cows and sheep
PHOTOGRAPH BY COLIN CLARK

The Magic Of Organic Ireland

In the wake of the recession, a wave of sustainable farmers, artisans, and chefs is making Dublin the Emerald Isle’s most exciting place to visit.

October 23, 2015

Hugh Robson, tall and still pink-cheeked in his 70s, rests broad hands and muscular forearms on a table as I settle into a silk-upholstered chair opposite him at Ely Wine Bar, in the heart of Dublin. Robson lives on 450 acres of the Burren, a region of rocky hillsides in rural County Clare, about a 3-hour drive across Ireland from the city. But he looks quite comfortable here, as he should. His son, Erik, is the owner of this restaurant. 

Hugh, for his part, farms organic beef and pork. The only place to taste it is at Ely, his exclusive customer, where we sample the beef now in a steak tartare. The pomegranate-red chunks of chopped raw beef are dressed in the classic accompaniments—egg yolk, gherkins, mustard—along with less familiar pink peppercorns, walnuts, and a sprinkling of chervil, which amplify the meat’s slightly sweet, mineral flavor. It’s positively succulent. 

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Related: The Most Organic Places To Eat, Stay, Shop In Dublin

That’s on account, says Robson, of the way his Angus-Hereford crossbreeds are raised—in the free-range manner in which the Irish have always farmed animals in the Burren (from the Gaelic word Boíreann, meaning “a rocky place”). A thick floor of limestone karst beneath a thin carpet of grass, the Burren absorbs and stores the sun’s warmth, which rises from the ground like steam heat during the cold months. According to a seemingly backwards migration, the animals, which graze on organic sileage year-round, overwinter in the blustery highlands there, moving downhill to the lowlands in summer. “This is how it’s been done for 6,000 years,” Robson says.

There it is: Ireland and its past. I’ve only just arrived the previous day, but I’ve already come to understand that these kinds of way-back-when stories are as inevitable here as the cramped pubs with their neon Guinness logos. I have my own history when it comes to Ireland, but it’s an unsatisfying one. My parents brought me here on vacation when I was 5—just old enough to know I’d been there, but too young to remember anything about it.

The animals, which graze on organic sileage, overwinter in the highlands.

It’s this sensory dissonance—this history of a place that’s stripped of tastes, smells, even the sight of the vivid green hues—that has driven me to visit. More than two decades later, I need to fill in some blanks.

 

I was surprised to find that plenty of Irish people are reconnecting to their past as well, if in a slightly different way. Take Robson. He thought the narrative arc of his life was settled: He’d planned to retire to the Burren. Then the economy collapsed in 2009, stripping away most of his savings, and he turned to what he had left: the land, and the cows, and the old ways of feeding them. “We had to do something, so we started as organic butchers,” he tells me.

Dublin bike-share
PHOTOGRAPH BY COLIN CLARK

In an up-is-down, inside-out way that mirrors the geographic quirks of the Burren, the economic catastrophe hatched a new kind of prosperity. In the late 1990s, when Ireland was plump with the foreign investment that created the Celtic Tiger, Dublin chefs flew in Kobe beef from Japan and farmers sold out to developers who laid down opulent golf courses. Among chefs, farmers, and artisans, the crash triggered some soul-searching about Ireland’s homegrown agrarian treasures. They began to see local dairy, seafood, and livestock as resources to be prized rather than commodities to be packaged onto container ships for somewhere else. 

“Irish restaurants stepped up to the plate after the recession,” Erik Robson tells me. “There was this reevaluation of core values. People weren’t taking overseas holidays. It was patriotic and even on-trend to stay at home. And with that focus on community, the quality and availability of Irish goods exploded.” It’s a transformation evident in Dublin’s thriving restaurant scene, which supports a rising tide of local and organic producers. Combine that with a growing design movement that draws its inspiration from traditional Irish crafts, and you’ve got buzz (craic, in Irish parlance) drawing visitors like me, many searching to reconnect to the old sod in their own particular ways.

 

"Irish restaurants stepped up to the plate after the recession," he tells me.

Home to 528,000 people, Dublin is as sophisticated as any capital city. But when it comes to the current cultural shift, that’s just a part of the story. Things are starting to happen here now, I learned, not only because it’s the urban center but also because it remains so closely tied to the pastoral countryside that unfurls to the north, south, and west. “A lot of people in Dublin grew up on farms, or their cousins run farms, or their grandparents had farms,” says Grace Maher, development officer for the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association. “Most people in Ireland aren’t that far removed from the land.” 

I taste green. That may sound odd, given that most tourists here expect to simply take in Ireland’s emerald hues with their eyes, not their lips. But I’ve just dipped a spoon into a bowl with such vivid tastes, I feel like I’m lapping up the lyrical landscape. Tapioca-textured peas float in a bowl of sweet, fern-colored cream topped with a chartreuse-hued foam, emerald-green herbs, and a lashing of smoked organic rapeseed oil from Drumeen Farm in Kilkenny. I’m sitting in Chapter One, Dublin’s Michelin-starred restaurant, whose chef, Ross Lewis, composes odes to the organic vegetables.“In Dublin,” he says, “Irish produce is the belle of the ball.”

