Food culture in Ireland gets back to basics

Food culture in Ireland gets back to basics
Cara and Sadhbh O’Halloran asking for the public’s support for the Great Irish Bake for Temple Street, which takes place on June 5. The event, which was postponed from April 4, is intended to raise much-needed funds for the hospital. To register or donate, visit Picture: Andres Poveda

Ray Ryan says the Covid-19 lockdown has seen a return to inter-generational baking practices, as proven by the scarcity of flour supplies on retailers’ shelves.

The increased demand for flour in the shops due to a surge in home cooking during the Covid-19 crisis has put a new focus on consumer and behaviour choices.

Mothers are again showing their children how to bake, just as their own parents and grandparents instructed them during other national emergencies such as the Second World War, when many inherited skills were put to good use.

Anyone who believed those inter-generational baking practices had been lost in the sliced pan era clearly never witnessed the crowds that flock to the Aldi marquee at the national ploughing championships every year.

That is where they would see how bread baking is still up there with bacon and cabbage and floury potatoes as a cherished symbol of traditional Irish cuisine despite the dominance of convenience shopping.

Hosted by the National Ploughing Association in co-operation with the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, the Aldi sponsored national brown bread competition is one of the annual highlights of the ploughing championships.

It also reflects an ancient Irish tradition of how people prepared the ingredients for a cake on kitchen tables before baking over an open fire it in a bastible – a cast iron pot that once sat on the hearth of every home.

During the Great Famine, bread was a staple food for starving families after the potato crop failed.

Nowadays, home baking is done in the ovens of hi-tech cookers, with settings to match the electronic era and the expectations of modern families.

Yet, some things never change. Recipes for wholesome bread, handed down through families, are still being used today.

The recent temporary scarcity of flour in some supermarkets following the surge in demand was a stark reminder of how dependent people are on farmers to grow crops.

It also highlighted the role of the processing, transport and retail sectors in the efforts to keep all links in the food chain going in challenging times.

Flour, according to Teagasc,, is up there with toilet rolls as a commodity that is in high demand at this time.

Retailers are working closely with suppliers to keep stocks of baking ingredients on the shelves. But has Covid-19 influenced wider aspects of consumer attitudes and behaviour with regards to food?

Teagasc and University College Cork researchers are collaborating with the University of Antwerp and universities across the globe to find out more about consumer shopping, cooking, baking and eating habits before and during the Covid-19 restrictions.

Universities and research institutions from 28 countries have already signed up to undertake this research, which will find out how Irish consumers have changed compared with those in Europe and elsewhere.

Professor Maeve Henchion, Head of the Department of Agrifood Business and Spatial Analysis in Teagasc said shopping behaviour has clearly changed as a result of social distancing and people spending more time queuing to get into shops. But many questions remain.

How has this impacted on who does the shopping, the use of shopping lists, and preference for local suppliers?

With many parents using baking and cooking as a way to occupy children at home, are consumers using their time to develop their culinary skills and will future generations be more ’food savvy’?

Is a lack of time really one of the main barriers to cooking and baking on a regular basis? Is Granny’s recipe for scones still the gold standard, or are online influencers taking over? “ Professor Henchion said these are the kinds of questions they will be able to answer through the survey.

Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence indicates a renewed interest in baking and more cooking from scratch, according to Professor Mary McCarthy (Marketing), Cork University Business School “However, wine consumption and treating has also increased. So while we might expect health motivations to increase in importance at this time, is this actually the case across all age groups?

“This survey will enable us to quantify this and other changes in food-related behaviour and attitudes.

“And the international collaboration will enable us to see the difference in the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on Irish consumers compared to others on an international basis,” she said.

Dr Sinead McCarthy, Department of Agrifood Business and Spatial Analysis in Teagasc, said many of the changes being seen in consumer food-related behaviour and attitudes are temporary, but some will be more permanent in nature.

“We need to understand this now to help Irish farmers, food producers and retailers adapt to the post-Covid-19 context,” she said, Meanwhile, Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association Tillage chairman Gavin Carberry said the recent flour shortage was a direct result of years of under investment in the tillage industry and laid bare the country’s over-reliance on the UK for supplies.

“It took a pandemic to expose just how dependent we are on flour from the UK and elsewhere and with the UK now experiencing shortages of their own, it has left us in a very precarious position,” he said.

Mr Carberry warned that things could get far worse if the lock-down continued and main bakeries were unable to source adequate supplies of flour to keep bread plentiful on supermarket shelves.

He said Ireland produces some of the best wheat in the world with the moist damp climate providing ideal growing conditions. It has an abundance of over 15,000 hectares of spring milling wheat growing this season.

“It’s time for all the cogs in the wheel of the tillage industry to come together to ensure this native product can be manufactured here at home and ensure a supply of flour for the domestic market,” he said.

Mr Carberry said given the current difficulties and with the potential impact of Brexit, the Department of Agriculture must re-establish the Tillage Forum.

The Association of British and Irish Millers said last month there was plenty of flour available and mills were working around the clock to fill orders.

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