Ireland has been synonymous with farming for generations, but these adventurous entrepreneurs are producing some of the country’s most unusual crops, and finding a growing market for them
Sinead O’Brien, abalone and seaweed farmer, Co Galway
When a business is called Mungo Murphy Seaweed, you’d be forgiven for expecting it to be run by a bearded fisherman wearing an Aran jumper. But this innovative maritime company is actually the brainchild of a mother-and-daughter team.
Mungo was thought up as the face of the firm by Sinead O’Brien and her mother, Cindy, when they set out to put a new kind of farming on the map. At their farm in Rossaveal in Connemara, they grow seaweed and farm abalone — a kind of sea snail much prized in Chinese and East Asian cooking.
“My mother set up the farm in 2007,” Sinead says. “She is a marine biologist and had worked in experimental fish hatcheries in Miami, but when my dad got a job in Galway, we all moved here. She always wanted an aquaculture farm and to do her own thing, so she decided to go for it.
“She was intrigued by abalone, a kind of shellfish which isn’t a filter feeder and which grazes on seaweed. It’s a low-risk animal because it’s not as prone to disease, and it’s suitable for growing in a land-based system. It costs a little more to farm sea creatures on land, so you need to be growing something with a decent price tag to make it worthwhile.”
According to Sinead, many of the people who take the food tour at their farm and taste their abalone say that it tastes like beef fat without the gristle, or pork belly.
“It’s a rich flavour and people are often surprised when they taste it that it’s so meaty. They don’t expect that from a shellfish. A lot of people say that the texture is like foie gras or maybe scallops,” she says. “When it’s raw, it has a hard, crunchy texture, which is something that isn’t really sought after in Western cuisine, but which definitely is in East Asian cultures.”
Currently, all of Mungo Murphy’s abalone is sold in Ireland, going to Chinese restaurants and the Chinese community, but also to some high-end Japanese restaurants like Takashi Miyazaki’s Ichigo Ichie restaurant in Cork, which has a Michelin star.
The family also grow seaweed, partly to feed to the abalone, but also to sell in its own right. “We had a simple realisation that we were feeding the abalone seaweed that was perfectly edible for humans too,” says Sinead. “It was something we could sell while we were waiting for the shellfish to reach maturity. It takes three years before we can sell the abalone, so the seaweed helps by providing some extra cash flow for the farm.”
To purchase shellfish or seaweed from Sinead and her mum, Cindy, visit mungomurphyseaweed.com
Liam Byrne, buffalo farmer, Co Wexford
Wexford man Liam Byrne has his wife, Sinead, to thank for his 2016 pivot into farming Asian water buffalo. A fourth-generation farmer, he was looking to do something new with his land near Gorey when she happened to watch a documentary on buffalo farming.
“We had a kind of a crazy moment where we looked at each other and thought, ‘Why not?’ So we got four water buffalo calves in March 2016 from Macroom Buffalo Mozzarella in Cork and established Macamore Buffalo here in Ballygarrett in Co Wexford,” he says.
“Farming is hard and the margins are very tight, so we thought we would try to do something a bit different to see if we could improve our situation. We wanted to be able to set a better price and sell directly to the customer rather than supplying the factory beef system.”
There are two predominant breeds of buffalo, the North American bison buffalo and the Asian water buffalo. Liam opted for the Asian variety as they are better adapted to the Irish climate. First domesticated over 5,000 years ago, there are approximately 130 million of them around the world, and more people depend on them for farm work, meat and milk than any other animal.
“After we got the first four, we heard that there was a herd for sale in Wales. We reckoned that if we were in, we were in, so we bought the whole herd. That added 16 cows and two bulls, and all the cows were in calf.”
The farm went from just four calves in March 2016 to 38 animals in October of the same year. But Liam had a problem — he hadn’t tasted his own product yet, and had no idea if it would appeal to Irish consumers.
“We had done no market research at all. We had no idea if anyone would buy the meat and were really out there, exposed. We never made a phone call because you can’t call a hotel and ask them to buy your burgers if you can’t offer them samples to try first,” he says.
