Farming Shellfish in Cromane
We went out to visit Realt Na Mara Shellfish a few weeks ago, for a tour of their farm. They produce top quality oysters and mussels and look after the entire process, from tide to plate.
I am so lucky to live where I live, here in Kerry just under the Slieve Mish Mountains where my backyard is just wilderness…some mountain sheep, a river, and the ever changing colour of the mountain. The view is fabulous, as you can see Castlemaine Harbour reaching out towards Inch Beach and Dingle Bay. And right there, down the hill and in those waters, fantastic shellfish are farmed.
The ideal location of Castlemaine Harbour here in Co. Kerry makes it a perfect place to farm oysters. Mussels are also common and there are many small and bigger shellfish farmers especially in Cromane that have been working in these waters for generations. Three rivers join Castlemaine Harbour – the river Maine, Laune and Caragh – and the Wild Atlantic coming in from the West – all contribute to the good quality of the shellfish. Oysters from different bays have very distinct flavours and being able to taste top quality shellfish which come from less than 10 miles away, is just brilliant.
So we drove to Cromane and down a small country road that led us to the waters and to a green shed where Sharon was waiting for us and warmly welcomed us. She is now running the business with Micheál and Emmet and together they look after the whole process – farming, purifying and selling. They proudly are the 4th generation and keep up the family fishermen tradition.
Emmet and Sharon brought us out on the water – we had to plan our visit to match the tide. To arrange a tour, simply contact them! Some of the oyster beds were hidden under water but we came off the boat on a piece of higher ground where Emmet showed us the different sized bags where the oysters are growing. He explains that they have to keep a constant eye on the trestles to keep them above the seafloor so they have the best position to filter feed the natural nutrients in the water. They shake the oysters bags to break off the ‘nail’ of the oysters, this gives them the desired shape. Oysters take about 3 years to grow from seed and they show us oysters at different stages, from seed to a few months old to some almost ready to go out on the market. It is fascinating to see the passion and the knowledge of this younger generation.
Back on the land, we are brought into the purification facility and Sharon explains how much she loves this process and how detailed and accurate it all must be. Oysters are purified for 42 hours and mussels for 36 – clean seawater is pumped into tanks where the shellfish is placed after being pre-washed and graded.
Micheál opened up a few oysters for us and we couldn’t say no so he kept offering more. Then, it was my turn to learn how to use a shucking knife! The quality of this shellfish is outstanding, fresh, pure and so meaty. It would be hard not to chew on them a few times as they are so big – and so good. Some of the best restaurants in Dingle and Kerry source their oysters and mussels and a big part of their market is France. Especially coming up to Christmas, the French look for even more imports as the demand is so high and Irish oysters are considered top quality.
Mussels have been cultivated in Ireland for generations and Castlemaine Harbour is known as the largest natural mussel bed in Ireland. Shellfish farmers harvest wild mussel seed and transfer them to the nursery grounds – which are better areas for growth. Mussels are ready in about 2 years and the team at Realt Na Mara harvest them by hand dredging.
Going back historically, all shellfish would have been eaten by the first hunter-gatherer populations in Mesolithic times on the west coast of Ireland. It was easy enough to source on the shores, without having to go out on the dangerous seas and it is full of nutrients and a ‘superfood’ for nomadic people. Many midden beds contain the shells of mussels, oysters, scallops and other shellfish proving they offered food to the first people of Ireland. Ferriter’s Cove, on the Dingle Peninsula, has been studied by archaeologists and shows the earliest known archaeological remains on the Dingle Peninsula with examples of shell middens.
There’re festivals that celebrate the native oyster which is available from September to April as it spawns during the summer, but Ireland is also home to the pacific or rock oyster which was introduced to Ireland in the 1960s and helps sustain the native oyster. They are both unique in flavour and taste.
So we brought a dozen oysters home and about 4 kg of mussels and had a feast after a fantastic day out learning about shellfish and listening to the great stories of these passionate producers. We dressed our oysters with just a tiny bit of mignonette sauce – shallots and vinegar or simply with a bit of lemon. Sharon also had suggested a recipe for the mussels so we followed her advice and had breaded mussels – we ate every single one of them! What a feast!