Culinary Tourism in Ireland

When an American couple came to visit us in the Burren last week, we asked them which of the local sights they wanted to see. Castles, dolmens, and hiking trails ranked lower on their wish list than the local seafood. First, they made reservations at Linnanne’s Lobster Bar and Moran’s Oyster Cottage. Then they went exploring.

The highlights of their trip were foraging seaweed and a visit to a Pouldoody Bay oyster farm with “Taste of the Burren” tour guide David Donahue, and an “Oyster Experience” with Flaggy Shore oysterman and marine biologist Gerry O’Halloran and his daughter Ciara.

Gerry has been hosting oyster lovers from around the world for several years now. His company, Flaggy Shore Oysters, sells local oysters to restaurants and consumers. His combination warehouse, purification plant, and classroom is located on the waterfront in New Quay, around the corner from Linnanne’s restaurant. In his oyster experience sessions, visitors learn about Galway
Bay seafood species and how to shuck their own lunch.

You won’t see a lot of Irish folks at Gerry’s oyster parties, they are marketed to food loving tourists from abroad.

Food tourists stay in AirBnb (self-catering) apartments with kitchens. They eat at restaurants sometimes, but mostly they cook for themselves. Tops on their list of places to visit are shops that sell interesting ingredients: farmers markets, fishmongers, bakeries, cheese shops, wine stores and grocers.

And of course, they are always looking for “four star” food and beverage experiences like seaweed foraging, artisan cheese making, and whiskey distillery tastings. Not to mention such big deal food scenes as the English Market in Cork, the Milk Market in Limerick and Saturday Market in Galway.

Culinary tourism is still considered something of a novelty in Ireland, but it’s a growing category of the vacation market. 

My first James Beard Award in 1995 was for a magazine article titled, “Hot Sauce Safari” a piece about searching for exotic bottled pepper sauces in the Caribbean. I went on to write about eating cabrito goat in Mexico, digging for truffles in France, riding along with the fishermen on a diving boat in Chile, and picking Kona coffee beans in Hawaii.

These and lots of other such savory stories are collected in my book “Are You Really Going to Eat That? Reflections of a Culinary Thrill Seeker.”

My visit to the Galway Oyster Festival in 2004 was part of the research for my book, Sex, Death & Oysters, A Half Shell Lover’s World Tour. Thus began my love affair with Irish oysters.

I have lived in Ireland for almost four years now and I am discovering new foods all the time. I was astonished to discover that Galway Bay fishermen supply Spain and Portugal with spider crabs, velvet crabs and other seafood that never appears in Irish fish markets. Turns out, all you have to do is special order some if you like that sort of thing.

These days, I own three bags of oysters on the Pouldoody shore so I can go and fetch a few dozen whenever  need them.

I barbecued some for my American visitors just last week.

Sadly, tourism of all kinds slowed to a standstill during the lockdowns and travel bans of the Covid pandemic. This blog was updated sporadically–it was hard to get out of the house.

But there is a fresh wind blowing into the Burren. We are seeing visitors from all over starting to return. Prognosticators predict that pent-up demand will cause a flood of travel this coming spring and summer. Restaurants and food producers are gearing up for a rush.

There are lots of places to learn more about Irish food. And there are some great Irish food blogs out there. I’m learning about Irish culinary culture all the time. I’m not out to teach Irish people how to cook Irish food. But I am hoping to spotlight some of the terrific new ideas that Irish chefs, farmers, and artisan producers are bringing to the food world.

I also have a very good idea of what traveling food-lovers are looking for when they come to Ireland. And that’s what this blog is really all about.

Next month, I’ll do the 5th Annual countdown of my Top 10 Irish Dishes of the Year. 

I hope you’ll come back and check it out.