Words: Caitriona Devery
Photography: George Voronov
Special Thanks to: Robb Walsh & Family
Remember when weekends were all gadding about the place: boozy lunches, margarita stops and pints all over the shop? And you were allowed to sit down. Inside, at tables? Never fear. We’ll ride again, my friends.
The 5km rule has boosted Ireland’s burgeoning wild food scene and our awareness of what’s edible within our vicinity. It’s made us appreciate those selling tasty goods close-by more too. Post-pandemic should be an interesting time for food. Will we see a mashup of the hyper-local with global influences in a reinvigorated Irish food culture? Whatever happens, it’ll be full-on, with the raging appetites we’ll all have by then.
Way back when Covid was a twinkle in Bill Gates’ eye, I got to meet with someone who has written lots about local food cultures and their evolution in the US and around the world. Robb Walsh is an American food writer now living near New Quay, County Clare, where the majestic moonscape of the Burren meets the pensive Atlantic. Coastal Clare is a forager’s paradise, rich with edible seaweed and shellfish. I was lucky enough to be brought on a wild food hunt by Robb and his friend David.
Robb is originally from Connecticut but spent most of his life in Texas, moving there in 1970 to go to university. He has a longstanding curiosity about foodways; which is where food meets history and culture. His books are expansive and thorough food histories interwoven with recipes. Some of his award-winning titles include Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook, the Tex-Mex Cookbook, Sex, Death & Oysters, and The Hot Sauce Cookbook.
In 2018, Robb, his wife Kelly and their two children left Texas for Clare, as Kelly enrolled on a PhD at the Burren College of Art. Their house overlooks Pouldoody bay and is overflowing with books, paintings, and a delectably droopy and slightly squiffy basset hound called Frances. Frances mopes from visitor to visitor, stopping only to roll over to facilitate belly tickling.
The memory of jaunting west to Clare makes me pine for the Atlantic and even Irish Rail. I did slightly worry that we might have tested the limits of Robb’s hospitality, as the article ended up requiring two visits. He didn’t seem to mind, and the double trip was okay with me. I got to go west in the freshness of Spring and then later, in October, as the craggy shores turned towards winter.
On my first trip in April, Robb introduced me to a neighbour, David Donohue. David is a man of many talents and an expert on the foodscape of the Clare coast around us. Under normal circumstances, he gives food tours of the shore and the Burren as Taste of the Burren Tours. David and I chatted in the sitting room full of soft couches and big windows framing the bright seascape. It was a Saturday and the Grand National in Aintree was on the telly, turned down low.
Robb emerges from the kitchen to offer us a late breakfast. Tex-mex style breakfast tacos; small flour tortillas which we stuff with his frijoles refritos; beans cooked long and slow to a yielding softness.Caitriona Devery
Robb emerges from the kitchen to offer us a late breakfast. Tex-mex style breakfast tacos; small flour tortillas which we stuff with his frijoles refritos, beans cooked long and slow to a yielding softness with smoked pork, garlic, salt and pepper and then refried in lard, slightly sticking to the bottom of the pan so they char a little. We add on soft scrambled egg, crispy bacon, chillies, fried potatoes, and some potent hot sauce.
Later that afternoon, David takes Robb and I on a meandering stroll along Pouldoody Bay. Robb and David own some oyster bags, which are left in the ocean like cans cooling in the fridge. The metal-mesh bags are laid out on frames in the water, lapped by the tides. They must be shaken up and rotated every so often. The oysters in this bay have an illustrious lineage; Joyce referenced them in Finnegans Wake, and a century ago there was a thriving trade, the oysters travelling by train to Limerick and Dublin.
Learning to navigate the edibility of the landscape is an ancient skill but gifts the learner a larder in one’s locality.Caitriona Devery
Learning to navigate the edibility of the landscape is an ancient skill but gifts the learner a larder in one’s locality. David is largely self-taught but also learned with Oonagh O’Dwyer of Wild Kitchen in Lahinch. With his advice, we explore the salt-tolerant plants we find on rocks and grassy verges. Sea spinach is waxy and robust, thicker than regular spinach, with a salty, minerally tang. It’s a hardy creature, with the shiny scrubbed complexion of a plant regularly battered by the elements.
We also find some pepper dulse, sometimes called the truffle of the sea, attached to rocks. It has dark red-brown wiry fronds; delicately fractured, almost bronchial. The taste is brackish with an iodine tang and a pungent, garlicky layer too. We root around the rock pools, picking up clams, cockles, big clumps of bearded mussels, and a couple of native oysters. We get some periwinkles, which we prise from their shells later and douse in obscene amounts of garlic butter.
The second trip, in October, was with George, Char’s photographer. Robb collects us from the train in Oranmore and we stop off at New Quay pier to pop into Burren Seafoods. Robb buys some lobsters with royal blue shells and scalloped edged-tails; they move slowly in the tank, but snap and arch violently when picked up. Fair enough, I suppose.
As we are leaving, Gerry O’Halloran from Flaggy Shore oysters emerges from another building beside the pier. He takes us inside, where there is a table with the detritus of an oyster feast, shells everywhere and upturned bottles of hot sauce. Gerry hosts oyster shucking Air BnB experiences when we are not in a global pandemic. He generously passes around some of the beautiful molluscs. These Atlantic oysters are especially plump and soft in the colder months, with a minerally, salty buzz.
