Take a Food Lover’s Trip to Ireland’s Atlantic Coast

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In the Burren region of County Clare, chefs, makers and foragers celebrate the ingredients that grow in their own backyard.

Tavern owner Peter Curtin is holding court in his natural habitat, the 155-year-old Roadside Tavern in Lisdoonvarna, Ireland. Every inch of its worn walls is covered with memorabilia, and the mood here is decidedly mellow. Perhaps the vibe is down to the gruit-style Euphoria beer we’re sipping, in which a selection of wild medicinal herbs, not hops, supplies the brew’s aromatic flourish. It is fruity on the nose, herbaceous and fizzy – almost kombucha-like in its refreshing tartness. “When you drink it,” Curtin says, “it produces a hint of happiness, a ‘life is cool’ effect.”

Stories, song and drink flow freely here in northwest County Clare, which is dominated by the Burren, a 530-square-kilometre expanse of desolate glacial limestone, odd-shaped hills and caves – terrain that looks like it might shelter a hobbit or two. It’s no surprise to discover that J.R.R. Tolkien frequently sojourned at nearby Gregans Castle and, per local lore, injected a bit of the Burren into his novels. Even our beer shares in the mysticism: Curtin climbed the so-called Hill of the Fairies nearby one summer night in 2017 to collect the wild yeast that set it a-fermenting.

September 22, 2020
Oonagh O’Dwyer with seaweed foraged on Lahinch Beach
Oonagh O’Dwyer with seaweed foraged on Lahinch Beach.

This remote corner of Ireland is thriving on renewed interest in ancient traditions, sustainability and a growing maker culture, all set against a rugged Atlantic backdrop. The 200-metre-tall Cliffs of Moher (Ireland’s second most popular attraction) and the Burren National Park share UNESCO Global Geopark status, and are required stops on the 2,500-kilometre Wild Atlantic Way, which wends from Malin Head in the north to Kinsale in the south. But only a fraction of visitors stop long enough, as I have, to get a deeper taste of County Clare. From the riches of the North Atlantic Ocean across the unique terroir of the Burren to the highland farms in East Clare, the county has all the ingredients for an enlightened food odyssey.

The following morning, I drop in on the annual Food Fayre under way at the Lisdoonvarna Enterprise Centre, a short walk from the Roadside Tavern. A few dozen makers hawk craft products like typical Irish brown bread, cheese and delicate wildflower honey scented by the diverse mix of Arctic and Mediterranean flora that thrives on the Burren. This vegetation makes good eating for cattle, too: Mid-autumn, in a tradition dating back millennia, local stocks are moved to higher ground to “winterage” on this warmer, richer pasture.

The Cliffs of Moher in Ireland off the Atlantic Ocean
The Cliffs of Moher rise 200 m out of the Atlantic Ocean, exposing layers of sedimentary rock formed more than 300 million years ago.
Billy Archbold tends bar at the Roadside Tavern
Billy Archbold tends bar at the Roadside Tavern.

As the well-nourished love child of the Burren Ecotourism Network and the Burren Food Trail – preservers of the region’s delicate ecosystem and boosters of its endemic charms – the Fayre has a distinct slow-food slant. I encounter Curtin’s co-conspirator in the Burren Brewery gruit project, a herbalist named Lisa Guinan, who selects the plants that make Euphoria beer the seasonally adapted mood enhancer that it is. Expert in Irish plant medicine, Guinan leads group tours, pointing out handy plant cures: red clover for sweats and coughs, nettle for hay fever and itchy skin, lime blossom and yarrow for happy beer.

Over behind the demo kitchen, chef Robbie McCauley of nearby Gregans Castle Hotel (Tolkien’s one-time crash pad is now a luxury gourmand destination) slips me a taste of his Flaggy Shore Dainties oyster dish, topped with horseradish cream, lovage oil and caviar and dotted with brown-bread crisps – a single bite encapsulating the full diversity of the Burren larder. Delicious food, it turns out, is much more common here than it was during the 1980s bust years, and has evolved through the repopularization of all the good things that grow close at hand.

Herbalist Lisa Guinan covered in sunlight holding a plant stalk
Two donkeys standing by the fence on an Ennistymon farm
Herbalist Lisa Guinan knows a cure for what’s ailing you.
Donkeys on a farm in Ennistymon.

