This is a paid post, created in collaboration with The Burren Smokehouse
It can be argued that the best crops grow in the fertile land around the East of Ireland. Indeed where we’re based in the Boyne Valley is remarked for its particularly complex soil structure, all nutrient-rich and prime for growing throughout verdant valleys a stone’s throw from the country’s capital. However out West, it’s a different story. Barren, rocky, rugged, even scarce. Wild, wet, wind whipped and wave battered. Something to that effect. Though there’s always exceptions to this, in general it’s a much tougher environment and climate to grow in, so whilst Ireland excels in terms of production of crops and agriculture in general we often forget we’re an island nation surrounded by water. So in the West, along the spectacular and breathtaking Wild Atlantic Way, instead of looking to the land the biggest and best natural resource is to look to the Atlantic. This incredible natural resource with its pristine, clear, cold water offers bountiful opportunity, and salmon is but one spoil.
Recently we took a trip to The Burren to visit Birgitta Hedin-Curtin, who we have long been friends with, to get a more in-depth look at her incredible family business based in Lisdoonvarna, comprising The Burren Smokehouse producing incredible organic Irish smoked salmon, The Roadside Tavern and the Burren Storehouse. If you’re planning a staycation to County Clare or looking for some coastal activities, delicious dishes, fascinating exhibitions and an abundance of local produce, here’s where you need to put on your list –– and we’ll show you why!
Based in Lisdoonvarna, Birgitta is actually a native of Nyköping – a small city about an hour south of Stockholm, Sweden – with a background in marine botany and marine biology and was captivated by the western Ireland coastline on a trip and ended up staying, both falling for the scenery and for her future husband, Peter.
A childhood ritual, Birgitta remembers the cooperative smokehouse her local community would use once a week to bulk-smoke whatever had been caught in the Baltic –– pike, perch, eel, all hot smoked, never cold. In fact, the same place is still being used in the exact same way to this day, except one generation has passed to the next and now it’s currently passed onto the next generation after them. So smoking has been a tradition and a community activity in Sweden for a long time.
The long, winding, wild Atlantic coastline of the west of Ireland has pristinely clean waters (which Birgitta actually scientifically confirmed, having studied seaweed and taken samples from the west of Ireland back to Sweden as a student) so when exploring this part of the country, it’s only natural that you taste your way by experiencing the diverse and delicious seafood on offer. From Killary Fjord Mussels and Flaggy Shore Oysters to Mungo Murphy Abalone Farm and The Burren Smokehouse, tasting experiences dotted along the Wild Atlantic Way are essential to understanding, experiencing and appreciating the unique coming together of Irish culture and craic with Irish food.
Birgitta explains “our salmon – organic, Irish, high quality, artisan-made – has a certain texture and taste” and adds “what we want to do for everyone who comes in through the door is to offer them a taste. It gives them an understanding and shows we have nothing to hide –– the palate is the best way to offer that understanding”. The Burren Smokehouse is open daily, almost year-round for walk-ins and tours, whether just to pick up some products from their provisions store or to learn a bit more about the Curtin family, their story of smoking salmon and their award-winning produce. Birgitta acknowledges that not everyone is a fish fan, though, explaining that “our cold and hot smoked products are very different, so some people might only eat cold smoked salmon as the classic, and some may not really be into smoked salmon at all. Maybe they had a bad experience of smoked fish in the past or poorer quality, overly fishy salmon has impacted their enjoyment, in which case we suggest experiencing the more firmer textured, fully cooked, less intense fish flavour of the hot smoked”. Something for everyone, if you ask us, and Birgitta has experienced countless times of smoked salmon-averse customers coming to the Smokehouse and being captivated by the quality and flavour that it completely changes their mind.
Obviously, Birgitta and Peter are not fishing wild themselves, nor owners of a fish farm, so their product depends on supply –– of which a particularly big source is Clare Island Organic Irish Salmon but also wild salmon when and where it’s available. One stipulation the Burren Smokehouse have with all their base products is: it must be Irish, whether that be farmed Irish salmon or wild Irish salmon. Another stipulation, and this comes intertwined with their own organic certification, is only using other organic ingredients, which – in case you didn’t know – extends to every single step of the production process: the environment, the feeds, treatments and also methods, ethics and standards of production, even additional ingredients used for flavouring like salt, seaweed, dill and lemon. Just 2% of Ireland’s farms have achieved certified organic status, but in contrast to this trend a whopping 98% of Irish farmed salmon is certified organic –– the highest uptake of any country in the world.
