Peter Morrell goes to County Clare in Western Ireland and discovers wild flowers, dramatic scenery and delicious food.
With Ziggerat shaped hills, fields of rock slabs and the nearby cave of Gollum it's no wonder that J.R.R. Tolkien drew his inspiration from this wild place for the Lord of the Rings.
I was in The Burren, where dramatic karst formations of limestone stripped bare by glaciers are covered with faults and ridges. In this lunar landscape it's difficult to imagine that anything could survive. In fact it's teeming with life, nurtured by dedicated farmers and committed food producers.
My two day culinary adventure here would follow parts of the Burren Food Trail, meeting local artisans, sampling their produce and appreciating the raw beauty of the area.
First stop was the farm which makes St Tola goat's cheese. Owner Siobhan Ni Ghairbith, first took me to look at the herd, the goats are kept in a light, airy barn, they are mild mannered and all in excellent condition.
Distance from milking parlour to cheese producing rooms is about 10 feet, so freshness is guaranteed. Siobhan makes a range of excellent cheeses, the logs both plain and ash covered are a familiar sight in good cheese-mongers. The on-site farm shop sells all their products, pay a visit and you may even get a peek at the herd.
Next stop was the charming little town of Lisdoonvarna. Each September it hosts Europe's largest matchmaking festival and attracts up to 40,000 people. Bachelor farmers come in search of a suitable wife while the women are keen to bag a handsome husband.
The Roadside Tavern and Burren Smokehouse
Lunch was in the Burren Brewery at The Roadside Tavern, here I met owner Peter Curtin. As founder of the Burren Tolkien Society Peter regaled me with stories of the author. I feasted on smoked salmon washed down with one of the beers from Peter's on-site micro-brewery.
I could have listening to the craic all afternoon but Peter together with his wife Birgitta also own the Burren Smokehouse and he was keen to show me their visitor centre and the kilns where my lunch was produced.
The smokery is adorned with hand crafted mosaics both inside and out. The tour started by watching a short video describing the history of food smoking and sampling some of their products. Downstairs were the fish preparation rooms and the ovens, where the metamorphosis from raw salmon to sublime taste experience takes place.
Gregans Castle Hotel
Overnight was spent in the Gregans Castle Hotel, a charming 18th century manor house. Past guests have included C.S. Lewis, Seamus Heaney and Tolkien himself who I'm sure were equally entranced by the sweet smell of wood smoke from the fires, the comfortable rooms and the views across Galway Bay.
At dinner I enjoyed local produce from the sea and the land - delicate crab, halibut, fresh vegetables, pungent cheeses and rich puddings, complete with a nightcap of a smoky Clontarf single malt whiskey.
The Wild Atlantic Way
Next morning had me travelling down the Wild Atlantic Way, the 1500 mile coastal route. Passing craggy rocks battered by waves, I reached the music festival town of Doolin before climbing to cross the heartstoppingly beautiful Cliffs of Moher.
Wild Irish Sea Veg
I was on my way to Spanish Point for a Seaweed Safari with Evan Talty, he and his family run Wild Irish Sea Veg. I was soon discovering the difference between Bladderwrack, Kombu and Dillisk. These become a wide range of seaweed products like Sea Spaghetti and Sea Salad Sprinkles, a health alternative to salt.
The Burren Life Programme
My education continued by meeting Dr Brendan Dunford, Manager of the Burren Life Programme, this organisation works with farmers to maintain the integrity of the land. After a warming cup of tea at the charming Burren Perfumery we headed up into the hills.
Brendan started literally from the ground up, showing me the unique collection of wild plants and flowers that cling to life in fissures between the stones. A micro-climate in the area is created by the heat stored during summer within the underlying rock and is one of the few places where Arctic, Alpine and Mediterranean plants live side by side.
Lifting our eyes to the higher hills we saw a 300 strong flock of feral goats and the field we were standing in is the winter home to a herd of pregnant cows.
The field is owned by Pat Nagle and his family who we met to chat about the farming methods he used and how his land was maintained. Pat recently played host to Prince Charles who showed a great interest in these traditional methods which have been passed down through 3500 years of continuous farming.
My food trail was over, I had been impressed with the people, their love of the land and animals, the quality of the food and the very special atmosphere created by the unique mystical terrain. It is an ideal short break destination for culinary travellers who want good food woven in with some fascinating Irish folklore.
There are regular flights to Shannon from Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted
The Irish Food Board website has more food information
The Tourism Ireland website has lots of useful travel and attraction information