Byrne teamed up with Noel Doyle, a family butcher in Wexford town, to handle the butchering, then organised to get samples to some restaurants and hotels that had agreed to try them. It was only then that he got to taste his own product.
“Eating it was a revelation. Compared to beef, it’s got a milder, sweeter taste and it makes for a good, moist burger. It’s better a little undercooked than overcooked, but its real strength is that it’s a high-protein, low-fat meat. It’s high in iron and it’s low in cholesterol.”
During the pandemic and associated lockdowns, Liam found that demand exploded. “Online orders went through the roof. We put a few ads up on Facebook and the phone started ringing immediately. Everyone was at home in lockdown and keen to try something new and different. The fact that it was Irish was also a big plus — people wanted to support their own,” he says.
Today, consumers can purchase the farm’s buffalo meat from SuperValu in Gorey and Wexford, from Doyle’s butchers in Wexford town, and online at macamorebuffalo.ie. On the menu are sausages, burgers and fillet steaks along with ribeye, T-bone and tomahawk steaks. When it comes to his preferred way to eat buffalo, Liam doesn’t hesitate.
“Oh, definitely the ribeye. That’s always been my favourite,” he says. “We’re hoping to do meatballs coming into the winter, because I love them too, but it’s very hard to argue with a ribeye with a bit of fat through it. Delicious.”
Eva Milka, snail farmer, Co Carlow
“We love snails. Who doesn’t?” It’s a provocative start to an interview, but the more Eva Milka talks about Gaelic Escargot, her snail-farming business, the more contagious her enthusiasm becomes.
“I ate them for the first time in France in 2010 or 2011 and really enjoyed them, but back home we just couldn’t get them. We started keeping some just for ourselves in a plastic container in our one-bedroom apartment in Kilkenny, but people kept asking for them,” Eva says.
“It was really a hobby but then we did some market research and decided to go into business as snail farmers.”
Today, Eva and her partner, Eoin Jenkinson, operate their snail farm in the village of Garryhill in Co Carlow, where they raise Helix aspersa Müller snails, or garden snails. But unlike the snails you might see in your garden at home, these snails are kept in strict conditions and fed a controlled diet to make sure they are safe to eat.
“The species we decided to farm is native to Ireland. It’s not an introduced or invasive species. They’re a great animal to farm — you don’t need much space to farm large amounts. On one acre, you can farm up to 10 tonnes of snails a year, or a single cow. So it’s incredibly efficient.
“We use a 10-month farming cycle, starting with breeding in January and finishing with a harvest in September or October. It’s quite hands-on for the first four months as they mate, lay eggs and produce baby snails. From May to June or July, it’s much quieter as they just eat, grow and stay in polytunnels. Then they’re outdoors until harvest time.”
Gaelic Escargot snails are distributed by La Rousse Foods to restaurants and buyers around the country, with a significant amount also shipped abroad.
“Ireland doesn’t have a tradition of eating snails so we spend most of our time educating people about them, but we are selling more and more in Ireland each year,” says Eva. “For many people, there is a psychological barrier — but snail meat is very nutritious, high in protein and low in fat. It contains lots of amino acids necessary for the human body.”
The classic French method of preparing snails is to cook them in garlic butter but Eva says this isn’t her favourite; she prefers them tempura-style.
“Snails are delicious dipped in batter and fried — they’re crispy on the outside and lovely and meaty on the inside. Snail meat is a little like chicken: it doesn’t have a strong flavour, so it’s all about the texture and nutritional value,” she says. “There isn’t much difference between shellfish and snails. Some people call them ‘the mussels of the land’ because they taste like meaty mussels.”
For more information and to buy some of Eva’s Irish snails, check out gaelicescargot.com
Theresa Storey, tea grower, Co Limerick
For Limerick woman and plant scientist Theresa Storey, the journey to producing her own tea has been a long and winding one. “I read a book called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver a few years ago, in which she attempts to live only on produce from within 50 miles of where she lives. I thought that was great, but what the hell would you do for caffeine?” she says.
