Among the many signs you can expect to see while driving on a country road in the west of Ireland are those for Sunday roasts at pubs and for farm fresh eggs. But during a trip to Connemara this past summer, I encountered an unusual sign in the village of Letterfrack. It read: Fresh oysters! Farm tasting this way.
I needed to follow that sign. Rich and briny, oysters are one of my favorite tastes in Ireland. Multiple other signs led beyond the village and down a bumpy unpaved lane toward the sea. The road ended in front of a stone building overlooking Ballinakill Bay. This lone structure is Connemara Oysters, an oyster farm that opened for tours in June 2017.
There are 18,000 bags of oysters in the waters at this farm, where oysters feed on plankton and are rocked by the sea for natural tumbling. “The flavor of the oyster comes from the bay,” said David Keane, owner of Connemara Oysters. After two to three years, the mature oysters are ready for purification and eating.
Inside, trays piled high with oysters covered a wooden table. “Want a taste?” Keane asked, picking up an oyster knife. He surveyed the piles, choosing a perfect specimen with a deep cup. In one swift motion, he cracked open the oyster at the base and handed it to me. “When they feel heavy like this, like a stone, they’re ready,” Keane said.
The oyster’s cup was full to the brim of its liquor, the flavorful liquid that naturally fills the shell. The meat looked plump, almost inflated. The shell was cold in my hand. On first slurp, the bold flavor was equally briny and sweet. I immediately thought of how tasteless and flat other oysters seem in comparison.
Our tasting was interrupted by a group of French tourists who pulled up to the oyster farm. They were planning a picnic nearby and wanted to know if oysters were for sale. Armed with their own shucking knives, they drove off with two mesh bags full of oysters for a lower price than found at the fishmonger.
Ballinakill Bay has a long history with oysters, Keane told me. Oysters have been farmed in these waters since 1893. “Oysters were brought by horse and carriage to Clifden,” he says. “Then they traveled by rail to Dublin.” As we talked we kept cracking open oysters, almost as if to test that the previous bite hadn’t been a fluke, that they were indeed that good.
Connemara Oysters offers one-hour tours, including tastings, plus special tours to coincide with the spring tides that include a walk on the seashore out to the oyster beds.
Oyster-obsessed travelers will have many opportunities to taste Ireland’s bivalves beyond the farm. My favorite places know what separates the good from the bad: shucking skill (no shell fragments, please), storage, presentation, and temperature all contribute significantly to the moment the oyster hits your lips.
Whether satisfying an oyster craving in Dublin or at the source in the west of Ireland, here are a few of my favorites.
The Temple Bar Food Market (every Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., rain or shine, in Meeting House Square) isn’t only for fresh produce and baked goods—it’s also an oyster destination. Here you can sit outside, order a dozen oysters and a glass of white wine, and watch the bustle of the market.
Ely Wine Bar is known for its variety of wines (with many available by the glass), but I always return for the oysters, served with pickled shallots and traditional Irish brown bread.
Oyster lovers who are watching their wallets may want to seek out an oyster happy hour. At Klaw, oysters from Galway Bay, Dooncastle, Waterford, and the Flaggy Shore are served for 1.50 each from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. every day.
Matt the Thresher is a gastropub with an extensive seafood selection. In addition to different types of oysters, the menu includes local mussels, scallops, West Cork crab claws, and a dreamy fish pie.
One of the most serene places for oysters is Renvyle House, a historic country house hotel on the coast of Connemara. Whether you stay overnight or stop for lunch during a drive along the Wild Atlantic Way, try the oysters served with lemongrass dressing. (The seafood platter with smoked mackerel and smoked salmon is exceptional, too.)
In the countryside near Galway City, there is a seafood destination set in a 250-year-old thatched cottage. At Moran’s on the Weir, when the weather is cooperating, you can slurp oysters and raise glasses of Guinness at a picnic table with a view of the water.
The town of Clifden in County Galway has an excellent reputation for restaurants, but those seeking seafood head straight for Mitchell’s. The Connemara seafood platter puts oysters on the same plate as local mussels, salmon, prawns, and crab.
Lough Inagh Lodge is a peaceful country house retreat overlooking the waters of one of Connemara’s many lakes. Two features draw me here again and again: the local oysters and the cozy rooms named after Irish writers, such as Samuel Beckett and George Bernard Shaw.
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Jessica Colley Clarke