Connemara Soul Food

Connemara Soul Food

byCliodhna Prendergast

Issue: March/April
Date: 01/03/2021
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Connemara Pony, Bunowen Castle, Co. Galway

A simple fish market on a Galway pier brings unexpected joy to chef and photographer Cliodhna Prendergast.

It’s 8.45 on a Saturday morning and I take a left off a winding country road toward the sea on Connemara’s Errismore peninsula. Driving on and on, around corners of dry-stone walls, I’m watched by cold looking black faced ewes and shaggy Connemara ponies in their scruffy winter coats. Sand on the road indicates the closeness of the beach, white and sandy, ironed flat and flawless by the tide.

I pull in tight beside the sea wall. It’s dip and fish day. Dip and fish, as we call it, is a small gathering of swimmers who have a dip in the sea before queuing up on the Bunowen pier for the fish market that, weather permitting, is held once a week.

While rising early on a Saturday morning can be testing, as I slip into the bracing Atlantic it feels like the best idea in the world. The fish market opens at 10am and at 9.30 cars begin to file past the beach to park on the extremities of the pier. With buckets in hand, locals make their way like the faithful to a Sunday service. I dry off and dress, reaching the pier at 9.45, frozen toes and flask of steaming hot tea in my hand to join the already substantial queue.

The previous evening, a What’sApp message pings on my phone, detailing the catch so I can plan my fresh fish feast. I am hoping there will be enough scallops and some squid left by the time I reach the top of the queue. Brothers Pat and Kevin are the fishermen who host the market on the pier. It’s a simple affair: a handwritten sign with prices and multicoloured fish boxes on the ground filled with the ocean’s bounty – scallops, squid, lobster, brill, cod, red mullet, lemon and black sole, prawns and crab.

I cling to my warm teacup and begin to thaw in the early spring sunshine. The light is glistening on the pearly green water and on the little green currach, tied with blue rope between the piers. Across the buoy-strewn bay is Bunowen Castle, creating a scene so beautiful it borders on the ridiculous.

A few socially distanced chats along the pier wall, fingers defrosted, toes still numb, I edge closer to the front of the queue and can see more clearly what remains available. I am hoping the person in front of me does not nab the last of the brill, but I sense my dreams of salt and pepper squid are disappearing, so make mental adjustments to my menu.

When I finally reach the top of the queue there is a fleeting moment of panic: I want everything but can only eat so much fish in a few days. I ogle the shiny black lobsters and drool a little at the thought of the sweet meat dipped in melted butter. I feel I don’t quite deserve the reward of a couple of lobster just now: I will work extra hard next week and splash out.

Instead I take a few scallops in their shell, a fine looking specimen of cod for some fish goujons which the children love, and two handsome brill which I will bake whole.

Once I have secured my prize, I move on to the man with the sharp knife. James volunteers to fillet the fish there and then on the pier as expectant gulls hover nearby. The cod is the only fish that needs seeing to, so it will be quick. To watch him wield the knife with such precision is a joy and another excuse for a chat during these isolating times.

I cook the scallops and cod that evening, serving the brill with capers and brown butter two days later. In normal times, this fish would be exported, so there are a lot of happy customers only too delighted to support their local fishermen at this time. When the tide turns, and markets and restaurant tables reopen, I hope they will continue with the market at Bunowen. These outdoor Saturday mornings are special and restore my connection with nature, community and culture, an unexpected upside, food for both the table and soul.

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