“The only thing that produces caffeine natively in Ireland is the stickle grass plant and it only has tiny amounts. But then I found that there’s a tea farm in Cornwall and I thought, ‘Hmmm, that’s pretty close.’ So I took an intensive tea-growing course there and learned as much as I could.”
A friend who owns a nursery was at an exhibition in the Netherlands and came across someone selling tea bushes suitable for northern climates. Theresa was intrigued, and bought some in to get her started in 2016.
“We’ve grown and drunk the tea here very happily. We’ve sold some and we’ve been a finalist at the Blas na hÉireann awards in 2018 and 2019 with it,” Theresa says.
So what does Irish-grown tea taste like? According to Theresa (and her children, who act as tasters), the answer is “like home”.
“We’re mostly doing green tea at the moment and as we live in a green and lush place, this tea tastes like that,” she says. “The French would call it ‘terroir’, of the land. It has a little bit of bitterness that I’m trying to fix, but that’s a case of learning and improving our fermenting methods.”
Most drinkers of classic Irish milky tea might be surprised to learn that essentially all teas come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis.
Green tea is made with fresh leaves that have been steamed and dried, while red or black tea is made from the same leaves but they are fermented to boost the aromatics, then steamed again to stop the process. White tea is made with tiny leaves that are less treated, while Japanese matcha is made from ground-up green tea.
“We’ve been picking, rolling and steaming our leaves, and then drying them fast and selling them as whole-leaf. It’s the same plant used to make a big pot of Lyons or Barry’s and delicate Japanese green tea. It’s just the processing that differs,” says Theresa. “There is big demand for Irish tea and the chief issue we have is getting enough of it into the ground to meet demand.”
Theresa offers both herbal and regular tea through her website, thegreenapron.ie, and it’s also possible to visit her tea farm by appointment by getting in touch via the site.
Dr Sean Kitson, wasabi grower, Co Armagh
If you’ve ever eaten sushi or sashimi, you’ll know that these Japanese fish dishes are always served with a spicy green wasabi paste, which acts as a palate cleanser.
But unless you’ve eaten in a really high-end Japanese restaurant or been to Japan, the odds are you haven’t actually had real wasabi — because of the cost, most restaurants and takeaways replace it with horseradish or mustard that’s been dyed green.
But on a farm in Tandragee in Co Armagh, chemist Dr Sean Kitson and his family have a small business growing the Japanese herb and its precious rhizome root, supplying the restaurant trade in Ireland and shipping to Britain.
The business was started by Kitson’s son Zak six years ago when he was just 14 years old. Having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of seven, he wanted to start a business that he could run from his wheelchair.
“There are only about 10 commercial wasabi growers outside Japan, so there’s a good market for it. It takes two to three years to grow a plant to maturity and it’s not easy to do. Oftentimes, people take shortcuts and use the fake stuff,” says Sean.
Because real wasabi is so expensive — one polytunnel of the stuff can be worth as much as €45,000 — fake wasabi is very popular. It sometimes has a small amount of the real thing in it to make it possible to describe it as wasabi, but in Armagh the Kitsons are growing Mazuma wasabi, a typical Japanese variety of the plant.
“Real wasabi is such a versatile ingredient. The leaves make a spicy herb or salad ingredient, while the rhizome or root is the most prized part. In traditional Japanese cuisine, it’s grated fresh in front of the customer at the restaurant counter, and it has a flavour which is just incomparable,” says Sean.
The fake stuff, he says, tends to be over-pungent, bitter and harsh, compared to the subtle and delicate flavour of the genuine article.
“Once it’s grated, you leave it for five minutes to let a special enzyme facilitate the chemical reaction that gives it the kick everyone is looking for,” he says.
“We’re in a good situation here as we’re on the island of Ireland, still in the European Union but able to export to Britain. We also sell to Denmark, Finland and a few other European countries, but our best customers are in the Republic of Ireland.
“We sell a lot of plants into the Republic and a few of the better-known Japanese restaurants use it.”
You can read more about the Kitsons and their wasabi farm on wasabicrop.com