Amidst a whirlwind of formal introductions, smiles and small talk, the five of us set out on our first official TTA excursion in Sligo at 10am on Monday morning. Driving slowly along the Mullaghmore coast road, grey clouds parted to reveal the proud silhouette of Classiebawn Castle, and our first glimpses of the Atlantic coastline materialized against dramatic sandstone cliffs. At the harbour, the last of the sea mist lifted and the sun saw us through two vibrant days of exploring Sligo’s coastline.
Reflecting on our first excursion I am left with an immense, renewed feeling of pride in the produce and the producers our island has to offer but also completely baffled as to why we do not instil this sense of achievement within them more often. I think, as chefs, we get so caught up in championing the produce itself and all of its versatility that we can sometimes overlook the people on the ground doing the work, getting seafood safely from ocean waters to our restaurant plates or farming it from scratch with their own hands. It is difficult for me to properly encapsulate or convey the genuine passion and dedication that those working on the frontlines of Irish aquaculture possess but talking face to face with producers about their livelihoods is an incredibly warming, rewarding feeling that you really have to experience for yourself. Listening to them speak and educate, their enthusiasm becomes almost tangible and the willingness that is there, to give their time to sharing such a wealth of generational knowledge, is overwhelming. I think it is important for them also to realize that people want to hear what they have to say and in the era of sustainability and commercial greenwashing, now is the time to shout loudly about the genuine efforts they have been making all along.
Walking on to any working farm, I am always struck by the degree of sheer physical labour at hand combined with the small work force that keep the wheels turning day in, day out. It really is a labour of love and listening to Daithí of Mullaghmore Sea Farm speak of the challenges of keeping young people interested in such a career was more than disheartening. He left us with no doubts that it is indeed a vocation. On site on the sea farm, surrounded by towering stacks of shellfish crates representing every fishing company from Cork to Donegal, I really began to get a sense of the volume of work at the origin point of our food systems. The packing, unpacking, reboxing, labelling, filing, moving, lifting, storing, checking, adjusting and of course the reams of thrilling paperwork that come with managing a traceability system. And that is excluding the physical labour and time spent by fishermen catching and getting the produce back on dry land come rain, hail or shine.
For me, the overarching theme of the trip was undoubtedly food education – how our seafood is sourced, the biology behind it and the time frames in which it is ready to be put on the market. I was surprised at the gaps in my own knowledge and the questions that had never even occurred to me. It is jarring to realize I did not know how products like oysters or lobster, that I could be working with every day, were grown and produced. Before our workshop with BIM, I had never heard of “V” notching lobsters as a sustainable practice nor did I know it is actually illegal to land, hold or sell these lobsters. It signals a frightening disconnect in our food system that those handling food every day would not know if their produce was in breach of legislation.
When you consider that the oysters on your restaurant plate take three years to reach that size it really gives a whole new perspective on their value as a food item. For me, it raises questions around fair prices for farmers and fishermen, especially when they face consistent challenges like disease, failed seed crops and an increasingly unpredictable climate with rising water temperatures. This thinking really reinforced the need that is there to overhaul food education in Ireland and start teaching children at a young age where our food comes from so that in years to come, they may place a greater importance on protecting the jobs and the people that keep us fed. We need more initiatives like Feast Ireland to keep the momentum on this going because it is invaluable that future generations are armed with the correct knowledge on the realities of food systems.
Something that also really came to the fore across the two days was the inherent value and necessity for community and cooperation amongst the producers. There is strength in numbers and while yes, they are competitors, there is a phenomenal amount of support and knowledge sharing amongst them. They lift each other up rather than see each other struggle. It is great to hear producers promoting and linking in with one another where possible. Collectives of producers and fishermen are what strengthen the industry and give them the lobbying power they need to improve policymaking. The Wild Atlantic Oyster company is testament to this with several producers coming together to form a successful business. Mullaghmore Sea Farm also emphasizes this point, acting as a vital intermediary between fishermen on the west coast and the international export markets. Without it, smaller fishing families would have no means to compete as their individual total catches would be below viable commercial level.
Another huge dimension to this trip was the growing demand for and commercial viability of food tourism in today’s tourist economy. The Sligo Oyster Experience is a perfect example of this. Farm tours and tastings are the ideal way for producers to gain increased exposure of their produce and engage the public in a more emotive, less static manner. In a sense, they allow for the forging of a more personal relationship with consumers, and it is hard to deny that special feeling you get of being somewhat involved in it all. There is an authenticity in being on a working production site or eating local produce in its place of origin that isn’t as easily translated by simply marketing your product to domestic consumers via supermarkets or social media.
Of course, the reality for many producers is that they simply do not have the additional time, staff, experience or space to accommodate visitors. This is where entrepreneurial individuals like Aishling (Sligo Oyster Experience) prove indispensable to the industry and I think meeting her made me realize that the more diverse, professional perspectives aquaculture gains, the more likely it is to gain greater traction in the public domain. There is a meeting point here of hospitality, business, tourism and production that once again reiterates the importance of network and community. Aishling is someone who is invested in championing local produce and is on a mission to share her pride with whoever is willing to listen. She has managed to turn her passion into a profitable experience that gets people back to the roots of where their food comes through informative, interactive education sessions while spreading the word about Sligo’s incredible offerings.
Our two days in Sligo were a brilliant start to the programme and I am excited that this is just the beginning of our journey together. It has provided me with ample food for thought and I am extremely grateful to each of the producers who gave up their time to host us. I look forward hugely to our next outing and of course working with my paired producer in July!