Several farmers had a notion to grow ‘something different’ in west Cork in the 1980s. The idea took off

Russ Parsons: In the 1980s a simple idea to grow ‘something different’ took off for Colin Whooley’s father and a few other farmers

It is a bright sunny morning on the upper reaches of Roaring Water Bay. The breeze is gentle and carries the bracing scent of brine. Jeremy Irons’ castle shines pink nearby and, Colin Whooley says, the pennant flying from the top means himself is in residence.

If you want to know why Roaring Water Bay mussels taste so good, it could well have something to do with their upbringing. Of course, not every day in west Cork is so idyllic, but on mornings like this it’s hard to imagine any place better.

That’s certainly true for Whooley. After all, his family has been here for at least 400 years. For most of that time they were subsistence farmers, raising cattle and grain. But in the 1980s, Whooley’s father Denis and uncle Michael Hegarty, along with several other farmers in the area, got the notion to try growing something different – mussels.

The idea took off and today Roaring Water Bay mussels are available all over Ireland. The bay itself produces roughly 2,000 tonnes of the sweet shellfish every year. Whooley grows roughly 250 tonnes himself and distributes more from his neighbours.

Great mussels are a delicate balance between brine and shellfish sweetness. Too salty and they are overpowering. Too sweet and they’re insipid. Roaring Water Bay’s mussels tread that tightrope perfectly.

Sauté some garlic in olive oil. Pour in a couple of glugs of white wine and let it cook down for a few minutes. Dump in the mussels, cover tightly and turn the heat up to high. In three or four minutes, when all the mussels have opened, you’re done. Just make sure you have plenty of good sourdough to soak up the juices.

There are all kinds of variations – onions, leeks, shallots, tomatoes, chorizo, a dollop or two of cream – but even this simplest version will be a feast you’ll long remember. All for less than the price of a fancy coffee.

On the rare occasions I have behaved in less than an ideal manner, a big bowl of steamed mussels is usually all it takes to get my wife back on side.

The method used to grow these mussels is ingeniously simple. A rough rope about 6-10 metres long is anchored in the bay for a couple of months. Baby mussels, so small you can barely see them, are naturally free-floating in the bay and anchor themselves to the rope.

After four to six months, when they have grown to somewhere between a matchhead and a fingernail, they are transferred to another rope, which is returned to the bay where the mussels continue to grow. After a year they are sized again and transferred to another rope to finish growing.

They are harvested beginning at about 20 months, when they number about 100 mussels to a kilo. One end of the rope is attached to a giant pulley and as it is reeled aboard, the mussels are peeled off by rubber flaps and then brushed clean.

What started as 10,000 baby mussels attached to each meter of rope, winds up as 2,000 mussels after the first transfer and as few as 1,000 mussels at harvest.

This system, which was introduced from New Zealand less than 20 years ago, is now used widely around Ireland. “It’s all mechanised and very efficient,” Whooley says. “What used to take us a full day I can now do in an hour-and-a-half.

“We’re basically farmers except instead of tractors we have a boat. And we have fields out in the water just like the farmers have fields. They have fences around their fields, we have GPS co-ordinates that mark ours.”

Even better, the process is virtually waste-free. Except for the ties that anchor the rope, everything is reused. Even the cotton mesh used to protect the baby mussels in their early days on the rope is biodegradable.

And of course, mussels being filter-feeders, they actually work to clean the water they live in.

Though mussels have grown wild in Roaring Water Bay (and on the rest of the Irish coast) since time immemorial, it took an enterprising secondary schoolteacher to introduce the idea of farming them in this area.

“Cormac Levis was a teacher of mine and lots of the other guys here at school in Skibbereen,” Whooley says. “He was making a success of it and other people saw that and said ‘We’ll have a go at it too.’”

Whooley started in 1990, taking over what had been a small side-gig started by his father and uncle. “The learning curve was vertical,” he says. “We knew nothing about it, but over time we figured it out and we are probably still figuring it out.

“In fact, I’d say probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned is just when you think you’ve got it figured out, you discover you haven’t. There’s always a new problem just around the corner. Mother Nature loves to throw you a curveball.”

Read More

Recommended