EUGENE DALY continues his series on various aspects of Irish folklore and customs
Brothahán, or broth, was an integral part of the diet in early Ireland. The early broths were little more than oatmeal boiled with water, milk and herbs. Meat was seldom added as it rarely entered the diet of the poor, but in coastal areas seaweeds, such as carrageen (carraigín), dulse (duileasc), sloke (sleabhahán) and pepper dulse (míobhar), were often included.
Apart from simple broths, soup did feature largely in the diet of the ordinary folk, but it was certainly a much more important item on the menu of the big houses and ‘strong’ farmers.
One of the most famous of these broths was made with leeks and was called Brotchán Roy, meaning ‘a broth fit for a king’ (Roy derives from Rí, the Irish for king). Popular vegetable in the early medieval period were a variety of onion, leeks, chives and possibly a type of celery.
Nettles (neantóga) made their appearance almost six thousand years ago as the first farmers started to cut down forest trees for their crop cultivation. In the ‘Saints’ Lives’ from the ‘Book of Lismore’, there is a story of how St. Colmcille came upon a woman cutting nettles to make herself a pottage.
She explained that this was her diet until her cow calved, when, of course, she would have milk, cream, butter and perhaps some cheese.
Nettles are a great cleanser of the blood and are often eaten in early summer when the leaves are young and fresh. With their high iron content, nettles were prominent in Irish folk medicine. When making nettle soup, other ingredients are used, such as butter, potatoes, onions, leeks and cream.