It’s been a good while since my travels have taken me to the Emerald Isle. Not for the want of trying mind, but on each occasion that I’ve actually managed to set foot in the country of Carragheen, it’s been away to the east, in the streets of Temple Bar or the hills of Co Wicklow. The West Coast? No…. always eluded me.
However, when you have mates like the inimitable John Ward, of Dooncastle Oysters, the opportunities for exploration and research into this country’s abundant and sustainable seafood on the Wild Atlantic Coast of Connemara are endless and when moreover, offered the chance to be involved in an inaugural Festival to celebrate the rich shellfish heritage of this spectacularly beautiful and hauntingly evocative seascape, you jump and willingly, with both feet.
The Dooncastle Oyster, grown in the pristine, gin-clear, tide-singing bays of Co Galway, is a work of nature’s art. A veritable gemstone, banded together of calcium and silicates, its innate, rugged, exterior beauty, harbours a rich jewel of the single-most delicious flesh I’ve yet savoured.
Loved and worshipped by Chefs at home and abroad, endorsement by the likes of shellfish aficionados JP McMahon and Nathan Outlaw, adds a mystique and integrity to the product that not only sets it aside, but elevates it to a position, seldom attained by most variants of Crassostrea gigas.
And rightly so. John Ward lives and breathes his produce. Years spent learning the trade on different farms around the Irish coast, has taught him well and allowed him to design, what he would have as the perfect oyster. An upbringing around the rocky inlets and wild, weed-strewn shores of this beautiful coast, has instilled in him a passion and a vision that spurs him on to achieve an ultimate pinnacle of provenance, which although, not yet realised, lies not far over the horizon.
It’s very much work in progress for John and his softly-spoken, lilting Irish brogue belies the fact that hard graft on the shoreline, between the tide marks, is what he knows best, constantly tending his flock, as a crofter would his sheep. Turning and grading, sorting and nurturing, working in harmony with the Atlantic swells and tides, as they deliver up a smorgasbord of nutrition, via the omnipresent Gulf Stream. Four years of perpetual attention, before his product has achieved its status and is recognisable as a Dooncastle Oyster.
So, from Shannon Airport we made our way up the ridiculously quiet M6 to Galway City and checked into the House Hotel, just a few light Gaelic skips away from our first West Coast seafood experience at the eponymous Dock 1 restaurant overlooking Galway Docks where we met up with our host, who, unsurprisingly, was delivering oysters.
Dock 1 is an absolute gem of a place and although simply styled in a rustic and typically uncomplicated manner, punches way beyond it’s weight with every ingredient, thoroughly researched and traceably sourced using local, sustainable produce and accompanied by a welcoming charm, that typifies Irish hospitality.
Run and owned by the effervescent and charming Aoife Buckley, this unpretentious and self-described (messy) seafood bar downstairs, gives way to a much finer dining experience above, with both rooms complete with characterful and becoming views of Galway’s waterfront.
Aside from the Dooncastle offering, other seafood sourced from the Wild Atlantic Coast, includes langoustines (Dublin Bay prawns here of course), mussels, scallops, hake, monkfish, local lobster, crab, cockles and a host of other seasonal species that put in a welcome appearance throughout the year.
A session that seemed to endure from lunchtime through to evening, saw a shellfish platter of oysters, lobster, crab and smoked mussels give way to a simple but stunningly tasty broth of mixed shellfish with perfectly cooked gambas, squid and scallop, followed a half dozen Dooncastles and a loin of monkfish, baked in parma ham that just shouted quality at you.
The evening continued over Guinness, (thank goodness) in the iconic Tig Coili (chee koh lee) pub on Mainguard Street, set against a customary and vibrant backdrop of fiddle, squeezebox and tin whistle, where the conversation turned to the impending Festival and the seriously gargantuan amount of seafood, awaiting my taste buds.
Following a very pleasant night at The House and an astonishingly picturesque drive west to our next destination at Clifden, the Festival itself launched the next day at Keogh’s pub in Ballyconeely, in typical, uncomplicated Irish style, with a simple and finger-licking barbecue of oysters, clams and fresh lobster, expertly cooked by over turf and coals by JP McMahon As the band readied themselves, a serious night of merriment and partying was on the cards and it might just have lured me, had not been for the fact I had a serious date on the beach at low tide early the next morning……..
The dawn was bright, but watery and it spoiled to rain with bursts of Atlantic drizzle, hanging in waves across Ballyconeely Bay, as about a dozen of us, intrepid sea foragers, gathered on the shoreline above the low tide mark, to learn and be inspired by JP and his passion for and knowledge of seaweeds and their culinary use.
Now, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on beaches at low tide. Hours and hours and hours. Crabbing, shrimping, lobstering, rock pooling, gathering winkles and generally marvelling and making the most of that fascinating hour betwixt ebb and flood where the littoral world comes into sharp focus and offers a brief but captivating snapshot of life beneath the waves, before being subsumed back into tide and swell.
