On Tuesday, April 26, the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) hosts its Annual Gala at Capitale — the event, which raises money for the Institute, and its various historic preservation, education and research projects around the world, is themed each year around a specific region’s history (last year food and drink were Peruvian-themed, while the event honored archaeologist Martha Joukowsky for her work at Jordan’s cliff temple Petra). This year’s theme is Ireland, with an exploration of ancient Irish relics, music, poetry, dance, food (and yes) drink.
Chef Cathal Armstrong, the Dublin-born owner of Restaurant Eve in Washington DC teamed with Capital Executive Chef Jason Munger and AIA archaeologist Dr. Ben Thomas to create a meal using ingredients available (and probably used) in ancient Celtic Ireland (no potatoes, boys, those didn’t show up until the 1500s). We caught up with Chef Armstrong to chat about the meal and libations that will accompany the evening’s presentations, performances and amazing auction.
NYDrinksExaminer: How did you get involved with this event?
Cathal Armstrong: I got an email about a month or so asking if I was interested in participating. Because it promotes Ireland [ed. Tourism Ireland and Culture Ireland are involved this year], it was a big reason for me to participate. Also as kids, we’re brought up with a lot of history, because there’s so much around us in Ireland – Newgrange [a massive stone tomb dating to about 3100 BC) is about 50 minutes from where I grew up. It’s always exciting to say, “You know there’s a burial site in Ireland that’s older than they pyramids. It’s a good conversation piece.”
NYDE: So you already had some interest in Ireland’s ancient history.
CE: There’s a spot in Ireland called Wood Quay, an ancient viking settlement in Dublin that got turned into an office building. They removed a lot of finds from the site and moved it to Dublin Castle. We ended up with a box with a couple of remnants, and my father put a note reminding us of the historic importance of these bits and pieces of things. We were brought up, I think, with a proper reverence for anything ancient, and of historic significance.
NYDE: What kind of research did you do to create a Contemporary Celtic menu?
CE: [AIA archaeologist Dr. Ben Thomas] sent me some information and a list of ingredients used by the Celts at the time [ed. including honey, mead, mutton, turnips, carrots, barley and mackeral]. Significantly, of course, they didn’t have potatos. From there I started doing more research on the ingredients: The Internet is useful [Laughs]. Our family has been to the tourist venue outside of Shannon–Banratty Castle–where they do a “historic” Earl’s Banquet. but really it’s mostly meat, and then touristy and gimmicky. I wanted this to be a serious menu using the ingredients they had in those times. It kind of reflects modern Irish cuisine, where global techniques are used, but with ingredients indigenous to Ireland.
NYDE: “Modern Irish Cuisine” may throw some people for a loop.
CE: Being from Ireland, this is of course a sensitve topic. So many people have this notion there is no food in Ireland. There’s an automatic assumption that everything’s boiled and overcooked. Certainly in the past 400 or 500 years or so that was true. Because of the limitations caused by the occupation of the English, they didn’t really have the raw material to build a cuisine. But we do know the Celts had a wide palate from which to draw. There’s a limited amount of written history, but it’s believed they might have originated in northern Italy, sacked Rome, were chased out, and finally settled in Brittany, Wales, Ireland, Scotland. A lot of their mythology and the tales we learned as children are wrapped around food.
The Celts had a rich culinary tradition: Wine, olive oil, cheese from goats, sheep and cows, a wide abundance of seafood, mackeral, shellfish, and plenty of meats including venison, wild boar and sheep. There’s plenty of evidience they used wild flowers, wild garlic, dandelion greens.
NYDE: So how did the menu end up reflecting all your research?
CE: I really want to achieve was the feeling of history and culture in the menu. It don’t know it’s always possible to capture that with food. I want to get across that the Celts were using wild things from the earth. I want to focus the first dish [Smoked Mackeral Salad with wild garlic, dandelion greens and pickled fennel] with the smokiness of the fire that everything would have been cooked on, then the wild greens, garlic and flowers, so you get the smokiness and the feeling of the wild mountainside. When it came to the main course [Braised Lamb Shoulder with root vegetables and barley wild flower honey cakes], the peasants would have eaten barley as porridge, and it would have been a huge staple of their diet. Wealthier folks would have used wheat flour. So I did want to incorporate the barley. We’re using our own barley flour and trying to keep the whole smoked, rustic feel. And they were definitely using olive oil in ancient times. something we don’t always think about.
For dessert, even though we’re making creme brulee which they weren’t eating in ancient times, I still wanted to keep the feeling of that wild, barren landscape you see in Ireland, using the wild berries and apples. Overall what I’m trying to get across in the menu is the wilderness and the wild feel of what it would have been like in those times, but still keep it elegant.
Although Chef Armstrong wasn’t behind the drinks menu, you’ll find nods to both ancient and Modern Ireland there as well. Guests can enjoy a mead (fermented honey and spices) tasting provided by the Long Island Meadery. In addition, you can’t really celebrate Ireland without Irish whiskey. Guests will have the chance to savor Connemara Peated Single Malt, Knappogue Castle 12 Year, Kilbeggan 15 Year, Bushmill 16 Year and more.
The Archaeological Institute of America Annual Gala takes place Tuesday, April 26 at Capitale (130 Bowery). The event will include both a silent auction and bidding auction for trips, wine and spirits and more to raise money for the AIA to provide antiquities education, preservation and research around the world. Actor Gabriel Byrne will host and underwater archaeologist George F. Bass will be honored. For tables, tickets and more information, visit archaeological.org.
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