The fermented and wild foods that made up St Patrick’s diet in the 5th century are now among the hottest international food trends.
Yes, apparently, staple foods of Irish yore are back in fashion. According to UCC food historian Regina Sexton, “this was neither a throw-away nor a take-away society. People took good care to preserve and conserve for future use, foods that could not be consumed immediately.”
Assuming he even existed in the first place, what was St Patrick’s diet like? “High in fibre, Omega-3 fatty acids, fermented milks, low GI grains, protein, minerals and vitamins, low in sugars and meat. It is safe to say that obesity was not a problem in those days. The fare was seasonal, wholesome and modest by today’s standards,” says Sexton.
St Patrick’s diet was rich in oily fish like salmon, oats, seaweed, nuts and wild vegetables, soured and fermented milks and curds. There would have been little in the way of meat, full fat cheese and butter.
Items like soured milk drinks, oatmeal, seaweeds and wild fruits and vegetables were staples in the Irish early medieval diet, according to Sexton. Contemporary nutritionists now recommend these foods for optimal health. “Much of this is known because with the coming of Christianity, monastic settlements encouraged learning and record keeping. Those records have come down to us. Ironically, much of the food available then is what we call ‘health food’ now, which comes of course, at a premium price,” says Regina.
Wild foods, notably watercress and wild garlic – nature’s garnishing – were also on the menu. And if those didn’t whet his appetite, there were hen and goose eggs, honey, fish, butter, curds, seaweeds and apples. The rivers were flush with salmon, trout and eel. Hard-cured pork as well as other meats could also be found.
Cereals were used in the production of flat breads. Most common were oats and barley, with a little rye together with more prestigious and high-ranking wheat. It’s also likely that leavened wheat loaves were on offer. Various wet preparations such as porridge, gruel, meal pastes and pottages, as well as cereal-milk and fruit-nut combinations, were also being eaten on the island when the young Patrick arrived.
“St Patrick would have consumed lots of fresh milk, sour milk, thickened milk, colostrum, curds, flavoured curd mixtures and soft cheese, particularly during the summer months with butter and hard cheeses saved for the leaner months of winter and spring,” she added.
But if the thought of colostrum freaks you out then perhaps you could stick with a potato fondue.