Awake to a western wonder

I’M SITTING with my back to a stone wall on Inis Meáin — on Ireland’s western seaboard — watching islander Padraic McDonagh hand threshing rye in the time honoured way.

He chooses a flat lime stone area and then he makes a little circle of sheaves to catch the seed. He grasps a sheaf and bashes it against a flat stone which he has propped at a perfect angle. When all the seed is threshed out he carefully collects every grain to replant for next year’s crop of rye. The precious straw will be used to thatch his sheds and outbuildings. I feel hugely fortunate to come upon this gentle islander threshing his rye in a way that may date back thousands of years. It makes me wish I’d come to Inis Meáin 30 years ago.

Each of the Aran islands are truly unique and offer a different experience. Understandably island life has changed dramatically in the last few decades; nonetheless it was quite a shock and a delight to discover that many of the older inhabitants of Inis Meáin — the least visited of the Aran Islands — have little or no English.

All the native islanders speak a beautiful lilting Irish quite unlike the “civil service” Irish I learned in national school. Not being a native speaker I connected the island with Inis Meáin knitwear, of which I’ve been an avid admirer for many years and more with the writings of John Milligan Synge. However I was eventually lured to the island by glowing descriptions of Ruairí and Marie Thérèse de Blacam’s little guest house rather incongruously named Inis Meáin Suites.

So how does one get there? There are regular ferries from Rossaveel and Doolin. Guests are met by the grey Inis Meáin shuttle and transported way up the hill from the new harbour past an occasional white washed and sometimes thatched cottage and past the little meadows, each surrounded by stark and beautiful dry stone walls. There were a few cattle here and there, a profusion of wild flowers, brambles and sloes and occasional potato ridges full of floury spuds that have been grown in a mixture of sand and seaweed.

Red seaweed, kelp and black sea bladder wrack each deliver its own minerals.

The islanders have collected seaweed on Caladh Mór and around the island since time immemorial and have gradually built up the soil on the solid rock face of Inis Meáin.

Ruairí de Blacam was reared on the island but educated in Blackrock College. His mother Áine was and still is the school teacher on the island. During his gap year he went to work in an Irish pub in Germany and soon realised that cooking and playing music were a lot more appealing than college. He did a month-long apprenticeship with John Desmond on Heir Island off Baltimore — Johnny, a brilliant chef and teacher kindled his passion for beautiful fresh local produce, simply cooked. Back in Dublin, Ruairí pestered Johnny Cook until he took him into his kitchen. The message was further reinforced there and in Italy, Austria and Paris.

Friends urged him to open a restaurant in Dublin but he longed to return to his native Inis Meáin to open a B&B and a restaurant, a brave step but Ruairí knew as did his father before him that people will make a detour for quality — Inis Meáin knitwear is sold in the swankiest shops in London, New York and Tokyo.

The low slung stone building tucked into the landscape was designed in conjunction with his uncle’s firm, de Blacam and Meagher. There are just four suites each with a 20-foot long window with superb views across the island, the Twelve Pins in Connemara and Black Head.

When dinner starts with a little bowl of warm periwinkles — picked off the rocks just below the restaurant at Caladh Mór, you know you’re on the right track. The short menu illustrates the brilliance of keeping it simple. We had three delicious dinners there, gorgeous crab salads, one with mango salsa and another with celeriac remoulade and roast peppers. The juicy T-bone steak came from their animals reared on the island. Ruairí served it with tiny roast carrots and parsnips and a big bowl of floury spuds again grown by Ruairí under the guidance of his maternal uncle. Lobster, like the crab, are caught in pots by the island currach fishermen. Scallops are from the Inis Meáin bank less than a mile from the island’s coast, and spanking fresh hake is fished by local trawlers. For pudding, we had gorgeous crème brulee, with crumbles and tarts made from apples from a local orchard.

Ruairí and his wife Marie Thérèse (who hails from Midleton) are determined to produce as much of their own produce as possible. They recently acquired a couple of traditional breed, saddleback pigs so there will be succulent home produced pork on the menu before too long. After dinner we wandered up to Teach Ósta Inis Meáin pub to chat and listen to the locals speaking beautiful Irish. There are no night clubs or discos, no hurdy gurdies or juke boxes and no chicken nuggets, but there is Teach Synge where the playwright stayed on the island, Dun Chonchúir (Connor’s Fort) and breathtakingly beautiful walks and timeless landscape with many prehistoric monuments. Booking is essential so plan ahead — well worth the detour.

