In this installment of her Eat Ireland column, Deputy Editor Jocelyn Doyle heads West for the Connemara Mussel festival.
Having eaten my way around town at the Connemara Mussel Festival in Tullycross, Co. Galway, I am feeling quite smug about having signed up for a walk of Killary Harbour at 6am. I am far less enthusiastic when the alarm begins to screech. I drag myself out of bed and embark on a surreal drive through the silent countryside, sheep staring brazenly at the incongruous car.
I meet Catherine Nee of Marty’s Mussels at Rosroe Pier, along with the rest of our group. Killary is still and grey, a heavy white cloud hanging low over its steep sides. We set off along a famine relief road set into the rugged landscape. Catherine points out the mussel lines floating motionless in the water, and explains that Killary mussels have a particularly sweet flavour due to the relatively low levels of salinity in the fjord.
We walk on, four sheep leading the way. Eventually, we come to the village of Foher, abandoned during the Famine when the “relief” from working on the road wasn’t enough to save its inhabitants. The cottages stand eerily alone, ghosts of both times past and an uncertain future: with the big cities glimmering on the horizon, the question of whether the next generation will stay here is a source of constant concern. Half of a husband-and-wife team with the eponymous Marty, Catherine tells us how up to a third of the local schoolchildren have parents involved in mussel farming. “People don’t realise how many jobs are involved, especially because we are so tightly regulated. Killary mussels keep families in the area.”
Breathless after a steep climb, we reach a geological fault called the Devil’s Gap. Sheltered by the rock, Marty’s Mussels expert Sean Coyne is cooking up two enormous pots of mussels. My legs are weary, and it is a real treat to perch on a rock, a foil tray of steaming mussels on my lap and a hunk of baguette in my hand for mopping up the hot, sweet juices. A bottle of white wine is passed around, everyone taking a swig in turn. There is something atavistically pleasurable about eating simple food in the fresh air, and I don’t remember the last time my breakfast was so welcome.
There’s a strange paradox when it comes to shellfish in Ireland, bivalves like mussels in particular. These foods are an enormous part of our heritage; mussel shells have been found at Irish sites dating back to Mesolithic times. Yet, today, many Irish people seem reluctant even to try mussels. We have lost something intrinsic to our lives as islanders, and it’s a pity: mussels are as cheap as chips but extremely nutritious, being low in fat and packed with minerals and protein. They are also sweet, meaty and delicious, even if eaten for breakfast while a rock pokes you in the bum.
Producers like Marty’s Mussels are incredibly important, keeping a part of our shared food heritage alive and helping to maintain population levels in an unforgiving — albeit beautiful — landscape. This is Irish food at its gorgeous, simple, natural best, and I’m ecstatic when Sean gives me an enormous net of mussels to bring home. Believe me when I say it’s not often that I’m glad I got out of bed at five.