The Burren's Wild Honey Inn this week became the first pub in Ireland to win a Michelin star. With an appetite for sourcing fresh produce from indigenous food suppliers, chef Aidan McGrath has turned the pub in Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare into a success, and put the Burren – a Unesco Global Geopark – centre stage on Ireland's foodie map.
This all seems very far from the time when Cromwellian lieutenant Edmund Ludlow described the locality as a "country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him".
The park’s most iconic landmark, the four-legged Poulnabrone Dolmen, juts up from the rocky terrain like a giant milking stool, and it’s a reminder that the Burren’s karst, rugged landscape can nourish its residents as well as bury them.
In recognition of this, artisan food producers along the Burren Food Trail are fusing indigenous ingredients with traditional recipes, creating a flavour explosion.
A trail of sweet treats
Setting out from Ireland's surfing capital, Lahinch, and driving for 15 minutes along the coast past the grassy dome surface of the Cliffs of Moher visitors' centre, you see a small sign for "Clare jam" laying low on the road but high over the sweeping ocean views.
Following its direction, down a rollercoaster drive towards Doolin village, you reach David and Vera Muir's cottage, which offers tasty preserves, such as poitín orange marmalade and Guinness mustard, along with sweet berry flavours freshly cooked and jarred.
Further along the main road, which runs into Fisher Street in Doolin village, a single row of thatched craft cottage businesses cater to the crammed traffic and outbound travellers to the Aran Islands. The Doolin Chocolate Shop, near the village’s famous traditional Gus O’Connor’s pub, stocks Co Clare’s handmade Irish Wild Chocolates. Fudge, liquor and bespoke bars are available through its open cottage door.
Heading 20 miles north to Flaggy Shore, you reach Linnalla Creamery. The farm has the most westerly ice cream parlour in Europe, says its owner Bríd Fahy, with smoothies and ice-cream produced from her own livestock.
“Our Shorthorn cows swim to grazing on our island and also like to eat some seaweed. We like to use as many local ingredients as we can, from foraged fruits and nuts.”
A short drive from the Flaggy Shore, the Oughtmama Valley has its own sweet success. It's home to Hazel Mountain Chocolate, a hip take on the art of chocolatiering.
Managing director Darragh Conboy says: "We use quintessentially local flavours such as carrageen, bladder wrack, and dillisk – on our 67 per cent Madagascar seaweed bar – or hazelnuts and elderberries. We stone-mill our cacao into chocolate. It's an homage to the past and the local monks that used simple stone mills to make flour. Now, 1,000 years on, the practice continues."
The loop of the Burren’s finest sweet food ends where it started, along the N67, up the curvaceous Corkscrew Hill and back to Lahinch.
A tasting trip to the Burren wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Burren Smokehouse Visitor Centre in Lisdoonvarna. The centre offers more than 30,000 visitors a year the chance to learn about the world famous organic salmon – right from the moment it’s caught through to how it is hot and cold smoked on site.
You can see the first kiln used here when the smokehouse was established in 1989 by Birgitta & Peter Curtin and there are tastings a plenty to keep you happy while you visit. There's a shop, of course, if you want to bring some home, and there are lots of other local produce available to buy, too. See burrensmokehouse.com
Other unique Burren fare includes St Tola Goat Farm in Ennistymon (www.st-tola.ie, 065 683 6633) which makes award-winning goats cheese. You can visit the farm, learn about sustainable farming, and sample the cheese.
If you'd rather work for your supper, Wild Kitchen leads wild food walks through the countryside and on the seashore. You'll forage for, and taste edible wild plants, while learning all about the locality and gathering recipes and tips for identifying what's good to eat. Walks include a picnic lunch or cookery demos if arranged in advance. Wild Kitchen is based at Callura South, Lahinch, Co. Clare. wildkitchen.ie, 087 687 7890.
Or sample lots of local produce at once, at one of the local farmers markets. Try Ballyvaughan Farmers Market, every Saturday morning from May to October at St John's Hall. The market, which has been operating for 14 years, offers great organic fruit and vegetables, artisan fare and great coffee. See the market's Facebook page.
Futher east along the coast, the friendly Kinvara Farmers Market runs every Friday morning from April to November on the Main Street. You'll find lots of local produce and crafts on offer from 10am to 2pm. See kinvara.com/farmersmarket
Burren restaurants to discover
The Wild Honey Inn
Kincora Road, Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare 065 7074300 wildhoneyinn.com
Aidan McGrath and Kate Sweeney this week graduated from Bib Gourmand to full Michelin star. Chef Aidan selects the best local free-range produce in season. There are rooms at the inn, too. Three-course tasting menus begin at €40.
