Life is Better in the Burren

In the heart of Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, Birgitta and Peter Curtin have made a business and a life revolving around their successful smokehouse and family run pub

Photography by Eddie Cleary

Written by Lisa Walsh McGee

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Birgitta and Peter Curtin are a charismatic couple both with energy to burn and each passionate about their areas of two family run businesses – The Burren Brewery/ Roadside Tavern and The Burren Smokehouse. Birgitta is one of those women who you know she could get anything done for you and she’d do it with enthusiasm and a smile on her face. It’s hard not to be captured by this Swedish beauty who walked into The Roadside Tavern back in 1981 while touring around Ireland with a few friends from Sweden. “We came into the Tavern and almost immediately I was introduced to Peter (Curtin). The next day we headed to Doolin to hear music and when I walked into a pub and there he was again. He offered me a drink and I decided to sit with him and let my friends go on ahead and well, the rest is history. “

Birgitta and Peter

Sitting in the Roadside Tavern with Birgitta, you can feel the history of the place all around you. It hangs on the walls, it’s in the furniture – the benches and stools and if the walls could speak they’d recall many a late evening with brilliant music sessions and a mighty craic. (Craic , pronounced crack is an Irish word for gossip, fun and entertainment, commonly asked “What’s the Craic?” )The pub is a legendary venue for traditional music and has hosted such notable musicians as Christy Moore, the Fureys, Davy Spillane and many more. It has been in the Curtin family for over a century since 1865. It was Peter’s grandparents, Christopher and Nora who first brought it into the family followed by his parents John and Mary. Peter comes in shortly after we sit down. He’s a tall teddy bear of a man and in no time he’s giving us a taste of the lagers and a stout he’s been making in his micro-brewery,

The Burren Brewery. Started just about five years ago, they are brewed above the pub in a custom made room. Peter tells me he’s a disciple of Brendan Dobbin of Peter Dobbin & Dobbin (Contracts) Limited. “I bought all the equipment from Brendan, bought the recipes and lease the yeast for the stout and ale.” He continues to tell me the complex process of brewing and also tells me about the history of his family in the area. “My grand-father arrived in Lisdoonvarna in the 1800’s. At that time Lisdoonvarna had a Victorian Spa and it was a place that the wealthy came to get ‘healed by the waters’. My grand-father opened a bakery in the Roadside Tavern and it had a very high reputation in the area. Of course yeast is incredibly important in baking as it is in brewing so you could say I have a true veneration for yeast.”

After giving us a taste of each – Burren Red, Burren Gold and Burren Black (my favourite) we are then given a tour of the brewery. His enthusiasm for his craft is catching. Peter explains the complex relationship between roasted barley and black malt – the power of yeast. “Yeast is my religion,” he chuckles. We hear about the flavours – the Burren Black has complex coffee and caramel flavours and the red ale is a traditional old-fashioned Irish ale, very malty. Later, lunch in the Roadside Tavern is a simple smoked salmon platter with organic greens and Burren Smokehouse smoked salmon. It was one of the simplest and most delicious meals I’ve had in a long time.

Just up the road literally a minutes’ walk is the Burren Smokehouse which another huge part of this family run business. Started by Birgitta and Peter in 1989, they decided upon the idea after visiting some smokehouses back in Sweden. The waters off the West coast of Ireland are the perfect breeding ground for the delicious smoked salmon they produce.

“The first shipment of our salmon has just made it all the way to Kuwait,” Birgitta informs me. I’m not surprised to hear this as earlier she’d told me about how they got into Dean and Deluca in New York and how their salmon is also sold at Harrod’s in London. In fact, it is with another branch of Dean and Deluca in Kuwait that Birgitta secured this latest export deal. She spent months sorting through all the legalities – stamps and duty and in April this year – that first shipment finally left and made it all the way through. The potential in this market is expected to grow and they are looking to bring in more Irish produced food goods which could open the door for cheese and other producers. Birgitta is going to spend some time fine tuning the process before adding in other producers but once it has been streamlined she’s more than happy to help others export to the new market. With more products being shipped at once – costs will go down making everyone happier and of course, exporting Irish goods only strengthens the message about the quality and taste.

Birgitta gives us the tour of the smokehouse. Our first stop is the salting room and we meet Peter who is washing down the salmon after they’ve been salted. For the next step of the process, they are placed onto wire racks and head the smoker.  She emphasises that every step of the process from filleting to packing is all done by hand. They hot smoke and cold smoke the salmon along with mackerel and trout.  After smoking – the salmon are sliced by hand and placed carefully on scales for weighing before packaging. The smokehouse and visitor centre/shop employs a total of seventeen people. The shop has plenty of not only the Burren Smokehouse’s own

product but also other food producers – grapeseed oil, jams, honey and much more. In addition there’s an area to read about the life cycle of a salmon – one can sit in beautifully handmade traditional Sugam chairs.

Hard work pays off as the Burren Smokehouse has won its fair share of awards over the years. And taste has certainly played a part at the Roadside Tavern as well – they won Best Gastro Pub in Munster 2012 from the Restaurant Association of Ireland. In addition to that scrumptious salmon platter, they also serve up Irish Stew using local Burren beef and Bacon and Cabbage in additional to smoked eel.

Entrance to the smokehouse visitor centre

The visitor centre at the Burren Smokehouse is open seven days a week throughout the year and of course, The Roadside Tavern always beckons. You can order their salmon for delivery in the USA from their newly redesigned website which has plenty of delicious recipes as well.

The Wall in the Roadside Tavern filled with memories and postcards from the locals and visitors.

The Wall in the Roadside Tavern filled with memories and postcards from the locals and visitors.

For more on the Burren, which is the land and cave from which Tolkien found his inspirations for his books, go to Burren Tolkien Society, JRR Tolkien and the Burren.