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Primal Palate: Meet the People Raiding Nature’s Larder



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Food traditions on the Wild Atlantic Way are as old as the hills and yet, as fresh as those sea breezes. A trip along the route introduces you to pure, invigorating waters, lush mountains and rivers that rush with life and energy; all of which influence the taste and quality of its spectacular food.

This sea-sculpted area borders some of the world’s coldest waters, producing a delicious bounty of fish and shellfish. On land, herds of sheep graze in patchwork fields, on hillsides and heathery mountains. Creamy butter and flavoursome cheeses are produced from the rich, rain-soaked grass the cows happily feed upon.

Linking land, sea and all of these flavours are the passionate, hard-working farmers and food producers who seamlessly sew an enriching coastal tapestry. Their work supplies the local shops, cafés and restaurants, while the open-farm approach many have in welcoming visitors allows anyone to come and learn about their food provenance, culture and craft.

Meeting the people who produce, craft and cook this food is an exceptional experience in itself, as it reveals the heart and soul of the localities that jigsaw together to make the Wild Atlantic Way what it is.

 
  • Shellfish right on the doorstep of restaurants.
 

Fishing Boat to Fork

 

Áine Maguire runs The Idle Wall in Westport, County Mayo and speaks with passion and pride for the local west coast producers who supply her kitchen. “This is most definitely an Irish restaurant with Irish food, and Irish food has always been an interest of mine. The Wild Atlantic Way is such an unspoiled part of the world, the water is so clean. We have oysters, scallops, clams and mussels on our doorstep. Slowly, people are beginning to realise the beauty, the quality and the wealth of produce that we have here.”

With the perks of a coastal location leaving very few miles between fishing boat and fork, it’s little wonder The Idle Wall’s fish and shellfish are so popular. “I have oysters that are picked that morning that are cooked that evening, I have fish that comes in that was caught the night before or picked up that morning. It is that freshness that makes the difference - you can’t get that in other places. For example, the person who brings my oysters, he comes back every three days and takes the ones that I haven’t sold and puts them back in the ocean and replaces them for me. I only have that because of my proximity to this beautiful clean water.” 


And it’s not just about what’s on your plate, there’s the story of how it got there too. As well as the restaurant, Maguire runs food tours where you can meet local producers and get a real feel for their expertise. She says that you can get a truly authentic, interactive experience on the Wild Atlantic Way through its food. “I think any place where you have small producers makes it a unique food destination… We want people to have an authentic experience... [so] that they really see this beautiful landscape that is very rich in food.”

 
  • Harvesting oysters at Galway Bay
 

The Wild Atlantic Way is such an unspoiled part of the world, the water is so clean. We have oysters, scallops, clams and mussels on our doorstep

 

Destination Delicious

 

Anthony Gray, chair of the Sligo Food Trail, knows that the county boasts a wealth of palate-wowing local produce and demonstrates it via some fascinating food tours. “We have great artisan produce - shellfish, fantastic dairy and with our stunning location on the Wild Atlantic Way, we have so many things to offer. I want to showcase that to tourists and also to Sligo people.” 

Gray says the focus of his own restaurant, Éala Bán in Sligo Town, is on local and fresh ingredients. The chilly northwest Atlantic waters produce scores of fresh fish, from exceptional salmon to luxurious lobster and crab. 

“Sligo is ‘Sligeach’ in Irish, which comes from the Gaeilge word ‘shell’ and we pride ourselves on the fantastic shellfish that we have here in Sligo. Ireland is renowned for its fresh fish and we don’t push ourselves enough when it comes to the amazing seafood that we have. It’s the best in the world.” 

Gray hopes that the future of food along the Wild Atlantic Way will see more restaurants seek out local producers, and importantly, highlight and credit them on their menus. 

“When people start explaining to consumers where the product is from, everyone benefits. I see my customer’s eyes light up when I tell them that I was out at the market buying edible flowers or where my cheese is from and who makes my bread. If we all do that we are on the right track to showcase, not just Sligo, but Ireland as a food destination. Ireland is one of the finest food destinations in the world, we just have to tell our story better.” 

