When you think of St. Patrick’s Day, you most likely think of big hunks of beef and potatoes. The beef is often corned, or salted, to preserve it from the time it is butchered until the time of a big feast. And, the typical accompaniments of root vegetables like cabbage, potatoes and carrots naturally store well if kept in a cool place. In fact, the whole meal is something that can be enjoyed on a chilly March evening at the end of a long winter when there might not be much fresh food around.

The Irish are just one of many cultures around the world who have developed skillful ways of preserving their food. And salt is one of the most common ways to do it.

There you have connection number one to the ocean – the importance of salt to food preservation. Much of the salt used to preserve foods has traditionally been harvested from the ocean by means of evaporation in salt pools.

Salt was incredibly valuable in trading. Here in New England, for example, salt was bought up from the Caribbean islands and used to preserve cod. The islands’ warm climate and trade winds along with naturally existing salt ponds, made salt easy to produce. Then, salt cod, New England’s greatest export, was transported back to the Caribbean and often exchanged for molasses. If you haven’t read Mark Kurlansky’s book, “Cod,” it’s a great read with much more detail on all of this.

Now, for connection number two. You probably don’t think of seafood when you think of St. Patrick’s Day, but seafood is a major part of the Irish diet and has been for centuries. One traditional accompaniment to corned beef and cabbage is cured Irish salmon served with brown bread. The salmon can be smoked or preserved with anything from salt to sugar. I’ve even seen a recipe for salmon cured in Guinness.

There is still a wild fishery for salmon in Ireland, though it is limited to hand harvest techniques in a limited number or rivers and estuaries. This is the result of overfishing, much like we have seen with our wild salmon stocks in Maine.

In fact, we share many of the same marine species with Ireland. The conditions are fairly similar on the other side of the Atlantic – cool waters for fish like Atlantic cod, a rocky coast for blue mussels and rockweeds, and a rugged sea floor full of nooks and crannies for lobster (although theirs is the European lobster, Homarus gammarus, not the American Homarus americanus).

The Irish cod fishery faced a massive decline similar to that in New England, but is now slowly recovering. Another seafood similarity is the prevalence of aquaculture in Ireland. One of Ireland’s major exports is farmed salmon and mussels and growers there have also been working to develop cod aquaculture similar to that in Iceland and Norway.

Now, we are lucky enough to have refrigeration for both our meats and also for our seafood. We even have technology to freeze seafood aboard fishing vessels, leading to the FAS (frozen at sea) designation you may have noticed at the seafood counter.

Nonetheless, the traditional methods persist and salted meat and fish can still be found around the world. So, this St. Patrick’s Day, think about adding a bit of fish to your meal, or at least give some thought to the role that the ocean played in providing the salt to corn your beef.

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