Go west, the young and foodie at heart
Sheep's cheese and sea vegetables are on the menu at the Burren Slow Food Festival, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan
LISDOONVARNA is not just for matchmaking and surfing -- now you can also eat rather well, as we discovered on a recent visit to the area for the Burren Slow Food Festival. The festival organisers weren't blessed with the weather on the day, but they were blessed with the enthusiasm of the wide variety of artisan producers, local chefs, including Aidan McGrath of the Wild Honey Inn, and enthusiastic foodies.
Chairperson of the Slow Food Clare convivium is Birgitta Hedin-Curtin of Burren Smokehouse, who smoked the organic Clare Island salmon for the Queen's banquet at the request of Ross Lewis of Chapter One. All very prestigious indeed and they will now be smoking salmon for Fortnum & Mason's own label which will be on the shelves in Piccadilly in January 2012. Birgitta is also in negotiation with Dean & De Luca in New York.
A native of Sweden, Birgitta left home in the early Eighties to see the world. "I wanted to see the Celtic countries first, the west coast, the Atlantic and to hear Celtic music." She got no further than Clare because she met her future husband, Peter Curtin, a third generation publican of the Roadside Tavern in Lisdoonvarna.
Birgitta is a marine biologist and she and Peter wanted to do something together, hence the Burren Smokehouse. "We went through the cottage industry phases with initially having a garden shed and hand-slicing it in the kitchen but as the business progressed, we moved on to a full commercial smokehouse. Our method of smoking is unique to us and patented, and our ovens are built to our specifications in Limerick," Birgitta explained.
With 17 people working full and part-time on their team, they smoke 100 per cent Irish products only -- Donegal Silver farmed salmon and Clare Island organic farmed salmon. This year, the first time since 2006, they have also had some Wild Salmon which has been culled from rivers under the fisheries management scheme. "Business has been steady, I have done a lot of marketing, but we wouldn't survive without food tourists -- we get about 25,000 visitors a year -- it is because of the Burren we can survive along with our mail order sales." (www.burrensmokehouse.ie)
Eileen Talty of Spanish Point Sea Vegetables said that while they have been operating for about a year, the Talty family have harvested sea vegetables through four generations: "We live just across the road, right on the sea, and sea vegetables are more nutritional than land vegetables".
They sell Carrageen which is great for chest colds, as well as Dulse and Irish Nori Laver flakes, and Wakame which provides rich sources of minerals and iodine. Wakame is traditionally used in soups and seafood chowders as well as sauces and salads. The Irish Sea Salad has a mix of Wakame, Dillisk, Sugar Kelp, Nori and Sea Lettuce. (www.spanishpointseaveg.ie)
Sean Fitzgerald of Cratloe Hills Sheep's Cheese was the first sheep's cheese producer in Ireland. He started developing his cheese in 1986 and it has been on the market since 1989. At that time, people couldn't handle the concept of getting cheese from sheep but "gradually, with people becoming more health conscious, with allergies, or off dairy products, they discovered they could eat our cheese because it was made from pasteurised sheep's milk".
He said, "You won't find our recipe anywhere, it has come of trial and error, from going out and talking to people. We are going in at the top of the market with a quality product but high priced and we make no apologies for that. Ours is a little handmade cheese, we milk sheep and make the cheese on our farm with no additives or anything like that. We only make our cheese from 150 grass-fed ewes from March to September, that is the natural lactation and that is it then."
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Janice James came to live in Ballyvaughan from Boston with her husband Gary 10 years ago on what she describes as a mid-life adventure. She makes very pretty goats' milk soap, embossed with Celtic designs and wrapped in organza, which she had been doing for a couple of years whilst still in Boston where she was a director of marketing with a theatre company. Her great grandmother was an O'Brien and she says they came because they love the Burren -- "there are no extremes of weather here, English is spoken, and there are no snakes!"
Goats' milk soap are a gourmet product and it is really a cottage industry but they are wonderful for the skin as the pH is the same as your own skin so it is very moisturising.
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Gillian O'Leary makes handmade chocolates in Ennis under the clever name Chocolate Here. She is a chocolate fanatic and blogs on her website www.chocolatehere.ie
A software engineer by profession, Gillian explained that "last year I was here at the Slow Food Festival as a customer, this year I am back as a trader". She started creating beautiful chocolate bars with a distinctive image and began trading at Ennistymon Farmers' Market and then the Ennis Market. Now she is also at the Limerick Milk Market.
Next we headed to Lahinch where the surfers were out in force. Here we met surfing instructor Richie McLoughlin of Ben's Surf Clinic. Richie is from Carlow but his mother did waterskiing. Richie studied ocean science and came to Lahinch in 1998.
"When I first came to Lahinch, there were no schools and now there are four. Also when I started here you would know the name of every surfer but now in summer there might be 500 people in the bay," he said.
Experienced surfers tend to use Lahinch as a base, the epicentre of surfing, but they work out along the coast. Two-hour lessons cost about €35.
Naturally with so many coming to surf, they need accommodation. Duncan Cusack and Carol Dollery, who are getting married next January, realised the potential here by opening the West Coast Lodge, a hostel where most of the guests are activity oriented, coming for the surfing, climbing, scuba diving, hiking, walking and wind surfing. Their guests are very much "the young at heart".
Duncan and Carol have great five-star hotel experience between them, having worked in Sheen Falls Lodge, the Killarney Park, the Clarence and the Lodge at Doonbeg, where Carol is still the pastry chef. The hostel is known locally as "the Poshtel" because they provide all the little comforts such as iPod stations, WiFi, power showers, a library, a kitchen, a barbecue and a roof terrace overlooking the Cliffs of Moher.
The idea came to them on their travels in South East Asia and South America where they found "the level of hostel accommodation to be far above what we would have expected, and I enjoyed the entire social experience provided, especially when they were geared for the activity market".
Continental breakfast is included in their rate -- and free tea and coffee all day. They have double/triple rooms, family rooms and dorms. The B&B rate in double and triple rooms is €25pp, and dorms and group rooms from €18 per person.