BY JUDY ENRIGHT
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
“Shucks,” David Keane might have said to his wife and family back in 2014. “Maybe we should buy an oyster farm.” Five years later, he’s happily shucking oysters for visitors touring DK Connemara Oysters Ltd. in Ballinakill Bay, Letterfrack. The farm had been owned by a French firm and was run down when the Keanes bought it. But after five years of hard work and dedication, it is now rejuvenated, employs eight local workers, offers tours, and ships oysters across the world.
We joined an afternoon tour this spring and found it fascinating to learn about one of our favorite foods. Keane led us down to the shore and explained that the farm, which dates to 1893, is one of the oldest licensed farms in Ireland and was originally a native oyster farm where laborers harvested them from the bay with forks and baskets during the spring tide. The oysters were packed in seaweed-filled barrels, moved to Clifden by horse and cart, then by train to Dublin where they were sent to the UK on mail boats.
Oysters take three years to grow from seeds, Keane said, and their final shape, determined during growth, is of utmost importance to consumers and chefs. The Connemara farm grows oysters in bags on top of trestles and shakes the bags every month to encourage the bivalve mollusks to grow deep and meaty rather than long.
In the late 1970s, a virus killed off native oysters in Ballinakill Bay, Keane said, so the French owner introduced the Gigas oyster and the bag-and-trestle method still used today. When the farm went on the market in 2014, the Keanes saw a great opportunity. “It was run down and, over the last five years, we have built it up again, hired a great team - all local to the farm - and have rekindled the unique flavor of Connemara oysters from Ballinakill Bay,” he said.
The farm is split into sections and each section is split into bays. Tides range from low to high with each section having different water depth. By moving the oysters as they mature, the farmer influences meat content. When nearing full growth, oysters are moved closer to the high shore. As the tide goes out, the oysters are uncovered and shut tight for the journey to market during which they must stay shut to avoid drying out.
Streams flow down from Connemara National Park into Ballinakill Bay, fuse with Atlantic Ocean waters, and give the oysters their unique taste. If you go to another farm, Keane said, oysters look the same but have a different taste because oysters take their taste from the water in which they’re grown.
“We plan to produce 100 metric tons (220,462 pounds) per annum,” Keane added. “This is phased growth and we were well on our way before the Karenia bloom (algae) in 2018. We will be back on target by the end of 2019.
“We sell to restaurants in Ireland, Holland, and the European mainland,” Keane said. Queries have also come from as far away as Singapore. “And, of course, the idea of selling a Connemara oyster in Boston is mouth watering,” he said.
The farm is included among 21 listings in the Tourist Board’s “Taste the Atlantic: A Seafood Journey” that skims along the Wild Atlantic Way coast from Donegal to Cork. This dedicated seafood trail offers visitors varied suggestions, ranging from restaurants and cafes to farms, fishing ports, and smokehouses.
Special group and family rates are available, and the outdoor tour, which lasts about an hour, is suitable for children over six. Be sure to wear appropriate clothing and footwear to suit the weather. At the end of the tour, there is a delicious oyster tasting. See dkconnemaraoysters.com for details and contact information.
When you’re in Connemara for oysters, you might plan a visit to the 14th Annual Connemara Mussel Festival on May 3, 4 and 5 in Tullycross, Renvyle.
The festival includes a Friday concert with local talent - musicians, poets, dancers, actors, and an original play. There will be a Saturday visit from Agriaware Pet Farm, a mobile farm and outdoor classroom, and ARC, a mobile classroom designed to raise young people’s awareness of aquaculture. Leading Irish chefs will demonstrate their skills in preparing the best of local produce and Belgian-based singer Sophia Ammann will present Leonard Cohen songs.
There will also be talks, walks, and a free Sunday gig by “The Good Hustle.” For more information, see connemaramusselfestival.com.
Once upon a time, Irish cooks primarily served meat and potato. Those days are a distant memory now and the food in Ireland competes handily with gourmet food served in other countries.
The Gourmet Greenway was created at the Mulranny Park Hotel, Co. Mayo, some years ago to showcase local food and food producers. There are events listed every month through October.
In May, Marlene’s Chocolate Haven in Westport serves a complimentary Gourmet Greenway-flavored chocolate with every hot drink, the Grainne Uaile Bar in Newport offers “Seafood and Beer by the Bridge” from May 3 to May 6, and every Friday in May at 11 a.m. you can take a tour (by appointment) with Achill Island Sea Salt to see modern and traditional techniques to make sea salt.
From May 1 to May 7, “This Must Be The Place in Westport” will create dishes using black pudding from Kelly’s Butchers of Newport. On May 6, explore the Clew Bay coastline with Cheryl Coburn Browne as she presents, “Seaweed from the shore to your table.” For details, see mulrannyparkhotel.ie
GARDENS OPEN TO VIEW
Many spectacular Irish gardens and garden trails are open to the public at this time of year. There are garden trails in Connemara, Laois, West Cork, Wexford, Waterford, Donegal, Carlow, the Boyne Valley, and more. And, there’s the tantalizingly named “Secret Gardens of Sligo.” One can only wonder why the gardens are “secret” and what fabulous species might lurk behind their walls.
There are also many private gardens from county to county that are open. For more information, see these websites: gardensofireland.org, antrimgardens.com, and ulstergardensscheme.org.uk. More information is available at local tourist offices throughout Ireland.
We read recently that the Mayo County Council is discussing the creation of a 50-kilometer walking path from Westport to Cong. The path, reminiscent of the popular Camino de Santiago in Spain, would link Westport, Croagh Patrick, Ballintubber Abbey, Moore Hall, Ballinrobe, and Cong Abbey and hopes to draw visitors to these important sites.
There are “Lost Treasures” to be seen along the route, including Bronze Age boats on Lough Corrib, ruins of abbeys in Aughagower and Burriscarra, and Church Island in Lough Carra. The County Council and National Parks and Wildlife Service took over Moore Hall in 2018 and plan to develop it - with adjoining Lough Carra - as a nature preserve and tourist attraction.
The Georgian house there is home to Ireland’s lesser horseshoe bat or Rhinolophus hipposideros. According to Bat Conservation Ireland, the lesser horseshoe is one of Ireland’s smaller bats, hangs freely by its feet, and wraps its wings around its body, the only Irish species to do so. For more information on the bats, see batconservationireland.org. For information on Moore Hall, see: historicalballinrobe.com
Summer is lovely and it’s especially lovely in Ireland no matter where you go or what you do. For more information on events and more at this time of year, see Ireland.com.
BY JUDY ENRIGHT