The Burren Smokehouse specialises in salmon, but that’s also not the only products in their range, which also includes smoked Irish mackerel (almost always winter months-caught as it’s fattier and better) and smoked Irish rainbow trout (direct from Mag and Ger Kirwan of Goatsbridge Trout Farm in Kilkenny). In terms of processes, the Burren Smokehouse produces two different varieties of smoked fish –– cold smoked, a very pure and Irish tradition, and hot smoked, of which Birgitta brings her Scandinavian roots and inspiration. Both styles are salted first to draw out moisture, then washed and refrigerated to further dry out before going into the Burren Smokehouse’s custom-made smoker –– no where else has this same machine, custom built on order from Peter and Birgitta to achieve exactly what they wanted to produce.
The Burren Smokehouse Master Smoker is Mark Flynn, and he has the Midas touch where smoked salmon is concerned, knowing exactly how to keep the smoke continuous and never billow, how to protect against rogue flames and sparks and exactly what time and amount of oak chips to add in at which stage. Obviously once you open the smoking chamber the smoke gets lost, so this is almost a blind process –– thus, the years of skill and experience really come into play and each and every piece of fish is anointed with this knowledge.
The entire process is hands-on from start to finish and takes intuition, skill and knowledge, from the salting, turning and washing of the raw fish, freshly arriving that morning, to carefully keeping an eye throughout the whole smoking process which can take up to 16 hours, depending on style. How do you know when it’s done, we ask? “A very light oil layer sitting just on the surface of the fish, and the tail slowly starting to twist upwards slightly — that’s when you know it’s done,” Birgitta divulges.
What makes the Burren Smokehouse different in their approach? Consistency and control in temperature are incredibly important, and an even smoke rather than billowing from above or below. Their smoker pushes the smoke from about a hundred little vents or openings running along both sides of the smoker, top to bottom, to ensure it evenly kisses each fish set on racks. Indeed, they smoke on racks in even layers – again for consistency – rather than hanging.
That’s not to say there’s a right and a wrong way, Birgitta assures us, it’s just each smokehouse will have their own approach. They are also meticulous about keeping the smoking chambers clean. Birgitta reminds us that that same smokehouse still going today from way back in her childhood in Hummelvik was, and still is, black with tar from decades and generations of smoking which imparts its own flavour but remains never cleaned. This results in authentic, but often harsh and intense flavours whereas Burren Smokehouse is all about an intuitive, light, considered touch –– making the glorious salmon that little bit better with the wonderful addition of smoke.
We got a sneak peek into the process from start to finish, but for visitors you can learn all about the whole process in the Burren Smokehouse Visitor’s Centre, where beginning in the gift shop, provisions store and tasting room you can learn about the 30-year history so far of the Smokehouse, from 1989 to the present day as well as the history of the Curtin family too. You will also find the very first smoker Birgitta and Peter used as well as stunning mosaic detailing depicting legendary Irish folklore tales of fish and the sea, and you’ll of course get a tasting, too!
Taste The Atlantic –– A Seafood Journey
Adjoining the Smokehouse is Taste The Atlantic, an interactive and educational experience part of a collaborative initiative between Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) and Fáilte Ireland exploring the breadth and diversity of Ireland’s seafood produce all along the Wild Atlantic way from Donegal down to Cork. This particular exhibition, naturally, focuses on salmon. Begin with a beautifully-made shadow puppet performance set in an old salmon fisherman’s cottage depicting the story of the Salmon of Knowledge, a folklore tale of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the druid Finnegas.
As you move through the exhibition you’ll learn about aquaculture, which is the equivalent of agriculture except swapping land for sea and ocean. Think about mussel farms, oyster beds, seaweed harvesting and of course salmon and trout farms. Hard to believe that for most of human existence since farming became key to population sustenance and growth that farming at sea is really only a novel new thing from the past 50 years or so. Agriculture and Ireland are forever intertwined, which has created entire communities, jobs and revenue, so why is aquaculture so rarely considered?
You’ll learn about things like salmon feed being the most expensive animal feed in the world, and how sea pens are arranged in grid patterns with 1% salmon density and the rest of the 99% being salty oceanic water. Did you know, from freshwater hatching to saltwater maturity it takes two years? Few other aquatic creatures are anadromous like this, or could survive the difference in fresh and saltwater. You’ll also learn how the friendly (and cute) lumpfish has been a game changer in keeping pristine clean conditions in salmon farms, gobbling up nasty parasites.
Take the interactive quizzes and games (for both adults and kids) on the giant tablet then progress to the sections on global industry and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Responsible farming means sourcing fish and sustainably controlling stocks, and in Ireland and the EU in particular this process is rigorously monitored and regulated.
Globally, farmed fish production has now surpassed beef production. Salmon is a rich source of lean protein, naturally low in carbohydrate and offers an abundance of healthy Omega-3s as well as being a good source of Vitamin A and D –– and us Irish can use all the Vit D we can get! Before leaving, take a glance at the 10ft Taste The Atlantic:A Seafood Journey map on the wall, and start plotting your next coastal destinations! Plus, check out the gift shop with lots of Irish craft products, from souvenirs and handmade and artisan mementos to local goods and books.
