12 Sep dillisk: a connemara food project
The wind from the Atlantic is caught inside the stemless tumbler in my hand. I look down at its vibrant contents of sweet strawberry and beetroot juice, picked nasturtium leaves floating at the surface, and up again to swallow my surroundings: standing at what feels like the edge of the edge of Ireland, with a sandy, grassy beach under my foot and Aughresbeg Lough around me.
This travel piece first appeared in Totally Dublin in July 2014
words: aoife mcelwain images: mark duggan
The four hour plus journey from Dublin to Connemara is made with my soon-to-be husband Niall, my friends Mark and Cherie and my dog, Daffodil. In the car from Dublin to Galway through to Clifden, we chatter about 30-year old stuff; jobs, money, love, career, food and family. We cross through the threshold of Connemara and things quieten. This land evokes awe and silence. We drive around the horseshoe of Cleggan Bay and up the long driveway to Cleggan Farm Cottages, our 180 year old home for the weekend.
For dinner, we drive through Cleggan town and out towards Aughresbeg Lough. A wooden sign for Dillisk signals dinner time on the grounds of a family home. A winding, stone path leads us towards a converted boat shed on the edge of the water where Katie Sanderson and Jasper O’Connor are cooking a five course meal inspired by their surroundings for a gathered crowd of less than 30 people.
“It started from a wish to spend the summer in Connemara,” Katie explains. “We thought that maybe we would rent a little cottage, grow some stuff and learn more about seaweeds and the coastline. It’s kind of grown from there. I don’t think either of us see it as a restaurant although we host dinners. It feels different. It’s more of a project.”
They worked for the first half of the year to get their food project ready for visitors in July and it’s been an entirely collaborative process. “The weekends before we opened, we had friends and family come down help us with plastering, painting, building, gardening and more. Sometimes we had up to 15 people come down and work through the day. Then we would cook big pots of cockles and eat through the night.”
Sam Gleeson from This Is What We Do and Sam Bishop from Street Feast built a compost loo with a window that looks out onto stunning landscapes. Katie is not exaggerating when she says tells us how it’s become a focal point of the whole experience: “It’s amazing how many people you hear singing on the loo”. The napkins are made by We Are Islanders and the produce is all local. “Me and Jasper are here all the time and write the menus,” says Katie, “but there is a lot more to it than that.”
I’m sitting near a French photographer (whose film of the experience you can watch here), a Canadian couple who love food and cider, a girl from the Basque country who has come to work for the summer with the local farmer whose organic produce we eat over dinner. The farmer is at the table too, as is my main dinner time BFF, a Dubliner wearing a great, green woolly jumper. Conversation flows as do our courses. We eat tandoori pollock, elderflower pickled mackerel, peas and milk, braised lamb neck, dehydrated strawberries with brown bread crumble, and lavender and sea salt truffles. It’s restorative food because, I think, these special, very local ingredients are treated so delicately and respectfully in the kitchen.
“Less than five minutes away there is an organic farm called Jagur,” says Katie. “It’s right on the sea and beside one of our favourite seaweed spots. We buy fish straight from the fisherman, mussels from Killary fjord, lobster and crab from a neighbour. All of this great stuff is right on our doorstep and supporting the amazing and passionate growers and producers all over this country is the best thing we can do.”
Katie and Jasper invite us to go looking for cockles on Omey Island the day following dinner. We watch Katie, Jasper, Dillisk front-of-house Béibhinn (Jasper’s sister) and Stefano rake through the shore while the tide is out looking for cockles. I insist on calling it a cockle hunt but it’s really more of a soothing search for shellfish who lie sleeping under the sand. Our dog Daffodil loses her mind on the beach, chasing a tennis ball for hours and swimming in shallow lagoons with her new friend Molly, a Scottish terrier who is the unofficial Dillisk mascot. There are pints of Guinness and cold Cidona in the sunshine outside Sweeney’s of Claddaghduff afterwards. It’s a perfect day.
Most of the guests travelled to Dillisk and the collaborators behind the project are hardened travellers, too. They want to get involved in the Inishbofin Food Festival in early October and they’ve been invited to Paris to the Centre Culturel Irlandaise to talk about their Dillisk Food Project alongside The Hare Café run by Katie and artist Fiona Hallinan. “And back at home,” Katie says, “we are hoping to save up for a van and do some travelling to producers around Ireland. It’s one thing knowing the names and using the produce but to understand the process and see the making first hand. That’s the next step.”
This journey to Dillisk has been a purposeful pilgrimage and it has left me revived. If I had to choose one word to describe my experience, it would be “vibrant”. There are dazzling oranges and bright greens in the food; the people we eat with and those who cook for us are colourful; even the isolated setting itself has a quietly electric energy. I soak up that vibrancy and as I head home east, I carry with me that excitement for the future. I feel ready to keep going.