In this installment of her Eat Ireland column, Deputy Editor Jocelyn Doyle heads to the Burren in search of salmon.
Salmon has long played a role in our heritage, both as a valuable source of food and as a cultural symbol. A wild salmon will go back to its own birthplace to spawn; for the Ancient Irish, the salmon’s long memory was seen as a sign of wisdom. One of the best-known tales from the Fenian cycle of Irish mythology is that of Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge, in which the salmon’s spots were said to arise from its consumption of the hazelnuts fallen from the nine hazel trees of wisdom. So important was the annual return of the salmon that the name of Leixlip in County Kildare is derived from leax hlaup, meaning “salmon leap,” in the Old Norse of Viking settlers, a reference to the fishes’ yearly journey up the Liffey.
Smoking is an ancient method of preserving food, dating back to the Stone Age and, with salmon such an intrinsic part of Irish culture, it’s little wonder that we’ve been smoking fish here for millennia. Birgitta Hedin-Curtin originally hails from Sweden and, as such, is the product of an equally seafood-heavy history. Inspired by a tiny smokehouse near her childhood home on the east coast of Sweden, she and her husband began smoking fish in Co. Clare in 1989. As she tells it, “Peter and I wanted to produce something locally sourced and smoked in the Burren, and to provide tourists passing on their way to the Cliffs of Moher with the opportunity to taste and purchase a local artisan food product, so that they could enjoy the amazing landscapes of the Burren and the Cliffs while also tasting the food produced in the area. We believe smoking is both an art and a craft.”
I’ve long felt that foods made in a particular region embody characteristics unique to that area, and that eating those foods is a tangible way to experience a place. I love the idea of tourists — especially those from foreign shores — ingesting this very real component of Irish place and culture. Birgitta views the Smokehouse as not only a food producer, but a food tourism operator too, and says that being situated in the Burren, near the Wild Atlantic Way and the Cliffs of Moher, has been essential for its survival in this capacity. The team is very much rooted in the locality, and many of the marketing efforts of the Smokehouse have a significant focus on the area, rather than just the company.
Birgitta is a determined advocate of the quality of Irish salmon. The Burren Smokehouse uses both Irish wild salmon and Irish organically certified salmon from the west coast. Wild salmon is in short supply as its season runs only from mid-May to, at best, early August; fishing of wild salmon is also highly regulated due to overfishing in the past. As Birgitta says, “It is amazing salmon but very limited in quantity.” She is particularly proud of having had the opportunity to feed one special guest: “Thanks to Ross Lewis from Chapter One, we got to provide Burren Smoked Irish Wild Salmon to the Queen of England for her State Dinner in Dublin Castle.”
For the remainder of the year, Birgitta uses organic salmon from the west coast. Interestingly, she tells us that 99% of the production of smoked salmon in this country is organically certified, meaning that any non-organic smoked salmon you might see in the shops is likely to hail from Scotland or Norway and have been smoked here. “Irish organic salmon is fed fish from sustainable sources (what is left after filleting a fish) and marine sourced oil. This results in levels of omega-3 oils 10 times as high as those in conventionally-farmed salmon.” Salmon swim extensively, covering around 23,000km during their lives at sea, through turbulent waters; this, combined with their feed, results in a very firm texture.
As Birgitta says, texture is very significant to a taste experience. Her Burren Cold Smoked Salmon has a more “fishy” texture, moist and delicate. This tends to be a draw for the “real fish lover,” with just a touch of light oak smoke to bring out the full flavour of the fish. Meanwhile, the Hot Smoked Salmon has a slightly drier, fully cooked and meaty texture that appeals to those who are not natural fish lovers. “I have converted non-fish eaters with the Hot Smoked Salmon, and they’ve been surprised to have really enjoyed it. The smokiness is really accentuated in this product, as we add some turf to the oak smoking for a richer flavour.”
I love to see a quality Irish product going from strength to strength, and that’s certainly the case here. Having started out as just their husband and wife team, the Burren Smokehouse now employs 18 full-time staff working all year round. Luckily, times have changed too, meaning that Birgitta — working in a predominantly male industry — is no longer asked, “so where is the boss?”
These days, the Burren Smokehouse exports across Europe, particularly to France and Germany, as well as shipping to places as far-flung as North America, Singapore and Hong Kong. Having just won the Green Seafood Business Award sponsored by Bord Iascaigh Mhara in February, Birgitta is delighted but shows no signs of slowing down; her latest venture is a planned extension to the visitor centre, which will tell the story of Irish salmon. “We’re very excited about this,” she says, keeping her cards close to her chest, “and we’ll have more information for you soon.” She’s also involved in the Burren Slow Food Festival taking place in Lisdoonvarna this May, of which the theme is “Taste the Atlantic — A Seafood Journey,” reflecting on the local Seafood Trail created by BIM and Fáilte Ireland.
And now for the fun part: the eating. This salmon truly doesn’t need much to shine, and is stunning served simply on brown bread with some good Irish butter, a crack of black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice. However, I couldn’t resist having a little fun with it and, if you’re looking for a different way to serve smoked salmon, I recommend you try this take on salmon tartare. Made with cold smoked salmon instead of the usual raw fish, it’s a more accessible way to enjoy the beautiful freshness of a tartare, and the citrus, fresh herbs and red onion perfectly complement this outstanding fish. I feel wiser already.