Turtle soup and champagne were among the delicacies enjoyed by well-heeled Cork City dwellers during the final years of the Great Famine, according to the letters of UCC’s first professor of maths, George Boole.
However, snail-tea was among a number of bizarre medicinal treatments used by locals who felt under-the-weather in that period.
And it seems that, contrary to the stereotyped image of Irish people subsisting on potatoes, family tables in the city groaned under an abundance of rich foods — meats, ‘French-style’ duck, complicated puddings, and even curries according to an unpublished 19th century recipe book held in UCC.
George Boole’s letters home to his family graphically describe how the UCC mathematical genius dined lavishly at the tables of city luminaries — while the poor went hungry and the fields, virtually empty of cattle, were overgrown by weeds.
Boole was a regular dinner guest at the home of the city’s notables, including the bishops of Cork and Maj Ludlow Beamish. A man with a strong social conscience, he describes how a lavish dining experience, beginning with “turtle soup and champagne” had troubled him — he observed that, given “the disastrous state of the country a more humble style of entertainment would be in better taste”.
In the letter to his sister, Maryann, in October 1849, Boole also describes the air of utter destitution pervading the countryside. “For miles and miles you see nothing but fields overgrown with weed,” he told her, adding that on a train trip from Dublin to Cork he saw “scarcely a human being by the way or a herd of cattle in the fields”.
In other letters, however, he noted provisions in the city were plentiful and cheap — in particular supplies of salmon and fowl.
“Mrs O’Brien, our landlady, supplies our table most abundantly. Mother would be surprised at some of our customs - turkey with beef, roast goose with roasted bacon, cheese invariably accompanied with butter & excellent apple tarts.”
UCC food and culinary historian Regina Sexton said: “George Boole’s letters are important documents.”
She says his observations were “a reminder of the complexities of the Great Famine”. Boole’s experience of Cork’s elaborate food culture is borne out by a 19th-century unpublished handwritten recipe book held in UCC.
The book, which belonged to a Kinsale landowner, Mary Honner, contains recipes for pickled salmon, salted salmon, and the popular dish of duck and peas and fowl “in the French style”.
The book has over 170 recipes for dishes including puddings, preserved fruits, meat, fish and oysters, along with curry dishes such as meat and eggs, along with instructions for making “East India Curry Powder”.
It also, however, contains strange medicinal concoctions — such as “snail tea” for colds or tuberculosis and special tinctures for preventing hair from falling out.
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