Journal

Land of Crab and Lobster

27th June 2018

Words: Suzanne Campbell
Photograph: Bert Kaufmann
Illustration: Hannah Clark

Part of an ongoing collaboration with Fáilte Ireland

It was the corncrake that brought me to the island of Inishbofin. It’s a small scurrying bird, not unlike the real-life roadrunner, and its near-disappearance has been much lamented across Ireland. Except in Inishbofin, a little island seven miles off the coast of Galway, where breeding pairs are increasing thanks to conservation schemes with strong support from the local community. I knew on this basis that Inishbofin was going to have magical wildlife. What I didn’t expect was that it would also have incredible food.

Taking the short, bouncy sea journey from Cleggan on the mainland, we are accompanied by dolphins playing and spinning in the wake of the boat. This is the far west coast of Ireland – next stop North America – and the sea around us is pristine, with wonderful lobster and crab lurking beneath the surface.

A short walk from Inishbofin’s tiny pier, I find the Dolphin hotel, where I sit down with owner Pat Coyne over steaming bowls of Connemara mussels with ginger and peas – “Why do marinière?” – and a side of sweet potato chips with paprika. Pat is a farmer as well as a hotelier, and together with his wife Jackie, the island’s vet, he has pushed to make sustainable food the island’s biggest attraction.

He tells me how in the 1980s and 90s Inishbofin’s human population was in decline. Farmers’ incomes shrank as the government designated the island a Special Area of Conservation, which meant that fewer sheep were allowed graze the island’s wild bog and dunes. Many people left for the mainland and anyone who stayed had to have a plan. A good one.

Determined to remain, Pat decided to embrace the environmental restrictions and go the sustainability route. So he built this small hotel, named after his grandfather’s crab boat, and opened a restaurant with solar panels and underfloor heating. Growing their own salads and buying green produce has helped earn the Dolphin a reputation for responsible tourism and membership of EcoTourism Ireland.

After my talk with Pat, I head for lunch in Murray’s bar at the Doonmore hotel, where I’m to try their famous crab sandwich. A gorgeous traditional Irish bar, Murray’s was awarded Best Pub Food in 2017 by Ireland’s Food & Wine magazine. The sandwich doesn’t disappoint, the crabmeat succulent and mouth-watering. Chatting over the bar, chef Louis Martin tells me about the American customer who asked “Is the crab local?”, only to add laughingly “Of course you’re gonna say it is, right?” Directly on cue, their fisherman walked in the door with a huge crate of crab.

Properly sourced local food can be hard to find in the West of Ireland, but the community on Inishbofin has made it part of the island’s identity. For the past few years, around the first week of October, the island has hosted a popular food festival called Bia Bo Finne, with foraging walks and poitín-making workshops and all sorts of capers in between. This year’s event runs from 5 to 7 October and is not to be missed.

More evidence of Inishbofin’s robust food culture comes at The Beach, a white, timber-clad cottage down at the old pier which has housed an inn since the 1700s. In Days Bar, their light-filled pub, there are great Irish craft beers and ciders ­– I settle on some Stonewall cider and a plate of zingingly fresh Inishbofin lobster with big front claws and sweet meat in the tail. I get stuck in with my fingers.

It’s not just the food that’s magical here, it’s the friendliness and other-world dynamic of the island. A short walk along the coast from Murray’s you’ll find a shiny red London bus sitting incongruously in the garden of a white stone cottage. The restaurant within, Inishwallah, has become something of a sensation, fusing local food with world flavours brought over by chef Kartika Menon, who set it up with her islander husband two summers ago.

Born to a South Indian family and raised in Tennessee, Kartika met Austin Coyne while working in the Brooklyn food scene. She came to Inishbofin and fell in love, then set about opening a food business with a difference. Two babies and many happy diners later, she’s serving Connemara lamb kebabs crusted in pistachio, and Inishbofin pollack and potato croquettes with lemongrass aioli from the bus’s kitchen hatch.

A warning: you may become a regular fixture in the place. I’ve been back three times.

This is outstandingly moreish food, and best enjoyed from the lounge area on the top deck, with mesmerising views across the sea. My favourite dish of Kartika’s is her take on banh mi, the Vietnamese baguette sandwich. She serves it with tempura mackerel, one of Ireland’s most plentiful and overlooked fish, and gochujang, a Korean spiced paste, with a side of radish and carrot slaw.

Later, I swim from the ridiculously beautiful Dumhach Beach, marvelling at the green water and white sand formed by millions of tiny crushed shells. Inishbofin is a member of Leave No Trace, a scheme encouraging visitors to beautiful environments to bring little and leave nothing behind. No cars are allowed on the island so you must walk or bike. This has a levelling effect, and visitors end up swapping tips such as the best lane to take in order to see the sea stacks or to find the lady selling fresh crabmeat from her cottage.

Back at Murrays, I sit outside with a pint of Guinness looking across the searing blue water to Inishark – Inishbofin’s companion island, now uninhabited. There are only 11 pupils in the primary school on Inishbofin. If the numbers drop, the Irish government could forcibly remove services from the island and re-locate its inhabitants to the mainland.

It’s all the more reason to go; be part of the island’s food story and its continuing survival. A warning: you may become a regular fixture in the place. I’ve been back three times.

And what about the corncrake? As I make my way along the leafy lanes below the Dolphin Hotel’s sunny deck, I finally hear its loud gravelly call. The shy immigrant has arrived, hidden somewhere in the long grass of the meadows bordered by bracken and mossy stone walls. It couldn’t have chosen a better destination.

This is part of an ongoing collaboration with Fáilte Ireland.

The Bia Bo Finne food festival runs from 5-7 October 2018. www.biabofinne.ie

For more information on visiting the island, go to www.inishbofin.com

Posted 27th June 2018

In Journal

 

Words: Suzanne Campbell
Photograph: Bert Kaufmann
Illustration: Hannah Clark

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