Exploring Ireland: Foraging the Wild Atlantic Way.
Travelling across Ireland’s centre in September 2015, the countryside put on a fine Spring showing of foragable fruits which created just the right kind of mindset for what turned out to be a very productive tour of some of County Mayo’s wild shores.Along the way, giant rose hips and elderberries soon to ripen ready for picking thrust their faces through the hedgerows into the sun…….………wild thistles to set cheese with abounded in fields……..……..and a day full of promise beckoned from the shores around the tiny town of Kilalla.
Killala Bay (Cuan Chill Ala in Irish), six and a half miles north-west of Ballina, is a bay on the west coast of Ireland between County Mayo and County Sligo. Killala is situated at the mouth of the estuary of the River Moy and is well known for its fishing due to its close proximity to the deep waters of the continental shelf.
Prior to leaving Tasmania, Brunyfire had been in touch with Denis Quinn, a Failte Irelander approved Marine and Countryside Guide, who runs cultural and food foraging trips through Wild Atlantic Cultural Tours. Quinn also holds a BA (Hons) degree in Heritage Studies, and is happiest fossicking about outdoors and sharing his knowledge and love of the stunning north Mayo coastline.
On this occasion, Denis was to lead a foraging party of three for the morning. Providing us with elegant green wellies, we waded across the sands and mud flats towards the ruins of Bartragh Island in the centre of Killala bay. As we plodded over the flats, Denis introduced us to the many edible seaweeds that can be harvested quite readily and what their nutritional and gastronomical uses were.Such as the familiar sounding nori, which on first sighting looked totally unrecognisable – a bit like the aftermath of an oil slick or, as Prannie Rhatigan describes it, ‘like a black plastic bag that has melted in the sun’ until it is carefully unfolded from its parent rock. Rhatigan’s book Irish Seaweed Kitchen, is a comprehensive guide to recognising, harvesting and cooking with seaweeds and is an invaluable source of ideas and information that Quin readily acknowledges as his ‘bible’.Next, we were introduced to the weirdly named bladderwrack……….…….a form of kelp that has been used medicinally for centuries. Its main use has been for the stimulation of the thyroid gland as a treatment for obesity and cellulite. The high iodine content of the herb is said to stimulate thyroid function which boosts metabolism. On previous foraging expeditions, Quin has collected quite a haul of different seaweeds – amongst these is an Irish favourite – Duileasc – a small red seaweed with a historical pedigree dating back to the Mesolithic Era (c. 9000 – 4000 BC). Preparing seaweeds for culinary uses is a pretty straight forward procedure – once harvested and washed, the seaweeds are left to dry, either naturally or by being placed in the oven. Once they’ve turned crispy, but taking care not to burn them…….……they’re crumbled or crushed in a mortar and pestle and stored in airtight containers. The samples that Denis brought with him to show us were, on the far left, duileasc – a blend (in the small pot) and sea spaghetti in the brown paper bag. Drying the seaweeds was a great way to process and store these fantastic products – free for the taking. Later, a whole range of dried seaweeds were found in the English Market in Cork – smartly packaged and presented, and with a price tag to match.
The harvesting proceeded with the collection of mussels…….……..limpets…………..and ‘spooning’ for clams. To identify their hiding places, we had to look out for tiny pin holes in the sand – a seemingly impossible task until we knew what we were looking for.Along the way back, laden with onion sacks of mussels and clams, Denis managed to find a few harvestable greens, not the best time for them apparently.By this time, everyone was hungry, so after heading back to the car………….parked next to the remains of Rosserk Friary, founded in 1460 for a community of married men and women wishing to lead a Franciscan way of life, the shellfish were cleaned………….and whipped into a delicious shellfish soup.