Apple tarts, Carrageen moss, barmbrack, jelly and ice-cream: we've a long and delicious list of Irish desserts and cake to choose from when it comes to sweet things. But just what exactly makes a dessert an Irish dessert? Dr Máirtin Mac Con Iomaire from the School of Culinary Arts and Food Technology at TU Dublin joined Petula Martyn on the Ray D'Arcy Show on RTÉ Radio 1 recently to discuss our puddings and cakes. (This piece includes excerpts from the conversation which have been edited for length and clarity - you can hear the discussion in full above).
First of all, what makes a dessert an Irish dessert? "Defining an Irish dessert depends on what you decide is Irish, and at what stage of Irish history you're talking about", says Mac Con Iomare. "If I'm thinking of growing up in the Seventies and Eighties in my home with my mother, I think of apple tart for sure. It was not just any apple tart, it's an apple tart that my mother always put cloves in. It had a real flaky pastry. To this day, I have that madeleine moment when I taste a slice of me mother's tart.
"But if you went back further, maybe 200 years or something like that, you had different things. This idea about what an Irish dessert is, it's very difficult because it depends on time, it depends on place, it depends on class, it depends on geography, it depends on everything.
One very traditional Irish dessert would be Carrageen moss. "It's a type of seaweed", explains Mac Con Iomaire. "You harvest it at low tide, then you have to wash it in lots of cold water, and dry it out in the sun and bleach it. Once it's dried, it lasts for quite a long time, and basically it sets milk. You cook some milk, maybe put a little bit of lemon rind or something in the milk to flavor it, then bit of sugar, set it with the Carrageen moss, and that's it. It's basically a version of an Irish panna cotta as such.
"It's also meant to be very, very good for you, very good for your stomach. It's got iodine in it and all that sort of stuff. You would probably traditionally serve it with some compote and all that sort of stuff, or some form of jam or fruits"
The barmbrack and traditional fruitcakes are also very much our own desserts. "Barmbrack is definitely Irish", says Mac Con Iomaire. "Barmbrack gets its name from bairin breac. Bairin is the Irish for load and breac means speckled so the little currents in the barmbrack make it a speckled loaf. We associate it with Halloween, along with the champ, and other food like that.
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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, Ann Marie Dunne from the School of Culinary Arts and Food Technology at TU Dublin on iconic desserts
"Between the porter cakes, the Christmas cake and Simnel cake at Easter, there's a lot of these traditional fruitcakes that would have been a way to preserve eggs and preserve fruit over the long winter. The hens would have not laid at winter time before we had rural electrification so these foods were forms of preservation."
Some of the desserts we think of as traditional are actually a lot more recent than we think. "Crumble is quite a relatively new thing, from around the time of the Second World War, and there doesn't seem to be a huge history of crumbles before that", says Mac Con Iomaire.
"If you have a tart, it could be an apple tart, rhubarb tart, blackberry tart, gooseberry tart, apple and blackberry tart. Sometimes, they used to put ginger with rhubarb. There's certain sort of spices and stuff that go with certain fruits or certain desserts, that are very sort of traditionally Irish you could say. Things like caraway seeds have a certain nuance, particularly up or down the northwestern counties of Ireland. I remember my granny used to always put caraway seeds in scones.
"Think of fresh Wexford strawberries, just mixed with fresh Irish cream and broken up meringues. I'm sure you have had it, it's dessert done in a second. You couldn't beat it. A lot of people used to eat the various milk puddings, particularly anyone who went to boarding school or had any sort of institutional catering. They would remember rice puddings or semolina or any of these sort of milk-type puddings that were a great way of getting some nutrients in you, filling you up, and all that sort of stuff, and yet they were quite cheap."