In this installment of her Eat Ireland column, Deputy Editor Jocelyn Doyle heads to the Wild West to explore Sligo’s local foods.
“People have been to the Killarneys and the Galways, but there’s always somewhere new happening — and I think this is Sligo’s time.” So says Aisling Kelly, owner of WB’s Coffee House, as she shows off her beautiful homemade cakes en route to Sligo. I’m a lucky participant in a foodie trip to the Wild Atlantic Way, and I haven’t visited Sligo since I was a wee one, so I’m excited and interested to taste my way around.
This is the most entertaining train journey I’ve ever been on: a host of Sligo producers have come along to ply us with their delicious wares. I munch happily on rounds of treacly Guinness bread topped with slices of Burren smoked salmon; gently spiced falafels; velvety mini beetroot patties; wafer-thin slices of smoked venison; sweet, creamy Carrageen Moss puddings and boozy rum balls. If this is what Sligo tastes like, I am anxious to arrive. I’m charmed to hear that the heaps of food we can’t get through are being passed back through the carriages, allowing our fellow travellers to enjoy a taste of the West they are hurtling towards.
Over the following 24 hours, Sligo and I become better acquainted. My overwhelming impressions are cheerful ones: smiling faces, fresh local food made by talented, passionate producers and everywhere a warm welcome, from the second we step off the train to the lock-in late that night in a local pub. An especial highlight is the sumptuous meal in the award-winning Eala Bhán restaurant, surrounded by warm wood and softly twinkling lights, each course matched perfectly with craft beers from the White Hag Brewery. My jeans grow ever tighter and I am too happy to care.
We visit Lissadell House, childhood home of Countess Markiewicz, and my nerdy little heart is awestruck to be told that I am sitting at a table where WB Yeats once wrote poetry. In the courtyard, we gorge on fresh, sweet, meaty Atlantic oysters, served from an adorable handheld cart, before leading seaweed authority Prannie Rhatigan whisks us through Lissadell’s stunning Alpine gardens to the private beach. This quickly becomes my favourite part of the trip; Prannie is so supremely well-educated when it comes to seaweed that she renders the word “expert,” severely lacking, and I am enthralled.
A medical doctor with a lifetime of experience of harvesting and cooking with sea vegetables, Prannie’s interest lies in the link between food and health, and her book, Irish Seaweed Kitchen, has all the information you could need. She reels off Latin botanical names with astounding alacrity, and has the inside scoop on everything from where to find particular seaweeds to how best to prepare them. We soak up her impressive knowledge while she hands us salty, umami-packed morsels for tasting.
Our Irish ancestors knew the value of sea vegetables, but, along with many of our traditional foods, the skills associated with them have faded from our culture. However, with many new seaweed products now available — dried seaweed, ground seaweed, even crisps — it’s easier than ever to include these wholesome vegetables in our diets and reap the many nutritional benefits.
Seaweed is an extraordinary source of iodine, a nutrient missing in almost every other food and one crucial for maintaining a healthy thyroid. It’s also an amazing supply of iron, calcium and magnesium, as well as rich in protein, containing more vitamin C per gram than an orange and has fantastic anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties — and it counts toward your five-a-day. As I learn whilst floating serenely in a Voya Seaweed Bath the next morning, it’s also incredible for your skin and hair.
There are easy ways to incorporate seaweed into your diet. Prannie recommends eating just a small amount of each of a wide variety, often, for best results. The simplest way is to use seaweed to replace the salt when seasoning a recipe; because it’s also an efficient thickening agent, it’s particularly useful in a pot of soup or stew. Try baking flaked seaweed into bread or scones, mixing ground seaweed into cold-pressed rapeseed oil for a delicious dip, making a wholesome miso soup with wakame, toasting dillisk into moreish crisps or simply enjoying some fresh sushi wrapped in sheets of nori. Prannie’s delicious, healthy truffles are the perfect guilt-free treat during the depths of January, when so many of us are trying to make healthier food choices.
Before we leave Sligo, I enjoy two perfectly soft-boiled eggs with batch bread toast in Shells café, Strandhill, then take a stroll along the battered shore. The salty sea air whips past me while the waves roar forcefully in, different entirely to the tamer white horses of my native east coast. I will be back here soon. I have much to see, to do and — most importantly — to eat. This is Sligo’s time, and I am aching to be a part of it.