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Aoife Carrigy - Wild Atlantic Way Food Tour

Mungo Murphy's

Aoife Carrigy heads west for a day of grazing along the Wild Atlantic Way

“Imagine 40 Hookers racing out from that bay.” We’re sitting outside Tigh Chadhain pub on a lesser-travelled stretch of Connemara’s Wild Atlantic Way. It’s gone noon on a Saturday straight out of a brochure and there’s not a cloud in the sky as we tuck into bowls of creamy chowder and glasses of Guinness.

Nooks and crannies of the sheltered bay sparkle below us while publican and local historian Michael Coyne regales us with tales of his blink-and-miss-it village.

Many stories shelter within Kilkieran’s hills and inlets: there’s the ancient tobar mhuire (holy well) blessed by St Kieran of Clonmacnoise on his way to meet St Enda on the Aran Islands, or the regatta of Galway Hookers on the first weekend in July to celebrate traditional trading between coastal communities in Connemara, the Burren and the islands.

Inside the thick-walled bar, framed newspaper cuttings tell their own stories of times past. Next door in the bistro, a fish-heavy menu featuring fresh tuna steak or Atlantic fish and chips battered with the local Independent Brewing beer suggests that some of modern Ireland has been absorbed in this timeless Gaeltacht outpost.

As we reluctantly re-board our minibus, we thank Michael for the warm welcome. “Thank yourselves”, he replies, “thank yourselves.”

It’s a quintessentially Connemara moment: the kind that the Wild Atlantic Way promises to tourists willing to detour from the beaten track.

You could easily happen upon Coyne’s Bar & Bistro on a self-drive tour (though pity the designated driver). But it’s less likely that you would find yourself at our first stop that morning: a modern mother-and-daughter-run abalone farm near the traditional fishing harbour of Rossaveal. For that you’d want to sign up to the Wild Atlantic Way Food Tour.

The tour is a collaboration between Sheena Dignam of the excellent city-focused Galway Food Tours and Gaeltacht-native Padraic O Raighne of Connemara Pub Tours, combining Sheena's food-industry insider knowledge with Padraig’s local and logistical expertise.

We meet up the night before for a pre-tour meal in Dela on Galway’s Dominick Street. Margaret and Joe Bohan’s menu showcases stellar local produce like fresh crabmeat from Rossaveal or Ketteridge pork belly from the iconic local pork butcher. But the real stars are the fruit and vegetables harvested from the hedgerows and polytunnels of their Moycullen farm, the development of which is being overseen by kitchen garden specialist Dermot Carey.

Even the drinks at Dela are ultra local: we toast our impending trip with a ‘Dela Sloe Royale’ cocktail featuring sloe berries foraged last autumn, and we wash down a dessert of chocolate mousse and beetroot crisps with a malty porter produced by Joe himself.

The next morning, after a restful night in the spotless ensuite rooms of The Nest boutique hostel in Salthill, we reconvene over a light self-service breakfast. It turns out that not only do granola, fruit, pastries and fresh coffee make a better breakfast than abalone soup, pan-fried sea cucumber and seaweed tapenade – but that if you’ve eaten the former then you might just be open to trying the latter.

Cindy O’Brien (pictured top right) established her abalone farm 10 years ago, exporting to East Asia where this sea snail is considered a delicacy for its flavour and texture as much as its medicinal properties. As she shows us around the bubbling seawater tanks of her boutique aquaculture farm, she explains the five-year process involved in growing abalone from seed size to the 10cm specimen favoured in China.

Then Cindy disappears into the kitchen, leaving her daughter Sinead to talk us through the local seaweeds that she harvests from the wild and sells under the Mungo Murphy brand: the sea spaghetti that she adds as a natural flavour enhancer to a cookie mix to help reduce the need for salt and sugar; the vivid green sea lettuce that she mixes with kelp, alaria (or ‘wild Atlantic wakame’) and black olives into a delicious anchovy-free vegan tapenade.

There’s some quiet speculation amongst us whether this pair’s glowing skin is due to the high collagen content of abalone or the intense nutritional attributes of the sea vegetables.

