It’s not Barren in The Burren

Peter Morrell goes to County Clare in Western Ireland and discovers an abundance of wild flowers, delicious food and dramatic scenery

The Burren

The Burren

Siobhan Ni Ghairbith with her goats at St Tola

Siobhan Ni Ghairbith with her goats at St Tola

A St Tola Log being formed

A St Tola Log being formed

The Burren Smokehouse

Mosaic at the Burren Smokehouse

Birgitta and Peter Curtin (c)Burren Ecotourism

Birgitta and Peter Curtin (c)Burren Ecotourism

View of The Burren and Galway Bay from the Gregans Castle Hotel

View of The Burren and Galway Bay from the Gregans Castle Hotel

Doonagore Castle along the Wild Atlantic Way

Doonagore Castle along the Wild Atlantic Way

The Burren Perfumery

The Burren Perfumery

Wild Flowers and Orchids

Wild Flowers and Orchids

The Wild Flowers and Hills of The Burren

The Wild Flowers and Hills of The Burren

Cow on Pat Nagel's Farm

Cow on Pat Nagle's Farm

With Ziggerat shaped hills, fields of rock slabs looking like the floor tiles of a giant’s lair and the nearby cave Poll na gColm, pronounced Pole na Gollum, it’s no wonder that J.R.R. Tolkien drew his inspiration from this wild place for the Lord of the Rings.

The Burren

I was in The Burren, one of Ireland’s six national parks. The karst formations of limestone are covered with faults and ridges which have been de-nuded of top soil by retreating glaciers. This has left a lunar landscape where it is difficult to imagine that anyone or anything could survive. In fact the entire area is teeming with life, under the stewardship of dedicated farmers and committed food producers.

Arriving in Shannon from London Heathrow on a frequent Aer Lingus flight was the start of a two day culinary adventure following parts of the Burren Food Trail. I would be meeting local artisans who are keeping traditional crafts alive, sampling their produce and appreciating the raw beauty of the area and the nearby Atlantic coast.

St Tola

First stop was the farm which makes St Tola goat’s cheese. I was greeted by owner Siobhan Ni Ghairbith, we first took a look at the herd, a mix of Saanen, British Alpine and Toggenburg animals.. The goats are kept in a light, airy barn, they are mild mannered and all in excellent condition.

Distance from milking parlour to the cheese producing rooms is about 10 feet, so freshness and quality are guaranteed. Siobhan and her team make a range of excellent cheeses, their logs both plain and ash covered are a familiar sight in London’s Neal’s Yard Dairy and other good cheese mongers.You can pop in to the on-site farm shop to stock up on their products and you may even get a peek at the herd.

Lisdoonvarna

My next stop was the charming little town of Lisdoonvarna. Each year in September it hosts Europe’s largest matchmaking festival, a month long, it attracts up to 40,000 people. Bachelor farmers come in search of a suitable wife while the women are keen to bag a handsome husband. While its original intent was serious, its now a big party and in October there is now an LGBT version.

The Roadside Tavern and Burren Smokehouse

Lunch was in the Burren Brewery at The Roadside Tavern, here I met Peter Curtin, whose family have owned the pub since 1893. As the founder of the Burren Tolkien Society Peter regaled me with stories of the author and other facts about the characters in the local area. I feasted on smoked salmon washed down with one of the beers from Peter’s on-site micro-brewery.

I could have sat there all afternoon listening to the craic but Peter together with his wife Birgitta also own the Burren Smokehouse and he was keen to show me their visitor centre and the kilns where my lunch was produced.

The smokery is adorned with hand crafted mosaics both inside and out. The tour started by watching a short video describing the history of food smoking and sampling some of their products. In the small shop was a family from the USA who had made the pilgrimage to see where their mail order smoked salmon came from. Downstairs were the fish preparation rooms and the ovens where the metamorphosis from raw salmon to sublime taste experience takes place.

Gregans Castle Hotel

My home for the night was the nearby Gregans Castle Hotel, a charming 18th century manor house. It is easy to see why past guests have included C.S. Lewis, Seamus Heaney and Tolkien himself who I’m sure were all equally entranced by the sweet smell of wood smoke from the fires, the comfortable rooms and the views across Galway Bay.

At dinner in the evening I dined on local produce from the sea and the land – delicate crab, halibut, fresh vegetables, pungent cheeses and rich puddings. No meal in Ireland is complete without a nightcap, the Clontarf single malt, with its smoky character, sipped in the cosy bar was a suitable end to the day.

The Wild Atlantic Way

An early start the next morning soon had me travelling south along the Wild Atlantic Way, the 1500 mile tourism trail which skirts the western coastline of Ireland. I travelled past craggy rocks being battered by waves before climbing to cross the heartstoppingly beautiful Cliffs of Moher. On the way I had passed through Doolin which hosts numerous folk and traditional music festivals.

Wild Irish Sea Veg

I was on my way to Spanish Point, the part of the coast where many boats of the Spanish Armada were shipwrecked during a storm in 1588. It was there I met Evan Talty, he and his family run Wild Irish Sea Veg and he would take me on a Seaweed Safari. We were soon at the shoreline discovering the difference between Bladderwrack, Kombu and Dillisk. Back in their processing plant they package a wide range of seaweed products. The Sea Spaghetti looked interesting and the Sea Salad Sprinkles are a health alternative to salt.

The Burren Life Programme

To continue to learn about the area I met Dr Brendan Dunford, Manager of the Burren Life Programme, this organisation works with farmers to maintain the integrity of the land. After a warming cup of tea at the charming Burren Perfumery we headed up into the hills. The fields up there are enclosed with dry stone walls with lots of gaps to stop them being blown over by the Atlantic gales.

Brendan started literally from the ground up, showing me the unique collection of wild plants and flowers that cling to life in fissures between the stones. A  micro-climate in the area is created by the heat stored during summer within the underlying rock. This keeps the winter temperature above 6c which enables both grass and a plethora of plant species to thrive. It’s one of the few places on earth where Arctic, Alpine and Mediterranean plants can live side by side.

Lifting our eyes to the higher hills we saw a 300 strong flock of feral goats that call The Burren home. The field we were standing in is also home to a herd of pregnant cows who are overwintered there before being taken to lower ground to give birth in the spring.

The field is owned by a local farmer so we set off to meet him. On arrival we were greeted by Pat Nagle and his family to chat about the farming methods he used and how his land was maintained. Pat recently played host to Prince Charles who showed a great interest in these traditional farming methods.

These skills of husbandry and land management have been passed down through generations. Recent DNA tests have confirmed that the same families have lived and farmed in the area for at least 3500 years.

My food trail was over, I had been impressed with the people, their love of the land and animals, the quality of the food and the very special atmosphere created by the unique mystical terrain. It is an ideal short break destination for culinary travellers who want good food woven in with some fascinating Irish folklore.

Useful Information

There are regular flights to Shannon from Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted

To find out more about culinary Ireland go to the Irish Food Board website by clicking here…

For more travel information the Tourism Ireland website  can be viewed by clicking here…

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