One of the most abundant, if less obvious, crops in County Clare is seaweed. In the golf and surf playground of Lahinch Beach, I meet up with Oonagh O’Dwyer, who offers guided foraging walks and cooking workshops through her business, Wild Kitchen. She harvests 14 different types of seaweed in all – ideally just after a full moon, when the low “spring tide” reveals a lush undersea garden.

The day is grey and drizzly, but O’Dwyer is easy to spot in a red puffer coat crowned with her flame-coloured hair. We set off toward some long, flat rocks with bucket and shears in hand. “We call this kombu royale or sugar kelp,” she says, pointing to long, brown, ruffle-edged blades. Although O’Dwyer likes to roll whole mackerel in the giant leaves and grill them on the barbecue, most harvested kelp is used for fertilizer, animal feed or to make iodine dye.

Gathering sugar kelp on the beach in Ireland
Sugar kelp gathered on the beach.
People enjoying a cloudy day on Lahinch Beach
Sand-swept Lahinch Beach at the south end of the Burren region is a popular surf spot – when conditions are right.

We gather laver, known as nori in Japan and sliocháin in West Clare, where it was traditionally used in celebratory spring feasts or as a nutritious cabbage substitute. “It’s 40-percent protein,” O’Dwyer tells me. She shows me how to sustainably harvest the seaweed by cutting each long sheet about one-third of the way from its holdfast on the rocks.

Our bucket full, we stop in at Market House in Ennistymon, a cozy craft butcher shop and café, where we’re greeted by owner Fiona Haugh. The meat sold here comes from her family farm, and she offers me a plate of ruby-red beef carpaccio with shaved Parmesan. The meat is rich and salty – hallmarks of the Burren winterage pasture. O’Dwyer, meanwhile, has rustled up a delicious seaweed-centric lunch: clamshells filled with tamari-simmered sugar kelp; bright green “sea spaghetti” seaweed marinated in lemon juice and finished with sesame oil; iron-rich sea lettuce and cabbage kimchi; and oven-roasted dulse chips. The bright and briny flavours give “seafood” a whole other meaning.

Flan Garvey standing outside the St. Tola goat cheese shop
St. Tola goat cheeses being sliced on a wooden cutting board
Say cheese: Flan Garvey (the cheesemaker’s father) outside the St. Tola goat cheese farm shop.
St. Tola cheeses are made from the milk of Saanen, Toggenburg and British Alpine goats that graze Burren pasturelands, feeding on wildflowers.

The next afternoon, a misty air of tranquility hovers over the Irish Seed Savers Association, tucked away on a 20-acre plot in East County Clare. There is a 175-variety heritage apple orchard here and a seed bank with more than 600 varieties of organic, open-pollinated seeds – these are non-hybrids that have reproduced naturally and true to type over generations. Tansy Watson, who handles market development for the association, explains what makes heritage seeds so special: They are prized for preserving vibrant flavours from an earlier, pre-industrialized era, with names evoking specific places, like Tipperary turnip, and families, like Uncle John’s kale. Preserved in a Cork man’s garden for 50 years, the brassica is now homegrown throughout Ireland.

Squash, pumpkin and tomatoes are arrayed on long tables in a glass-enclosed workroom where I witness seed saving in action: A worker gently rolls a short pin over blue-green winter leek flowers to squeeze out their kernels. Other boxes hold red berry-like asparagus seeds, tiny endive seeds and white beans drying. Any remaining moisture is removed from the seeds before they are placed in temperature- and humidity-controlled refrigerators for safekeeping.

Eoin Keane tending to the Irish Seed Savers Association’s heritage apple orchard
Eoin Keane tending to the Irish Seed Savers Association’s heritage apple orchard.
Five multi-coloured glass gem corn
Eoin Keane tending to the Irish Seed Savers Association’s heritage apple orchard.
More than 600 varieties of seed are preserved for safekeeping by the association, including this glass gem corn.

Watson tells me that every year, the association sells 2,000 to 3,000 bare-root apple trees to people across Ireland and hosts a one-day cider-making workshop in the fall. In this remote setting and all across the county, it seems, folks are working to re-establish some form of time-tested knowledge or another.

After tea and scones in the association’s café, Watson sends me off with a packet of sacred basil seeds – a hardier version of the herb for me to try back at home – and a bottle of the Seed Savers’ own organic apple juice, or sú úll orgánach.

When I open the juice later, I find the heritage orchard in a bottle, lush and layered, with a beguiling natural sweetness. I savour my last, best taste of Ireland, and the seed is planted: I know I’ll have to try it all over again.

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