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The Greening of The Emerald Isle

A St. Patrick’s Day visit from Southern Maryland to Southern Ireland

America goes green on St. Patrick’s Day. From beer to dress to hair (and once upon a time, the Chicago River), green is the color of choice.
     In putting on the green, we’re not alone. St. Patrick’s stomping grounds is doing its own greening, returning to its roots to recapture a way of life and an economy rising from the Old Sod.

Maryland’s Irish Roots

From the O’Malleys to folks whose Irish taps no
deeper than a pint of Guinness, we Marylanders all
share Irish roots.
   Our claim is staked on Cecil Calvert, founder of the
Maryland colony.
   Calvert was a titled guy in the vein of Robert Crawley.
Just as Crawley is Lord Grantham, patriarch of
Downton Abbey, Calvert was Lord Baltimore. Cecil’s
father George bought the title Lord Baltimore — and
Lord Proprietor of Maryland — from King Charles I.
Like their king, the Catholic Calverts were Englishmen
who lived mostly on that British isle. But the Calvert
landed baronetcy, Baltimore, is as Irish as St. Patrick.
   Our Baltimore’s Irish namesake is a tiny maritime village on Ireland’s southwest coast, pointed
straight into the North Atlantic.

     With weeds and locally adapted seeds, with Atlantic salmon and tidepool cockles and mussels, with heritage cattle and mountain-browsing sheep, Ireland is raising the green flag of food independence. In supermarkets and trendy restaurants, IRISH ORIGIN is the motto. Eat out, and you’ll have such choices as roast rib of Irish beef, tenderly cooked collar of Irish bacon from Crowes Farm, Jane Russell pork sausages, tender roast leg of Irish spring lamb, Dublin Bay prawns, honey-baked Limerick ham, Irish brie and Irish cabbage.
     “Getting food as locally sourced as possible is the aim of every restaurant that takes itself seriously — and at least a decent percent of locals,” says John McKenna, author of the McKennas’ Guides, including the 100 Best Places to Stay and to Eat in Ireland.
     It’s enough to turn America’s locavores green with envy.
     To see Ireland’s greening, travel with me this St. Patrick’s Day into the countryside of the Irish village of Baltimore. The trip is no farther than from our own Baltimore to Solomons. We’ll make three stops, then have a drink in Dublin.

Ballymaloe Cooking School
     At Ballymaloe Cooking School, Darina Allen is leading a roots search. An international flock has paid a pretty price — $270 a head — to forage in the company of the fast-walking empress of Ireland’s greening. Shod in rubber boots and carrying baskets on their arms, the gaggle is learning all about weeds. Their heads and baskets fill with bittercress and comfrey, spruce and borage, perennial leek and tansy, chickweed, sweet Cecily and sorrel. Each weed has a distinction and many values.
     “The queen had bittercress in a salad for her 90th birthday,” Allen declares. “Feverfew has a terrible taste but helps with migraines,” while chickweed — the scourge of Maryland gardens — “is sold in the markets at a high price.”
     Our grandparents knew all these weeds, Allen tells her followers. After World War II, Ireland — just like America — got out of touch with farm and field. Packaged and processed foods swept in on a wave of advertising. The next couple of generations ate out of boxes, bags and cans.
     Now the tide is turning.
     Philosophy is guiding people back to food close to home. The reasons are many: energy costs of long-distance transportation; loss of freshness, nutrients and taste; and the knowledge that, with chemicals, hormones and other additives, including GMOs — which worry the Irish far more than they do Americans — strange food can be very strange indeed.
     Economic potential is another part of Ireland’s greening.
     “A good economy starts from agriculture, as we’ve realized since our economy imploded in 2008,” Allen told me. “So we take the language of the supermarket — USP, Unique Selling Point — and make ours as local as possible.”
     In her restaurant and cooking school — and in her books and the long-running television cookery program that’s made Allen Ireland’s Julia Child — Allen has proved locality a profitable USP.
     Profitable and tasty.

Brown Envelope Seeds
     A hop, skip and a jump from Baltimore near the town of Skibbereen, Madeline McKeever and Mike Sweeney are growing Ireland’s future from seed. Their company — Brown Envelope Seeds — is very small. Its range is larger than “a few miles,” but not much bigger than southern Ireland. Their field is a backyard garden of perhaps an acre plus a greenhouse. The help is a pair of donkeys, a couple of dogs and humans as needed.
     In that space, McKeever grows some 200 plants for seed. All the seeds she grows are chosen for a narrow geographic, geological and climate range, most are ones whose names you’ve never heard, like Tommy Toe. A few, like Brandywine, are familiar.
     All seeds are open-pollinated — as opposed to selectively inbred — to increase their genetic diversity. Genetic diversity, McKeever tells me as a donkey looks on, “means seeds that are sensitive to the environment and capable of adaptation to diverse soil types, climates, diseases and other environmental factors.”
     McKeever’s garden is the testing ground. “Growing through the worse summer on record has been a great way to select seeds for the Irish climate,” she says. She trialed seven varieties of quinoa, for example, before finding the right one.
     For regular gardeners, going to seed ends the harvest. For McKeever, seeds are the point. The cabbage she wants is bloated big as a beach ball and hairy with seed sprouts. After seed plants are selected, the others go to the family table or freezer.
     When a plant’s seeds are ripe, McKeever covers some plants above and spreads out a tarp below to catch falling seeds. Other plants are shaken in bags. Seeds are sifted for chafe, packaged in brown envelopes and sold at the Skibbereen Farmers Market and by mail. Envelopes are about $3.25.
     McKeever’s part in Ireland’s greening is creating a Grow-It-Yourself network from seed.

Clare Watson and Quentin Gargan
     Up the coast in Bantry, County Cork’s green hills begin to break into the stony wild lands. Replacing cattle in the fields are horned mountain sheep that can put up with cold, wind and rain. Grass is standard fare for Quentin Gargan’s flock, so when his whistle announces a feast of Irish oats, the sheep come running.
     With sheep, chickens and a sod roof, Gargan and Watson’s home — and its long six-foot-wide hedged lane — could be old Ireland. Except for the two 21st century-style windmills and the all-electric Citroen C-Zero that Watson drives.
     With one foot in the old world and the other in the future, the pair are longtime pioneers of the greening of Ireland. Nowadays Gargan is a wind entrepreneur, from his home supplying technology to wind farms around the world.
     Household windmills like Gargan’s are still something of an oddity in Ireland, but wind is an established part of the national energy mix providing from four to 44 percent of total energy consumption. Contributing to the mix are hydropower, biomass, peat, gas, coal, oil, waste and imports, including nuclear power generated in Europe.
     For Gargan, Ireland’s Smart Grid is one more tool to a greener economy and lifestyle. Watson plugs in her car at the end of the day, but the way they’ve got their meter programmed, electricity doesn’t flow to it — or their other big household power consumers — until the middle of the night. “By day, Ireland uses expensive nationally produced wind power,” Gargan tells me. “At night, we buy cheap European nuclear power.”
     In Maryland, Smart Meters are still such a worrisome innovation that Del. Glen Glass is promoting a bill to protect consumers from them.

Green Drinks in Dublin
     I’m feeling pretty green by the time I reach Dublin, so at Coppinger Row — one of the McKennas’ Guides 100 Best Places to Eat — I drink green. Not green beer — that’s an American specialty. Here I order a Flo & Basy, a concoction of Beefeater gin, St Germain Elderflower liquor, agave nectar, fresh lime juice and pureed Irish basil. It’s so good I have another, along with Irish pork belly with Irish spring greens.