In the morning a breakfast tray loaded with goodies arrives in your room — warm smoked mackerel, boiled eggs, good natural yoghurt, homemade muesli and fresh berries, freshly baked and still warm scones and soda bread, homemade marmalade and jams and maybe a slice of craftily cut pineapple — there’s plenty for a picnic later. The fridge and cupboards in the bedrooms are stuffed with tempting goodies, a far cry from the usual mini-bar offering: Green and Black dark organic chocolate, Ortiz tuna, Farmhouse cheese, Gubbeen chorizo, Carr’s water biscuits, good wine and Irish apple juice.

Everything has been carefully selected and thought through. There is lots to do on the island. Two mountain bikes sit outside the suite and a couple of fishing rods are ready and baited for those who would like to catch a few mackerel to cook for supper.

Inis Meáin was recently awarded the Best Restaurant in Connaught by Food and Wine Magazine.

Ruairí Blacam’s Island Crab with Celeriac Remoulade

“I have rarely needed to write down anything that we plate up in the restaurant because the food we serve is really quite simple.

“The key is the produce and the produce is king. Elizabeth David’s famous quote ‘first catch your chicken’ comes to mind. So, for a decent crab salad first catch your crab!”

To serve four people you will need a dozen good sized claws.

Drop them into a big pot of salted boiling water for four minutes.

To cook the crab claws quickly and accurately you should use no less than five litres of water.

The more the merrier. Getting the meat out is the fun part.

Use the back of a heavy kitchen knife to crack the claws and make sure to double check that there are no little bits of shell through the meat.

In a large bowl, julienne a small sized celeriac on a Liam Óg O’Flynn, more commonly known as a mandolin. Add the following and mix the whole lot together.

5 tbsp of mayonnaise

5 tbsp crème fraiche

2 tbsp chopped non pareil capers

2 tsp of Dijon mustard

2 tsp of chopped flat leaved parsley

2 tsp of chopped tarragon

2 tsp of chopped chives

Salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste.

Evenly share the crabmeat between four plates, likewise the celeriac remoulade and finish off with a nice little tuft of rocket. Eat.

Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites Brown Bread

Makes 2 loaves

750g (1lb 10oz) self raising flour

3 fists wholemeal flour 275g (10oz)

2 fists wheat bran 250g (9oz)

1 tsp bread soda

400ml buttermilk

400ml water

2 x 20cm loaf tins

NB: This is based on Marie Thérèse’s fist size which is very, very big.

Depending on how big your hands are, adjust the amount of liquid, more than likely downwards.

Preheat oven to 210C/425F/Mark 7 and grease 2 x 20cm long loaf tins.

Mix the dry ingredients together by hand in a big bowl and make well in centre.

Pour half of liquid in and mix very lightly by hand.

Pour remainder of liquid in and mix very lightly by hand. Divide the mixture in between the tins. Bake in a preheated oven for 30-35mins turning midway for even baking.

Turn out onto wire rack to cool.

Cáca Tanaí

Cáca Tanaí literally means thin bread. This makes 7 to 8 cáca tanaí. If you need bread in a hurry this griddle bread is a perfect and delicious solution. Halve the recipe and make the dough as above. Heat a griddle or heavy iron frying pan over a medium heat, take a fistful of the dough (approximately 6oz) and roll it into a very thin round (¼ inch). Slap onto the hot griddle or pan. Cook for four to five minutes on each side. Serve immediately on a floured board with butter and chosen topping.

Cáca Risíní

We ate this delicious Cáca Risíní when we visited Áine and Tarlack de Blacam’s house on Inis Meáin.

450g (1 lb) white flour, preferably unbleached

110g (4oz) mixed fruit — raisins and sultanas

½ level tsp bread soda (bicarbonate of soda)

½ level tsp baking powder

No salt

Sour milk or buttermilk to mix — 350-400 ml (12-14 fl ozs) approx.

1 x 21cm (8 inch) round tin or 3 x small loaf tins 7cm (5 ½ inch) length and 6cm (2 ½ inch) depth.

First fully preheat your oven to 230C/450F/regulo 8.

Sieve the dry ingredients into a bowl, rub in the butter and add the dried fruit. Make a well in the centre. Pour most of the milk in at once. Using one hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be softer than white soda bread but not too wet and sticky.

When it all comes together divide it between the well greased tin or tins. Bake in the preheated hot oven.

If baked in the larger round tin bake for 20 minutes, remove from the tin and turn upside down in the oven for 10 minutes.

In the smaller tins, bake for 15 minutes at 230C and 15 minutes at 200C then take it out of the tin, turn upside down for five minutes or until fully cooked.

If you are in doubt, tap the bottom of the bread: it should sound hollow.