However, in all that time and on all those occasions, the matted fronds and carpets of green and bubbled vegetation, under my boots (or wrinkled toes in the summer) never gave me cause to think I could collect and make use of them in wondrous harvest of delicious and fortifying wild sea vegetation, that abounds between the tide marks.
As we worked our way down a beach of caster-sugar consistency, JP, armed with seaweed guru Prannie Rhatigan’s ‘Guide to Edible Seaweeds‘ introduced us to sea radish, orache, wild carrot and glasswort, pointing out the flavours and uses of each species and encouraging us to taste. Further on down towards the craggy outcrops and shallow pools, I divested myself of my deck shoes and eagerly splashing barefoot into the shallows, I was a young boy again and with all the accompanying awe and excitement of those childhood, low-tide forays of yesteryear.
Sea lettuce, long pale green fronds, touselling in the eddies, packed with Vitamin C, Carrageen moss, with its gelatinous setting properties, Sea Spaghetti, (Thong weed to me) tangled on the lower shore, spongy Velvet Horn and the strikingly tasty Vertebrata lanosa or Sea Truffle, whose taste, so uncannily truffle-like, means that when dried and crumbled over a risotto, the effect is identical.
On we strode, picking our way over limpet and periwinkle encrusted boulders, JP in his element, pointing out Oarweed (kombu), Sugar Kelp and Mayweed. The most surprising revelation for me though was that of the wracks. Bladder, Serrated and Channelled – all delicious and nutritious and as I nibbled the tips of the young growth of the Serrated wrack, I pondered just how many times I trodden or knelt upon such delicious and nurturing beds in my pursuit of something hidden beneath the wafting fronds.
Soon we heeded the rush of the lapping flood tide, as it pattered up the sands, washing the now-dried seaweeds back to their dancing mobility. A truly unforgettable and fascinating hour, where not only did I learn so much, but absorbed so much inspiration that will only serve to compliment my own cooking. An incredible morning.
Back at the festival, John was busy shucking, preparing and awaiting the lineup of talent vying to create the most spectacular and varied oyster dishes to a burgeoning crowd.
His own beetroot and cucumber infused oysters (inspired and first created by Chef Phillipe Farineau), embrined in solutions of seawater and vegetable juice for 72 hours took on the delicately coloured appearance of their respective solutions and provided a colourful and exquisitely different variation on the standard.
And then for the demos. A myriad of intoxicating creations followed on stage, firstly with softly-spoke and eloquent Parisien, Exec Chef Phillipe Farineau of the highly acclaimed Ashford Castle, presenting us with John’s finest Dooncastle specimens, poached in their own liquor, skewered with thick Irish bacon and rosemary, raw with pepper dulse and blowtorched with a champagne sabayon and freshly gathered samphire.
I learned from Phillipe that the ‘first’ juice of the oyster is preferable to discard after shucking as the salinity may be too much. The ‘second’ juice quickly aggregates and the muscle is then severed, (to cease production), leaving the oyster resting in a much sweeter solution.
The highly organised and meticulous Chef Tim O’Sullivan of Renvyle House delivered another four stunning recipes that provided a perfect contrast to Phillipe. An oyster soup with fennel and chorizo, was swiftly followed with mouthwatering oysters tempura, raw and dressed with Asian flavours and a stupendous oyster Florentine rounding off a perfect masterclass.
Dublin-based Niall Sabongi Chef Patron of Temple Bar’s famous Klaw restaurant, served up a deliciously fragrant, sea-laden hit of raw oyster, sea lettuce and wild Atlantic sea urchin, in a perfect pairing that narrowly saw him take the honours in a light-hearted contest with JP’s Dooncastle oysters with pickled wild garlic seeds, by only the narrowest of margins.
Finally, with a local Fruits de Mer, fittingly arranged in a fish box, atop a bed of ice and seaweed, Head Chef Jonathan Keane, of the Lodge at Ashford Castle, produced perfect examples of not just oysters, but local king scallops baked in the half-shell and grilled Dublin Bay Prawns, presented amidst a swirling Irish mist of dry ice and and served with a just-incredible oyster mayonnaise.
Further fascinating talks and presentations by Connemara Seaweeds the very local Connemara Smokehouse and Mungo Murphy’s all added to the flavour of a quite exemplary and unique festival, which typified not just the quality of the produce from this quite delightful part of the world, but the incredible passion, knowledge and dedication to task that identifies the seafood producers of Galway and the West Coast.
With all bar the drinking and dancing remaining, to conclude what was simply a fabulous two days of the finest Irish hospitality, we departed to the strains of a local ensemble of youngsters, mesmerisingly and hauntingly playing their fiddles and squeezeboxes to the delight of a foot-tapping and increasingly ‘lively’ local crowd.
Wild coast, wild seafood, wild passion, wild people. That’s Connemara.
And I’m back in October…..