Day Three of Irish Food Trip: a shore thing

By the time I awoke to sunlight streaming into my beautiful bedroom above The Tannery Cookery School on Wednesday morning, it felt like myself and the five Euro-toques Young Chef finalists I was travelling with had been away for weeks rather than days.

Over my breakfast of apple compote, yoghurt and granola, Crinnaughton apple juice, fresh coffee and fruit muffin, all of which overnight guests at The Tannery can enjoy in the comfort of their own bedrooms, I had time to contemplate the range of food producers, eateries and chefs we had come into contact with since Sunday evening. (You can read back over the last couple of posts for more details on our food-focussed road trip around the sunny South East).

Since hitting the road on Sunday, we had met all sorts of great Irish producers, from butchers, bakers and brewers to farmers, cheesemakers and ice-cream producers. Now it was time to meet some of the people who work with Ireland’s world-class fish and shellfish.

Having spent most of Wednesday and Thursday morning doing just that, I can tell you one thing for sure: the men and women responsible for harvesting and processing the bounty of seafood that comes from our island’s waters sure work hard for their living.

It’s an industry we should and can be proud of. It’s just a shame that so much of what we do produce goes out of the country (some 85%), and mind-boggling that we should import so much fish too (in the case of many hotels and restaurants, 90% of what they sell is imported). Fancy a visit to Ireland’s largest fish market? Just head for Cork airport.

There are many reasons for this odd set-up, from historic decisions to give away our nation’s fishing rights to ever-rising costs of doing business here in Ireland, but the bottom line seems to be that countries such as France and Spain are willing to pay for the premium product they recognise Irish seafood as, whereas we Irish have tended to seek out either cheaper alternatives such as imported salmon or ‘exotic’ foreign species such as tuna or seabass.

Our first stop on Wednesday morning found us in the company of Tommy Hickey of Hook Head Shellfish who talked us through the often “back-breaking” work involved in oyster production at his Bannow Bay aquaculture farm. Tommy is one of several oyster growers based in this picturesque tidal estuary between Hook Head and Carnsore Point. Like a kind of Swiss finishing school for Irish oysters, Bannow Bay is where oysters which were born in French hatcheries and grew up in neighbouring bays at Dungarvan and Woodstown come to shape up before they can be presented to high society at the finest Parisian dining rooms. They do so by feasting on the bay’s particular type of algae which is ideal for putting meat on the little molluscs. How the aqua-farmers such as Tommy work the bags in which the oysters grow is crucial too in helping to shape the all-important deep cup of the gigas or Pacific oyster. Still tucked up in those bags, the oysters finally travel back to France where they are processed and sold on as ‘Speciale’ oysters, one of France’s most sought after classifications. Who knew these super foods could be so well travelled?

Down behind the dunes of Kilmore Quay strand is another exporter of Irish shellfish, albeit on a very different scale. A visit to the processing depot of Sofrimar Seafood provides quite the sensory stimulation. In one hall, the din of thousands of seashells clacking adds an impressive soundscape to the sight of some hundred hard-working women processing scallops with skillful twists of knives. Step into one side room to be wooed by the sweet smell of fresh razor clams and shelled scallops, step into another containing thousands of frozen prawns stored at -15ºC to be greeted by the sight of light snow falling. I was glad to return outside to the sunshine of one of the hottest days of the year, with a newfound appreciation for the people who process our seafood.

It was nearly lunchtime so we headed down to the quayside towards the modest little seaside shack that houses The Crazy Crab, BIM Seafood Circle’s Newcomer of the Year 2012 – but not before stopping in to see the HQ of Saltees Seafood Ltd, a family-run operation headed up by the formidable O’Flaherty clan. You may have seen the delivery trucks of these seafood wholesalers spinning around the country with their bold orders to ‘Eat More Fish’ emblazoned on the side. A family of six brothers, the O’Flahertys have cleverly and carefully developed their business over 25 years so that they now control every aspect of the process from  catching the fish to marketing, selling and distributing it. Those trucks sure do get around, travelling from their Wexford base down to Cork and up to Dublin and even as far as Killybegs, not to mention across the waters and down as far as Madrid and Barcelona. Two thirds of their catch is exported, including their entire catch of certain species such as megrim and witches (or white sole) – both plentiful Irish fish which Michael O’Flaherty describes as great eating. Sadly, even the O’Flahertys can’t control the fact that there is zero demand in Ireland for these native fish, although they would be happy to supply them to customers such as Cavistons in Greystones and Glasthule should you the consumer care to go looking for them.

Michael spends his working days on land heading up the marketing side of the business but he spoke with great respect for his brothers and their crew who work out at sea on the company’s beam trawlers. These guys work non-stop for several days at a time, breaking three or four times in 24 hours to catch an hour or two’s sleep as the nets fill before several hours of hauling and sorting. With the cost of fuel having doubled since 2008, costs such as labour have to squeezed to the absolute minimum without compromising the all-important safety of the crew. It’s a fine balancing act.

Balance is also key to conserving local lobster stocks, as John Hickey from BIM explained to us over a lovely lunch in Crazy Crab Seafood Bistro and Cafe, where everything from local crab and prawns to smoked Union Hall mackerel to freshly landed lemon sole was delicious. Well fed once again, we headed down to the quay to see just how that balance in lobster stocks is achieved. Besides returning any undersized lobsters to the water (the minimum landing size being a 87mm ‘carapace’, which is the main body between the claws and tail) a selection of lucky female lobsters are marked as protected and sent back out into the waters to procreate in peace. I got to clip the iridescent blue tail of one female who was heavy with glistening black eggs – and kept the cut-out v as a little souvenir of the trip.

The final piece in this deliciously fishy puzzle came the next morning, having travelled back inland to Kilkenny city for our final installment of fine Irish eating (see tomorrow’s post for details of dinner in Campagne and Irish tapas in Zuni). We drove out on a sparkling Thursday morning to visit Goatsbridge Trout Farm just outside Thomastown, where Ger Kirwan took us around their small-scale set-up. This second-generation operation has transformed in response to market demands over its 50-odd years of existence, most recently with the addition of an onsite processing hall. Here they can gut, fillet and pin bone whole trout, develop new products such as Ireland’s first trout caviar, and sell products directly to visitors at their factory shop. This is a fish farm worth a visit, even just to see for yourself the quality of the water and the low stocking density (which is below that required for organic certification).

As part of the Taste of Kilkenny food trail, Goatsbridge is well set up for self-guided visits too, with interpretative signs taking you through the lifecycle of the fish from eyed ova in the onsite hatchery to full-sized adults in the aerated earthen ponds. As with most of the producers on the trail, visits are by appointment, as in give them a bell if you’re in the area and let them know you’d like to drop by. They’ll most likely be hard at work – but you’re guaranteed to be made welcome.

It’s like I said. One thing’s for sure: the men and women responsible for harvesting and processing the fish and seafood that comes from our island’s waters sure work hard for their living. They are rightfully proud of what they do and how they do it. It’s worth going out of your way to support them – whether by asking for Irish fish at your supermarket, fishmongers or local restaurant, or by going to visit them on their own surf.

Tune in tomorrow for my last installment about this week’s Irish Food Trip, or you can retrace our route on Twitter (@holymackers) by searching for #IrishFoodTrip.

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