When our daughter was little, she loved hearing legends of the selkie girls, mermaid-like creatures who inhabit the waters off the Irish coast. Sleek as seals in the sea, they shed their skin once captured and turn into humans on land, yet they always long to return to the deep. Leila is grown now, and I haven’t thought about selkies for years, but they came vividly to mind a couple of months ago when I visited the southwest coast of Ireland, where I spent a magical day on the water foraging for seaweed by kayak. Gannets and gulls swooped through the air, on the lookout for fish. As we paddled through a natural arch I caught sight of a grey seal poised on a rock. A selkie! In that misty environment all transformations seemed possible.
I had flown to Ireland to speak at the first Dublin Gastronomy Symposium, brilliantly organized by Máirtín Mac ConIomaire at the Dublin Institute of Technology. Afterwards I headed to West Cork to meet John and Sally McKenna, creators of the annual Bridgestone Irish Food Guide. For a couple of years Sally has teamed up with Jim Kennedy at Atlantic Sea Kayaking to offer special foraging trips. Jim, an international champion kayaker who traded racing for gentler paddling, guided us along the rocky coast to a trove of seaweed in vivid colors: yellow and orange and purple and pink. We found carrageen and dilisk and sea lettuce and kelp—all common along the Irish coast—and were thrilled to spot a far rarer bloom of nori. I took a bite: mineral and salt, tasting of rock and sea. I nibbled on a couple of different kinds of wrack and sloke that were mainly chewy, but I swooned over pepper dulse with its piquant bite. As we hovered by the rocks, the clouds shifted, turning the water and sky various shades of grey and blue. Changeability defines this landscape—no wonder selkie legends arose. And no wonder that the dull brown strands of sea spaghetti drifting in the water should turn emerald green on boiling. Surely the tresses of mermaids!
Paddling away from the rocks, we encountered a grizzled fisherman in a battered boat who waved in greeting, then pulled up his line and tossed us three glistening mackerel. We headed quickly to a nearby cove for lunch. Early that morning we had stopped at the Skibbereen farmer’s market for bread and cheese—creamy Cashel Blue, sheep’s-milk Crozier blue, and Gouda-style Coolea, my favorite. Sally had packed some chorizo made by Fingal Ferguson of the famous Gubbeen cheesemaking family. We placed chorizo slices on homemade crackers seasoned with dried nori, then filleted a mackerel for a sashimi appetizer. The other mackerel we cleaned and sautéed on a Kelly Kettle in butter flavored with nori and sea-urchin roe. We washed down these offerings from the land and sea with a bracing tonic of elderflower and kelp.
That evening, over dinner at Liss Ard Estate, Sally Barnes, the proprietor of Woodcock Smokery in Castletownshend, regaled me with stories of her pioneering days as one of the first artisanal food producers in West Cork. After dark we ventured through field and forest to James Turrell’s magnificent Irish Sky Garden Crater. A bunker-like concrete tunnel led to steep stairs that opened up to a perfectly oval sky framed by the crater’s perimeter. We lay on our backs on stone plinths set in the crater’s grassy interior and gazed up at the sky. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, ever more stars appeared, and we saw satellites slowly making their way around the globe.
Of this earthwork James Turrell said that “the most important thing is that inside turns into outside and the other way around.” Isn’t that what terroir is all about, turning the land inside out to enjoy its nourishment, harvesting the fruit of the earth and the kelp that roots below the surface of the sea? Looking up at the sky, I thought of the tastes of Ireland that stayed with me: Knockdrinna’s tangy Kilree Goat’s Cheese; gorgeous fried plaice from Paul Deevy’s kitchen at Richmond House, Cappoquin; the craft black pudding from Nolan’s of Kilcullen; Frank Hederman’s zesty mussels in vinaigrette from his English Market fish stall in Cork; Helvick Gold, a bitter blonde ale from Dungarvan Brewing Company; the plump yeast rolls called “blaas” from Barron’s Bakery in Cappoquin; and Sally Barnes’s exquisite smoked salmon. Everywhere in its sea and its sky, its shifting colors and transfiguring flavors, Ireland’s rich terroir seems to promise a deeper revelation.