Wild Atlantic Wonders: How to taste the Atlantic on a new seafood trail
Suzanne Campbell gets a flavour of an exciting new seafood tasting trail in Co Clare...
I'm standing in a pretty packing house on Clare's Flaggy Shore, watching Gerry Hanrahan (a tall, skinny cross between Richard Harris and Father Jack) shuck oysters and demonstrate how not to cut your fingers off.
Outside, there's a neat stack of lobster pots primed for an Instagram moment, while a colourful wooden boat bobs gently beneath the pier. Gerry is shouting to his daughter Ciara that he's unable to make a meeting the next week as he'll be at the Rolling Stones concert in Croke Park.
I'm at Redbank Food - a distribution centre for local oysters, mussels, lobsters and clams. It's not your typical tourist attraction, but then I'm not on your typical tourist trail. Taste the Atlantic is a new initiative by Fáilte Ireland and Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM), a foodie trail that aims to get tourists up close and personal with the places their seafood comes from. Featuring 21 producers dotted from Donegal to Cork, these are authentic, local experiences; offering a chance to hang out with people at the heart of food on the 2,500km Wild Atlantic Way.
Gerry, for example, is passionate about seafood - but more passionate that you eat it than him having to tell you how good it is. I ask about the huge oyster sitting on the steel counter, for example; it's larger than my entire hand.
"Is this one less tasty?"
"No - you just won't be getting it into your mouth," he says.
Good point. It is enormous. The small oysters Gerry and Ciara specialise in at present are about a year-and-a-half old; perfect for parties and canapés. Flaggy Shore Dainties, he calls them - sometimes known locally as Ladies' Oysters.
My sampling of the Taste the Atlantic trail started in Spanish Point, Co. Clare, by lounging in a free-standing bath. Through a floor-to-ceiling glass window, I watched waves crash magnificently onto the beach below.
The Armada Hotel (above) has been a Clare institution since Victorian times. Now rebuilt, it has a wonderful historic display on the ships and wrecks along the Clare coast. And very nice baths.
A focus on storytelling is at the heart of this region and, in Clare alone, there are so many places rich in food and food culture - both on the Burren and the coast - that a trip could keep you in the area for a week or more. For me, it's the perfect starting point for a trail devoted to those who want to touch, prepare and taste real food… less Bunratty Castle, more wildflowers in jam jars and zingingly fresh seafood.
Back at Redbank Food, two long wooden tables of oysters and refreshments are laid out for visitors to help themselves. The wine glasses on the table are mismatched - as are the coffee cups, as some people plump for a warm cup of tea after a tramp along the Flaggy Shore. Everybody mucks in; pouring glasses of Muscadet and squeezing lemon on top of the oysters. They really are astonishingly good: creamy, salty, with enough delicious body to make you want more.
And a few more after that.
Unlike going to a restaurant, here you learn about food from the horse's mouth. At Redbank, we hear how each bay in this part of Clare will have a slightly different taste to their oysters. Other visitors love when Gerry pulls an angry, gesticulating lobster from the tank and explains the conservation rules that govern lobster fishing. This is a cool food business that doesn't try to be cool; it's the type of food experience that travellers and anyone interested in food want more off.
"Some of the people who came in here 20 years ago by accident are still customers of ours," says Birgitta Curtin (pictured above), whose Burren Smokehouse and visitor centre is just a few minutes away up the famous Corkscrew Hill in Lisdoonvarna. "It doesn't matter to us if someone is a famous chef on holidays, or just someone looking for something new to do; we talk to them about the unique tradition of cold smoking and how we choose the salmon ourselves."
Having settled here from Sweden in the 1980s, Birgitta is one of Ireland's most awarded artisan food producers. Tourists come into her shop and visitor centre, try some salmon and buy more to get shipped back home.
Birgitta gives a guide to a group of visitors on little straw chairs, who pass around a stick of turf and oak shavings, and have a look at a smoking machine. In her shop she sells everything from Bollinger to local Hazel Mountain Chocolate. And her salmon tastes exceptional. None of the oily texture of the cheapest competition, just pure quality from someone passionate about producing good food.
A few steps away from the visitor centre is her husband Peter's pub. The Roadhouse Tavern, which has to have one of the most photogenic interiors of any pub in the West. It also makes its own craft beer (try the red ale; it's fantastic) and has a superb food menu. With the addition of the covered yard space next door called the Burren Storehouse, it's become an even bigger player on the food scene in Clare, using local suppliers like Siobhán Ní Ghairbhith of St Tola Goat's Cheese.
I visit Siobhán at her farm the next day and am mesmerised by the goats; how they play and jostle each other for attention - the kid goats are pure entertainment.
"We have visitors here who just want to take selfies with the goats!" Siobhán says. I don't blame them - I'm guilty of taking a ridiculous amount of photos myself. "People now are so well informed, they want to hear your story. So, warts and all, I tell them - and it's funny but the challenges of running a goat farm and making cheese are as interesting to them as the awards."
Covering Co Clare, I've seen just a short stretch of the new Taste the Atlantic trail, but gotten a mouthwatering sense of its potential. Being behind the scenes at these food businesses allows travellers to be food journalists for a day. But it's also just great fun to spend time with passionate people in their place of work, to share in the preparation of their food and to hear about their lives.
Small really can be beautiful.
Check out tastetheatlantic.ie for seafood visits along the Wild Atlantic Way and burren.ie for the Burren Food Trail.
The Flaggy Shore Oyster Tour is €35pp including oysters and wine (redbankfoodco.com). St Tola's Goat Farm tour in Inagh is €10 per adult, €6 per child (st-tola.ie).
A guided tour of Burren Smokehouse (burrensmokehouse.com) is €8.50pp; visitor centre, videos and a tasting are free. Book ahead for all.
Where to stay
Gregans Castle: A beautiful period hotel with outstanding food outside Lisdoonvarna (above). From €245 for a double B&B; gregans.ie
The Armada Hotel in Spanish Point; gorgeous views and interior. From €140 for a double; armadahotel.com
Burren Glamping: A free-range pork farm with a chic converted horse-wagon accommodation, €120 a night, sleeps five; burrenglamping.com
Read more:The Irish Foodie Bucket List: 30 dishes worth travelling for