Before Potatoes, Irish Food Was All About Milk

The centuries-long marriage between Ireland and the potato is known throughout the world, when the Irish Potato Famine caused about a million Irish to perish due to a lack of their main crop (via History). Irish potato dishes remain an indispensable part of the country's cuisine, but it's curious to consider what the Irish lived on before potatoes were brought overseas from the New World. After all, the first inhabitants of Ireland arrived around eight thousand years ago, while the potato only came about in the 16th century, per Irish Central.

The potato became a staple for the Irish for a reason: it didn't require much space and grew plentifully in the country's rugged, often challenging terrain. But before the potato's arrival, the Irish depended on something entirely different, dairy. From curds to milk to cheese, dairy was vital for pre-potato Ireland. There is an abundance of evidence attesting to this, including archaeological discoveries of dairy pots and literary accounts of dairy-based diets. A.T. Lucas' "Irish Food Before the Potato" found the mention of poisoned faiscre grotha, or "pressed curd," as early as the fifth century in an account of an attempt to kill St. Patrick. Thus, dairy has been a part of Irish culture for a very long time indeed.

White foods or banbidh

The Irish diet so heavily revolved around dairy that there was a catch-all term for dairy products: banbidh, which means white foods, or sometimes referred to as whitemeat in literature, according to "Irish Food Before the Potato." Lucas explains that milk was crucial to keep in the home due to the cultural importance of hospitality. Milk was offered as a refreshment, and its significant role is highlighted by accounts of saints offering milk to guests. These "white foods" were typically formed from curds (often cheese), whether they came from boiling the milk and adding buttermilk or rennet, as Lucas states.

We can also see the prevalence of dairy products in Irish mythology, particularly in the story of Queen Maeve's death. Irish Central recounts the well-known tale in which Queen Maeve was killed by her nephew by replacing a stone in his sling with a hard piece of cheese. "Irish Food Before the Potato" further traces the evolution of Irish dairy in the use of garlic-flavored butter and onion-flavored butter, which goes back to the 12th century.

When the potato reached Ireland around 1590, this dairy-based diet stayed prominent amongst the elite, while the general population resorted, almost entirely, to the new, starchy vegetable. Lucas refers to the introduction of the potato as an "ethnographical disaster" for the country, but the potato gave way to traditional dishes like colcannon that combine Ireland's millennia-old love of dairy with its new favorite crop.