Mayo to go: a new foodie trail
A new initiative in Co Mayo brings together the Greenway walking and cycling trail, and the stunning food that’s produced along or near its scenic route, writes MARIE-CLAIRE DIGBY
DID YOU KNOW that turbot are sociable fish that like to pile on top of each other in a great heap, ignoring vast expanses of uninhabited water around them, or that sea trout are aggressive creatures whose iridescent, dusky pink scales are the only delicate thing about them? Neither did I, until I got up close and personal with both species on a visit to food producers who feature in the new Gourmet Greenway food trail in Co Mayo.
The Great Western Greenway is an off-road cycling and walking path that runs for 17.4km through some of the west’s most beautiful countryside, from Newport to Mulranny in Co Mayo. At the end of next month an extension of the Greenway, from Westport all the way to Achill Sound, will be officially opened, making it 42km long. It is an extraordinary feat to have secured permission from the hundreds of farmers and house owners along the route of the Greenway, whose lands are traversed and whose houses the path meanders past, in some places close enough to see what’s on the breakfast table.
The Gourmet Greenway, an initiative devised by Dermot Madigan, general manager of the Mulranny Park hotel, invites visitors to meet some of the food producers positioned along or near the track, sample their produce and learn about how it is created. There are currently six food producers – fish farmers cultivating turbot, sea trout, mussels, oysters and clams, a seafood smoker, a cheesemaker and an artisan butcher – on the Gourmet Greenway map at the moment, and more will be added, with a scallop and lobster fisherman and a blueberry farmer keen to join.
In the same way that the Cliff House Hotel, O’Brien Chophouse and the Tannery restaurant and townhouse have banded together to make their corner of Co Waterford a culinary destination, Madigan hopes to create a multi-stop food trail to showcase Mayo’s abundance of really good things to eat. He is currently working with other hotels in the area, to create a food and accommodation package similar to the Waterford one.
Madigan worked on Australia’s Gold Coast for six years prior to relocating to Mulranny. “It’s still nice to be beside the sea,” he says, without a trace of irony as the rain buckets down and a gale-force wind threatens to derail his plans to take me out in a boat to see Gourmet Greenway member Tom Dougherty feed his Curraun Blue sea trout. Twice a day, without fail, even when ice laced the shore of the bay during last winter’s snowstorms, Dougherty tends to his fish. Gourmet Greenway visitors will be able to join him as he makes the short journey out to the cages, which are situated in deep waters that provide optimum conditions for fish farming.
The fish are fed an organic diet and the stocking density is low, Dougherty explains, as the fierce-looking trout, which grow up to two kilos in weight, thrash about in the water in search of their morning feed. He lands a couple of bruisers for us to get a better look, and the beautiful, pink-tinged fish are perfect specimens, full of vigour and surprisingly strong as they strain against the net.
Over on Achill Island, the westernmost point of the Greenway, the turbot farmed by Michael Flanagan at the only such facility in Ireland and the UK (most farmed turbot comes from northern Spain and Portugal), are docile and sedentary creatures by comparison, huddling together on the floor of their vast seawater tanks. Achill Island Turbot, located in the unlikely surroundings of a small business park, was set up in 2008 and brought its first fish to market last November. It takes 16 to 18 months to rear turbot to a commercially viable weight of about 1.2kg, and this year the company will produce around 80 tons of fish, most of it destined for the US, where it can be on a dinner plate in a restaurant within 48 hours of being harvested.
Visitor access to the fish farm will be weekdays, by appointment (this is the case with most of the participants). Be prepared to don some unflattering health and safety footwear, but it will be worth it for a fascinating insight into sustainable aquaculture, and eloquent words from the owner on his view of the future of sustainable fish farming.
In contrast to the high-tech, industrial environment of the turbot farm, Padraig Gannon’s Croagh Patrick Seafoods couldn’t be in a more tranquil or scenic spot, in a sheltered inlet on the north shore of Clew Bay. A lone heron and a low-flying mallard duck greet us as we drop by to see where Gannon farms Pacific oysters and clams, as well as harvesting native oysters and the deliciously sweet, small orange mussels that Clew Bay is famed for.
