“The Wild Atlantic Way”;
A window to the past and a blueprint for the future.
“Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.”
Taken from “Oysters” by Seamus Heaney, one of my favourite poems, and one of my favourite things to eat. Of all the edible gifts that Mother Nature has given us, whether it be plant or animal, fruit or fish, few have the ability to stir the senses like a native rock oyster. It requires no tampering or adjustment; just pluck from the shore, shuck, slurp and smile. They are both delicious and nourishing and thankfully plentiful up here in the “33rd county”, Inishowen.
The Wild Ocean
From my kitchen window, I can hear, taste and smell the power of the Atlantic Ocean. Its menace and beauty are striking in equal measure and the abundance of life that emanates from its waters is mesmerising. The western coast of Ireland has been shaped and shifted by an tAigéan Atlantach over several millennia and what we have been left with is nothing short of spectacular…. from the formidable sea cliffs of Sliabh Liag in our own Donegal, to the mystical Islands of the Skelligs off the coast of Kerry. It’s therefore, little wonder that we are being visited in greater numbers every year by tourists, athletes, photographers and foodies of all nationalities, as they make their way along 2500km of some of the most breath-taking scenery in the world.
This recent increased influx of wanderers and explorers has encouraged me to look back and try and piece together a brief history of our land and put my finger on what makes the island of Ireland so unique.
A brief history
The first evidence we have of human life on these shores is thought to date back to 12,500 BC. This stems from the discovery in a cave in Co. Clare of the remains of a brown bear, which was thought to have been brought to Ireland from the Basque region of Spain. Sometime later, a thick layer of glacial ice crept slowly across the land and it wasn’t until circa 8000 BC that a new group of settlers found their way to our shores. These were a sea faring folk who combined a diet of shellfish and foraged sea vegetables with wild game birds, fruit and nuts. They put in place a peaceful and comprehensive societal framework that would last until 4500 BC when the importation of livestock from England would herald a new era of agriculture.
At the Ceide fields on the north coast of County Mayo, we can see how they physically shaped the land to enable the cultivation of cereals and grains around 3000 BC. As well as this, they made pottery and weaved and fashioned patchwork quilts. Probably the most awe-inspiring manmade objects discovered from this period were the huge stone megalithic monuments.
But what drove them to come here and what inspired them to continually evolve and make the best out of what they had? Was it pure necessity or was there some other force behind the surge? Could a contributing factor have been that mealtimes were looked upon with a degree of sanctity and the availability of plentiful and diverse foods on our island was as much of a lure and an enticement to a region many years ago, as it is today? Perhaps it was as important for the cooks in society back then to please the recipients of their daily toils as it is to professional cooks today? To quote George Bernard Shaw; “There is no love sincerer than the love of food”. Of this I am certain.
Today’s Gaelic Influence
Sadly, much of the discourse around Irish food today focuses upon the Great Hunger of 1847 when a deadly potato blight wiped out the countries entire crop. But there is far more to the history of bia na hEireann than the potato. The humble spud never arrived on the Emerald Isle until around the turn of the 17th century, so what did they eat prior to this?
The truth is, the Gaelic Celts were a highly sophisticated tribe, with their own cuisine, language, art, laws, music and culture. They were hunter gatherers who not only lived in unison with the earth but learned to exercise an impressive measure of control over it. They roasted or braised their meats, adding berries and herbs to give flavour. They salted pork and beef using Continental techniques, presumably imparted by their Basque ancestors. They kept bees and made mead from their honey. An un-hopped beer was produced using barley and wheat; first allowing the grain to germinate, then stopping the process with heat and allowing it to ferment. They farmed goats and sheep to make cheese and whey. In short, they had mastered the land.
Fast forward a few thousand years and so much has changed, and yet so much has stayed the same. Our palates have developed and the range of foods available to us is unlimited. Yet, despite the vast array of international produce at our fingertips, it’s the simple things done really well that strike a chord. A perfectly braised shank of lamb, with a few roast potatoes and some herbs can be as satisfying as the most complex 14 course tasting menu. I think this first really hit home to me whilst on honeymoon in Australia. At Margaret River, near Perth we ate local food and drank local wine and I had what I would describe as an epiphenous food experience. It was here that I felt a powerful connection to the terroir of Western Australia. We ate Garlic Roasted Lamb Chops, Sweet Potato Chips and Chilli Butter. The “Peel Estate” black Shiraz was thick and heavy, and I could smell the vines, the soil and the herbs on the air. They were all interwoven in that moment, and impossible to replicate anywhere but there and then. I realised the importance of trying to deliver the same experience from my kitchen to our guests. It’s this unique connection between man, land, food and wine that people try to tap into wherever they go.
In McGrory’s Hotel….
There are many such examples on our menu. Take for instance our local craft butcher Ronald Boggs, a Third Generation Artisan producer, who still makes sausages the old way, hand tied. Wash them down with a bottle of Kinnegar Ale, from Rathmullan, and you’re in heaven. They are a mainstay on our menus and guests who have them for breakfast will often ask where they came from on departure and will almost certainly call into Ronald’s shop in Malin town on their journey onward, in a bid to hold on to the flavour of the wild Atlantic way.
Our Gaelic forefathers have left us with a priceless legacy that we can be proud of and hopefully preserve and nurture for future generations to develop. For me, this is part of all that is genuine about the Wild Atlantic Way.
So perhaps this authenticity and distinctive flavour is part of what endears our coastline to the rest of the world and keeps them coming back for more.