The Tea Room
Burren Perfumery, Carron, Co Clare 065-7089102 burrenperfumery.com
Fragrance isn’t the only thing available in the Burren’s rose-clad cottage in an unlikely setting in a remote corner of the park. The team brew herbal teas from their garden and bake confectionery from the locally sourced produce.
Monk's Bar and Seafood Restaurant
The Pier, Ballyvaughan, Co Clare 065 7077059 monks.ie
After a brief absence, this landmark establishment has reopened its doors and wide open hearth to its guests. It serves locally sourced salmon and St Tola’s goat’s cheese, from the southern ridge of the Burren and, of course, it wouldn’t be Monk’s without their famous mussels and seafood chowder. Main course from €15.
Lahinch, Co Clare 065 7082800
Located in a quirky whitewashed heritage property, Moy House, on an elevated site overlooking the Atlantic Ocean has one of the Burren’s finest restaurants.
Moy House head chef, Matthew Strefford uses fresh produce from the gardens and neighbouring farms to create a six-course tasting menu, and a daily la carte menu.
Linnane's Lobster Bar
Cartron, New Quay, Co Clare +353(0)65 7078120
Perched on a rocky bed on the edge of the Burren and overlooking Galway Bay, this 300 year old cottage has served fresh catch for decades. Linnane’s speciality is its ocean harvest with locally sourced scallops, salmon, crab and lobster.
Walk it off
Take the antidote to an overindulgence of the Burren’s feasts by taking a breathtaking hike high over the Atlantic.
Cliffs of Moher Trail
From Liscannor, the home village of John Holland, the man who developed the first submarine commissioned by the US Navy, head north past Hag’s Head for panoramic Atlantic views across to the Aran Islands. Passing the first headland of the Cliffs of Moher (Aill Na Searrach, or the leap of fools) for a bird’s eye view of where surfers ride the giant waves below. Then it’s onto the Cliffs of Moher visitor’s centre.
The Cliffs have starred in movies from Ryan's Daughter to Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and the Princess Bride 30 years ago. Then head five miles inland, before hugging the coast as far as Doolin Village.
The trail demands the appropriate fitness levels, gear, and there is no protective fencing in parts. It’s not suitable for young children or dog walking.
Black Head Trail
This if for those who prefer their walks without the vertigo-inducing pathways of the Cliffs of Moher trail. Start at the small Fanore Beach, where locals go to escape the crowds. Heading inland, follow along the marked green trail or Famine road, created at a time when harvests refused to yield crops and the poor were fed in lieu of labour.
With Galway Bay as your backdrop, you’ll pass mountain paths and woodland trails before arriving in the village of Ballyvaughan. O’Loclainn’s Pub in the town has the one of the finest collections of whiskey in Ireland.
Where to Stay
New Quay, Burren, Co Clare +353(0)65 7078126
US president George Washington reputedly gave Col William Persse, the man who built this stunning Georgian property on Flaggy Shore, the three cypress trees in its walled garden as a gift for serving in the American War of Independence. In later years, Lady Gregory entertained Irish literary heavyweights such as Yeats, Shaw, O'Casey and Synge at Mount Vernon. Today, owner Mark Helmore sources his shellfish and other seafood from a local fisherman in New Quay. It's a full-on organic experience at Mount Vernon, with home-grown vegetables, sea beet from the shoreline, Burren jam, eggs from up the lane and meat from the livestock that grazes in nearby fields. Rooms from €160 a night, with a minimum of two nights' stay. Evening meal €50.
Ennistymon, Co Clare +353(0)65 7071004
This sprawling property overlooking Ennistymon’s cascades was once the retreat of poet Dylan Thomas and childhood home of his wife, Kathleen. Nip around the corner for strudel at Unglert’s Bakery, if you’re lucky enough to be there when it’s open. Rates from €100.
Main Street. Kilfenora, Co Clare +353(0)65 7088908 firstname.lastname@example.org
In the heart of Kilfenora village, next door to Vaughan's Pub, Kilfenora Hostel caters for groups, families and individuals with good value and self-contained units. It's a five-minute walk from Kilfenora Cathedral. Rates per twin €48, family of five (2 adults, 3 children) €80. Continental breakfast and linen included.