There is a heavenly larder of food to indulge in all along the Wild Atlantic Way, from cheese, to honey, shellfish, fruit, vegetables, beef and lamb, craft beers and whiskey, it all comes with a depth of flavour we can thank the natural surroundings for. “We take it for granted every day, but international tourists don’t really know what we have on our doorsteps. People want the rugged, raw experience and that’s what we have here; absolute raw beauty and wildness. You will see real Ireland and have a fresh food experience on the food trail, or anywhere the Wild Atlantic Way,” enthuses Gray.

 
 
Oysters fresh from the ocean
 

Oysters Away

 

One of the jewels in the Irish culinary crown is, of course, the coveted and mysterious oyster. The North Atlantic’s delicious oysters are globally gobbled up thanks to their purity and clean, fresh taste. Frank Carter from the Wild Atlantic Oyster Company, which represents three oyster producers and a Sligo Bay hatchery, says the area’s unique waters and long history of oyster farming illustrate the coast’s renowned reputation for these shelled delicacies. 

“There was a very long tradition of oyster farming in Sligo Bay. On the Lissadell Estate where the Gore-Booths were landlords, they actually cultivated oysters and were exporting to the London market where, apparently, even today the term ‘Lissadell oyster’ has resonance in some restaurants,” says Carter. 

While we might like more heat in our sunshine, the west coast climate is just what the oyster ordered. “When something grows in a colder climate or conditions, it develops more slowly and has a stronger quality of product”, says Carter. “That’s not just unique to Sligo, the waters would be at a similar temperature in all bays along the west coast.” 

“Even though oysters have a mystique about them, they are very available and very accessible as a great food experience on the Wild Atlantic Way,” says Carter. 

With an appetite something that’s easily worked up on the Wild Atlantic Way, food aficionados can find infinite ways to feast along the route. True tastes of the Atlantic and the coastal landscape it so influences, are varied, accessible and authentic. With (at least!) three meals to look forward to each day, the Wild Atlantic Way’s food experiences are often as memorable as the scenery and sights.

 
 
Seaweed harvested fresh from the Atlantic Ocean
 

Seaweed Wonders

 

Over in picturesque Connemara, Sinead O’Brien knows all about the life-affirming properties the Atlantic can deliver. O’Brien created Mungo Murphy's Seaweed Co. to compliment her mother’s land-based Abalone shellfish farm in Galway. “As a teenager we were always dragged down to the beach to get seaweed to feed the Abalone. I studied for a year in Amsterdam and while I was there I felt quite landlocked and really missed the Atlantic. When I got home I suddenly saw seaweed in a new light and started experimenting with kelp, and then with the other types - sea spaghetti, dillisk and Carrageen moss.” 

Her exceptional produce, which is harvested in Ros a Mhíl, now supplies some of the country’s top restaurants. And it’s not just the edible elements of seaweed O’Brien works with, she also creates natural beauty products comprised of dried seaweed, an increasingly popular beauty remedy. 

O’Brien understands that people can be nervous of trying seaweed because of the many misconceptions about it. “Traditionally, seaweed was used as a fertiliser on soil or to feed to animals. Really only dillisk and Carrageen moss would have been eaten. As far as I’m aware, nobody really ate others like kelp or sea spaghetti. I think Irish people never really saw seaweed as a food because it would have been seen as a bit of a poverty food.” 

O’Brien says that her seaweed products really draw out the flavours of recipes’ other ingredients too. “It is like a flavour enhancer, which the Japanese would call Umami. I have never found it to be salty. Once you soak it for 10 minutes in fresh water, that washes off the salt so it just adds a really fresh flavour to your cooking.” 

While many people think of seaweed as something synonymous with Japanese cuisine, given that dried nori seaweed is used for sushi, the Irish approach is quite different. “The way it is served in Ireland is fresher, with the likes of the sea lettuce or the dillisk. You can eat those in a salad or in a broth in its freshest form which is a unique experience.” 

Wholly influenced by landscape and sea, the food producers of the Wild Atlantic Way use the waters, air, pastures and even the salt of their surrounds to create tastes innate to the west coast of Ireland. 

With the route practically reading like a 2,500 kilometre-long menu, there are endless culinary events, experiences and delights to be indulged in. From simple pleasures to glorious gourmet excess, food festivals to tasting events and even a DIY element in getting your wellies on to forage the shorelines for yourself. 

The Wild Atlantic Way’s abundance of nature-fuelled flavours simply ignites the palate, find out more ways to indulge on the west coast with Things to Do: Eating & Drinking.

Article source: Culinary adventures in a landscape rich in food

 

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