This may be one of Ireland’s best “liquor” routes – even for non-drinkers

I really thought I knew what a fresh oyster tasted like. But then, just off the coastline, an Irishman named David Keane handed me a deep bowl of a freshly hatched oyster. I had to lean forward to eat it—the cold sink was full of liquor or natural oyster juice. I raised the shell to my lips and tilted it, stuffing the meat into my mouth. Instant rush of the sea, sweetness. It sounds strange, but with the salty bite, I also felt a surge of happiness that bordered on the forbidden, as if this taste was so good that it had to be banned somehow.

But no, it’s just the purity of the Irish oyster. And, in particular, one of DK Connemara Oysters, a farm near the village of Letterfrack in County Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. As an American who has spent the last 15 years exploring Ireland and married to an Irishman, I am constantly amazed by the quality of the food in this country. You don’t have to look for grass-fed meat or organic milk; that is the order of things. The government (and the EU) regulates genetically modified foods. Simply put, you don’t have to go to all that trouble to identify and choose healthy, natural foods – Ireland does it for you. Strawberries, crumbly cheddar cheese, even plain carrots. Everything is noticeably rich in taste.

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Of all the excellent ingredients in Ireland, seafood may top the list. For me, no trip to Ireland is complete without sautéed scallops, smoked salmon for breakfast, and mackerel paté spread on garlic toast. So, on a recent trip to Ireland’s west coast, I was delighted to hear about an initiative that is making Irish seafood and local produce more accessible to travelers than ever before. Taste the Atlantic is a seafood trail or map connecting County Donegal producers to County Cork, offering the opportunity to visit working farms and sample mussels, salmon, abalone and seaweed along the way. Call it the Wild Atlantic Way for hungry, seafood-loving travelers.

Oyster shells filled holes in the road as I drove down a bumpy road at DK Connemara Oysters. Situated on the shores of Ballinakill Bay, this working farm is one of 21 stops along the Taste the Atlantic route. It first opened for tours in 2017 and offers visitors the chance to see where oysters are grown and learn about aquaculture before embarking on a tasting. I arrived just in time to witness the spring tide, or the high tide just after the full moon, when the difference between high and low tide is greatest, and we walked along the rocky shore adjoining the bay. “The scent of the oyster comes from the bay,” David Keene told me.

We looked to where 18,000 sacks of oysters feed on plankton and are swayed by the natural roughness of the sea. Oysters grow here for two or three years until they are ripe; then they are ready to be cleansed and eaten. A wooden picnic table overlooking the bay serves as a tasting room where you can feast on oysters in the sea air. In 2018, owner David Keene contacted Taste the Atlantic, which offered another way for oyster lovers to discover a small farm. There are plenty of places to eat seafood in Ireland, but there’s something special about going straight to the farm knowing that the oyster you’re about to eat has just been pulled out of the water.

Farmers grow oysters at William Lynch’s Lynch’s Foylemore Oysters at Lough Foyle in County Donegal, Ireland.

Paul Feith/AFP via Getty

The Taste the Atlantic trail helps travelers find small businesses to support, with a focus on those doing their best to implement sustainable practices. At Mungo Murphy’s Seaweed Co. visitors arrive in the coastal village of Rossavil, County Galway to experience edible seaweed and explore abalone farm (or sea snails, a culinary delicacy made from rich, flavorful meat). Visitors can choose from two options: walking along the coast and tasting abalone, or just tasting. The walk includes the opportunity to walk along the coastline with a guide and learn about the variety of edible algae that grows here.

“I love watching people pluck seaweed from a rock, put it in their mouths and see their eyes light up – it’s a lot of fun,” says Sinead O’Brien, founder of Mungo Murphy’s Seawood Co. a coast that points to plants such as sea radishes and sea spinach, followed by a visit to an abalone farm and tasting. Visitors can walk up to the tanks and get their hands wet while learning about aquaculture and sustainable development in this part of the country. Sinead started offering tours in 2018, and in addition to the farm tours, visitors try sea lettuce tempura, seaweed salad, seaweed biscuits and, of course, abalone (which is fed 100 percent kelp). Taste the Atlantic has provided another way for hungry travelers to find her tours.

Further south along the coast at Lisdoonvarn, County Clare, the aroma of oak smoke greets visitors to the Burren Smokehouse Visitor Center. This family business, owned by Birgitta Hedin Kurtin and Peter Kurtin, first opened in 1989. Visitors come here to try a variety of smoked fish including cold smoked salmon, hot smoked salmon, rainbow trout and mackerel. During your visit you will be able to run your hands over the oak shavings used in the smoking process, see the oven and learn about the art and craft of fish smoking. Visitors who want to go even further can book the Ultra Luxe service, which also includes a visit to the smokehouse and a tasting of local small-batch beer.

Oysters and smoked salmon from Burren Smokehouse.

Burren Smokehouse

This visitor center also has an exhibit that explains the history and folklore of wild salmon and educates people about business sustainability goals. But this is a tasting that visitors, a mixture of Irish and foreign visitors, really enjoy. After all, it’s the smoked salmon that goes to the White House on St. Patrick’s Day. “Our salmon has a soft smoke, a velvety texture, a nice firmness,” says Birgitta Hedin Kurtin, a Swedish native who settled in this part of Ireland decades ago. For Birgitta, her favorite way to eat smoked salmon is simple: on top of black bread with pesto and arugula, or maybe an egg, or for dinner as part of smoked salmon tagliatelle.

Other producers along the Taste the Atlantic trail include Roringwater Bay mussels, Haven clams, Killard Fjord clams and many more. The map provides inspiration for more than one trip, and travelers can decide which part of the coast they want to bite off in one route. Booking in advance is key to visiting any grower on the trail as they are working farms and can only receive visitors at certain times. Most manufacturers have a store or opportunity to sell their products to visitors.

I can’t think of a more Irish picnic than stopping in a scenic spot along the coast, spreading a blanket on the grass, and letting the afternoon unfold for a dozen oysters and smoked salmon layered between fresh bread.

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