It’s the first day of summer in Ireland, but the sky is moody and the waves are crashing to shore as we approach Lahinch, a tiny town of around 650 people on the country’s wild, west coast.
Having called the area home most of their lives, my hosts for the day, Oonagh O’Dwyer and Teresa O’Brien, barely notice the brisk wind that whips around Barrtra Seafood, O’Brien’s whitewashed restaurant.
“When we opened in 1988 we had just four tables,” O’Brien tells me, gazing out over the Atlantic, just a short stroll from the now expanded, glass-encased dining room. Locals, surfers and golf enthusiasts – Lahinch is home to one of Ireland’s best links courses, not to mention the fabled Aileen’s, one of Europe’s biggest waves – have been flocking here for years.
Tourists have joined them recently, thanks to a “Be My Guest” excursion offered by travel company Trafalgar. The idea is to offer Trafalgar travellers a local experience not open to the general public. In this case, it’s a meal at Barrtra – with a twist.
A trained horticulturalist, O’Dwyer knows her wakame from her nori – both are types of seaweed commonly found on Barrtra’s rocky coastal doorstep. In fact, the stony beach at the end of the road is a fertile ground for some 10 different types of seaweed. And O’Dwyer is determined to have them all on the menu.
“There is so much edible produce growing wild around us,” O’Dwyer tells me. “People know the plants, they just don’t know how to use them.” She pulls out a basket laden with nettle-and-dillisk hummus, rocket pesto, sugar-kelp crisps, pakoras made with chickweed, and gomasio – a spice mix she’s made with dried dillisk (a sea vegetable) and ground fennel seeds.
“I love to marinate sea spaghetti [another type of seaweed] with ginger and garlic and turn it into a salad, or soak bramble leaves in hot water for tea, or make dandelion marmalade,” O’Dwyer continues as we pull on coats and head down to the water to pick up some ingredients for our lunch that O’Brien’s son Rogan has begun preparing in the kitchen.
Enormous Limousin cows gaze at us from emerald-green fields as O’Dwyer plucks strands of goosegrass and sorrel from the roadside for me to try. “There’s so much here,” she says, sweeping her arms around at the rolling countryside. “There’s fennel, dill, thyme, nettles, hawthorn…” And, once we reach the beach, there’s “Sea bass, cod, lobster, crab”.
Back at Barrtra, Rogan takes what we’ve found and turns it into a spectacular three-course lunch that begins with a crab-and-prawn cocktail with homemade mayo, and brown bread baked with treacle, dillisk and oats. Then there’s hot-smoked salmon with garden herbs and new-potato mash.
“We only serve food here that’s good for you,” says O’Brien as I go back for a second serve of the fork-tender salmon.
Both my hosts are passionate followers of the Slow Food movement, and both are part of the Burren Food Trail, a collective of regional producers dedicated to showcasing the area’s finest fare.
“Local producers have diversified because they want to stay and live off the land,” says O’Dwyer as Rogan serves up dessert: warm apple crumble with caramel sauce. “Now you’re seeing really imaginative entrepreneurs spring up. It’s important to do it sustainably. And we do. It’s an exciting time for foraging.”