I haven’t seen a single Fresian in three days,” my husband quips as we drive along the winding roads of coastal Co Mayo.
This is obviously not dairy country. We’ve been visiting Westport and staying on Achill Island with our three daughters and, while there has been some battling of the elements, we have successfully pitched our six-person tent at Keel Sandybanks Caravan and Camping Park, pumped up our air mattresses and made ourselves comfortable.
The campground is steps away from Keel Beach (one of the five Blue Flag beaches you’ll find on Achill), a 4km stretch of gorgeous white sand and fun-looking surf. There are mountains in the foreground as well as in the background of our campsite.
“Achill isn’t an easy life, you know,” a local resident tells me. And I can see what she means. The isolation (often associated with island life) is apparent. But the people? The people on Achill are hospitable, friendly and always ready to help a foreigner in her poor attempts at pronouncing place names (“Keem is pronounced ‘Kehm,’” I am told repeatedly).
When the sun comes out, Achill literally glows. The (invasive) rhododendron pops and the irises, gorse (also invasive) and giant rhubarb give an ethereal other-worldliness to the place – as do the looming, surrounding peaks. The sheep stroll past our tent like they own the place (they kind of do).
We visited with our kids in early June. Outdoor dining was open and some restaurants and pubs were offering this service, but takeaways were more common.
As we had a portable gas cooker we made some of our own meals (Kelly’s of Newport sausages and puddings officially make the best camp breakfasts) and also enjoyed said takeaways. Achill is connected to the mainland by a causeway and as you cross you will immediately come across a well-stocked SuperValu. In the evenings, my husband and I would sit outside the tent enjoying some Mescan beers (a local Westport brew, and very tasty).
Keel Sandybanks felt safe and comfortable, with good amenities and COVID-19 guidelines being strictly adhered to. They have a playground on-site and, as mentioned, are only steps away from Keel Beach. Our kids had so much fun playing around the vicinity, so we didn’t have to venture out too much for outside activities.
That’s not to say we didn’t see what Achill has to offer. The Achill Experience is an aquarium and visitor’s centre (€7 per adult and €4.50 per child). Our girls loved their visit – it was weeks ago and they’re still talking about the different fish they saw and what they learned about the rich marine ecology we are lucky to have in Ireland.
They also learned about basking sharks, who are regular visitors to Achill during early summer months. In relation to COVID-19 guidelines, pre-booking the Achill Experience is essential – you can book your place and purchase tickets online at achillexperience.ie.
No trip to Achill is complete without a visit to the iconic Keem (ahem, “Kehm”) Beach. Surrounded on both sides by high mountains, Keem is accessible only by one (very small) road (and very few guardrails), and is one of the most breathtaking places I have ever visited. It was recently listed in Lonely Planet’s Top 20 Beaches and, if you’ve been there, I’m sure you’re not surprised.
The deserted village at Slievemore was a great place to stretch our legs and learn a bit about the history of Achill. Its history goes back all the way to Neolithic times, while other dwellings were still being used as summer grazing residences (or “booley” homes) in more recent times.
The Great Western Greenway runs through Achill and, although we didn’t try it out this time, it looks like a fantastic day out for older kids. Achill Sound Bike Hire can provide you with kid’s bikes, tag-alongs, three-wheeled bikes, tandems and electric bikes and also offer a shuttle service between Achill and Westport. We’re keeping that on the list for our next visit.
There were kid-friendly options at all eateries offering takeaway on Achill (read: chicken goujons for every meal). No main course cost more than €20; our average spends per meal (as a family of five) was around €40. Due to weather conditions, we spent a lot of time eating in our car, but there were picnic tables set up everywhere. Here are some of the spots we frequented:
Blásta at Ted’s Food truck, Cashel
This food truck has been set up outside of Ted’s Pub in Cashel. There are picnic tables for outdoor seating, the service is prompt and friendly and the menu is varied. Think Irish seaside classics with a gourmet twist. They also serve coffees and baked goods, including giant, delicious-looking cookies.
The Diner, Bunnacurry
I was absolutely starving after working all day. I met Pat and the kids and realised they hadn’t eaten either. We headed straight for The Diner, which we had passed on our way to Keel. The kids got freshly made pizzas, while Pat ordered fish and chips. I went for their burger, which was delicious, and we all shared some taco fries – made with their homemade chili. A very satisfying meal for everyone.
Masterson’s Bar and Anchor Restaurant Golden Strand, Dugort East
On our last day, we were driving around the island, deciding which beach we thought was prettiest. Golden Strand took our breath away. Masterson’s Bar and Anchor Restaurant was nearby and offering outdoor service at the time of our visit. A cold pint of Guinness for me (I wasn’t driving), juice for the kids and a delicious chicken burger (goujons, as always, for my unadventurous kids) made everyone happy.
