Inis Meáin - where seafood meets sweaters

22 Oct 2011 by Nick Lander/FT

Even though it is now closed until Easter next year, I make no apology for writing about the striking restaurant with five suites attached which Ruairi and Marie-Thérèse de Blácam run on Inis Meáin, the smallest of the Aran islands off the west coast of Ireland.

My trip there was two years in the planning although the hospitality and the beauty of the island made this investment unquestionably worthwhile.

Inis Meáin first intrigued me 15 years ago when I bought the first of two sweaters I own that are made there and are so highly sought after by the buyers of top men's fashion stores around the world.

As I paid for my second, two years ago at Grey Flannel in Chiltern Street, London, the owner Richard Froomberg piqued my interest further by telling me about the proposed restaurant on the island and all that he had begun to hear about the quality of the shellfish there.

Great food and distinctive fashion seemed a combination too good to miss, although as I set off on the 45-minute ferry from Rossaveal, an hour along the coast road west of Galway, I had no idea how closely they were intertwined, thanks to the diverse skills of three members of the de Blácam family.

The instigator of all this is Tarlach, a Dubliner, who 38 years ago travelled west to pursue his studies in the Irish language, fell in love with Inis Meáin, all of four miles by two, and settled there. Having also appreciated the potential of its knitwear, he set up the white-walled factory which today ships 20,000 garments a year around the world and employs 16, 10% of the island's population.

His elder son, Ruairí (pictured above with his wife Marie-Thérèse), was dispatched to boarding school outside Dublin but the only happy memories he retains of that era are of family meals with his grandmother. He took to cooking in Germany, Italy and then at Cooke's restaurant in Dublin and astutely took advantage of his father's forays to Europe's fashion shows to pursue his interest in restaurants. During my recent stay on the island, father and son recalled with delight catching up with one another at Pitti Uomo, the mens' fashion show in Florence, and the birthday dinner that followed.

In 2000, Ruairí, having married Marie-Thérèse, who had studied architecture and business, moved back to Inis Meáin to open their own restaurant. But the reality - that the only regular passing trade are the birds - meant that they would have to think, and invest, bigger: it had to be a restaurant with rooms attached, on the proven French model.

Enter Uncle Shane, an architect based in Dublin who, like so many architects, has a deep interest in what and how people eat. The combination of all these talents has resulted in a low, long, narrow stone and glass building (see below) that is protected from the constant wind but has extraordinary views from every point, views that stretch from across the bay to Galway in one direction and to the cliffs of Moher in the other, clouds permitting, of course. And, unmissable in any direction from any window, is the knitwear factory. 

Inis_Meain

I eschewed the bicycle and fishing rod that come with every suite and headed off on a three-hour walk into the wind blowing off the Atlantic - Newfoundland, Canada, is directly opposite only 2,500 miles away. Immediately below is a bay that contains what local divers refer to as 'the supermarket shelf' because here the crayfish are so abundant it is possible to just pick them off the underwater shelf. The walk back took us through tiny, stone-walled fields, testimony to the poverty here during the 19th century, and the island's only pub, where Paraic O'Flatharta gently pours the Guinness.

But none of this had really prepared me for the sense of place that continued over dinner.

I was wearing my latest Inis Meáin sweater, bought that afternoon, as I was served a bowl of steamed periwinkles gathered from the local shore. Looking up at the far wall I saw a blown-up black and white photograph from 80 years ago of a local fisherman cleaning the periwinkles he had just caught, wearing his windproof sweater, with a pint of Guinness by his side.

The restaurant is a family affair, Ruairí cooking, his wife and cousin waiting on tables. He passes on instructions in both Irish and English, the latter to one of the four Poles who now help them look after their customers.

The menu is equally local: a potato and fennel soup with smoked haddock; brown crab salad with aioli; and the plumpest, juiciest scallops I have ever eaten with a ginger and sesame dressing. Here they came perfectly caramelised but the following morning, as I waited in the rain for the ferry back, I saw the next day's delivery on the deck of a bobbing fishing boat: from boat to pan here involves a journey of less than ten minutes.

My main course, a fillet of the freshest cod with spinach and a grain-mustard sauce, suffered only because it was served in a bowl rather than a plate, and also because it had to contend for attention with a bowl of simply steamed, red-skinned potatoes that had just been dug from one of the fields we had walked past.

The following morning over tea and a freshly baked fruit loaf, Ruairí, 37, and Marie-Thérèse, 33, took stock. Their assets include a 10-month-old daughter, the only addition to the island in 2010, and an exceptional restaurant which has cost 750,000 euros, all their savings I guessed, and a little bit more.

Nature, which provides their kitchen with such ready bounty, can also play havoc with their bookings and business plan. But if any young restaurant couple in Europe deserve to flourish it is the de Blácams, deeply rooted on its very western extremity.

www.inismeain.com

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