The last week of October typically sees top chefs, food journalists and anthropologists, foragers and producers, and various names in the international food scene descend on Galway, Ireland. For the past five years, the harbour city has hosted Food on the Edge (Fote), a two-day symposium where the likes of Magnus Nilsson, Massimo Bottura, Virgilio Martinez, Ana Roš and the wider food community come together to discuss the future of food and its impact on our planet.
But as with many international events this year, Fote 2020 has been shelved due to the Covid-19 pandemic. That, however, has not stopped founder and director of the boutique symposium, JP McMahon, from keeping audiences intrigued by releasing a free online book based on e-mail correspondences with past speakers and friends of Fote.
There is perhaps no bigger champion of Irish food than the flame-haired, bearded, bespectacled, and tattooed McMahon. And his mission for the symposium is two-pronged: to gather prominent names of an international and diverse make-up in Ireland to showcase Irish food to them, as well as to give confidence to the Irish artisanal food industry. “We have all these great produce in Ireland and we need to celebrate it,” says McMahon.
Born in Dublin, he moved to Galway in 1999. Together with his business partner and wife, Drigín Gaffey, he opened their first restaurant in 2008 — Cava Bodega, which serves Spanish-style tapas. This was followed in 2011 by Aniar, a one-Michelin-starred terroir-driven restaurant with a menu that highlights pristine wild ingredients from West Ireland. Their latest, Tartare Café + Wine Bar, a more casual establishment opened in 2017, focuses on Irish oysters and beef tartare, and biodynamic and natural wines.
“What we do is try to shine a light on these native products and let the produce speak for themselves,” he says of the philosophy that his establishments share.
In an extension of his efforts to promote Irish cuisine around the world, McMahon this year released The Irish Cookbook. Beyond offering 480 homecooking recipes that reflect the range and quality of Ireland’s bounty from both land and sea, the hefty tome takes readers through the history of Irish food, delving way back to Neolithic times in a bid to define what Irish cuisine comprises. “When people think about Irish food, they tend to only think about Irish food in the past 100 years, and that it is defined in most people’s minds by potato, lamb, beef,” he notes, before pointing out that Ireland has been inhabited by people for over 10,000 years and, throughout that time, has had many waves of influence over its food culture.
“Essentially, when you break it down, there are a handful of ‘mother cuisines’ around the world, and everything comes from that. I would say Irish food falls under European cuisine, and then it has regional influences and variations in terms of its history. Migration has always affected our cuisine,” McMahon explains.
The first hunter-gatherer inhabitants hunted fish like salmon, eel, and trout. The first farmers brought farming technology to Ireland 7,000 years ago and established the agriculture of barley and wheat, and reared cattle. The Vikings brought along Nordic elements and the Anglo-Normans brought their use of spices.
“Irish food has always been a negotiation of the food that grew here and the people that came here,” McMahon states. “[But] who’s to decide that the food that grows here is more Irish than the food that was not grown here but has been used here for over 800-1,000 years?”
One of the most defining periods that shaped Irish cuisine was the 19th century famine, when people starved not just because of potato blight, but because they couldn’t gain access to food due to policy or market forces. “[That’s why] we have a difficult relationship with food,” he concedes.
“For a long time in Ireland, food was a commodity, a vehicle to sate hunger; it was not eaten for pleasure. We have people producing great food but not really relishing in the experience of it. That pleasure of food comes out of the Mediterranean — Spain, Italy, and France. And I think the influences from those countries were what we needed; we need a certain amount of internationalism to open Ireland up so people realise we have a great food culture.”
Which is also why McMahon — Restaurant Association of Ireland’s All Ireland Local Food Hero in 2016 — is all for promoting and celebrating local food producers and artisans. “For me, Irish food is always product-driven. We have great produce: very good lamb and beef; amazing fish, seaweed, shellfish, and oysters; vegetables; wild game and all sorts of different things. We are becoming stronger with our produce diversity. In the last 10 years, a great artisan tradition has sprung up across Ireland, with small regional producers making all sorts of things now. And yet, the other way you look, there’s also this one big monoculture of beef, and both of them co-exist. I just wish we could work on the small artisans and get them to grow, and maybe pull back a bit on the beef production.”
Alongside McMahon’s restaurants, Fote thus provides a perfect platform to help develop the growing artisanal Irish food industry. Not only do participating producers get to showcase their food and wares at the two-day symposium, Fote also takes its speaker delegation on a tour of regional farms. “We’ve had five years of Fote and we’ve hosted close to 250 chefs and food industry folk. It’s gratifying to see that they know what the quality of Irish produce is and what Irish food represents,” McMahon enthuses.
There are also plans to shake up the symposium model by hosting smaller forums around the country to increase opportunities for bringing together local producers, chefs, and consumers.
“I think that Irish cuisine is in a good place right now; our food culture is certainly developing. But I think it’s also in a dangerous place in the sense that you don’t want it to become too prescriptive and too alienating,” McMahon adds.
“The idea is to keep getting people to think about Irish food as a cultural experience and how to celebrate what grows locally, while not forgetting all the wonderful food you can get the world over as well. How do we fold those things together and give them both respect? That’s the point of Fote, to bring Irish artisanal producers into the same space as the chef or the industry professional — both local and international — and connect them because then both will grow.”