Either way, we’re all game to try their tinned abalone soup, also available under the Mungo Murphy brand. It turns out to be quite delicious, especially when its pork broth base has been seasoned with some extra ginger, garlic and chilli as suggested on the back of the tin. We also sample the abalone simply pan-fried and sliced to accentuate its mushroom-like texture.

But it’s the sea cucumber that is the biggest revelation. Cindy has cooked it in green tea (a tip from Cork chef, Takashi Miyazaki, who cooked her sea cucumber at a recent pop-up dinner in Cork) before chopping it into thick strips, tossing in seasoned gram flour, pan-frying in butter and serving with aioli. They put me in mind of soft, subtly flavoured and rather moreish udon noodles.

After this challenging but surprisingly delicious start, the rest of the day is full of creature comforts – not least of which are the views of the most spectacular scenery Ireland has to offer. Our driver Eamon is full of chat and local knowledge as we pass the new interpretative centre at Pearse’s Cottage and head into the depths of Connemara, where the Twelve Bens (Beanna Beola) look like cardboard cut-outs in the unusually stark sunlight.

Afternoon Tea at Ballynahinch Castle (photo by Aoife Carrigy)

Before we know it, it’s time for afternoon tea and we find ourselves at just the spot for it, the quirky five-star Ballynahinch Castle. First a short tour of the recently expanded grounds and kitchen gardens and a nosy around the hotel’s elegant dining rooms and homely fisherman’s bar, whose walls are adorned with original Yeats paintings and stuffed 20lb salmons respectively.

Then we’re ushered to the riverside terrace where a linen-laid table soon heaves with delights from chef Pete Durkan’s kitchen. Finger sandwiches of crayfish, roast beef or truffled chicken and bite-sized scones topped with jam and cream. Solaris tea scented with wild local herbs and lashings of prosecco.

We eventually retreat inland and back towards the city by way of the utterly charming Power’s Thatch Pub in Oughterard, a lovingly restored hostelry that is full of character and curiosities like stuffed local fauna or a dressed cast-iron bed in the exposed attic. Owner Rory Clancy tells us of the welcome tide of slow tourism that the local Greenway project is heralding and the revived community spirit being fostered in the town.

Powers Thatch Pub

We graze on air-dried pork, beef and Connemara Hill lamb from local butcher James McGeough as craft brewers Barry Davey and Enda Cleary from the local Wild Bat Brewery charm us with their core and seasonal selection. Favourites include Sonic (a malty Californian Common Beer, which is technically a lager but brewed like an ale) and a cloudy New England-style IPA bursting with passionfruit and pine hops character.

A last stint on the minibus finds us back at Salthill, where ice-cream and beer season is well and truly open. But it’s something a little stronger that we’re after, as we pass through the beer-hall depths of Oslo brewhouse and into the poitin distillery hidden out back. Pádraic Ó Griallais of Micil Poitin is here to bust a few myths about this barley-based spirit and talk us through the recipe that he proudly inherited from his great-great-grandfather, Micil Mac Chearra. The family recipe still features the signature addition of local bogbean flowers, and the resulting honeyed, floral aromas make this as good sipped neat as in a Micil Sour.

As we raise a final toast to what has been a perfect day, we thank ourselves one last time for signing our Saturday over to the Wild Atlantic Way Food Tour. And with tours running all summer, you could be thanking yourself too.

Tours cost from €95pp for a full day tour. See www.wildatlanticwayfoodtours.com for more details.

A version of this article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post.

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Pigs on the Green

Chairwoman of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild, Aoife Carrigy is a freelance food and wine writer and editor. She is a regular contributor to FOOD&WINE Magazine, The Irish Independent, The Herald and Cara Magazine, amongst others, and was co-author of The Ard Bia Cookbook and general editor of The ICA Cookbook, The ICA Book of Home and Family, The ICA Book of Tea & Company and, most recently, The ICA Book of Christmas. In 2015, she teamed up with Great Irish Beverages to launch the inaugural Dublin Wine Fest and Irish Cider & Food Day.

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