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Award-winning food and travel writer Valerie Howes explores Ireland's acclaimed food culture, with Sligo's gastronomic scene in particular tingling tastebuds.

Cloudspotting is the act of gazing dreamily at passing clouds. “Don’t attempt to do it while driving,” warns Hans Wieland, founder of the Irish Cloud Appreciation Society. “That can be very dangerous.”

Ireland lends itself well to this pursuit. As we tour the Organic Centre in Rossinver, County Leitrim, it’s actually distracting how often the cloud formations morph in the background behind Hans. The light and shadows keep shifting across his face as he shows us hawthorns, alpine strawberries, elderflower and tomatoes with names like Furry Yellow Hog, Freckled Child and Shady Lady.

Our cloud-loving guide is also the driving force behind the Organic Centre, a hub for experimentation and learning about sustainable horticulture, open to chefs, culinary students, locals and visitors. Here you can take classes on everything from raw food “uncooking” to grafting fruit trees to building drystone walls. If you’re coming from far away, staff at the centre will connect you with a local B&B that shares their eco values.

In the half hour I spend here, I learn that wild lovage makes a good stand-in for celery, that willow sap rubbed into the temples cures a headache, and that daisy stalks are great in salads – they taste like sweet chives. But my biggest takeaway? For the sake of our health and happiness – and 
maybe even world peace – we should spend as much time as possible lying on the grass, looking for monsters, countries and funny faces in the sky.

 
  • Image courtesy of Valerie Howes
 

SPAGHETTI OF THE SEA

Land-and-Sea Spaghetti is a revelation to me. I twirl this blend of regular pasta and skinny seaweed strands on my fork at a little restaurant called By the Sea, in Mullaghmore, County Sligo, where chef-owner Eithna O’Sullivan serves it with chunks of tender lobster. Seaweed spaghetti is a stringy, olive-green sea vegetable that grows in fronds on sloping rocks in rougher waters. It’s chock-full of calcium, magnesium, iron and fibre and on its own makes an excellent gluten-free replacement to wheat-based pasta.

Eithna’s menus are built around seaweed ingredients; she makes everything from pesto to smoothies with it for her diners. Having changed my diet over the last year to rev up an underactive thyroid, I’m already sold on the benefits of iodine-rich dulse and kelp. And after a chat over lunch with Eithna’s friend and neighbour Prannie Rhatigan – a family doctor and the author of Irish Seaweed Kitchen – I’m even more in love with sea vegetables.

She explains that bladderwrack seaweed is emerging as the medicine of the future for dementia, and that all seaweeds have exceptional anti-cancer, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties. A short while later, it’s with a belly full of the green stuff that I step into my seaweed bath at Voya, in nearby Strandhill, a pretty coastal village popular with surfers. There I lie and soak for around 45 minutes in a deep tub filled with warm water and strands of kelp. It’s like having your own private ocean pool – minus the jellyfish and hermit crabs.

Just before getting out, as instructed by staff before the session, I squeeze the gel from the seaweed and rub it into my body and scalp. I emerge with soft skin, silky hair, tension-free muscles and the overwhelming desire to splurge on take-home treatments so I can always feel this way.

 
  • Image courtesy of Valerie Howes
 

DELICIOUS DINING

Come evening time, I’m sipping tea in the drawing room at Coopershill House in Riverstown, County Sligo. House is an understatement. I feel like a Downton Abbey extra in this 18th-century family property, run by seventh-generation host Simon O’Hara and his partner, Christina McCauley, as I chat to a couple from Austin, Texas, who’ve been coming here for the past 20 years.

As we move to the dining room, Simon apologises for Padraig the peacock’s twilight squawking – he likes to think of himself as defender of the property. To me, the presence of a guard bird scores Coopershill extra charm points. 

The venison we have for dinner was raised on the property. The greens were picked from the kitchen garden. The Irish crystal on the table has been in the family for years. You really get a sense of place at Coopershill House, where history, sustainable values and local flavours come together seamlessly.

Simon pops in frequently to answer questions about his relatives in the oil paintings, his travels as a guide in South Africa and his work as a deer farmer. His presence makes the experience. When we’re loading up the car the next morning, he’ll come to the front door to wave goodbye with Christina and their baby, Finn.

As we drive away, relaxed and refreshed, past the grazing deer, I come to the conclusion that one night in a four-poster bed at Coopershill House is equivalent to one afternoon of cloudspotting, in therapeutic benefits.

One thing's for sure, Sligo is for dreamers.
 

VALERIE HOWES

Valerie Howes is an award-winning Canadian food and travel writer who shares stories about people with a passion for food and communities built around food.

@valhowes
facebook.com/valsopenkitchen

 
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