products that get me. Every time. For the worthwhile restaurants in Ireland, it won’t be enough to simply list “goat’s cheese”, “blue cheese”, or “soft cheese” (nondescript terms I frequently encounter on stateside menus). Instead, menus proudly announce exactly what you’re getting: St. Tola, Bluebell Falls, Crozier Blue, Knockalara…and that’s most of my investigative work done for me. With the origins disclosed, I can rest easy about the product quality and focus on forming an opinion based on taste (when it comes to Irish farmhouse cheeses, I’ve yet to be unimpressed).
Recently, however, I realized that again I had become complacent, this time with my understanding of traditional and artisanal food products in Ireland. It happened over breakfast (during an incredible stay at Ballyvalone House in County Cork), when someone praised the black pudding and pointed out that it had been made with fresh pig’s blood as opposed to the dried, powdered blood that has become more of the standard in Ireland. Up until that moment, I had failed to discriminate among black pudding producers. I took the easy route, eating any black pudding I fancied and reasoning that since it’s a food entrenched in Ireland’s heritage, it must always be made in accordance with tradition.
Black pudding is a sausage made from minced meat trimmings (fat), pig’s or beef’s blood (or sometimes sheep’s), pinhead (steel cut) oats and spices. It’s a food which exemplifies frugality by incorporating the parts of the animal, the trimmings and blood, which would otherwise go to waste. Modernized culture has developed affluent and wasteful tastebuds. In most of the western world, we want the center of our plates filled with the prime cuts of steak, the boneless/skinless chicken breast, the large pork chops…the portions which require intensive farming and lots of unused byproduct. Blood pudding, a recipe from generations ago, is a reminder that large farms and factories weren’t always available to take away the less desired parts of animals and dispose of them for us. Nor were premium cuts of meat regularly featured as daily fare. Unfortunately, black pudding falls into the usual pattern of traditional foods which through industrialization favors convenience and sterilization (in the name of food safety) over time-tested methods of production.
The growing industry standard to use reconstituted powdered blood as opposed to fresh sort of defeats the point of blood pudding. Here’s why: first, it’s a matter of quality. Fresh blood coagulates as it cools which gives the pudding a firmer texture compared to the grainy and crumbly texture of sausage containing powdered blood. The fresh blood pudding also smells better than its powdered counterpart. I’m always sad to hear of how industrial practices taint the quality of traditional foods; unfortunately, it’s becoming a familiar story.
Even more distressing is that the powdered blood used for Irish-made sausages is commonly imported from Holland. This contradicts the very nature of black pudding as a nourishing food founded in frugality and resourcefulness. Is it really necessary to rely on a market outside of Ireland to make a food which was created by and for the poorer classes? Seems a bit extravagant, especially when the product of this market, powdered blood, only degrades the quality of the pudding. More importantly, the track record for pig farming in the Netherlands showcases deplorably low standards of animal welfare (I realize as an American I have no right to point fingers…). While improvement efforts are underway, pig blood from Holland most certainly comes from pigs raised in confinement.
Thankfully, several Irish producers (scroll down link for list) of black pudding not only insist on fresh blood, but also place great importance on the welfare of the animals. In a westernized food system which promotes excessive levels of waste, often at the expense of the wellbeing of livestock and reverence for tradition, I’m glad there are options to support the production of a food which honors tradition. I don’t think it’s wise or ethical to eat meat frequently, but when I do un-veganize my plate for the sake of black pudding, I’ll look for the producers who use fresh blood.
So, to avoid eating powdered blood in your black pudding, look for these names:
4. M.J. O’Neill & Sons, Clonakilty
5. Dan Maloney Meat Centre, Bandon
7. Inch House
10. Ryan’s Farm
11. Hugh Maguire
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