Cool on wire rack, slice and eat freshly baked with a little butter slathered over each slice.

Marie Thérèse de Blacam’s Inis Meáin Apple Sponge

Serves 18

Pastry:

225g (8oz) butter

50g (2oz) caster sugar

2 free-range eggs

350g (12oz) white flour

Sponge:

250g (9oz) butter

350g (12oz) caster sugar

6 free-range eggs

350g (12oz) flour

2 rounded tsp baking powder

2 tbsp milk

Filling:

6 large cooking apples, peeled, cored and sliced

1 heaped tbsp brown sugar

1 rectangular baking tray 40 x 30 x 4cm (16 x 12 x 1.5in)

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F /gas 4. Make the pastry first and leave in fridge overnight if possible. If you are short on time you can divide the pastry into 2cm thick discs, wrap in cling film and place in freezer, making sure the disks are not touching each other.

Leave for no more than 30 minutes in the freezer to chill while you are preparing the sponge and filling. However, the pastry is a little bit more difficult to work with this way, than if you refrigerate it overnight and then take out of fridge 15 minutes before rolling.

To make the pastry, cream the butter and sugar together in a food mixer, add the egg and beat for several minutes. Add the flour, turn out onto a floured surface, flatten into a round to chill overnight or smaller discs for the freezer as described above.

To make the sponge, cream the butter in a food mixer, then add the caster sugar and mix well. Add the eggs gradually and mix well between each addition. Sieve the flour and baking powder and mix in gradually. Add the milk and mix lightly.

Grease the baking tray with butter and dust with flour. Turn the pastry out onto a well floured surface. Roll the pastry to a thickness of 3-4mm (1/8 in) and line the baking tray base with it. As it can be difficult to move such a large layer of thin pastry to the tray at once, this can be done in two separate pieces that each line half the tray, using your finger to blend the two halves together in the middle. Prepare the apple slices and spread gently and evenly on top of the pastry.

Sprinkle with brown sugar.

Spread sponge mixture gently on top of apple slices.

Place tray in oven. After 10 minutes turn tray to make sure the sponge browns evenly. Check after a further 10 minutes, and again after a further 5 minutes turning as necessary (total baking time approximately 25 minutes). It is done when the sponge is an even golden brown. Leave to stand and cool a little in the tin before portioning into 18 slices. Delicious served warm with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Wild food

Periwinkles

Periwinkles can be found all along the coast of Ireland. Cover with cold fresh water and leave to soak for at least 1 hour, longer if possible.

You’ll need to cover the bucket because they make a valiant and determined effort to escape, which can be a bit unnerving. Discard the water and cook.

Fresh live periwinkles

Boiling salted water, 6 ozs (170g) salt to every 4 pints (2.3L) water

Homemade mayonnaise or vinegar (optional)

Bring the water to the boil, add the salt and the periwinkles, bring the water back to the boil, strain off the water and allow the periwinkles to get cold. Pick the periwinkles out of the shells with a large pin. Eat on their own or with mayonnaise. Some people like to dip them in vinegar.

Hot tip

IF you are shopping in Newbridge pop into the Silverware Restaurant in the Visitors Centre — delicious freshly made cakes and coffee in the morning, homemade dishes for lunch and many temptations. A lovely spot to get together with friends. Don’t forget to run upstairs to visit the Museum of Style Icons while you are there. Contact 045 488439; email: nataliecollins@silverware.ie

Saturday Pizza: For just three hours every Saturday, Philip Dennhardt cooks delicious pizzas in the wood burning oven in the Garden Café at Ballymaloe Cookery School. It’s the best fun, you can watch as Philip makes the pizzas in the traditional way. He uses fresh seasonal ingredients from the organic farm and gardens and the local area. There’s always a Pizza Margherita, but for Pizza of the Week see www.saturdaypizzas.com.


Lifestyle

The ribbed fabric is having a fashion moment, says Katie Wright.Get on board with cord: 5 of the best pinafore dresses and how to style them

Columnist and trained counsellor Fiona Caine advises a woman whose future mother-in-law isn’t happy with her decision not to have kids.Ask a counsellor: ‘Why can’t my fiancé’s mother accept that I don’t want children?’

Vincent Thurkettle, author of The Wood Fire Handbook, talks to Luke Rix-Standing about one of our best-loved simple pleasures – the log fire.Burning love: Why are roaring wood fires so endlessly appealing?

Students have nothing to be anxious about with their CAO 2020, just follow this easy video guide with Trish McGrath, Principal of Hewitt CollegeTen tips to completing CAO 2020 applications online, plus a short video guide for students

More From The Irish Examiner