Lewis, 50 years old, is the silver-haired patriarch of slow dining in Dublin. He buys from among 200 varieties of organic potatoes grown by farmer Dermot Carey in County Dublin. He gets organic mushrooms from a grower in County Cork. “For some time, our agriculture was really based on what we felt was commodity: beef and anything dairy related. Just get it into a bag and get it out of the country,” says Lewis. “Now we’re realizing that we’ve got great small producers.” 

horses
PHOTOGRAPH BY COLIN CLARK

That’s no accident. Unlike in the United States, where large-scale agriculture dominates, small family farms account for 90 percent of Irish producers. Most of their practices are inherently natural. “There are hardly any chemical inputs,” says Maher, “and a lot of the pastureland is not sprayed,” making Irish farming ripe for widespread organic certification. Or at least that’s the theory. A two-year conversion process, strict adherence to Irish and European Union standards, unannounced inspections, annual fees, copious reporting—certification can be daunting. Until recently, the majority hadn’t pursued it. “Farmers often say to us, ‘We are almost organic anyway, and I wouldn’t be bothered,’ ” Maher says. Thanks to increased government support for organic farms, though, there were more than 500 new entrants into the organic sector this year, and Maher expects that number to keep rising as Irish hunger for local organics increases.

At Forest Avenue, Dublin’s hottest restaurant, Chef John Wyer satiates that hunger with dishes like tender agnolotti stuffed with smoked cheese and heritage tomatoes and a salad of celery root and charred bread laced with smoky-sweet black garlic and topped with a farm-fresh egg. “Customers used to be disinterested in things like cauliflower and artichokes and spinach,” Wyer says, “but now they’re commenting on how incredible these things taste.” 

It's what you get when a zillion yummy things are wedged into one space.

I smell wet stone. That’s the first scent that hits you when you walk into the Temple Bar Food Market, a Saturday farmers’ market in one of the oldest parts of the city. But then, something more: something sizzling—fried potatoes, and a fruity smell from a juice stand, and fresh herbs. It’s that kind of mix you get only when a zillion yummy things are wedged into one space. 

My tour guide here is Denise Dunne, 49, a small, spirited brunette. She was one of the original stall owners when the market opened in 1997. Her land, about a 40-minute drive away in Naul, is a small plot of organic flowers and herbs adjacent to a stone cottage with a sky-blue door. Dunne has been certified organic for 20 years. She designed the herb garden at BrookLodge Hotel in Wicklow, home to Ireland’s only certified-organic restaurant; she’s an advisor to the Organic Trust, another of Ireland’s organic certifying bodies; she teaches classes on wild foods and gardening; and she sells seeds online. While she no longer keeps a market stall, her number is saved in the cellphones of Dublin’s best chefs. If anyone needs wild blue borage flowers for an evening’s special, she’s the person they call. 

I meet Denis Healy, who stands behind a table heaped with parsnips and purple sprouting broccoli. His enthusiasm for organic farming is palpable. “It’s mad! I just love weeding!” he says. Then Dunne and I elbow our way to another longtime market vendor, Jenny McNally. 

“Look who it is,” McNally says as she casts her slate-blue gaze on Dunne. McNally sells wares from her family’s North County Dublin organic farm, where John Wyer buys his fruits and vegetables for Forest Avenue. The women hug, recalling the days when this thriving place amounted to just about the two of them. On the table before McNally, fat currants and Blue Betty tomatoes beckon eager clientele.

His enthusiasm for organic farming is palpable. "I just love weeding!" he says.

I see a shade of white I’ve never seen before—at least not in this context.

I’m standing in a 150-year-old stone building that used to house a brewery and tannery. Now it harbors the vast, light-filled room that serves as the creative headquarters for We Are Islanders, founded by fashion innovators Rosie O’Reilly and Deirdre Hynds. The two-year-old clothing label puts indigenous, sustainable, and organic Irish craft at the center of all that it does. Hynds, 31, fresh faced save for a winged swipe of kohl liner over each eye, pulls a white jacket from a clothing rack. “Irish linen was a thriving industry, but it is under significant pressure,” says Hynds. “It faces a lot of competition from mass producers.” Reinvigorating the craft is part of the mission of We Are Islanders. Hynds runs her hand down the jacket’s front. 

“This is beetled linen,” she explains. The woven fabric was traditionally made by pounding it to give it a lustrous sheen, but these days most beetled linen is machine made and meant for upholstery. We Are Islanders works with Irish craftspeople who beetle by hand, a process that gives the fabric a pearlescent appearance. As Hynds holds it up, the jacket catches the light and illuminates her face from below.

 Textile and clothing design—two industries that suffered sharp declines at the end of the 20th century—are blinking back to life through an emphasis on local materials and craft. This year, the International Association of Designers declared Dublin its World Design Hub, creating momentum for young artisans. We Are Islanders tells the story of Irish fabric in a modern, wearable way. Hynds and O’Reilly work with traditional wool artisans, they source sustainable silk made from bamboo, and all of their cotton is organic and fair trade. In a bid to use more of Ireland’s resources sustainably, they’re experimenting with “salmon-skin leather,” a by-product material from an organic fish farm off the coast. The women have hand-painted prints using wood from retired currachs, traditional Irish boats. And in an especially creative gambit, O’Reilly installed three custom-constructed vats along the city’s coastline where the ebb and flow controlled the immersion of fabrics into natural dyes, “so the high tides of Dublin themselves created this pattern,” says Hynds. 

A 15-minute pedal on a loaner from Dublinbikes, Dublin’s public bike-share system, and I’m back in the city center. It’s my last day here. I stop at Fallon & Byrne market to pick up the fixings for a preflight picnic—cured salmon from the Old Millbank Smokehouse and organic Irish brie from the Little Milk Company. For friends back home, I buy hand-bound notebooks from Duffy, Ireland’s oldest bookbinder, and Voya moisturizer made with organic seaweed from Avoca just around the corner. I finish off my shopping expedition with a visit to Murphy’s, an artisan shop specializing in ice cream from the southwestern Dingle Peninsula. There I buy a scoop of the house treat; it’s been churned using organic sugar, free-range eggs, fresh Irish cream, and sea salt. As I sit there enjoying it, I contemplate all that I’ve experienced over the last few days. For all its colorful past, Dublin’s energetic present tells perhaps the best story of all.

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