The Seafood Interview supported by BIM - Birgitta Hedin-Curtin

BIM Seafood Circle

This month Marilyn Bright talks to Birgitta Hedin-Curtin, of the famed Burren Smokehouse in Lisdoonvarna Co Clare, about this vibrant business and some of its recent successes.

A leaping salmon sculpture and splashing stream rushing to the sea mark the entrance to the Burren Smokehouse where Birgitta Hedin-Curtin produces the award winning smoked salmon deemed fit for a visiting queen or a St. Patricks Day treat for the president of the United States.

Clare Island organic farmed salmon is used to make the cold-smoked salmon to a recipe Birgitta and her husband Peter developed 25 years ago, as well as the recently introduced smoked salmon with Irish seaweed, which Birgitta says is their most successful product to date. The seaweed which gives it a unique flavour comes from Spanish Point, supplied by traditional seaweed harvester Gerard Talty of Wild Irish Sea Vegetables.

Birgitta Hedin CurtinThe Curtins only work with sustainably sourced fish, Birgitta explains. “Our organically farmed salmon is the best in terms of feeding, stock density and situation. Plenty of wave action and tidal movement means that the fish swims 24,000 km in its lifetime so the flesh is firm with a minimum of the fat you find in fish raised in overcrowded conditions.”

Mackerel for smoking comes from Killybegs and the Curtins only use fish landed from November to February when the oil content is at its best for producing top quality smoked product. “Summer mackerel is hugely different”, Birgitta says, “even though it's very good eaten fresh.”

The prized wild salmon was completely off the menu when fishing licences were suspended for five years to conserve diminishing stocks. Birgitta relates how restrictions were lifted just six days before Queen Elizabeth's historic visit in 2011.

“Ross Lewis of Chapter One Restaurant was responsible for the state banquet in Dublin Castle and asked if we could supply wild smoked salmon for the night. No fish were caught on he first two days of the season, but just as time was running out on the third day, the first salmon were landed. There was just enough time for the curing and smoking and I ended up taking the salmon straight from the ovens and driving through the night to deliver it in time.”

Birgitta comes from coastal Sweden where there is a tradition of local smoking and remembers fishing for eels with her father. “Smoked eel was always a feature of any celebration, especially Christmas, New Year and midsummer... and smoked herring was a favourite too.”

With Peter, who had a background in the merchant navy and ran his own fishing boat, the couple worked together on recipes for smoked fish and started with a small smoker just big enough for 12 sides of salmon. Birgitta vac-packed their first batches of smoked salmon in the kitchen and the Burren Smokehouse Ltd. was born.

As business expanded a larger brick oven was built, but proved to be problematical. “Smoking is an art and a craft,” Birgitta explains, “and it was difficult to control the temperature in the brick oven. For a cold smoke, temperature must be kept under 35ºC. Eventually, we worked with a food scientist to design our own state of the art steel ovens which were built in Limerick. Both the process and the equipment is patented so these are totally unique to us.”

Birgitta in boatThe new purpose-built smokehouse opened 25 years ago in its picturesque setting on the road from Lisdoonvarna to the sea at Doolin. Today the Burren Smokehouse produces 40 tonnes of smoked fish a year, with the huge Christmas orders accounting for nearly half that amount.

The visitor centre and shop opened in 1994 to cater for increasing numbers of tourists in the area and an educational element was added with a seven minute video film showing the sourcing of Irish seafood and the curing and smoking process. The facility attracts 30,000 visitors a year and, although access to the smokery is generally restricted for health and safety reasons, special tours are arranged for schools and groups such as culinary students.

Birgitta is chairperson of Slow Food Clare, a member of the Taste Council and currently involved in the Burren Slow Food Festival which takes place May 16-24 with a Land and Sea theme. She uses her frequent trips to speciality food fairs abroad to promote other quality Irish produce as well as her own.

A growing international profile has meant that Burren Smokehouse Irish salmon is stocked at high-end outlets such as Harrods, Selfridges and Fortnum and Mason, and is currently flying high in Aer Lingus business class along with six other artisan products on a new menu showcasing quality Irish foods. Earlier this year Birgitta was honoured by the Irish Food Writers’ Guild, with an award for her notable contribution to Irish food.

The Burren Smokehouse’s growing customer base also attracted interest recently from the producers of the six-part Wild Ireland TV series, in which presenter Christine Bleakley returns home to Ireland to travel the 1500-mile length of the Wild Atlantic Way. The Smokehouse featured in the first programme of the series and, saying that the programme makers “were keen to discover more about our company and how we source 100% quality Irish raw materials for our Burren Smoked Salmon, Trout and Mackerel products,”

Birgitta - who is a Wild Atlantic Way Food Ambassador for Fáilte Ireland - expressed the hope that hope it will help provide increased exposure for and awareness of the West of Ireland's food producers, as well as boosting numbers at their own Visitor Centre.

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