You know the old saying about Irish food -- that it's a lot like English food, only less tasty. And for a long time, that was true.
Ireland is known for hearty, simple meals -- corned beef, lamb stew, oatcakes, those enormous fried egg-and-bacon breakfasts, and nutty brown soda bread. It is also known, less appealingly, for vegetables cooked to a soft gray, a lot of porridge, and potatoes with every meal.
Over the past 10 years or so, though, much has changed. Dublin has grown more cosmopolitan, as has its cuisine. A few years ago, I had dinner at an Italian-Iranian restaurant in the Temple Bar neighborhood, served by a waitress who spoke only German. (The Middle Eastern chef had to come out from the kitchen to take our order.) And that sophistication has migrated to other cities -- Cork, Galway and beyond.
There is a vibrant and growing local-foods movement in Ireland, as well, with chefs concentrating on fresh salmon and lamb, organic fruits and vegetables, fabulous butter from County Kerry and lovely artisan cheeses.
"The Country Cooking of Ireland," by Colman Andrews (Chronicle Books, 383 pages, $50), brings all of these food worlds together. OK, not the mushy vegetables, but everything else.
This beautiful big book draws on Ireland's history, with traditional dishes brought up to date and put into context -- both historical and regional. (There are differences, for instance, between Dingle Pies, Donegal Pie, and Fermanagh Bacon and Potato Pie.)
The large-format cookbook is as beautifully illustrated as a travel book, with full-page color photographs of seashore, pastures, bumpy cottages and Big Houses.
Each chapter, and every recipe, begins with a historic note, a tidbit of information, or a quotation. Dublin coddle, for instance, a sort of bacon and sausage stew, was a favorite of Jonathan Swift's and might date to Viking days. And Wicklow pancakes are really more frittata than pancake.
While you might wrinkle your nose at the "offal" chapter, the others will have you jotting a shopping list -- or possibly booking a flight to Dublin.
Just imagine: Lamb's liver in whiskey cream sauce, smoked cod and Irish Cheddar soufflé, battered sausages, broiled salmon with butter and honey, Guinness cake, Dublin Bay prawns with garlic and herbs, potted shrimp, Michaelmas Goose.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune's books editor. She is at 612-673-7302.