In the afternoon we return to Pouldoody Bay. The path to the shore is lined with bushes heavy with glistening blackberries. This time there are less seaweeds, so we focus on the shellfish; mainly clams and mussels. Back in the house, Robb cooks dinner for us. The blue lobsters turn a violent orange-red when boiled. It’s messy eating but the reward is sweet meat, dipped in salty butter. Robb also makes linguini with the shellfish we picked, adding chilli flakes and olive oil, and we sprinkle it with smoked seaweed salt that David makes from kelp and serrated wrack and salt he boils down from Pouldoody bay water.
We sit down to chat about Robb’s food writing and his interest in culture. He tells us about an early memory. “My grandmother was an Eastern European immigrant, from Ruthenia. Her English wasn’t so good. When she’d come over to our house to visit, she’d buy a 25 lb sack of flour and she would just start cooking. We’d have all of these wonderful things like pagachi, a stuffed bread like stromboli or calzone. She never talked about her home country or her experience or anything like that, she just loved to watch us eat her food. In the absence of conversation, I was getting the love from my grandmother through the food. I think this started me thinking about the greater meaning of what I ate.”
My grandmother was an Eastern European immigrant, from Ruthenia. Her English wasn’t so good. When she’d come over to our house to visit, she’d buy a 25 lb sack of flour and she would just start cooking.Robb Walsh
After studying writing at university in Austin, he worked as a copywriter in an advertising agency. He admired Calvin Trillin who wrote for the New Yorker. “He wrote about hamburgers and boudin sausage in Louisiana. He wrote about folk food. And I just found it really exciting”. He pitched to a few magazines and got a gig as a restaurant reviewer for the Austin Chronicle. Other publications in Austin and Houston followed. Robb wasn’t drawn to luxury dining. “Coming from that background of my grandmother’s cooking, and my appreciation for Calvin Trillin, I was way more interested in what I call folk food, and folk food ways than I was in gourmet food.”
He draws a comparison. “In Houston Texas they have a symphony orchestra and they have an opera, and they are quite good. But the blues musicians and singer songwriters, Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vaughan, there’s just no equal to these guys. So when people talk about the music experience in Texas I’m not going to take them to the opera, I’m going to take them to see the blues. That separation of high culture and folk culture, it’s the same with food. I’m not going to take them to a fancy restaurant. I’m going to take them to a Tex Mex place or an oyster shack on the coast where they barbecue the oysters. Where in the world can you get better barbecue than Texas?”
Barbecue is at the heart of Texan cuisine. Robb has brought some of his kit with him. Southern US barbecue uses low-heat smoke to slow cook the food rather than direct flame. Some locals who heard of Robb’s legendary barbecue experience were disappointed in his reluctance to offer a class. “Texas barbecue takes twelve hours”, he says drily. “I didn’t do it because it’s so boring”. By comparison he thinks Irish barbecue is a much more urgent affair, “you get the adrenaline rush of turning burgers that are on fire while trying not to burn the hair on your arms”.
When people talk about the music experience in Texas I’m not going to take them to the opera, I’m going to take them to see the blues. That separation of high culture and folk culture, it’s the same with food. I’m not going to take them to a fancy restaurant. I’m going to take them to a Tex Mex place or an oyster shack on the coast where they barbecue the oysters.Robb Walsh
Robb is more interested in exploring cultural histories of food than the latest global trend. He recently made a short film called ‘Donut People’ about Cambodian immigrants in Texas, where Cambodians own an estimated 95% of the donut shops. Some of the film’s subjects escaped persecution in Cambodia at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. This use of food to explore deeper threads of history appeals to him, “Farmers markets are great, but that’s going on everywhere. I’m interested more in traditions, especially disappearing traditions”.
The organisation he started, Foodways Texas, linked with the University of Texas, is a repository of Southern US food traditions containing oral history, photography and film. He says, “it’s not just about history, it’s also new fusions, new creolisations”. This kind of documentation is something he would love to see happen here, “there’s a great parallel between Texas and Ireland in terms of the strength of folk culture.”
In the Southern US, food history often omitted African American contributions. He says “It tended to be fancy women with blue hair who wrote cookbooks. Genteel, southern gentry. There was very little credit given to black culture”. With others, he started to do research and oral history work, interviewing tamale makers and barbecuers about techniques and traditions. The idea was, he said, to “create a truer record of Southern food history. To bring the whole community back into the conversation”.
He is resolutely not a purist. In the seventies, the Mexican-style food native to Texas began to be perceived as derivative and inferior compared to ‘real’ Mexican food. ‘Tex Mex’ was a slur. Robb was vocal in attempts to value Tex Mex for what it was. “I and other lovers of Tex Mex argued, let’s say if Tex Mex is not Mexican food, what is it then? And the best answer is American regional cuisine, which was a big movement at the time. For instance, the Cajun movement was huge. But if a French chef came to New Orleans, they could say this is messed up French food. Cajun is American regional cuisine based on French cooking. Eventually people had to embrace it.”
He sees new combinations happening in Ireland too. His website ‘Ireland Eats’ has Robb talking to people about Irish food. “I’m in no position to teach anyone about Irish food. But I’m in a great position to go as a student, a pilgrim.” One trend he has christened Eire-Mex, “I noticed that every pub and bars I went to did nachos. Some were terrible but some were great, and some with potato skins. In Ennis in McHughs, they do Irish monkfish tacos, and some with fried chicken, pulled pork. The most popular taco they ever served was bacon and cabbage”. This curiosity about history and heritage, invention and evolution, combined with a love of eating, makes Robb Walsh’s work a true celebration of food. I look forward to hearing about his adventures in folk food beyond the 5km soon.