We hit up Westport while en route to Achill. It was a fairly long drive from Tipperary – requiring frequent coffee stops. My favourite was This Must Be The Place, which is found in downtown Westport and hard to miss thanks to its very clear signage. It’s always great to put a face to an Instagram account (in this case, the actual cafe front) and the coffee was fantastic.
The Pantry and Corkscrew Restaurant
I spoke with chef Dermott Flynn who owns and operates The Pantry and Corkscrew Restaurant in Westport with his wife, Janice O’Rourke. They have been operating their restaurant for the past 11 years.
In normal times, their menu consists of a higher-end taste of Mayo, using the best of local suppliers and produce (think Andarl Farm pork and Kelly’s of Newport beef). During lockdown, they needed to find a way to still make use of these amazing local ingredients and continue to support local suppliers, but make menu options better suited to takeaways.
“The type of food we were [originally] doing wouldn’t work in a takeaway, so we opened up a burrito bar as a pop up - there’s no burrito bar in Mayo, so we thought there might be a market for it,” Dermott says. “The ingredients we’re using are really high quality: Blanco Nino tortillas and a lot of the same ingredients we would normally use. I mean, these are suppliers we’ve had down through the years.
“We’re actually still doing the burritos a year later,” he laughs. “Spice wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea so we’ve also had rolling pop-ups as well for the last few months. Most recently, we had a pie pop-up with lots of different pasties and pies. I set up an area in the back of the restaurant for the pies and the burritos were happening in the kitchen – so we’ve done plenty of pivoting.”
Once indoor dining opens up again, Dermott and Janice plan to convert the upstairs of their restaurant to devote to their takeaway burrito operation while keeping their downstairs seating area for indoor dining.
Chef Dermott’s braised beef cheek Pasties with asparagus and baby turnips
200g Cashel Blue Cheese
2 sheets of puff pastry
4 egg yolks
12 asparagus spears
½ tbsp sunflower oil
½ tsp olive oil
12 baby turnips
4 beef cheeks, trimmed
330ml amber beer (Dermott uses Mescan Red Tripel)
500ml good quality beef stock
2 carrots, diced
1 large onion, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
A few sprigs of thyme
3 bay leaves
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp freshly cracked black pepper
1 Preheat your oven (with fan) to 130°C.
2 Heat a heavy based frying pan on medium high. Season the beef cheeks with salt and pepper. Sear in the pan for three minutes on each side and then place in an oven proof dish, along with all other braising ingredients.
3 Cover tightly with tin foil and place in the preheated oven, cooking for 6-8 hours or until the beef almost falls apart to the touch (check after five hours). Lift each one out of the liquid intact with a broad slotted spoon (this can include a little of the braised vegetables but avoid the sprigs of herbs). Allow to cool, shred by hand and set aside.
4 Strain the braising liquid through a sieve. Place in a sauce pan and reduce on a low heat until thick and rich. Keep warm for serving.
5 Preheat the oven (again with fan) to 190°C.
6 Lay the first puff pastry sheet on a lightly floured countertop and cut into four rectangular shapes. Spoon some of the beef cheek and vegetable into the centre of each rectangle, at least an inch away from the outer edge of the pastry. The filling should be roughly sausage shaped. Top with a knob of Cashel Blue Cheese.
7 Mix the egg yolk and milk to make an egg wash and sealing liquid, ensuring it is not too thin. Dip a pastry brush into the egg wash and lightly brush the pastry around the sausage shaped filling.
8 Cut the second puff pastry sheet into four similar shapes and place them over the corresponding filled pastry base. Try to make sure that no air is trapped and trim accordingly. Crimp the edges to seal; leaving nicely filled and sealed pasties.
9 Place them on a baking tray lined with parchment and brush with egg wash, being careful that it does not run over the edges of the pastry.
10 Cook in the preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until nicely puffed and golden.
11 While the pasties are cooking, place the trimmed baby turnips in a saucepan of boiling water for 15 to 20 minutes until cooked. Keep warm until you are ready to serve.
12 Trim the woody ends off the asparagus spears and briefly pan-fry for five to seven minutes in a little butter and olive oil seasoned with sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper.
13 Arrange one pasty on each heated serving plate along with asparagus spears and baby turnips. Drizzle with the rich beef gravy.
It’s a good idea to pre-order your trimmed beef cheeks from your butcher as they are not generally available off the shelf.
Top tip: Start braising your meat in the morning and all other tasks can be completed in 1 to 1.5 hours in advance of serving.