A blue and grey tiled salmon with golden-coloured eyes leaps from the fountain in front of the Burren Smokehouse. The sculpture, made by popular Irish artist Vincent Browne, is meant to symbolize the Salmon of Knowledge, a magical and elusive fish that, according to ancient legend, could impart all the wisdom in the world through just one taste.
Birgitta Curtin, who co-founded the Lisdoonvarna, Ireland, smokehouse – an artisanal operation that uses organic fish raised in the frigid pools just off the coast – might not make any claims that her salmon has similar powers, but its reputation for being some of the tastiest smoked fish you can find is the reason the small limestone brick cottage draws thousands of visitors each year. Her fish has such an exquisite, pure flavour, that distracting from it with cream cheese and bagels would be sacrilege.
Though smoked salmon is one of Ireland’s best-known food exports, it’s not the only thing that’s great here in the Burren, a 250-square-kilometre karst landscape on Ireland’s west coast that some locals like to say was J.R.R. Tolkien’s inspiration for Middle-earth. There’s fresh, grassy goat cheese and uniquely Irish ice cream (sticky toffee and whisky flavours, for instance), which is made from the cream of Shorthorn cows, native to the region, on a dairy farm that dates back more than 100 years.
Once upon a time, these operations, all small, family-run shops, worked in isolation. Some were quite successful – the Smokehouse’s salmon has won several awards – but the Burren itself wasn’t on the map for its food. Now, though, those businesses are drawing their own map, quite literally, having created the Burren Food Trail, a cooperative movement of local food producers that have banded together to show that the whole can be far more flavourful than its proverbial parts.