Stop By The Roadside Tavern & The Burren Storehouse
The Roadside Tavern is one of the oldest pubs The Burren can boast, having been in the Curtin family for over 125 years. A bastion of live music, this cosy and eclectic pub has seen so many sessions over the years they’ve lost count, but the food and drink is also a massive draw. This is pure gastropub territory, think hearty stews and soups, and of course a smoked fish platter with brown bread and accompanying salad. Come for the craic, stay for the food and delicious drinks.
Upstairs you’ll find probably Ireland’s only craft beer nano-brewery, run by Peter for the last decade, where four unique beers are now brewed on exceptionally small scale to be enjoyed in the Tavern and Storehouse: Burren Black (Stout), Burren Gold (lager), Burren red (ale) and something extra special: Euphoria, a gruit (hop-less) beer unique to this area using captured native yeasts and a blend of local wild herbs, created in collaboration with a talented local herbalist Lisa Guinan. A pint of Euphoria or a pint of plain is worth the stop off alone, here. And if you get the man himself, the inimitable storytelling rogue that is Peter Curtain to talk you through the line-up and asses the cut of your jib, you’ll be all the better for it.
The Burren Storehouse is a casual, expansive, family-friendly bar and restaurant, cooking on a custom wood-fired oven with a speciality of pizzas and other comforting favourites like scampi, fish of the day and – of course – Burren Smokehouse Organic Smoked Irish Salmon tagliatelle. A huge heated terrace out the front provides ample space to dine al fresco whereas inside there’s room enough for an entire stage –– so you can imagine how big the indoor dining space is.
Pick up a Champagne Picnic in The Burren!
An early adaptor of the concept of food tourism and tasting the landscape as you visit to understand and experience a deeper connection with the location, it’s no surprise that Birgitta and her team have keenly curated the local Irish provisions, crafts and products available to-buy at the Burren Smokehouse. Local woodworker Michael Hynes’ bowls and plates (and also spot Gabriel Casey’s traditional sugan chairs!), Anam Coffee roasted up the road in Kilfenora, Siobhán Ní Ghairbhith’s stunning St. Tola goat’s cheese from Inagh a few towns away, Attyflin juices and preserves from Limerick, Bean & Goose chocolate from Wexford, Achill Island Sea Salt from Mayo, Foods of Athenry Crackers from Galway…
…Miena’s Nougat from Wicklow, Mella’s Fudge handmade in Clonakilty, Nutshed nut butters from Tipperary, Ballyhoura Mushrooms from the Limerick/Cork border, Burren Balsamics from Armagh (we know, the name throws you!) cheeses from Gubbeen and Cratloe to the nearby Aillwee Cave Burren Gold Cheese. Talk about taste the island!
You can even cook the Burren by buying chef Trevis Gleason’s Burren Dinners book [affiliate link], a love letter to The Burren told through its food and stories from its most familiar faces, characters and creators. Or plan your onward travels with Ireland The Best: 100 Places from the foremost authority on Irish food-led travel, John and Sally McKenna of McKennas Guides.
But you can also pick up a picnic from the Burren Smokehouse and head off to one of the hundreds of stunning vantage points across The Burren and throughout the Clare coast to enjoy it. From as little as €10 pre-packaged picnics are available, whilst the lavish Champagne option can also include these handy Flying Elephant self-assemble tables (for holding those all important flutes!). There’s beautiful Attyflin juice for the non-drinker and why not splurge on one of the fabulous McNutt of Donegal throws to make it even better? We broke bread (and savoured salmon) with Birgitta right on the rocky Burren coastline and what an incredible place to enjoy a bite to eat and drink in that view! Obviously we made sure to #leavenotrace, and we’d love to encourage you to do the same!
In our Chew The Fat podcast with Birgitta (listen back here) we asked Birgitta how she’s witnessed Irish food as a concept and a cuisine evolve over the years. She mentioned those key starters and those spark makers who quietly signalled change – the Fergusons of Gubbeen, the Steeles of Milleens, the Allens of Ballymaloe – who have set the foundation, and also mentions the likes of Bord Bia, Fáilte Ireland and Bord Iscaigh Mhara for supporting artisan food producers across Ireland. However, we’re not quite sure if Birgitta is aware how integral her brand, her business, her ethos and her vision is to the moulding, mapping and demonstrating what Irish food is and can be. No one in food is anything without the producers who bring produce to the table in all its forms, and we, as an island nation, are nothing if we can’t see, respect and appreciate how glorious the fish and seafood we have around us in abundance is, and how integral it is to our own story, culture and identity. Birgitta and Burren Smokehouse have been a key part of this renaissance in Irish food, and will continue to lead the way.