Tasty Trails

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Tasty Trails

Ireland’s never been known for its food, but one small community is putting the country on the culinary map.

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.

Love in Lisdoonvarna

Nearly a million visitors come to this rugged corner on Ireland’s west coast each year to see the Cliffs of Moher, breathtakingly beautiful rock faces that rise over 200 metres above the sea and span eight kilometres of coastline. About 15 kilometres away sits Lisdoonvarna where the population of less than 1,000 swells to nearly 40 times that number every September, as lonely hearts the world over descend in hopes of meeting a mate at the town’s 150-year-old matchmaking festival.

Nearly a million visitors come to this rugged corner on Ireland’s west coast each year to see the Cliffs of Moher.

Technically, it wasn’t the festival that prompted the Sweden-raised Curtin to come to Ireland 32 years ago – she was travelling after university – but it was there that she locked eyes with her now husband, Peter, at two different pubs over the course of a day, and never left. Curtin’s background studying marine biology and a childhood spent fishing the Baltic with her father, paired with Ireland’s long tradition of salmon smoking, was a second perfect coupling.

It was the salmon’s reputation that drew me and a friend from the cliffs to the smokehouse to learn about traditional methods of smoking salmon and maybe taste a bite or two. It had been a long morning of walking the cliffs, and the samples of salmon – the first food we’d had since setting out from our hotel – barely dinged our appetites. Just a couple of minutes up the road is the Roadside Tavern, a pub, Curtin told us as she walked us over, that’s been in her husband’s family for 120 years.

The Roadside isn’t your traditional Irish pub. For starters, Curtin’s husband brews the beer himself, including a light crisp lager, smoky red ale and creamy stout. The soda bread is different too, more tender and sweet than the versions we’d tried so far, and dessert, a vanilla ice cream with a hopsy finish, is made by the ice cream maker at nearby Café Linnalla using Peter’s Burren Black stout. “Oh, we do a lot of collaborations like this,” she mentions offhandedly. “I don’t want people who come here to have ice cream they can buy anywhere. It has to be just as special as the salmon. We try to take as much as we can from the Food Trail.”

The Tale of the Trail

Though we’d been chatting with Curtin for more than an hour, it was the first I’d heard of the Food Trail, launched in late Spring 2013. While an initiative like this wouldn’t be surprising somewhere like the Napa Valley, where every other local you encounter has quit a city job to move to the country and make artisanal jam, this country has never been known for its cuisine. “Scenery and people – they’re the two things people comment on the most here,” says Helen McDaid, food tourism manager for Fáilte Ireland, the government agency that supports tourism development.

McDaid says the Burren initiative was inspired by the work of the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance (OCTA), the organization that has helped establish and promote Canadian foodie offerings such as the Prince Edward County Taste Trail and the Apple Pie Trail near Blue Mountain in Collingwood. She and OCTA’s executive director Rebecca LeHeup began looking at how Ireland could build something similar after meeting at the World Food Summit in 2009. What resulted was the Food Champions program, a foodie idol competition of sorts where Irish producers were nominated by their peers for one of a dozen spots on a fact-finding mission to Canada, and then charged with galvanizing support among their local counterparts to advance the regional culinary offering. The result is a ground-up initiative that has more grassroots authenticity than other, more engineered foodie movements, and producers who have come together in ways they had never previously imagined.

Community Cuisine

For Siobhan Ni Ghairbhith, one of the selected food champions and a former schoolteacher who took over her neighbours’ goat farm when they retired 15 years ago, the mission inspired the idea to open up the farm to tours and to create an onsite cheese shop selling not only her award-winning St. Tola goat cheeses, but also a number of other Burren Trail products. As a collective, all of the producers along the trail decided to start the Burren Food Series, a weekly event that features her and other community members’ goods, and includes things like foraging tours and stargazing barbecues.

Before we leave the Burren, I feel compelled to call Fabiola, the baker behind the Roadside Tavern’s fabulous soda bread, whom Curtin told me had moved here after leaving a job at a Michelin-starred restaurant in France. Really, I’m just curious to hear her story, and though her café is closed, she readily agrees to meet up for a pint at the Roadside. Born in Burgundy, she arrived in Ireland five years ago with just a map and knowledge of about 10 English words.

“But how did you end up here specifically?” I ask.

The bartender, who is listening in, laughs and says, “I better take a seat for this.” Like Curtin’s story, it’s a serendipitous one – she fell in love with the supportive community after taking a kitchen job at one of the local hotels. We talk for 45 minutes before having to rush off to see Ghairbhith’s goats. It still feels like there’s so much to say and ask. Ireland’s mythic Salmon of Knowledge may not really exist but there’s a fascinating pool of wisdom and perspective in the Burren. It’s hard to leave having only had a taste.

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