Sunday 19 November 2017

The Burren: Back to (five-star) basics

The thought of foraging for food panicked Anne Cunningham, but her weekend in the Burren turned out to be a gourmet adventure full of magic

Anne Cunningham

'It's a long, long way from Clare to here," sang Ralph McTell way back when, and I've come over all wistful and longing, back from an unforgettable foodie/foraging weekend in The Burren.

The foraging bit had me a little worried. I'd been imagining stewing roadkill over a soggy campfire on the side of a Clare mountain, and how would poor Scallywag daughter Holly cope? And what about me?

I couldn't have been more wrong. It was a weekend of very fine dining and luxurious bespoke accommodation in two of the country's best boutique, four-star country house hotels. And the foraging was fascinating fun.

Our first stop was Gregans Castle Hotel, a beautiful Georgian manor with a multi-award-winning restaurant, standing dignified and resplendent at the foot of Corkscrew Hill, outside Ballyvaughan. With the magnificent Burren on one side and the wild Atlantic on the other, the views from the hotel and gardens are stunning.

The owner, Simon Haden, can barely conceal his passion for this hotel. And it shows. Dinner was sublime, haute cuisine at its hautest. My little mermaid demolished the perfect scallops and then her buttery, fragrant cod in jig time, as did I.

The food is as visually dramatic as the view from the restaurant windows, and virtually all the ingredients are sourced from local organic suppliers.

A special sorbet selection arrived for Scallywag when she couldn't choose a dessert she liked. And off-menu frothy hot chocolate was presented with her petit-fours. How's that for child-friendly? It was an extraordinary dining experience.

After exploring the carefully manicured gardens, it was bed time. The very large bedroom was glorious, with fine antique furniture, a carefully stocked bookshelf and huge sash windows overlooking the bay. I slept as if I had been shot. And I never sleep.

After a breakfast which spoilt us for choice – every conceivable cold and hot breakfast was available, and the sausages were particularly fine – it was time to head for The Burren Smokehouse in Lisdoonvarna. There, we met Sarah, who talked us through the details of what they do and how they do it, plied us with mouthwatering taster samples, and then let us relax and watch a film outlining their various hot and cold smoking processes. Intriguing stuff.

The Wild Honey Inn is just a few yards away on the Kincora Road, where we stopped for lunch. And what a lunch. Scallywag had the fattest, juiciest crab claws I've ever seen, impeccably presented – I simply had to help her. And I had pork cheek – a tad adventurous for me, but I knew this place by reputation. I knew I'd be delighted, and I was.

Bravo to proprietor-chef Aidan McGrath and his lovely wife, Kate Sweeney. Kate introduced me to Curiosity Cola, an old-fashioned cola infused with ginger and herbs. Very different, and very refreshing. Even the bottle is charming.

Next stop Spanish Point, and some serious seaweed foraging with Gerard Talty of Wild Irish Sea Veg. Well, not so serious – the seaweed Safari was huge fun. Gerard and his family harvest and dry the seaweed just yards from their home in Caherush, on a stretch of Atlantic coast that is as clean and clear as you'll ever see.

There are so many types of seaweed growing here that it's impossible to remember them all, so everyone gets an information booklet at the end with some great recipes. Nice touch.

Forget about the slimy brown stuff strewn across the Dublin and Meath beaches; the colours and smells of this bountiful aqua-garden are amazing. We mooched around in the rockpools, adults and kids alike, while Gerard told us fascinating and fun facts. It was a truly unique experience.

At the end of the safari we tasted lots of cooked seaweeds, and I have been fully converted. A small amount of seaweed – the size of a credit card, according to Gerard – yields more nutrients than you can shake a bucket and spade at.

As well as copious amounts of kelp roasted with olive oil (delicious), Scallywag nearly cleared the place of periwinkles, and I still can't figure out where she found any room for them. An excellent day, but not over yet.

Dinner later, in the seafood restaurant at the Vaughan Lodge Hotel in Lahinch, was yet another gastronomic fete. The high point for me was Dover sole on the bone, generously draped in samphire. All fished out after yet another scallops first course, Scallywag opted for a main course of fried chicken strips – a delicious option from the kids' menu.

I must mention that each restaurant served exquisitely cooked seaweed with their savoury courses, and the amuse-bouches in both hotel restaurants were delightful. Chilli chocolate lollipops topped off dessert in the Vaughan Lodge, and yet again I was astounded at the standard of cuisine in this busy, informal but very chic restaurant. Congratulations to Michael and his genuinely warm and friendly crew.

"I hope you don't mind, but I've upgraded you," grinned Seamus Gillespie, manager of the nearby Moy House Hotel. We found ourselves in the hotel's signature suite, the Well Room. There is an uplit underfloor well, situated beneath glass tiles in the bathroom floor. Amazing.

And so is the rest of the suite, where the opulent bedroom leads into a cosy conservatory overlooking the bay. You can see the Cliffs of Moher across the water, another staggering view. It was too hot for the woodburning stove, but I could just imagine how magical that would be on cooler evenings.

Breakfast after yet another long, luxurious sleep was excellent. Scallywag couldn't wait to open the linen sack stuffed with warm muffins, pain au chocolat and croissants. All of the breakfast choices here – and the choice is vast – are sourced locally from organic producers. Except maybe the coffee. And the wonderfully sweet Moroccan mint tea.

We were off again, this time to Brid and Roger Fahy's Linnalla Ice Cream Café in New Quay. Situated on the Finavarra Peninsula, this must be Europe's most westerly ice-cream café, using milk from their special breed of shorthorn cows on their own farm.

Try their gorse ice cream – it's so delicate, and so different. Or the chocolate, or maybe the mint. Or the hazelnut ice cream, with hazelnuts from the Burren's wild hazel trees.

As Brid pointed out, there is a delicate balance to be struck when harvesting in such a rare and sacred place. It is not so much about living off the land as living with it.

Take your ice cream with you as you walk the nearby Flaggy Shore, immortalised by Seamus Heaney in his poem 'Postscript':

"...Useless to think you'll park or capture it/More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there/A hurry through which known and strange things pass..."

We didn't hurry here, though, Scallywag and I. We didn't want to leave the Burren; we had such fun, and made so many memories. In fact, our car refused to leave, but that's another story.

The mystical quietude of the Burren is impossible to define. But it's palpable – you can taste and smell its magic. The people there are also unique. A taxi driver I spoke to, who moved down from Dublin some years ago, nailed it when he explained about the people: "They're just nicer. They're gentler."

He's right.

For information on taking your own foodie break in Clare, visit

discoverireland.ie/food

Irish Independent

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