A former milk cattle farmer, Gannon talks us through his system of farming on the sea bed rather than on ropes secured to raised posts, as you’d see on French oyster and mussel farms. He also tells us scary stories about the viral epidemic that’s threatening to wipe out the entire French oyster-farming sector.
“There have been French fish farmers looking at sites around here. They think it will take decades to get it right in France again,” he tells us. He also explains why he doesn’t relish hot summers – too great a rise in the sea water temperature can cause an algal bloom that could wipe out his stocks. He describes the ongoing maintenance involved in keeping the bivalves healthy and happy – “otherwise it’d be like sowing a garden and not weeding it”.
As well as taking in the breathtaking surroundings and learning about the hard work involved in oyster farming, visitors will be able to taste the merchandise, and pick up a few tips on how best to open an oyster, without injury.
If you include Gannon on your Gourmet Greenway itinerary, leave him until last and you’ll be able to stock up on oysters wrapped in seaweed and prettily packaged in handmade wooden cases, as well as bags of Clew Bay mussels, clams and periwinkles.
No visit to the Gourmet Greenway should conclude without meeting artisan butcher Sean Kelly of Kelly’s family butchers in Newport, whose black and white pudding are legendary, and have earned him membership of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Goute-Boudin, a sort of black pudding fraternity in France.
“I don’t play golf, so I enter competitions,” he tells us, while proudly displaying a photo of the “pint of pudding” entry that won him a gold medal in Brittany earlier this year. I show my total lack of knowledge of black-pudding competitions when I ask him how you’d go about cooking the royal icing-topped puddings that have been moulded in pint classes. They’re only for show, it seems, having been handled too much to be safe to eat. The same goes for his latest work of art, which we are invited into the store room to inspect. It’s a very realistic three-tier pudding wedding cake (un-iced), that’s destined for a charity “guess the weight of the cake” competition.
We don’t get to visit the two other Gourmet Greenway members – Jerry Hassett of Keem Bay Fish Products and Andrew Pelham-Burn of Carrowholly Cheese – but sample their produce later in the evening, when Mulranny Park chef Ollie O’Regan showcases the terrific local ingredients he gets to work with, and his own prodigious talent, at a seven-course dinner.
Jerry Hassett’s salmon takes a starring role in a starter, served three ways – smoked, barbecued and in ceviche. The Achill Island farmed turbot is a revelation, sweet and moist, and a perfect partner to Padraig Gannon’s plump, orange-fleshed Clew Bay mussels. Sean Kelly’s lamb appears both as a wild-rocket-and-Parmesan-topped loin, and in a lamb sausage. A trio of Carrowholly cheeses shows the great variety its maker has achieved with his Gouda-style cheese, and the nettle variety is the star, with a subtle but hard-to-define flavour.
The produce so lovingly tended by the Gourmet Greenway members will feature on the menu at Mulranny Park throughout the year, depending on seasonality and availability.
A pocket-sized Gourmet Greenway guide, with a map and contact details for the producers, is available a local tourist offices. See also mulrannyparkhotel.ie
Waterford wondersThe Cliff House hotel in Ardmore, the Tannery restaurant and townhouse in Dungarvan and O’Brien Chophouse in Lismore offer a West Waterford Weekend that includes accommodation and meals in all three establishments. See tannery.ie; thecliffhousehotel.com; obrienchophouse.ie
Kilkenny Food Trail: You could spend a very enjoyable few days exploring the city and county’s food culture through visits to bakers, farmers, cheesemakers and chocolatiers, with stops along the way to eat at restaurants they supply with their produce. See trailkilkenny.ie/food-trail
Donegal Good Food Taverns: This new initiative highlights 10 places in the county that promise more exciting fare using local produce. See donegalfoodtaverns.com
Cool Co ClareMickael Viljanen was voted best chef in Ireland at the Restaurants Association of Ireland awards last week, and Gregan’s Castle in Ballyvaughan, where he is head chef, took the Best Customer Service award. Wild Honey Inn in Lisdoonvara is also worth a visit. See gregans.ie; wildhoneyinn.com